- Buddhist Cosmology
- Rev. 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 formidible 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 Sakyamuni 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.
Buddhist literature 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.
The material universe consists of an infinity of world systems scattered through
boundless space, each coming in to existence and passing away through beginningless 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 grandeur, 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
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 exisisting 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
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
terrestial 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.
With the continuation of this period of evolution, first lichenous 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 kalpa.
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 kalpa.
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
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.
There are 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 28 Buddhas,
including Sakyamuni, 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, Kasyapsa, Sakyamuni 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.
Thus, the 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 inevitible suffering and disatisfaction 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, Nirvana.
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.
Some time after the Parinirvana of Lord Sakyamuni 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 representatiuon 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.
Therefore, all 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
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.
Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for providing us
with this article