Faulty cosmology and doubt

Hello everyone,

Do you think the Buddha really taught factually incorrect notions, like flat earth (or Mt Meru and the four continents) and the presence of a market town in the Gangetic plain in the distant past (where Buddha Kassapa supposedly lived)? If he really believed these ideas, wouldn’t that be an indication that he was wasn’t entirely free of delusion? If he had knowledge of all his past lives, then surely he would have known that such ideas were factually untrue.

I can think of a couple other possibilities:

  1. The Buddha taught such stories as skillful parables for his ancient Indian audience, but he didn’t believe them as literal factual accounts.

  2. The ascientific mythological ideas were gradually interpolated in the suttas in the generations after the Buddha’s death.

I am curious as to how people approach this issue. From time to time, it makes me doubt whether the Buddha was truly free of all delusion.

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Good question I was honestly thinking about this yesterday especially on the past life bit. I was thinking about how could Buddha see so much of his past lives but prescribe cow pee as a medicine. I was thinking to myself surely from seeing his extensive past lifes he should have advanced medicinal knowledge. And, same here sometimes I can’t lie doubt does arise in me when I hear that the Buddha said stuff like that.

What I have personally found that helps me with my doubt is asking questions on this forum. Or if I see something strange or doubtful I put it aside for the time being. Sometimes what I have found is that answer comes in the future unexpectedly, like when I’m browsing this forum or listening to a dhamma talk.

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I have similar questions and doubts for things in the suttas too! One way of looking at many aspects of the suttas is as mythological and teaching devices - I tend to see many examples as illustrative of how to think rather than literal: the large numbers and extreme metaphors given especially. These examples stick in your mind and prompt you to act in a way that is in accordance with reality. Also you might see these histories as indicative of the future or to illustrate how long the dhamma may last into the future; how universal the teachings are - told in story form.

In your example @End , I don’t believe the Buddha taught flat-earth but if there is mention of a city that never existed (hard to prove of the non-existence of a city or town, easier to prove it did exist) then that would be a problem for me too.

A larger problem for me is the description of past Buddhas in the midst of Brahmins (Jotipāla in the Ghatikkara Sutta) the past Buddhas born into Brahmin families despite that culture only having entered India around a thousand years earlier - could Buddhism have emerged four times in that thousand years? A similar culture that would become the Brahman tradition, or similar traditions might have existed elsewhere beforehand. Again my best way through is that they are more examples of a paradigm, or to pose a way through a contemporary situation.

Bart Ehrman argues that the early Christian church in Greece added in the Old Testament to show the teachings are ancient - perhaps these accounts are similar. In Jainism there are many Tirthankarā going back for a long time too. Not to say that the Buddha or any arahant would lie, just that many of the texts are discourses whose audience is those to be enthused. In fact the reality of an arahant being unable to lie gives me confidence in these issues - I don’t think “delusion” is a description, an honest mistake at the worst, a misapprehension by us at the best. People on the Ganges plain back then attached prestige to certain kinds of things - the Buddha just knew that certain kinds of stories and events would give rise to confidence - perhaps these are truths ‘translated’ to this context and no one took stories too literally in the past, as people do now.

Lastly I haven’t found any examples of past-life memories that describe hunter-gatherer type lifestyles, despite these being the dominant form of human and hominin existence for many hundreds of thousands of years. One way out of this is that all of those attained venerables in the suttas and others with past life memories spent time in other realms for at least the million or so years before the time of the Buddha and so were not even on the planet, or these past lives were too dissimilar from their current life to be remembered.

It’s also worth remembering that in these many millions of words there are comparatively few of these kinds of problems in the suttas - how many other things are still incredibly true and with very few contradictions - it’s quite a marvel, if you compare them to other religious texts or ancient texts including the ancient Greek philosophers etc.

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Where did the Buddha teach flat earth? Would love to see references to the respective EBTs :slight_smile:

Civilizations / cities could have been around much earlier than we think, we’re reconstructing the past only from the archeological evidence that has a bit of persistence. My impression is that the scientific consensus is not fixed and might change with new evidence.

Also:

There’s a very strong cultural bias towards human specialness, we used to think that we were the literal center of the universe, the Creator God’s favorite beings.

But if we’re being honest, we don’t know how unique the rise (and fall?) of advanced civilizations are.

Perhaps it happens often all over the galaxy, but just like we are doing, civilizations destroy themselves relatively quickly by exceeding their carrying capacity in major ways? (see climate change).

Edit: We should assume that our present understanding of the world is flawed and will change. To my mind, the Buddha using the available cultural “facts” of his time and place to communicate effectively to his audience is not so worrying to me.

I would be worried if the Buddha insisted that believing that the earth is a certain shape (flat, round, cylinder in 4-dimensional space) was very important though.

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@michaelh

To expand on MN 81: if the Buddha actually believed that Iron-Age Indian society existed in the Gangetic plain for a long time into the distant past, and that he lived in this society with its Brahmins and previous Buddha, then how genuinely can we take the claim of the suttas that the Buddha accurately remembered a massive number of his past lives?

I’m glad you brought up the lack of hunter-gatherer life memories. More broadly, it is quite problematic that all of the past-life memories mentioned in the suttas (which I have come across so far) take place within the paradigm of Iron-Age India. These past-life memories always involve a Brahminical society (with the same Iron-Age technology) and take place within the Gangetic plain. It seems most plausible that these ‘memories’ were in fact nothing more than confabulation, based on the societal context in which those ancient people lived.

Perhaps the better explanation for these stories is that overzealous followers wanted to elevate the Buddha after he passed away. Did the Buddha actually claim to remember all of his past lives, or did later followers themselves invent that claim as a way to elevate ‘the Buddha’ in their memory as a near-omniscient founder of their new religion? The latter seems more likely to me.

Another issue is that some of the Buddha’s teachings on rebirth don’t align with the current evidence. For instance, most of the current research on past-life memories involve subjects which remember immediately preceding human lives. This is not compatible with the claim in the suttas that human birth is incredibly rare and difficult to attain. It seems that a large number of people are being reborn as humans; even people with wrong livelihood, such as soldiers.

On the matter of wrong livelihood, there is also the problem of the sutta where the Buddha says that actors (or comedians) will go to hell due to drawing people into sensuality. If this is really the case, then why did he not place ‘actor’ under his definition for wrong livelihood? And what about the prostitutes and musicians of his day, which arguably stimulate sensuality even more than actors or comedians?

I agree, it is extremely impressive that there is so much profound wisdom in the suttas. But I feel the need to point out these problematic suttas, and figure out a way to address them without creating cognitive dissonance.

@Erik_ODonnell

Apparently ‘flat earth’ is not explicitly mentioned in the EBTs, but it could be inferred (according to B. Sujato).

At the very least, there is a sutta where the Buddha talks about Mt Meru surrounded by the four great continents. This, of course, is false geography.

I agree on the likelihood of advanced civilizations on other planets, but there is no archeological evidence of past advanced civilizations on Earth. However, there is plenty of evidence of dinosaurs and such, and a relatively clear through-line of evolution to modern humans. The stories in the suttas simply do not match up with the evidence at hand.

The current scientific understanding is of course flawed and will change, but the understanding in the suttas is more flawed and will not change with the evidence. To expect that future scientific developments will somehow draw us closer to the stories of the suttas is, in my mind, a bit unrealistic.

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You asked. :slight_smile:

Do you know about the theory in science about how all the continents were once one big continent called Pangaea?

The pieces of Africa and South America so clearly fit together you don’t need a heavy argument to sort of accept it for yourself.

The teachings of The Four Noble Truths and The Noble 8 Fold Path are so clearly down to Earth and rational that you see a clear cleavage between those teachings and the religious mythology in the writings. Like Pangaea, the separation is so clear you don’t need much of an argument – in my opinion.

In my opinion what we have today is the Buddha’s psychological/spiritual teachings mixed in with local religions, augmented by people who passed them down, and changed by the people who recorded them.

I don’t find a divine prophet with mythical powers all that inspiring.

An ordinary man who discovered his past lives and went on to a Herculean level of spiritual accomplishment is very inspiring.

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I may be hand-waving, but the simile of the handful of leaves might explain it.

https://suttacentral.net/sn56.31/en/sujato

“Sir, the few leaves in your hand are a tiny amount. There are far more leaves in the forest above.”
“In the same way, there is much more that I have directly known but have not explained to you. What I have explained is a tiny amount. And why haven’t I explained it? Because it’s not beneficial or relevant to the fundamentals of the spiritual life. It doesn’t lead to disillusionment, dispassion, cessation, peace, insight, awakening, and extinguishment. That’s why I haven’t explained it.

Excellent question.

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The Avengers universe is a false history, and yet people debate whether Thanos was right or wrong.

IMO, you kinda have to use the concepts of the culture you’re in to communicate to people in that culture :woman_shrugging:

On the flip side, modern science has made very little headway understanding consciousness, and is struggling to create antidepressants that are more effective than getting people to do physical exercise.

One of the greatest innovations in psychology – mindfulness – they basically just copied Buddhism’s homework and changed it a bit so it wouldn’t be too obvious :stuck_out_tongue:

Like, the mythic narratives of the past in the EBTs are basically unfalsifiable anyway. AFAIK, most of them are too vague to derive any specific hypotheses. They are mythic narratives though, so that doesn’t worry me.

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I know this wasn’t addressed to me, but finally my science education might be of benefit :nerd_face:

IMO, you have to take self-selection into account. That is, those who have past-life memories aren’t representative of the population of rebirthing beings, but self-select into the samples of human researchers by being humans that have past life memories.

Basically, inferring population rebirth probabilities from this sample would require very, very strong assumptions that are unlikely to hold IRL :slight_smile:

I think this is wise! The best way to address doubt is to investigate.

Like, for me, the 32 parts of a great man just don’t make sense. Whatever cultural context it did make sense in must have been lost a long time ago. But it doesn’t seem to be central to the Dhamma so I just ignore it :cowboy_hat_face:

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Here’s a thought: The Buddha might remember a few hundred thousand years of human evolution, but before that he would be living in a different universe or on a different planet where another species filled the same role that a human does here on earth. Who’s to say the medicines that worked for those species would be applicable on earth 2500 years ago?

Sorry, science fiction nerd here. :joy:

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I read such things as being ancient commentary. The result of adding some flare to a dhamma talk, that the audience at the time could connect with. Overtime, it became “fact”.

The Buddha never claimed to be scientifically omniscient and never said his teachings were about scientific facts that were not known during his time – let alone what would have been scientifically unknown in even earlier times during his past lives.

As we all know, he taught the 4 NTs as dukkha, its cause(s), its cessation, and the way (N8FP) leading to its cessation – and said this was the purpose and goal of his teachings.
If we wish, we can stop right there and let go of concerns and papañca-nizing about why he didn’t discover penicillin, know about the gravitational constant of the universe, etc.
Does such speculation reduce dukkha and cultivate wholesome qualities?

If the Buddha taught the earth was as flat as a pancake it wouldn’t undermine the truth, purpose, and benefits of his teachings.

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It would though cast some doubt on the claim that he remembered past lives, and so would change the nature of the 4NT and the whole practice somewhat.

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If somebody started talking about the Avengers universe as if it were real, we would view them as mentally unbalanced. However, when the Buddha in MN 81 talks about his past life as a Brahmin with Buddha Kassapa in the Ganges Valley during the time of the dinosaurs (or even earlier) as an apparently real story, we somehow don’t have the same dismissive (or concerned) attitude.

Regarding the self-selection bias: is it more reliable to infer population rebirth probabilities from multiple scientific case studies, or should we trust some specious claims from ancient texts that already demonstrate faulty assumptions about the natural world at nearly every turn? I concede your point about the self-selection bias, but to me it seems that the ‘bias’ of the ancient texts is much more problematic.

The 32 marks are such an obviously silly interpolation into the suttas, I didn’t even remember to mention them in this thread. :slightly_smiling_face:

Such speculation (or critical inquiry, to use a more generous term) may encourage detachment from the texts, which are themselves part of samsara; imperfect transmissions which should probably not be clung to with excessive fervor.

As @Ceisiwr just mentioned, if the Buddha actually believed in flat earth, then it calls into question the entire notion that he accurately remembered countless past lives.

It would be interesting to see where suttas which seem to suggest this are most often found. I would guess they are mostly found in the DN and its parallels. Worth taking into consideration that the canon as we have it was consciously edited and put together by the Sangha when the Buddha had died with DN material being aimed at potential converts, mostly Brahmins. Brahmins of course, and Jains, already having that worldview.

I explained my take about the 32 marks a long time ago. I do not have any problem with it.
Sometimes, because of misunderstanding, we judge this or that. It is always better to refrain from making judgments (especially to the noble ones) about what we think because most of the time, I found that we are often wrong in our understanding.

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My point is that if I say “was Thanos right or wrong?” everyone in my audience would know I don’t think Thanos is literally real, because the Avengers universe is part of a shared culture between me and my audience.

I can effortlessly reference Thanos without needing to explain it’s not real, that’s the point :slight_smile:

Where did you get that timeline from?

There is of course another way of looking at this. If we assume the Buddha did give Dhamma talks where he spoke of Mount Meru or a flat earth, it could be because he was just using the generally accepted worldview at the time. The Buddha was aiming to undo a delusion, rather than establish a theory or philosophy. It could have been the case then that he did make use of these concepts despite his knowledge of past lives, because to teach otherwise would then the Dhamma into a scientific theory about the world. Monks and nuns then would be engaging in the kind of debates the Buddha wanted them to avoid. Later on many of the Sangha went on to develop proto-scientific theories with the Abhidharmas, and so ended up in those very debates the Buddha warned against. I’m reminded of this sutta

Sir, the few leaves in your hand are a tiny amount. There are far more leaves in the forest above.”

“In the same way, there is much more that I have directly known but have not explained to you. What I have explained is a tiny amount. And why haven’t I explained it? Because it’s not beneficial or relevant to the fundamentals of the spiritual life. It doesn’t lead to disillusionment, dispassion, cessation, peace, insight, awakening, and extinguishment. That’s why I haven’t explained it.

And what have I explained? I have explained: ‘This is suffering’ … ‘This is the origin of suffering’ … ‘This is the cessation of suffering’ … ‘This is the practice that leads to the cessation of suffering’.

And why have I explained this? Because it’s beneficial and relevant to the fundamentals of the spiritual life. It leads to disillusionment, dispassion, cessation, peace, insight, awakening, and extinguishment. That’s why I’ve explained it.

SN 56.31

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I still don’t understand your analogy. According to the sutta, the Buddha supposedly pointed at a physical location and said, more or less, ‘I was born there a long time ago, with the last Buddha, and society was just the same back then as it is today’. If anybody did this nowadays, we would immediately assume they had either mental problems or ignorance of human history.

Where did you get that timeline from?

In the sutta, the Buddha describes a typical 5th century BC scene in India. It couldn’t have taken place in the directly preceding centuries, unless the Indians forgot the Buddha Kassapa almost immediately after he passed away. That, plus the ‘once upon a time’ phrase, makes me assume that the story refers to the distant past.

If he knew that the ancient Indian cosmology was false, but still actively participated in it, then this would have reinforced a collective delusion in his audience, which seems like unbecoming behavior for a fully enlightened sage.

As a more sagely alternative, he could have simply remained silent on cosmological issues, and if anybody inquired on that subject, he could have pointed out the uselessness of wondering about such matters. But that’s not what the suttas portray - instead, the Buddha (supposedly) told exquisite tales about seven suns consuming Mt Meru, the origins of humanity from devolved devas, etc.

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