What happens if hypothetically all beings attained enlightenment?

From insects to aliens from far off galaxies and all the beings in the heaven and hell realms attain enlightenment. What happens when they all attain enlightenment? Does Samsara just cease to function?

There are periods of time where the Pali Canon mentions that only the highest of the heavenly realms exist giving rise to the creator god misconception amongst some beings. But no mention is given to what would happen if ALL beings attain enlightenment. This would obviously be incredibly unlikely but there is still a possibility.

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The way the Buddha speaks about the unconditioned element is like light and shade, knowing samsara is a condition for understanding nibbana, and suffering is the beginning of the path. The categories of conditioned and unconditioned should be separated:

" I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Sāvatthī at Jeta’s Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika’s monastery. And on that occasion the Blessed One was instructing, urging, rousing, & encouraging the monks with Dhamma-talk concerned with unbinding. The monks — receptive, attentive, focusing their entire awareness, lending ear — listened to the Dhamma.

Then, on realizing the significance of that, the Blessed One on that occasion exclaimed:

There is, monks, an unborn[1] — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated. If there were not that unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, there would not be the case that escape from the born — become — made — fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, escape from the born — become — made — fabricated is discerned.[2]—Ud 8.3

Buddhism has a different view to western science, samsara being described as beginningless. To be a Buddhist it is necessary to believe in beginninglessness and endlessness. It has a limited goal the eradication of suffering, and discussing things not related to that is unproductive and threatens mental health:

“Conjecture about [the origin, etc., of] the world is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.”—AN 4.77

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I’ll give you some axioms that will break your brain just thinking about how paradoxical things are:

  • The universe is infinite (beginningless and endless)
  • There arises a Samma Sam Buddha every aeon or so, with an X number of Arahants per aeon.
  • Therefore, if the universe is infinite, everything that could have happened should have already happened, and thus everyone should have attained nibbana by now, assuming there are no new sentient beings being created in samsara, which is technically impossible if rebirth is true.
  • But at the same time, events have to happen, so if everything that could have happened should have happened, then what about the people who are alive during the event happening? shouldn’t the event have already happened for them, thus no event can actually happen?
  • Therefore the paradox is: If the universe is infinite, anything that could have happened should have already happened, however nothing can actually happen since there was always an infinite time before it where it could have happened but can’t actually happen because there was a time before it where it could have happened… ad infinitum

The obvious conclusions are

  1. If rebirth is true then Samsara is a closed loop system that no one can escape and no one can attain nibbana
  2. Or rebirth is not true and beings are newly created, but then no-self wouldn’t be true as no-self relies on the transmutation of things, i.e. matter in the universe is fixed and simply takes different forms at different times, the aggregates come together at birth, they are not created. If things are newly created then a self can be materially created and not merely fabricated.
  3. The universe is not actually infinite, and therefore rebirth is not true (at least not forever).

So either rebirth is true but no one can escape samsara, or rebirth is not true but no-self is not true.

Not if the set of things that can happen is itself infinite.

Perhaps sentient beings are infinite. If this is the case, then samsara will itself be infinite. In this case, asserting that we will ‘run out’ of sentient beings would be like asserting that we would run out of square numbers (which are infinite) to put into correspondence with natural numbers (which are infinite).

Out of curiosity, are there sutta references to support this? It doesn’t seem to follow as a matter of logic that new mind-streams cannot come into existence somehow. Though of course this could nevertheless be contingently false.

So then Parinibbana doesn’t escape samsara then, and fully enlightened beings are reborn?

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This is the error here. Sentient beings cannot be modelled like gas molecules in kinetic theory of gasses. It’s not easy to find a way out of samsara. It’s rare to get private Buddhas, or fully enlightened Buddhas. Even if fully enlightened Buddhas appear, it’s not easy to practise to arahanthood under their teachings. It’s reasonable to suppose then that the dependent origination works so well and is so hard to see that for infinite time until now, sentient beings had been trapped by it, only some got escape and it’s not going to be spontaneous, without effort, or guaranteed given enough time.

Even mundane stuffs, we cannot expect immortals to do given infinite time. Like jump 345 times on the exact same spot, down to molecular precision while reciting the name of pokemons from 345 down to number 1 in 44 languages, and touching one’s nose while at it. Who does that, even out of boredom? Thus it’s not reasonable to model sentient being’s actions with mindless gas molecules.

SN15 suttas clearly implies that sentient beings would have many many past lives before, so it seems to rule out newly created sentient beings.

Rebirth and no self both are clearly part of the core teachings.

I would use samsara instead, universe is more of cyclic creation and destruction. There’s no sutta which says that samsara cannot end.

I think this would be the ideal of the Bodhisattva, to save all sentient beings. Who’s left to verify if there’s still a physical universe after the last enlightened being gone to parinibbana with no more unenlightened beings left anywhere in all the realms in all multiverse? And there’s no law of nature which says this couldn’t happen. There’s no law of nature which guarantees this either.

From Physics point of view:

The space of possible velocity and position can be said to be kinematics, the forces which governs accelerations which determines the motion is the dynamics. Given certain dynamical equation, it’s possible to have certain position and velocity not possibly reached for that dynamics even with infinite time.

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I’m not sure how that follows from what I said.

What I’m trying to say is that if the past is infinite, this does not entail that everything that could happen will already have happened, since the things that can happen may themselves be infinite. This doesn’t mean that nothing happens.

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It’s just simple logic though.

If x amount of objects leave per x amount of time, then if all time is infinite, then all objects will eventually leave, if no new objects are being created.

Samsara, being not real, arises by causal condition (nidaana). Having arisen it ceases completely by causal condition. It is a result of previous action (kamma/karma-vipaaka), but there is no doer (anatta).

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I think a case can be made that the section of the sutra you are quoting is commentary.

The question is undecided for infinite sentient beings from the beginningless start. Infinity minus infinity could be infinity or a finite number. It’s not less than zero (for this case) for samsara still exists.

If x amount of objects leave per x amount of time, then if all time is infinite, then all objects will eventually leave, if no new objects are being created.

This statement presupposes the proposition that the set of objects is not infinite. The assertion that ‘all objects will eventually leave’ is in effect a denial that the set of objects is infinite. This can be illustrated by applying the same reasoning in reverse: If x amount of time passes for each object leaving, then if objects are infinite, all time will eventually pass before all objects leave.

Your reasoning would imply that since the set of all odd numbers is infinite, if one drew a correspondence between each odd number and an even number, one would run out of even numbers. This is clearly an absurd result, since it entails that the set of even numbers is not infinite, which is evidently false. What is in fact the case is that for any odd number that one picks, there will always be a further even number which has not already been set in correspondence to an odd number. The same applies in the case of infinite time and infinite objects. This is can be illustrated by taking each point in time to correspond to an odd number and each object to correspond to an even number.

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Infinity can be quite counter-intuitive. Hilbert’s Hotel (after the mathematician David Hilbert) is an interesting thought experiment leading to some odd results.

Hilbert’s Hotel has an infinite number of rooms with room numbers 1, 2, … etc. with one guest in each room. Suppose that each morning that all guests who are in rooms with an odd number on their door are required to leave. Basically, half of the occupants vacate the premises each day. However, imagine that, before the afternoon, each guest then has to relocate to a room with a number that is half the current one, e.g. the guest in room 1000 has to relocate to room 500 and the guest in room 46 has to relocate to room 23.

This room reshuffling, if you think about, will mean that every room will now again be occupied, i.e., the hotel is again full. One can keep redoing this each morning forever and the hotel will always be full again each day (even after half of its guests have left). Infinity is weird! :wink:

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It doesn’t presuppose it, it literally says “if no new objects are created”…

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Yes it is a possibility but it is possibility only for those who are arhats or Sammasambuddha. Buddha doesn’t have thought that he is causing enlightenment of others or he is causing people to be arhats. It’s us who see him that way. I don’t remember which but I have read a sutra here…in which it is said that when buddha is teaching about xyz thing and person ‘A’ is listening to it…then it is actually inappropriate to say that buddha is teaching xyz to person ‘A’, but we should say that it’s the perception of person ‘A’ only and it is him who is able to hear teaching xyz from buddha. I hope you are getting me.

‘Samsara just cease to function’ is true for enlightened person only… But for unenlightened individual such as many of us…samsara is endless, ‘self’ characterized by impermanence. View of self is samsara, while VIEW of non-self is also samsara but absence of view is actual non-self …that is great nibbana. We are unable to think without having point of view, when we will be able to think without pov then only we can say we are actually starting to look at reality the way it is…unlike the way we think or imagine it to be.

Simple answer would be …If they all attain enlightenment then they will be no more in our perception. And our perception about their existence is like a dream of sleeping individual(unenlightened individual). See you are sleeping and dreaming then you wake up to find that it was just a dream. So is dream the Reality for you? No because if it were reality, you wouldn’t be dreaming it in first place, but is it a complete untruth/lie?, yes but after waking up only…but for a while ago for you it was a complete reality. So it is like that, after waking up, first thing you know that the experience you were having is not ‘reality’. So it’s about perception. So if they all attain enlightenment then they all will be gone out of your and mine perception. Hence thae fact that they are unenlightened and you wondering about them in your perception shows that you also are unenlightened like them with different perception…hence both of you have perception of each other. While we are discussing about them only amounts to our not being enlightened. If anyone of you would be enlightened then this perception would be absent. So it is actually us in whose perception only they exist the way they exist.

That’s an impossible task which is made possible by Samma-sambuddha. The very fact that Samma-sambuddha was there about 2500 years ago proves that, otherwise we would be floating here n there like gas molecules. We are still doing that but not to very high extent but still to a great extent. We are lucky to have these teachings out of infinite beings who are suffering in samsara​:cold_sweat::scream:
Also discussing/wondering upon what happens if everyone becomes enlightened is like discussing about atmosphere in random planet other than our home planet, in random galaxy other than our own galaxy. It is just fruitless wondering with very high chance of fruitless confusion infected with not so perfect mathematics.

I’ve never seen a Buddhist take this idea seriously in a literal sense, even among Mahāyānists who advocate bodhisattvas having this sentiment of wanting to wait until all sentient beings attain Nirvana to enter it themselves. They directly tell us that this is just a sentiment, not an actual goal, being that sentient beings are countless.

There is the story of beings all attaining the dhyānas above the first and emptying out the lower realms of samsara. In DA 30, the story is told in full. The lower realms are emptied out and disappear because all the beings learned to attain the higher dhyānas and are reborn in the form realm. This happens three times. The first time, all beings attain the second dhyāna, the second time that attain the third dhyāna, and the third time, they attain the fourth dhyāna. When their merits decay, they repopulate the world each time.

Basically, Buddhists had a naturalistic view of the universe as a cyclical existence in which our story takes place. They didn’t really care that much about these logical problems of objectivity that moderns tie themselves into knots about. They tell stories like the one above as morality tales. The point is not that the world will be burned up in a big fire, but that:

“You should know from this that all formed things are impermanent. They are liable to change and disintegrate, which makes them unreliable. Conditioned things are quite troublesome. You should seek the path of freedom that transcends the world.

Which is repeated over and over throughout the tale.

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Yea goal is not to wait till everyone is enlightened but goal is to remove the signs of unenlightenment from existence. Like for example if person is engaged in selfless generousity, he will give more and more then as a result he will get more satisfaction regarding materiality. Then Bodhisattva engaged in supreme perfections comes into picture, he gives every kind of material things, then non material things, then in the end to complete perfections he gives away his life as well to perfect generousity. Now if he continues like this, there comes a time when wherever he is born noone is poor, everyone is satisfied completely in his world(wherever he is born). His goal is liberation and not material enjoyment…so now after giving away even his life many times there will come a time when noone will ask him for anything. So goal is to get rid of all signs of impermanence, dissatisfaction from existence and convert into permanence and satisfaction(lack of ill will/hate in every being).

Maybe their goal is not nibbana/liberation hence they again come down…or maybe they don’t know what is nibbana…they just know attaining those pristine jhanas which in itself is very great achievement even though impermanent!

Animals are in the woeful state and if I’m not mistaken, are not able to attain awakening. Therefore, even if all humans all attained full enlightenment, parinibbana upon death, the animals would still be here. They would continue to exist on this planet (and perhaps on other planets too), thus, samsara continues . . . Eventually, some species might become the most intelligent, dominant species again and the cycle begins again . . .

Interesting. I never knew there was a canonical source for this. In Pali sources the expanded account of the Seven Suns Sutta, with its end-of-the-æon deva commotion (kappakolāhala) is only met with in the commentaries.

Commotions are of five kinds: commotion about the eon, commotion about a wheel-turning monarch, commotion about a buddha, commotion about blessings, and commotion about munihood.

Here, when the desire-sphere devas, with loose head bands, scattered hair, and tearful faces, wiping their tears with their hands, wearing dyed clothes and with disshelved garments, wandering along the path of humans, announce, “After 100,000 years, the end of the eon will occur. This world will perish, the great ocean will dry up, and this great earth along with Sineru, king of mountains, will burn up and perish, and world destruction will occur up to the brahma world. Develop loving-kindness, dear sirs, develop compassion, altruistic joy, and equanimity. Attend on your mother and father, respect the elders in the family. Be vigilant! Do not be heedless!” — this is called the commotion about the eon.
(Bhikkhu Bodhi, Suttanipāta)

More expansively in the Visuddhimagga:

When a long period has passed in this way, the water gives out here and there. Then in due course the fishes and turtles die and are reborn in the Brahmā world, and so are the beings in hell. Some say that the denizens of hell perish there with the appearance of the seventh sun.

Now, there is no rebirth in the Brahmā-world without jhāna; and some of them, being obsessed with the scarcity of food, are unable to attain jhāna, so how are they reborn there? By means of jhāna obtained in the [sense-sphere] divine world.

For then the sense-sphere deities called world-marshal (loka-byūha) deities come to know that at the end of a hundred thousand years there will be the emergence of an aeon, and they travel up and down the haunts of men, their heads bared, their hair dishevelled, with piteous faces, mopping their tears with their hands, clothed in dyed cloth, and wearing their dress in great disorder.

They make this announcement: “Good sirs, good sirs, at the end of a hundred thousand years from now there will be the emergence of an aeon. This world will be destroyed. Even the ocean will dry up. This great earth, and the Sineru King of Mountains, will be consumed and destroyed. The destruction of the earth will extend as far as the Brahmā-world. Develop loving-kindness, good sirs, develop compassion, gladness, equanimity, good sirs. Care for your mothers, care for your fathers, honour the elders of your clans.”

When human beings and earth deities hear their words, they mostly are filled with a sense of urgency. They become kind to each other and make merit with loving-kindness, etc., and so they are reborn in the divine world. There they eat divine food, and they do the preliminary work on the air kasina and acquire jhāna. Others, however, are reborn in a sense-sphere divine world through kamma to be experienced in a future life. For there is no being traversing the round of rebirths who is destitute of kamma to be experienced in a future life.

They too acquire jhāna there in the same way. All are eventually reborn in the Brahmā-world by acquiring jhāna in a sense-sphere divine world in this way.

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Are there any analogs to this concept in the pali suttas? I vaguely remember reading somewhere that at the end of the age sentient beings are reborn in either the upper brahma or formless realms while the fire incinerates everything underneath it, with the form realms being populated by our kamma after. Is that from a corresponding DN sutta?