The Buddhist Beginningless Universe

In the chapter entitled “The Big Bang and the Buddhist Beginningless Universe” the Dalai Lama shows that Buddhist cosmology is close to current scientific theories in many ways,

Modern cosmology-like so much else in the physical sciences-is founded on Einstein’s theory of relativity. In cosmology, astronomical observations taken together with the theory of general relativity, which reformulated gravity as the curvature of both space and time, have shown that our universe is neither eternal nor static in its current form. It is continuously evolving and expanding. This finding accords with the basic intuition of the ancient Buddhist cosmologists, who conceived that any particular universe system goes through stages of formation, expansion, and ultimately destruction.

but also explains where the two differ.e

I found this explanation of why Buddhists argue against a single definite beginning rather intriguing:

From the Buddhist perspective, the idea that there is a single definite beginning is highly problematic. If there were such an absolute beginning, logically speaking, this leaves only two options. One is theism, which proposes that the universe is created by an intelligence that is totally transcendent, and therefore outside the laws of cause and effect. The second option is that the universe came into being from no cause at all. Buddhism rejects both these options. If the universe is created by a prior intelligence, the questions of the ontological status of such an intelligence and what kind of reality it is remain.

Way back in high school when I was still naive enough to argue religion with fundamentalist Christians, I would counter with, “Who made God?” What kind of explanation posits an Unknown as the basis for the rest of the argument? Philosophically, I’m much more in tune with this Buddhist view, though I’m even more in tune with The Buddha:

According to the early scriptures, the Buddha himself never directly answered questions put to him about the origin of the universe. In a famous simile, the Buddha referred to the person who asks such questions as a man wounded by a poisoned arrow. Instead of letting the surgeon pull the arrow out, the injured man insists first on discovering the caste, name, and clan of the man who shot the arrow; whether he is dark, brown, or fair; whether he lives in a village, town, or city; whether the bow used was a longbow or a crossbow; whether the bowstring was fiber, reed, hemp, sinew, or bark; whether the arrow shaft was of wild or cultivated wood; and so forth. Interpretations of the meaning of the Buddha’s refusal to answer these questions directly vary.

Personally, I’m far more interested in finding happiness than I am in abstract philosophical arguments that ultimately seem insolvable, which is not to say that I don’t realize that there are important ramifications of differing answers to these ultimate questions.

The poet in me loves this definition:

Similarly, in beautiful poetic verses, the text compares the intricate and profoundly interconnected reality of the world to an infinite net of gems called “Indra’s jeweled net,” which reaches out to infinite space. At each knot on the net is a crystal gem, which is connected to all the other gems and reflects in itself all the others. On such a net, no jewel is in the center or at the edge. Each and every jewel is at the center in that it reflects all the other jewels on the net. At the same time, it is at the edge in that it is itself reflected in all the other jewels. Given the profound interconnectedness of everything in the universe, it is not possible to have total knowledge of even a single atom unless one is omniscient. To know even one atom truly would imply knowledge of its relations to all other phenomena in the infinite universe.

Wonder how our world would be different if more people believed in this model? One would certainly have a hard time reconciling this view with America’s emphasis on rugged individualism.

The Dalai Lama makes an interesting distinction between the evolution of the universe and the evolution of human consciousness:

My own view is that the entire process of the unfolding of a universe system is a matter of the natural law of causality. I envision karma coming into the picture at two points. When the universe has evolved to a stage where it can support the life of sentient beings, its fate becomes entangled with the karma of the beings who will inhabit it. More difficult perhaps is the first intervention of karma, which is effectively the maturation of the karmic potential of the sentient beings who will occupy that universe, which sets in motion its coming into being.

The ability to discern exactly where karma intersects with the natural law of causation is traditionally said to lie only within the Buddha’s omniscient mind. The problem is how to reconcile two strands of explanation-first, that any universe system and the beings within it arise from karma, and second, that there is a natural process of cause and effect, which simply unfolds. The early Buddhist texts suggest that matter on the one hand and consciousness on the other relate according to their own process of cause and effect, which gives rise to new sets of functions and properties in both cases. On the basis of understanding their nature, causal relations, and functions, one can then derive inferences-for both matter and consciousness- that give rise to knowledge. These stages were codified as “four principles”-the principle of nature, the principle of dependence, the principle of function, and the principle of evidence.

This interpretation nicely side-steps any direct conflict between science and Buddhism. Even seems to side-step the Darwin controversy. Too bad certain Christian religions can’t manage to do the same.

In the end, though, the Dalai Lama makes it clear his view of the world is not limited by science:

Even with all these profound scientific theories of the origin of the universe, I am left with questions, serious ones: What existed before the big bang? Where did the big bang come from? What caused it? Why has our planet evolved to support life? What is the relationship between the cosmos and the beings that have evolved within it? Scientists may dismiss these questions as nonsensical, or they may acknowledge their importance but deny that they belong to the domain of scientific inquiry. However, both these approaches will have the consequence of acknowledging definite limits to our scientific knowledge of the origin of our cosmos. I am not subject to the professional or ideological constraints of a radically materialistic worldview.

And in Buddhism the universe is seen as infinite and beginningless, so I am quite happy to venture beyond the big bang and speculate about possible states of affairs before it.

It’s hard to imagine a religious leader who would limit themselves to “scientific truths.” Such truths, after all, seldom inspire the kind of faith that religious followers expect.