Tri Ratna Priya Karuna
The topic of my Dharma talk today is Buddhist cosmology,
a term which does not occur in everyday conversation. What then, is cosmology?
The dictionary defines it as a branch of philosophy dealing with the origin, processes
and structure of the universe.
This may sound like a rather formidable definition,
whose exploration has little relevance to the problems we encounter in everyday
life. Actually, the opposite is true, since an understanding of the workings of
the universe and the cosmic laws that are involved in its unfolding pattern can
provide us insignificant humans with precious guidance. If we are wise enough
to follow this guidance we may avoid the bad decisions that can lead to undesirable
consequences, and instead will be able to make progress toward positive goals
during the course of our lives.
Furthermore, because of the infinite wisdom
of our Lord Shakyamuni Buddha and his predecessors who appeared on earth long
before His time, we are the lucky inheritors of a cosmological tradition of such
awesome grandeur that it totally eclipses corresponding conceptions in western
religions. Even before the time of Lord Buddha, the Indian sages and thinkers
through imagination, the use of super-normal powers and the contemplation of a
most ancient wisdom inherited from pre-historic times, managed to arrive at the
conception of such a vastness and immeasurability of time and space that for all
practical purposes they had arrived at the point of infinity.
clearly bears witness to the fact that the Lord Buddha, with his supernormal vision,
purified and perfected this understanding of the virtually limitless extent of
the universe as well as the incalculable length of time required in the past,
present and future for the cycle of arising and passing away of spheres of phenomenal
existence to run their course. According to Lord Buddha, the beginning of the
whole of phenomenal existence of which the universe known to science is but the
lowest of thirty-one planes, is incalculable; it has no perceptible beginning.
material universe consists of an infinity of world systems scattered through boundless
space, each coming in to existence and passing away through beginning-less and
In an attempt to provide his disciples with some idea of the
vast amounts of time required for the unfolding of their life-patterns, the Buddha
declared that the amount of mothers' milk drunk and tears shed during their previous
existences was greater than the waters of the four mighty oceans.
the broad horizons and the limitless vistas contained in the Buddhist conception
when contrasted with the narrowly geocentric conceptions found in Semitic religious
literature, especially the Bible, can in the words of one prominent author, "seem
like stepping out from a windowless cabin and gazing up into the star-filled midnight
A world period of virtually incalculable length is referred to as
a kalpa or Maha-kalpa. This kalpa is divided into four shorter periods, each of
which is so long that it cannot be measured even in terms of thousands of years.
During the first period of a kalpa, the previously existing world system is completely
destroyed or resolved into its constituent elements. The majority of beings residing
in its various planes of existence are reborn into the Brahma world, the highest
and subtlest plane of phenomenal existence, which is exempt from destruction or
dissolution. As the second period of the kalpa commences, we find that the residual
energy of matter, representing total objectivity, and the Brahma world and its
inhabitants, representing complete subjectivity, are isolated from each other
at the opposite poles of phenomenal existence. This absence of interaction continues
until the third period of the kalpa is well under way. During this period the
world system re-evolves from the residual energy of matter, while most of the
beings return from the Brahma world to reborn on a dark and water covered earth.
This does not seem to inconvenience the mind-generated beings, since they continue
to live much as they had formerly in the Brahma world, self-luminous, nourished
by rapture and not divided into different sexes.
With the passage of an immense
length of time, conditions begin to change. A scum, with the character of boiled,
milky rice, begins to accumulate on the cooling earth, and the terrestrial inhabitants
begin to taste it and enjoy the sensation. This new sense pleasure leads to craving
and an ever-increasing dependence on the scum for nourishment. The earthly residents
find that their formerly light, ethereal bodies become gross and solid and more
differentiated in shape and appearance. Gradually, the waters covering the earth
subside; the mists disperse and the sun and moon are clearly revealed in the heavens.
the continuation of this period of evolution, first lichenus growths, then creeping
plants and finally edible grains appear. As the beings learn to subsist on these
food sources, they become even more-gross, losing their bright and radiant character.
They eventually become differentiated into many species, as well as into male
and female genders. This separation into two sexes leads to lust, passion and
hatred, and the concomitant development of family grouping, and all the institutions
of society. The blood smeared record of the last few thousands of years bear witness
to the conditions, which are typical of the last phase of the third period of
The fourth and last division of a kalpa finds the world system remaining
at the stage of development it has already achieved until the commencement of
the next kalpa, during which the whole process is repeated again. Whether we like
it or not we are now residing on the fringes of the fourth period of the present
It should be apparent that this incredible process contains within it
a distressing paradox: As the world system follows a path to greater material
progress, each upward step on the material plane is accompanied by a corresponding
downward movement of psychic or spiritual degeneration.
This principle applies
to the entire world system, of which this insignificant planet plays a tiny part.
Incidentally, this world system contains as many as 10,000 worlds.
so many of these world systems and the length of a single kalpa so incredibly
long, that the appearance of a Buddha is a comparatively rare event. Some kalpas
are known as empty kalpas because a Buddha does not appear. Other more fortunate
kalpas may be blessed by one or more Buddhas. Our own world system has been favored
by twenty-eight Buddhas, including Shakyamuni, during the course of many kalpas.
The kalpa in which we are now living has the distinction of being a greatly auspicious
kalpa of five Buddhas: Kusanda, Konagamana, Kasyapa, Shakyamuni and Maitreya,
who is yet to come.
We now turn our attention to the many sentient and intelligent
beings of various kinds who have existed in this universe as well as in the countless
universes over immeasurable time periods. Even though it is generally agreed that
enlightenment can occur only to a human being, there exist higher and happier
planes of existence, endowed with beings of greater beauty, happiness and power
than humans are blessed with. Rebirth in these realms is reserved for those beings
who performed meritorious deeds and led virtuous lives. However, these heavenly
states are not permanent, and when the good karma has been exhausted, these spirits
will have to be reborn on the human plane again.
Below the human plane there
are several levels of painful existence, including terrible hell realms, where
those beings who have committed evil deeds are punished until they have been rehabilitated
and have developed the desire to progress back to the human realm, which is the
only one where enlightenment and Nirvana can be reached.
However, as we have
seen, time and space are virtually infinite in extent and a being's state during
any particular life depends upon the karmic influences brought over from previous
lives. This karmic energy determines his predilections, attitudes, and to a considerable
extent, his conduct and character. Having free will, it is up to the individual
whether he will surrender to the negative karmic energy with which he came into
this world and make no effort to correct his evil tendencies. In such a case his
next rebirth will probably be less desirable than the present one. On the other
hand, if the individual, at the instigation of his Buddha nature, through sustained
and committed effort succeeds in purging his nature of many of its flaws and allows
his consciousness to rise to a higher level of wisdom, compassion and insight,
his next rebirth will undoubtedly be a more favorable one, with more opportunities
for progress to the only goal that is important - enlightenment.
individual is totally responsible for his fate. All karma-laden beings are reborn
to experience endlessly transforming destinies determined totally by their prior
choices and actions in this and previous lives. The Buddha did not proclaim the
depressing reality of samsara with its inevitable suffering and dissatisfaction
that could go on and on virtually forever without a very wise and compassionate
motive. He wanted his followers to realize that the two causes of the dreadful
inevitability of ceaseless rebirth are desire and ignorance. If these can be overcome
through the attainment of knowledge and wisdom, then release from the necessity
for further rebirths can be achieved. This deliverance from samsara, is, of course,
The Buddha expanded his discussion of the causes of rebirth into the
famous sermon on the twelve links in the chain of conditioned genesis known as
Pratitya Samutpada. Dependent co-arising, or the Buddhist law of moral cause and
effect, is thus expressed in the twelve links or preconditions leading to continued
suffering and bondage to rebirth. Each precondition depends upon the one before
it. Thus, when ignorance ceases, dispositions cease, consciousness ceases, and
so on all the way to aging and dying that cease when rebirth ceases.
after the Parinirvana of Lord Shakyamuni Buddha, His vision of samsara, the cycle
of existences, combined with the twelve links of dependent causation was expressed
as a diagram, often elaborated as a detailed painting, called the "Wheel
of Life" It schematically represents the drama of personal choice and consequence.
As we can see from the diagram I am holding, the whole wheel is held in the mouth
and claws of Mara, who in this case represents impermanence and death. Around
the periphery of the wheel we see the twelve preconditions or links in the chain
of conditioned genesis. In the center we usually see the representation of the
three poisons: the rooster symbolizing desire, the snake symbolizing anger-hatred
and the pig symbolizing delusion. These poisons are considered to be the driving
forces of the cycle of existence. An individual's response to these forces generates
karma, which determines where on the wheel he will be reborn.
As we examine
the diagram we can see that there are six realms into which beings are reborn.
Rebirth in heaven, the titan realm or the human realm is a reward for virtuous
lives and meritorious acts, while rebirth in the animal realm, the hungry ghost
realm or the hell realm can be considered well-deserved punishment for lives spent
harming others and wallowing in ignorance and evil, while making no effort to
grow and attain a higher level of consciousness. However, as I said earlier, residence
in hell may last an extraordinary length of time, but fortunately, not forever.
Rebirth into these three lower realms can be considered the Buddha's tough love,
which assumes this form to teach and rehabilitate them, so that after their karmic
debt has been paid, they will be able to regain human status.
The human realm,
although technically lower than the heaven realm or the titan realm is more important,
since only there can wisdom and virtue be increased. As mentioned earlier, heavenly
beings reborn in the two highest realms reside there only temporarily as a reward
for outstanding meritorious acts in the past. However, when that good karma runs
out they are subject to birth in a lower realm. This expulsion from their former
state of pleasure and privilege can be exceedingly painful.
realms of samsara with their transience, suffering and death are undesirable.
Only one goal, since it is permanent and forever free from suffering, is really
worth attaining. It is the release from the wheel of life altogether. This is
Nirvana, release from rebirth, which transcends totally the grim cycle of existence
we call samsara.
Therefore, in a statement that has echoed through the ages,
Buddha hurled the challenge to each individual with the words: "Here is the
path leading to the end of suffering. Tread it."