I think this is the most fundamental aspect of what the 4 “elements” ultimately result in as a phenomenological category for us humans, namely rūpa, ie form or my preference “appearance”.
This comes through most clearly in the distinction between us poor humans and Brahmas - both types of Existence are predicated upon “form” but the 4 Greats are not found in the Brahmas. To me, it strikes me as being meaningless to characterise the 4 Greats as “elements” in the Western sense when their only function seems to be to distinguish the appearance of different types of Existence. This is also borne out by the DN 11 distinction between the Brahma 's existence with form, versus the Existence that is anidassana (invisible).
And what is immediately apparent in a human being as an “element”? It simply does not make sense to force “in-&-out breath” into an artificial Western ontological thingy like “element”, when the wind “dhātu” here is nothing more than what the pre-Buddhist Upanisads would deem to be functionalities that keep one alive. These are things that are part of the Indian concept of the “seen, heard, sensed and cognised”. These are visible aspects of one’s Being.
Reading the EBTs, the texts militate against reading “form” as being something physical alone. See MN 28, where the Form Aggregate born of pure mental contact simply leaves no place for the dhātu being an element in a Western sense, but points to Form being any kind of cognisable data of something’s appearance.
This is what the humans of Iron Age India cling to as Self, given that their limits of cognition stop at the 4 Greats and derived Form. If a New Age type today would propose some kind of phenomenological datum worth clinging to that transcends the 4 Greats, i don’t think such would escape what DN 15 calls designation-contact.
The genius of the Buddha was in discovering that no matter how one conceives one’s Being, if one constructs one with Form, at minimum the Conceit “I am” would inevitably anuseti.
The cosmological aspects that you mentioned are truly outstanding, bhante. But they are also a bit weird in that they are not used a lot. We don’t know for example that the texts identify the stars as suns or loka-dhatus. It could well be that everything we see at night is part of ‘our’ upper realm. For example SN 22.102 says:
Just as, bhikkhus, the radiance of all the stars does not amount to a sixteenth part of the radiance of the moon, and the radiance of the moon is declared to be their chief…
This could be a hint that the moon was seen as a giant star. Also we don’t get the idea of a heliocentric system from the suttas. Rather anthropo- and geocentric:
When the people of the towns and countryside are unrighteous, the sun and moon proceed off course… the constellations and the stars proceed off course… day and night proceed off course… When the winds blow off course and at random, the deities become upset. When the deities are upset, sufficient rain does not fall… (AN 4.70)
We find in the suttas that “the sun and moon revolve” which speaks for the ‘normal’ ancient view. Also one of the superpowers in the suttas is:“with his hand he touches and strokes the moon and sun” which is a weird image to come up with if one knew the atmospheric conditions of the sun (it’s gas and radiation, so there is nothing to touch).
Another example of mythology and cosmology:
Bhikkhus, there are these four defilements of the sun and moon because of which the sun and moon do not shine, blaze, and radiate. What four? Clouds … fog … smoke and dust … and Rāhu, lord of the asuras, is a defilement of the sun and moon because of which the sun and moon do not shine, blaze, and radiate. (AN 4.50)
Also we rather get the image that the earth is endlessly flat and not round. Here the Buddha says:
In the past, Bhante, I was a seer named Rohitassa, son of Bhoja, one possessing psychic potency, able to travel through the sky. My speed was like that of a light arrow easily shot by a firm-bowed archer… My stride was such that it could reach from the eastern ocean to the western ocean. Then, while I possessed such speed and such a stride, the wish arose in me: ‘I will reach the end of the world by traveling.’ Having a life span of a hundred years, living for a hundred years, I traveled for a hundred years without pausing except to eat, drink, chew, and taste, to defecate and urinate, and to dispel fatigue with sleep; yet I died along the way without having reached the end of the world. (AN 4.45, SN 2.26)
This would have been a good opportunity to let the reader know that eventually he ended up at the same place. Certainly with a ‘stride from ocean to ocean’ and the ‘speed of an arrow’ (about 150mph) a being should have quickly surrounded the earth.
So why the idea of loka-dhatus and cosmic cycles of roll-outs at all? For me it’s basically an ingenious expansion of the rebirth-logic. If every being has been reborn, then the ‘first’ being, i.e. Maha-brahma, or Prajapati must have been reborn as well. If our lives are not ‘special’ then our heaven-and-earth are also neither special nor permanent. If there is a samsara for beings, then for devas and cosmic bodies too. That’s at least how I would read it: a devastating expansion of samsara that would create awe and determination to get out of the cycle of rebirths.
But doesn’t that sutta also teach that the earth will burn up because of the appearance of a multitude of additional suns, presumably commensurable in distance from our earth to our own sun? If one thinks there is something right about this picture, it’s only fair to notice the parts of it that seem to be quite wrong. To my mind, this argues against the idea that the Buddha had some special source of knowledge about the future of the universe, or about distant world systems, and suggests that his ideas about these things were speculations.
Luretius also believed in a plurality of other worlds in an infinite universe, and a plurality of races of humans populating these other worlds:
A you say, there was much cross-fertilization of ideas between the Greek world and India, so it is difficult to determine priority here. But priority in’t as important as the act that all of these idea, whether they ultimately turned out to be close to contemporary understandings or distant from them, were quite speculative.
In short, standard physics wise, we do not know the first moment of the big bang, and it is still an open question. A simple conventional Big Bounce is most likely not true due to entropic considerations. There are 2 possible cyclic models I have mentioned in the article which can fit in with Buddhism.
I am also writing a whole book or series of books as it is getting too thick on Physics and Buddhism. If Ajahn Brahmali is interested, I can share what I have currently when I go to Bodhinyana monastery in perth this march. It contains (or will contain) much of the parallels between physics and buddhism on time, quantum, general methods and miscellaneous.
It’s not such an outlandish proposition. Consider why this could happen. Assuming our sun and its neighbouring stars occupy a certain volume of space, we can derive the mean stellar density for this group. Because of the large distances involved, and by extension the large volumes, stellar density is expressed as X stars per cubic light year, or Y stars per cubic parsec (Y stars pc−3 ).
The gradual appearance of 7 stars would mean that the mean stellar density of our sun’s neighbourhood has simply increased from Y stars pc−3 to a higher mean stellar density. What could account for this?
Merger of galaxies can disturb existing stellar densities. In a few billion years, our galaxy will merge with the Andromeda. Here’s a disturbing look at the potentials when this happens - https://arxiv.org/pdf/0705.1170v2.pdf
One can project these trajectories, without “speculating”.
I do have something I feel important to say about this. I hope you will accept it with an open heart!
In truth my inclination is to believe that none of this has even been ever uttered by Buddha himself! Rather I see him avoiding this kind of wondrous talk about unobservable, distant, non-experienceable phenomena - I see him even discouraging those around him from exercising the mind in search after non-evident phenomena and possible realities! As rare and strange as these suttas which involve talking about the physical cosmos; as many and clear as those in which the Buddha emphasises the importance of retracting the mind from speculative conceptualisation and directing it to the observation and discernment of evident mental experiences, here and now.
But there is no founder of any spiritual, transcendental doctrine, that has not been presented by his followers as possessed of some kind of omniscience or another, including those, like the Buddha, who openly stated (as recorded in the same text) that they have no such capacity, and declared that there are such questions to which they haven’t answers. And is the Pali Canon, like the texts of other ancient doctrines, rife with mythological depictions of the physical universe? The answer is certainly “yes”! Or at least not “no”! And in relation to such passages in the text I myself tend to negate their relevance, rather than emphasise them, or again like in similar cases of other doctrines, make efforts to patch together from the scattered sentences across the ancient text a fabric of some miraculous foresight of present scientific findings, which ends up only embarrassing as these contemporary findings themselves eventually lose currency given the emergence of new, observable, empirical data.
This is precisely the case here with regard to the Big Crunch, a theory once envisaged by scientists as a possible if not likely scenario for the evolution of the cosmos, to the pride of Indian cosmology in which the theory would perfectly fit as you mention. But it was for a rational reason that scientists once believed in it, that which has to do with our present understanding of gravity, and how the sum of mass in the universe should logically pull matter closer together ad infinitum or to a point of singularity or something like this. But now, is there really any crunch coming up “in the next few years”? No, not any more! Because as recently as 1998, it was discovered that the universe is actually expanding continuously, and at an accelerating rate, and that despite of its unimaginably colossal mass, all matter in the universe is growing more distant from one another rather than getting closer together! Will there be a crunch one day? Maybe, who knows?! But certainly we’re not going to develop “faith” in something like that simply because some text says that the Buddha (and ancient Indian cosmology in general) speaks of such cycles. And if we did, we cannot possibly claim that this pertains in any way to science. Rather the opposite, this would be a belief that is contradictory with present scientific evidence, not dissimilar to beliefs in biblical narratives about the age of human on earth and the shape of the planet!
A shrewd and careful observer will not be inspired by the Buddha’s cosmological prowess (in the physical sense), and will notice the absence of any cohesive and robust physical understanding in what is purported in the text to be the Buddha’s speech. And judging by what’s in the text, it will seem rather that the Buddha, just as other ancient great religious figures, didn’t have a clue about what was going on in the heavens above them!! But then, having confounded one domain with another, transcending the heart with transcending matter, the enlightenment of Buddha becomes questionable in the eyes of those who are not yet established in Dhamma. And already, some people ask me: “Do you really believe that someone who didn’t know that the Earth is round can be enlightened?” To which I answer: “Yes! Even today anyone who doesn’t know that the Earth is round can be enlightened!” Because the enlightenment of the Buddha had nothing to do with transcending matter, but only transcending the heart, and its hopeless, agonising seeking and longing and yearning! And while “we” know that physical concerns have nothing to do with Dhamma, many people don’t, or even disagree and insist that him who we may call “Sammasambuddha” must necessarily be omniscient (ergo Gotama is either omniscient or isn’t samma)!
The point is that the Buddha’s limitations in the area of physics does not make him in the slightest “less” sammasambuddha; rather the opposite! I mean to say that depictions of the Buddha as cosmologically omniscient only reinforce the already widespread delusion that he was extra-human! It reinforces the perception that the Dhamma to which he awakened and the Path which he followed to realising it is not something that we, too, can accomplish; or that we can accomplish only with great difficulty that borders with the impossible. While in truth, to me, the only reason the Buddha is sammasambuddha is that he was utterly human, and that the Dhamma and the Path are not personal properties of anyone, and that they are realisable by anyone, anywhere, and always - this is the whole point.
My attitude regarding these matters is this: The Buddha, Gotama the great arahant and teacher, is most probably innocent of all this speculative confusion! His worth and his accomplishment must be judged based on the task to which he applied himself and no other: The discovery of the existential root of all dukkha, and the experiential transcendence of it before death! And it is this, it occurs to me, that is the biggest of all crunches: Death, and the exhaustion of human life before escape from further conditioned existence is guaranteed!
Well said. This almost perfectly matches my own views.
The Buddha’s importance for humanity resides, in my view, in his teachings on the nature, causes and escape from suffering, and these teachings can retain their relevance no matter what we might eventually learn about the size, temporal extent and dynamics of the physical universe.
I fear that any attempts to promote and rely on the suttas as a source of scientific information and prophecy will only bring discredit to Buddhism by aligning it with other reactionary and pseudo-scientific tendencies in our world.
My understanding of the best current projections is that even before the collision with Andromeda, our sun will be much further along in its main sequence, and as a result the earth will be much, much hotter. The collision with Andromeda might produce the possible gravitational relocations of our solar system described in that paper, but the probability that our sun will experience a near collision with other stars is very low. Even those stars in Andromeda that pass closest to our sun will never be closer than a few light years away, and so will appear as stars, not additional suns.
It’s difficult to say whether they will appear in the earth’s sky or not without making the calculations required. I take it you don’t have access to the servers at NASA or other space agency. Any person seriously interested in refuting this must have evidence behind their pronouncements, rather than saying it’s just a probability at the very end.
Also I believe the Buddha also mentioned the vast empty spaces between star clusters. He also mentions that there are beings in these places which are perpetually in darkness, to emphasise the suffering of random rounds of rebirth. The deva realms etc seem to be in another dimension or even universe. Such presuppositions are not far off with modern quantum theoretical speculations.
The Buddha says that when you see this, when you understand the absoluteness of this unreliability, you stop desiring anything. You become repelled by it all, for you see it all as suffering. Enough! When you are repelled, craving for all these things stops. This is how liberation happens, and this is what it is all about. Joy at last! Yes, we can make some interesting points about Buddhist Cosmology, but this is the real purpose of the Buddha’s message. This is the context in which everything else needs to be seen.
I do not wish to engage in much “speculative conceptualisation.” In fact these EBT teachings (whether speculative or not) are not ends in themselves, but means to something larger. They are side issues. They can be left out and the impact on the Dhamma will be minimal. I suspect most of us will agree on this, and this was one of the points I tried to make in my little essay.
While much of the cosmological detail can be disregarded without any implications for our ability to practice the Dhamma, the fact remains that these things are found in the EBTs. As such, I think they merit discussion. Moreover, to me it is rather striking that some of these aspects are similar to modern cosmological ideas. Is this a mere coincidence? If it is, nothing is really lost, and the Dhamma is by no means diminished. Yet it seems to me that some of these things may very well stem from the Buddha, especially the description of the cyclical nature of the kappa (“aeon”), which is found in the standard passage on the recollection of past lives. This is core Buddhism and closely integrated into the fundamental teachings.
Part of the problem of this discussion, I think, is that some of the participants are a priori opposed to the idea of rebirth. Since this is the case there is hardly any possibility that they will be open to the suggestions made in my essay. There is a disconnect at a fundamental level, which makes a meaningful dialog about the issues at hand much more difficult. The dialog ends up being about rebirth, rather than a realistic discussion about what these things are doing in the suttas. When you can’t get past the hurdle of rebirth, the rest of the discussion tends to get hijacked. An acceptance of rebirth opens up possibilities that are automatically rejected by those deny rebirth.
Well, there are suttas such as the Cakkavatti¬sīhanāda Sutta (DN 26) and the Aggañña Sutta (DN 27) that are clearly mythological, and I would say they are really presented as such. Then there are other texts, such as those quoted in the OP, that are much more embedded in the Buddhist doctrine. I don’t think they can easily be dismissed as mythology. But the point, really, is that even if there is some mythology in the suttas, we are left with some passages that are eerily close to modern cosmological ideas. Personally I cannot see that there is anything quite like it in other comparable ancient texts, even those of the ancient Greeks referred to by @DKervick. Is this closeness merely a coincidence? Perhaps. But let us look at it carefully rather than have an a priori position on whether they are the result of real insight or not.
Not really. There are actually serious cosmologists who are pursuing the idea of a Big Bounce universe. Check out this. Yes, the idea is not mainstream, but that’s sort of the point. If it were mainstream, we would not be able to have any fun with this. I am kind of enjoying this, you know, without taking it too seriously. I do think, however, that is merits discussion.
Again, as I tried to make clear, the cosmological issue is a sideshow. It’s truth or not is irrelevant to the rest of the Dhamma. I am simply interested in what these passages are doing in the suttas. If you think it is all irrelevant, then nothing is lost. And if anyone comes to me and says they reject the Dhamma because they cannot accept Buddhist cosmological ideas, I will obviously tell them what matters and what does not. I think you are reading too much into what I have said, creating a bit of a strawman in the process.
At least we can agree on this.
I do not believe the Buddha was omniscient, nor is that the argument in the OP. I believe in rebirth, and the argument above is simply that a recollection of past lives may have certain unintended consequences. That’s all. Perhaps I was not clear enough. I am not sure whether to be disappointed in my own inabilities at expressing myself clearly or my reader’s inability to read carefully. Probably a bit of both! So much is lost in communication.
The “almost” is a bit of an understatement. I read it from Ven. Dhammarakkhita’s post that he believes in rebirth: “Death, and the exhaustion of human life before escape from further conditioned existence is guaranteed!” This is no minor matter, and is in fact the basis for my entire essay. The real gulf here is between those who believe and those who do not believe in rebirth.
The sutta speaks of a second sun, a third sun … a seventh sun. What this means is not immediately clear. I take it to mean that one sun appears after another, referring to different stages in the evolution of the same sun. It might also be read as a number of suns appearing at the same time. But the main picture remains: the sun(s) is getting increasingly hotter until the earth is entirely burnt up. This in itself, I think, is quite remarkable.
Well, the underlying point is that there is no first point of creation, no first miracle, which is required even by modern science to explain how the universe arose from nothing. If there is no first point, then a cyclical cosmos seems a reasonable model of reality.
Why do we exist? I guess the question is the same for all beings.
For me to go to physics ans I suspect many others, it is the realization that the other fields of studies are ultimately futile in that it will not last forever. Coding only last until the next computer overhaul and programming language change, Business only helps the short term concerns of people, Medicine only helps to extend life up to one lifetime. Whereas all these are not the basis to get us out of earth before the sun becomes a red giant in 5 billion years time and swallows up the earth.
It seems to me that only physics holds the answer to the long term usefulness and survival of humanity. It is the basis for interstellar travel, it’s theories are about how nature works, so it will stand the test of time, as long as human civilization exist and remembers physics, we will remember Einstein and his contributions to physics. So the best immortalization of a self is by becoming a famous scientist.
If I hadn’t encountered and have faith in Buddhism, I would pursue the physics path due to those reasonings. Yet, Buddhism goes further still, ultimately, our universe will die, all that humanity discovers will die and if we are still not enlightened, we just wasted another aeon’s worth of time wandering around, suffering. So the most worthy thing to do is to follow the noble 8fold path. That is the only way for the only permanent thing, the ultimate peace: Nibbana.
Thus realization of unreliability due to impermanence from physics allows the dropping off of everything else other than physics, going deeper, I also drop physics for Buddhism, then eventually dropping even Buddhism and Nibbana is attained.
thank you for putting together this essay with a potent subject appealing to many today nicely linked to core teachings. As you welcomed feedback, in the following some thoughts and references which arose reading through your paper which I would like to share.
Are you aware of Martin Bojowald and his team from the Penn State University? He proposes a cyclic universe similar to the Buddha’s cosmology. Do you happen to know of other scientists who propose in a similar fashion?
I see the fact that humans can be reborn as animals and be (sometimes at least) be still happy in their own right as corroborating an idea which would allow for quite different forms of existence.
What about the mentioning of each system having its own heavens (mahābrahmā and their spheres) perhaps indicating thus also lower realms of a grosser sensual kind?
I would like to add that actually it is also possible from a modern scientific outlook that actually seven suns are to appear. Some say that the cosmos will contract again and when this is happening the galaxies are coming very close to each other and by dint of that render the mentioned occurrence of actually multiple suns quite plausible.
Reading your paper I wondered if it would not be nice to also include passages from the agaññasutta, mentioning that at the beginning of the universe it was completely dark, a fact which is also substantiated by science, by saying that stars formed after some time has elapsed, some few hundred thousands of years later. Another piece perhaps worth including would be the teaching of intermediate worlds of utter darkness, which would maybe correspond to the space between galaxies or within a solar system between the planets as we have them today.
Have you heard about the Gaia hypothesis? It states actually that planets and stars may have consciousness. Perhaps Brahmā of our solar system is actually the sun, permeating it with its light having consciousness …
To mind comes the fact that precognition is actually an scientifically established fact (Prof. Dean Radin did some experiments and I think it was independently proofed as well). So perhaps the Buddha also perceived the future directly, in addition to the mentioned inference.
I didn’t look at the pāli but is the reference not just to the radiance being chief among celestial bodies?
I think if we take the premise that mind is the by-product of materiality this might sound odd, but less if we assume that mind is actually fundamental in influencing matter, as corroborated by findings in the field of quantum-physics – it would be an easy thing to influence matter for an adept individual like the Buddha . Also we don’t know what kind of body was referred to, perhaps the manomayakāya was meant.
I took this passage always to refer rather to cosmic distances, and not to our planet …
Perhaps I shall try to clarify what physics says about this as I have a physics degree. The first 300000 years after the Big bang indeed light and any form of electromagnetic(EM) waves cannot travel freely. That is because the universe is so hot that everything is in a plasma state, so electrons and protons are not bounded as atoms, but exist freely as ions. The plasma is the same thing which fire and our stars are made up of. These ions absorp reemmit the EM waves so often that the whole universe is opaque. It is only after 300000 years that the universe expands big enough for the energy density to be diluted and thus the temperature drops to allow stable atoms to be formed. That would be the first instance of “let there be light.” This is way before any first stars was formed. These EM waves are still around today, we call the the cosmic microwave background radiation. It is everywhere in the cosmos. Just that in the past, it is more energetic, thus higher frequency, thus it was once in the visible range too, and possibly before that in the ultraviolet range.
As to the universe being dark in the future, yes, all stars will die and eventually no enough raw materials can be gravitationally pulled together to form new stars. So the lights in the universe dies out and we are left of blackholes evaporating. Maybe at the end of their evaporation, we might see one final burst of explosion from each of the nano blackholes and then the universe dies a heat death. This is assuming heat death, and not big rip or crunch or anything else happening.
Thanks for the nice details. What would you say about the possibility of psychic phenomena from a quantum perspective? Prof. Dean Radin made some highly intriguing experiments … https://ions.academia.edu/DRadin
I’m not sure what Ven. Dhammarakkhita meant exactly by that concluding sentence. I took it to mean that there is no way of preventing death, but that there is a liberation from suffering and conditioned existence that one can achieve before death arrives. The parts of his comment that caught my attention most were statements like:
Buddha emphasises the importance of retracting the mind from speculative conceptualisation and directing it to the observation and discernment of evident mental experiences, here and now.
But there is no founder of any spiritual, transcendental doctrine, that has not been presented by his followers as possessed of some kind of omniscience or another, including those, like the Buddha, who openly stated (as recorded in the same text) that they have no such capacity, and declared that there are such questions to which they haven’t answers.
A shrewd and careful observer will not be inspired by the Buddha’s cosmological prowess (in the physical sense), and will notice the absence of any cohesive and robust physical understanding in what is purported in the text to be the Buddha’s speech.
And already, some people ask me: “Do you really believe that someone who didn’t know that the Earth is round can be enlightened?” To which I answer: “Yes! Even today anyone who doesn’t know that the Earth is round can be enlightened!” Because the enlightenment of the Buddha had nothing to do with transcending matter, but only transcending the heart, and its hopeless, agonising seeking and longing and yearning!
The gulf between those followers who do and those who do not believe in rebirth might be one important difference. But I think that is only one aspect of a broader difference between radically different conceptions of what the Buddha was and what he achieved. Some see him as a thoroughly human being who achieved a cessation of suffering and taught others how to achieve the same thing. And some see him as a being ultimately not much different than a god, who lived in a world filled with gods, and who achieved spectacular, super-human powers.