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.

8 thoughts on “The Buddhist Beginningless Universe”

  1. I was in conflict with Stephen Hawkin’s view of the universe back in 1991 or so. I don’t have his genius nor his scientific background or studies. What I did have is a “knowing.” My intuition said to me a universe that will cease to exist is nonsensical. I knew there was something beyond the beginning, in front of it, behind it, etc. Non existence does not make sense. Therefore a beginningless universe or universe system beyond our universe, including our universe makes much more sense. It’s just a knowing I have.

  2. Stephen Hawkin has since changed his mind about lots of things he said back then. I forgot to mention this.

  3. Actually , Modern Physics and cosmology came to the same conclusions of LORD BUDDHA about universe that universe does’t require any creator & it creates & destructs on its own…..Modern Psychology & Parapsychology also in according with BUDDHA ‘S statement that matter and conciousness are mutually dependent.So LORD BUDDHA’s doctrines were in accordance with modern science.

  4. ” … in Buddhism the universe is seen as infinite and beginningless.”

    Infinity means everything that can happen has happened already — has, in fact, already happened an infinite number of times. This is by definition the nature of infinity. Now, the problem is: if all possible things have happened already, why are there still unenligthened beings?

    In the Prajna Paramita Bodhisattva Avalokitshvara supposedly explains that all things and phenomena, including time itself, arise out of emptiness. If something has “arisen”, how can it be “beginningless” and “infinite”?

    The problem with logical fallacies like these is that they cast doubt on the truthfulness of the whole path. If one is to ignore these fallacies and simply “have faith” then one might as well simply “have faith” in any other religion with their own set of inconsistencies.

    I hope someone can shed some light on the above, as newcomers to Buddhism search online forums like these for clarity before committing ourselves.

    With respect and thanks, Chris

    1. I think that you’re going to have to look to a diifferent formum than this one to find answers to questions like that, Chris.

      As i make clear in several places in my blog, I’m not a Buddhist, have no substantial background in Buddhism, per se, even though I find myself more philosophically attuned to it than to other religions I’ve explored in my life.

      Personally, as I pointed out above, I’m interested in finding a path to real happiness in the here and now rather than spending my life trying to solve complex arguments.

  5. Nothing, Zero, Emptiness
    Some physicists offered similar arguments with theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss that the laws of physics could have created the universe from nothing. Total energy of the universe is exactly zero. I would rephrase, our observable universe is emptiness. Emptiness is not “nothing” and it’s not “zero” either but emptiness. Emptiness is not bareness or meaninglessness as English Thesaurus wrongly defined. The central challenge to understanding non-duality exists beyond human’s language and their ignorance because once it has been named, and defined – paradoxically, a duality has been created. Even the statement “Form is emptiness; Emptiness is form” or “Form is not different from emptiness; Emptiness is not different from form” creates a distinction “is and is not” between “emptiness and form.” Thus, “Form is Form; Emptiness is Emptiness.”

    The non-dualism, non-separation between the observer and the observed, no observer and no observed, “neither-nor,” is the philosophical, spiritual, and scientific understanding of non-separation. However, it is not a fundamental oneness, monism or singularity but not-duality. The non-duality appears to be mutually exclusive but it’s not although it may be considered two representations of a single underlying human’s reality.

    Non-duality perceives that ‘self is empty’ because wholeness is originated and abide in the unalterable and undivided from primordial state of the conscious. For “all being self and self-being empty,” it is further aware, and manifest ceaselessly. All internal and external appearances are just the singular play of consciousness. There is neither permanent external reality nor concrete “self and others.” This means that there are no dualities implied “self,” “others,” time & space inherent existence at all. Instead, all of these things are emptiness but momentary spontaneous movements of forms, combinations of sounds, arising of images, light and sensations that make up reality.

    Buddha said, “There is no self, no Dharma.” There is no self, no the way of Dharma; the universe(s) is also not real but illusion. Therefore, the big bang theory is unnecessary, sentient being is not real and of course, human’s suffering is irrelevant.

    Anyway, what other side are we talking about?

    Zen story: The Other Side

    One day a young Buddhist on his journey home came to the banks of a wide river. Staring hopelessly at the great obstacle in front of him, he pondered for hours on just how to cross such a wide barrier. Just as he was about to give up his pursuit to continue his journey he saw a great teacher on the other side of the river. The young Buddhist yells over to the teacher, “Oh wise one, can you tell me how to get to the other side of this river”?

    The teacher ponders for a moment looks up and down the river and yells back, “My son, you are on the other side.”

    Using Diamond Sutra’s Logic of Not, the other side is not the other side. Therefore, it is the other side.

    Contact me if you are interested further in Buddhism philosophy:, Tru Le

  6. The creative work of the infinite is not rigidly bound by any linear or circuitous necessity and neither must it exclude any eventuality. Today, just as it is, never had to happen at all and it never has to happen just as it did ever again. Still, this moment is happening and in so doing it is the actualization of the infinite potential in the moment that in it’s specificity may never, and probably will never, happen again, avoiding any such necessity by virtue of being inexhaustible.

    My eight year old grand daughter told her mother in exasperation, “I am not You.” She is one of the Buddha’s many teachers.

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