Buddhist Cosmology Essay Research Paper Throughout history

Buddhist Cosmology Essay, Research Paper

Throughout history there have been many attempts to explain the origin and

workings of our universe. Most every culture has their own cosmogony. Nearly

every individual has his or her own idea of what our universe is. During our

modern era of advanced scientific knowledge, we feel that we have a good grasp

on how the universe works. We have our Chemistry and Physics, along with

Mathematics, to examine the universe with. Any person educated in these fields

will tell you that they know our universe. The point is science in the modern

era is thought to be the correct summation of the universe. We think we are

right. Does this make everyone else wrong? Those that believe in myth over

science, are they wrong? These are some of the questions that I will be

discussing in this essay. I will examine the evolution of cosmological thought

in Ancient Greece (Pre-Socratics through Aristotle). In doing this, I will show

a movement from myth to more science based cosmologies. I will then examine the

Buddhist Cosmology, which is somewhat separated from Ancient Greek thought.

After all of this, I will examine the question of which is more correct, Science

or Myth. Before continuing a clear definition of ?myth? needs to be

established. The term myth has multiple meanings. Webster?s II Dictionary,

defines it the three different ways. ?1. A traditional story that deals with

supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that serve as primordial types in a

primitive view of the world. 2. A real or fictional story that appeals to the

consciousness of a people by embodying its cultural ideals or by giving

expression to deep commonly felt emotions. 3. A fictitious or imaginary person,

idea, or thing.? For the sake of this essay, I would like the second

definition to apply to my use of the word myth. The term myth should not be

thought of as fictitious or primitive. The possibility for the myth to be real

should always be considered. Some of the earliest known philosophies on the

creation of the Earth come from the works of Hesiod. In his Theogony he attempts

to explain the creation of the Earth, and all that surrounds him, using myth. In

the myth Hesiod anthropomorphizes the cosmos. He tells of ?Chaos? being the

first to come into being, then he goes on to describe how each of the gods of

the cosmos comes in to being. The gods of the cosmos are all related to some

characteristic of our universe. They can be physical parts or concepts (similar

to Plato?s idea of the forms). For example the line, ?Earth first bore

starry Heaven, equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an

ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods.?(Theogony, 126) describes both

the act of birth, which is a human characteristic, and physical parts of the

universe being gods (Heaven meaning the stars, and the Earth). He also has gods,

such as Eros, which represents the concept of Love. Two main issues the come up

during discussions of cosmology are how the universe was created and out of what

was the universe created. In the Theogony, Hesiod has the world created out of

gods that are human by nature and to create this universe the gods reproduced.

Hesiod?s theories of the universe can clearly be classified as myth, since

there is no scientific background for it. The philosophers to follow Hesiod

moved slightly away from this. The Pre-Socratics begin to de-anthropomorphize

the universe. Even later, in the works of Socrates and Plato, the universe is

completely de-anthropomorphized. The Pre-Socratics focus more on what the

universe was made of than how it was created. They typically chose a single

element that everything consisted of and tried to explain the world according to

that element. Sometimes these elements were one of the basic four elements;

earth, fire, air, and water. Sometimes they were more abstract such as

Anaximander?s theory. ?…The principle element of existing things was the

aperion… it is neither water nor any other of the so-call elements, but some

other aperion nature, from which come into being all the heavens and the worlds

in them.?(Hetherington, pg. 58) The Pre-Socratics based their theories on

insight and observations. For this reason their theories are both mythical and

scientific. Because some of their choices of what the key element is are based

on instinctive feelings, they can be considered myth. On the other hand, they

support their ideas through observations and experience making the ideas

scientific. Science is defined one way in Webster?s II Dictionary to be

?Knowledge that is acquired through experience.? The Pre-Socratics were not

completely scientific because not everything they theorized was based on

experience, but they were not as mythical as Hesiod either. Aristotle?s

concept of the universe was mostly scientific. Since Aristotle was the tutor of

Alexander the Great, he had access to a wide variety of cultures. By gathering

information from all of these cultures, he was able to analyze the world from a

scientific perspective. He came up with four fundamental theses to the universe.

1.) The universe was Geocentric, Earth centered. 2.) The universe contained two

separate worlds, one that spanned out to the moon and it was ever changing, and

another that was from the moon out that was unchanging and made of the fifth

element (ether). 3.) The universe did not consist of any void or empty space

within the inner world. 4.) The only motion of the planets was that of uniform

circular motion around the center of the universe. More important than

Aristotle?s four theses were the scientific methods he used to establish them.

For example, in determine that there was no void, Aristotle argues, ?If water

were twice as thick as air, an object should move through water with half the

speed it moved through air. But void with no thickness made such a ratio

nonsense; it meant dividing by zero.? (Hetherington, pg. 99) From examining

the history of cosmology in Ancient Greece, it becomes clear that there was an

evolution away from myth and towards science. What are some of the reasons of

why this could be? A likely answer is that the evolution came about out of an

adaptation to the environment. Ancient Greece was a very volatile area to be a

part of. Greece was established in an area mainly known for warring. A history

of Ancient Greece is mostly a timeline and description of the various types of

war that occurred there. Because of this factor, the need for science increased.

Aristotle spent his time studying the natural environment. By doing so he could

make fairly reliable predictions (some of which we still believe to be true

today) of the physical world. If one can predict the workings of the physical

world, they will have a better chance of succeeding in battle. The constantly

active environment in Greece lead to the development of science, but what

results would we find in a civilization that did not have interaction with

others? To examine this question, I will break down the Buddhist Cosmology and

see the affects of the near isolation from Western civilization. The Buddhist

cosmology is summed up as, ?a single, circular world system surrounded by a

mountain of iron? above this circular surface is a series of four meditations

(dhy-?na) or ?meditation realms? as they are generally designated. The

successive divisions of the meditation realms into seventeen heavens mark the

progress of the sr?vaka? Detachment from all the mediation realms through the

practice of meditation eventuates in the extinction of nirv?na.? (Kloetzi,

pg. 3) Given this information about the Buddhist cosmology, it is clear that

their world is more focused on the spiritual than the physical. It is described

in a physical manner (mountain of iron), but all of the different stages of the

world are attainable through mediation and spiritual growth. It is clear that

the Buddhist did not believe that the world they were describing was the world

we see with our eyes. They believed that they were describing a world that was

beyond our own perception. The world wasn?t something that we can view with

our senses, but instead it could only be understood through meditation. Buddhist

beliefs about the workings of the universe were also very spiritually centered.

?Everything we apprehend in the world is mere illusion.? (French, pg. 61)

This statement was considered the core truth behind human interaction in the

world. If everything in the world were an illusion, then it would be impossible

to use science to determine the workings of the universe. Science could only be

used to predict how the illusion will act and respond to different situations.

With this concept brought to life, the only thing that could be used to explain

the universe is myth. A Buddhist parable about a man walking through the forest

helps describe their belief of reality in the world. It is summed up as follows.

?A man is walking a narrow path in a sun-dappled forest. Before his on the

path, amid the leaves and streaks of light, he suddenly sees a very large coiled

snake. Shocked and afraid, he noiselessly turns to hide behind a tree and waits,

anxiously aware of the great danger. In time, he ventures a look around the tree

once more and refocuses his eyes. He focuses again. Then he comes back to the

path and stares down at the snake. He sees that it is not a snake but a heavy,

coiled rope in front of him. With a wave of relief, he bends down to pick it up

and finds that the rope, worn with age, disintegrates in his hands into tiny

strands of hemp.? (French, pg. 61) This parable shows the three levels of

reality according to the Buddhist tradition. The first level is that of the

reality we perceive with our senses, the physical world we interact with

everyday. This world is the illusion of the snake. The second level of reality

is still somewhat illusionary. In the second level we will see things as they

relate to the third level of reality. The reasons for the illusion of the first

reality become clear in the second reality. In the third reality the truth is

found. This third reality is on the level of nirv?na and is only reached

through a lifetime, or many lifetimes, of meditation. Multiple lives,

reincarnation, is another important aspect of the Buddhist thought. The idea of

karma plays a major role in the lives of Buddhists. ?In Buddhism, an

individual experiences rebirth into this world and begins the volitional

production of both good and bad karma, or lay, which will determine his or her

future rebirth and chances for enlightenment.? (French, pg. 63) To reach

enlightenment is the highest standard for the Buddhists, which might be why nirv?na

is placed on the outer most edge of their world. To reach enlightenment one must

have developed a high level of good karma. Those that do not reach enlightenment

in their lifetime are reborn into the world, and the life given to them is based

on the level of karma they were at when they died. This makes karma not only

important because it is the way to reach enlightenment, but also because it will

provide a better life. After discussing the cosmogonies of different cultures,

we have come across to different methods of thought. These being, myth and

science. We have seen the Greek thought move from myth to science, and we have

seen the Buddhist thought focus in on myth. The question arises, which method of

thought is better or more accurate? Ask an astronomer or a physicist, and they

will probably tell you that science is more accurate. Ask a Buddhist monk or a

Zen master and they might tell you that myth is better (if the definition of

myth is presented to them properly). The physicist will argue that science has

evolved so far that we can accurately predict the motion of the planets, we can

explain the process of recreation, etc. This is a very strong argument for using

science to explain the universe. The Buddhist monk will reply that we only

believe that we know those things and that it is just a part of the illusion of

the first reality. This won?t convince the physicist, but it does open another

door. A person who opens their minds to all the possibilities will not be able

to rule out the idea that everything we perceive could simply be an illusion

presented to us. Science itself could be the illusion. If the entity that set up

the illusion (if there is one) wanted the illusion to be believable, they most

likely would place a set of laws on the illusion to keep it consistent. These

laws could be the laws that we are now discovering and calling science. This is

just one of many possible arguments for myth being the method of explanation of

the universe. A scientist might not agree and say that this argument is

implausible, but their only evidence against it would be the science that has

been declared illusionary. By no means am I stating that myth is the proper

method of explaining the universe. I am merely stating that it, and science, are

possible explanations. Which one to believe in is complete up to the individual.

Hetherington, Norriss S. Cosmology : Historical, Literary, Philosophical,

Religious, and Scientific Perspectives. New York & London: Garland

Publishing, Inc, 1993. French, Rebecca Redwood. The Golden Yolk : The Legal

Cosmology of Buddhist Tibet. Ithaca & London, Cornell University Press,

1995. Kloetzli, Randy. Buddhist Cosmology. Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, 1983.


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