The boundless desolation of interstellar space

In AN 4.127, SN 56.46, MN 123, and DN 14 there’s a memorable description of deep space: lokantarikā aghā asaṃvutā. It’s just one of the surprisingly modern descriptions of the cosmos that we find in the Suttas, conjuring up an impression of a vast, empty world where the realms of humanity are but isolated islands of warmth and light.

Bhikkhu Bodhi translates asaṃvuta as “abysmal”, which has suitably awesome ring to it. This rendering has stayed the same from his translation of the Majjhima until now, and I think it was probably taken over from Ñāṇamoli. But is a curious choice.

Asaṃvuta, which is more well known in the sense “unrestrained”, stems from the old root √vṛ, famous in the Rig Veda for the serpent Vṛtra who wraps the world in darkness.

How do we get from “wrapped, bounded” to “abysmal”? The commentary says

Asaṃvutāti heṭṭhāpi appatiṭṭhā (‘Unbounded’ means, not established even below.)

This explanation also made its way into the PTS Dictionary: “ungoverned, orderless, not supported, baseless”. Rhys Davids rendered it as “baseless” in his translation of DN 14.

Now, something that has no bottom can be said to be an “abyss”, and something abyss-like is “abysmal”. So it seems like a clever rendering.

But note how it relies on not one, but two stretches. First we have to stretch the Pali from “unbounded” to “bottomless (abyss)” via the commentaries. Then it’s another stretch in English from abyss to abysmal. In fact in modern English the underlying metaphor of abysmal is virtually gone, and it just means “extremely bad”; “abyss-like” is an archaic or literary sense.

The Chinese doesn’t have any such sense of “badness” here, translating literally as 無有障蔽, i.e. without bounds. Likewise, the Critical Pali Dictionary says “not closed; with no material limits”.

To understand the commentarial explanation, we need to also consider its purpose within the commentarial cosmology, described by Bhikkhu Bodhi in his note on AN 4.127. It’s given in much more detail in the Visuddhimagga. This depicts the world systems arranged in two dimensions, rather than the three dimensional galaxies we’d expect.

The tradition holds that the world systems are like plates arranged next to one another on a table, and the “interspaces” are like the gaps between the plates. Needless to say, there’s no hint of this two-dimensional cosmology in the Suttas. Even more needless to say, it’s not how the universe actually is. Quite apart from the loss of a dimension, it’s a world that is far smaller and more crowded than what we can see today through a telescope.

However, the two-dimensional model makes interpreting this passage problematic. If interstellar space is bounded by the solar systems on either side, how can it be “unbounded”? This must be why the commentary stresses that the space is unbounded “below”. A third dimension is introduced, but only as a dark chasm between the worlds. So the whole idea of the “abyss” really stems from an attempt by the commentary to buttress its interpretation, which ended up influencing both PTS Dictionary and subsequent translations.

Avoiding the commentarial explanation, I rendered the phrase as “boundless desolation of interstellar space”. Just for fun I googled it and found the sentence: “Innumerable small molecules plunge quietly through the boundless, desolate regions of interstellar space.” That’s exactly what I’m aiming for, to render the meaning so that it sounds like something a modern native speaker might actually use.

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Very interesting Bhante!

This video might help people visualizing how huge is the scale of such abysses.

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:pray:

Dear Bhante,

What’s really interesting is that the Buddha new about this with his awesome mind without having the technology we have now. This was brought up by the professor (Ajahn Brahm’s friend) during the previous conference. It just puts me in awe how powerful the Buddha’s mind was. I have confidence that he knew more but being pragmatic and compassionate, he just left them lone and really taught what was utmost important.

with respect and reverence,
russ

:pray:

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In AN 3.80 the Buddha describes a thousandfold minor world system (consisting of a thousand inhabited solar systems), a thousand-to-the-second-power middling world system (consisting of a thousand minor world systems) and a thousand-to-the-third-power great world system (consisting of a thousand middling world systems). At least those are the terms used in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation.

I’m not aware of such “clumps of a thousand” inside a galaxy so would these be a galaxy, a galaxy (super)cluster and the visible universe respectively? If so, that would mean around a thousand inhabited “islands of warmth and light” in our own Milky Way.

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Of course nowadays they’re finding liquid water (and even alcohol in comets) all over the solar system so perhaps all stars are surrounded by sentient beings in some form or another and a galaxy was meant by the great world system.

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Hi Raivo,

It is really hard to know exactly what these things refer to, but you’re quire right that it is about the number of “world systems” with life. Yet even the idea of a world system is not clear, but it is reasonable to think it refers to a solar system. The sutta you are referring speaks of the Earth as it was known in those days (the various lands and the oceans), and it also speaks of the various realms that seems connected with our human world. And so a thousand world systems should refer to 1,000 inhabited solar systems. I really have no idea how this relates to the Milky Way.

I have to echo Russell and say that it really is mind-blowing that the Buddha could have known all this. This is only one sutta, and there are others where the information given is even more explicit and very closely in line with our contemporary understanding of cosmology. It would be far too simplistic to dismiss this as a matter of interpretation. There something really remarkable going on, and it is very hard to explain this unless we accept that the Buddha had some extraordinary powers.

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I’ve also noticed this on several occasions while reading the suttas but I get the overall impression that the Buddha mostly used widely understood concepts to get across deeper concepts on the Dhamma without caring too much about the absolute correctness of the worldly knowledge mentioned (there are many levels of truth, after all). This and the use of stock phrases in the suttas make it pretty hard to come to any concrete conclusions.

And of course contemporary scientists only have a pretty good understanding of “regular matter” which by their own estimates makes up about 4% of the mass-energy of the universe. There could very well be a mount Sineru lurking about in the other 96%, labelled as dark matter and dark energy.

So basically, the only way to know these things (or loose the craving to want to know) is to focus on the important parts of the teaching, practice diligently and realize the three higher knowledges :slight_smile:

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I’m using galaxy, galactic cluster, and galactic supercluster!

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So Mount Sineru might be the missing dark matter. An interesting idea. A more common interpretation of Mount Sineru is that it is only visible in certain other realms. It is also quite likely that it is just mythology.

Of course, we need to focus on the core teachings. But sometimes there are things that give you a powerful glimpse of the Buddha. When I read about all the psychic powers, etc., it doesn’t really do much too me. I certainly don’t reject it; it’s just hard to relate to, I guess. But when I read that the Buddha said that the Earth would one day be burned up by the sun, then I am quite astonished. We know this is true, but how on earth (!) did he know!

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Boundless (asaṃvutā) may not be the same as infinity? But I think it is at least a similar concept.

Interestingly, Jain mathematical philosophers had a lot to say about these kinds of hard-to-fathom concepts:

“They recognized different types of infinities:
infinite in length (one dimension),
infinite in area (two dimensions),
infinite in volume (three dimensions), and
infinite perpetually (infinite number of dimensions)”

More than 2000 years later in Europe, Georg Cantor proposed the (then preposterous) idea of different kinds of infinities, and I think it was only after his death that it was accepted by the mathematical community.

I find these kinds of relations between modern scientific theory and Buddhist thought to be fascinating as well.
However, in a broad sense I get the impression that the Buddha was ultimately concerned with experience as the domain of investigation (and soteriology). Modern science, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with observation of the natural world (external and physical/material). Focusing too much on the overlapping of these domains can lead to madness and vexation, or at least, some sort of dukkha/dissatisfaction in my opinion. That’s just my personal experience, and it helps me to be mindful of the ultimate problem and ultimate goal by not spending too much time with things not conducive to the goal. Not trying to say any of this is necessarily bad or untrue, just to share my experience/opinion that I approach such things with caution.

I was actually thinking along the lines of the more common interpretation: that the other realms are “in” dark matter (fine material realms) and dark energy (immaterial realms) with Mount Sineru as some sort of an underlying connecting structure for the (material part of the) world system. But that’s just a random thought of course…

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I agree. As a big believer in science (bit less nowadays), reading this kind of stuff in the suttas increased my confidence in the idea of rebirth tremendously. Without modern instruments and computers, I really don’t see any other way for the Buddha to have known some of these things.

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Hi everyone,

I just came accross an interesting video which I think is related to this topic.

What this guy has to say finds resonance with the Beginningless Samsara we see the Buddha talking about in suttas like the SN15.3 and the DN 27 :

With reverence and respect, :smile:

Gabriel

Another interesting video on the topic of the boundless desolation of space… this time it approaches it from the “time aspect of things”…

It seems modern science is closer and closer to accept the account of “many aeons of world-contraction, many aeons of world-expansion, many aeons of world-contraction and expansion”

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