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What Buddhists Believe
Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera

Part Six - This World And Other Worlds

Chapter 16 - Realms of Existence

The Origin of the World

'There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our thoughts.'(Bertrand Russell)

There are three schools of thought regarding the origin of the world. The first school of thought claims that this world came into existence by nature and that nature is not an intelligent force. However, nature works no its own accord and goes on changing.

The second school of thought says that the world was created by an almighty God who is responsible for everything.

The third school of thought says that the beginning of this world and of life is inconceivable since they have neither beginning nor end. Buddhism is in accordance with this third school of thought. Bertrand Russell supports this school of thought by saying, 'There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our thoughts.'

Modern science says that some millions of years ago, the newly cooled earth was lifeless and that life originated in the ocean. Buddhism never claimed that the world, sun, moon, stars, wind, water, days and nights were created by a powerful god or by a Buddha. Buddhists believe that the world was not created once upon a time, but that the world has been created millions of times every second and will continue to do so by itself and will break away by itself. According to Buddhism, world systems always appear and disappear in the universe.

H.G. Wells, in A Short History of the World, says 'It is universally recognized that the universe in which we live, has to all appearance, existed for an enormous period of time and possibly for endless time. But that the universe in which we live, has existed only for six or seven thousand years may be regarded as an altogether exploded idea. No life seems to have happened suddenly upon earth.'

The efforts made by many religions to explain the beginning and the end of the universe are indeed ill-conceived. The position of religions which propound the view that the universe was created by god in an exactly fixed year, has become a difficult one to maintain in the light of modern and scientific knowledge.

Today scientists, historians, astronomers, biologists, botanists, anthropologists and great thinkers have all contributed vast new knowledge about the origin of the world. This latest discovery and knowledge is not at all contradictory to the Teachings of the Buddha. Bertrand Russell again says that he respects the Buddha for not making false statements like others who committed themselves regarding the origin of the world.

The speculative explanations of the origin of the universe that are presented by various religions are not acceptable to the modern scientists and intellectuals. Even the commentaries of the Buddhist Scriptures, written by certain Buddhist writers, cannot be challenged by scientific thinking in regard to this question. The Buddha did not waste His time on this issue. The reason for His silence was that this issue has no religious value for gaining spiritual wisdom. The explanation of the origin of the universe is not the concern of religion. Such theorizing is not necessary for living a righteous way of life and for shaping our future life. However, if one insists on studying this subject, then one must investigate the sciences, astronomy, geology, biology and anthropology. These sciences can offer more reliable and tested information on this subject than can be supplied by any religion. The purpose of a religion is to cultivate the life here in this world and hereafter until liberation is gained.

In the eyes of the Buddha, the world is nothing but Samsara -- the cycle of repeated births and deaths. To Him, the beginning of the world and the end of the world is within this Samsara. Since elements and energies are relative and inter-dependent, it is meaningless to single out anything as the beginning. Whatever speculation we make regarding the origin of the world, there is no absolute truth in our notion.

'Infinite is the sky, infinite is the number of beings,
Infinite are the worlds in the vast universe,
Infinite in wisdom the Buddha teaches these,
Infinite are the virtues of Him who teaches these.' - (Sri Ramachandra)

One day a man called Malunkyaputta approached the Master and demanded that He explain the origin of the Universe to him. He even threatened to cease to be His follow if the Buddha's answer was not satisfactory. The Buddha calmly retorted that it was of no consequence to Him whether or not Malunkyaputta followed Him, because the Truth did not need anyone's support. Then the Buddha said that He would not go into a discussion of the origin of the Universe. To Him, gaining knowledge about such matters was a waste of time because a man's task was to liberate himself from the present, not the past or the future. To illustrate this, the Enlightened One related the parable of a man who was shot by a poisoned arrow. This foolish man refused to have the arrow removed until he found out all about the person who shot the arrow. By the time his attendants discovered these unnecessary details, the man was dead. Similarly, our immediate task is to attain Nibbana, not to worry about our beginnings.


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Source: Buddhist Study and Practice Group, http://www.sinc.sunysb.edu/Clubs/buddhism/

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