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CREATION FROM A BUDDHIST PERSPECTIVE

A text by Prof. Dr. Carola Roloff

Creation from a Buddhist perspective

Early Buddhism is regarded to be an ethically motivated and a practically and pragmatically focused religion that does not entail the belief in a personal creator deity. There is interdependence, a mutual dependency (pratītyasamutpāda) between everything. Time is thought of as something less linear but more repetitive and cyclical. Buddhist cosmology divides the world into two major areas, the living world and the non-living, lifeless world. The non-living part is described as a kind of vessel or container (bhājana) where different kinds of creatures find a home. The physical universe results from the interaction between five elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space. Our world is not unique, there are a countless number of worlds, as many as there are grains of sand in the Ganges.

The sphere of influence assigned to Buddha, the Awakened One, consists of a small, a medium, and a large thousandfold world system with thousands of moons, suns, continents, and oceans (AN 3.80). Each world system encompasses six realms of existence, which one can be born into: god, human, 'demigod', animal, hungry ghost, or denizen of hell. At the time of the Buddha (about 500 B.C.E) people believed that these world systems develop and vanish over long periods. In the end, they are destroyed by nature's elements such as fire, water, or wind. After a long time, this process starts all over again. A complete cycle of time is known as 'great eon' (mahākalpa).

The traditional cosmological concept in Buddhism teaches that worlds are the ‘creation’ of karmic impulses; worlds come into being because there are sentient beings. These are born because of their particular karma. As part of this karma, a corresponding material environment also comes into being. The eternal cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that has to be overcome, Saṃsāra, is thought of as something that has no beginning (SN 15.3). A person who attains Nirvāṇa has reached the end of Saṃsāra. For all other beings, who haven’t achieved Nirvāṇa yet, Saṃsāra continues to exist.

However, there is also a creation myth that has been passed on, which goes beyond the teachings of karma (DN 27). According to the myth living beings are reborn as some sort of radiant beings, when the world they live in becomes destroyed. While having this form of existence, their sustenance is joy, they move around through the air and lead a very long life. The world then develops once again. When this happens, the majority of beings vanish from their radiant existence and achieve a new existence. They still consist of spirit and their sustenance continues to be joy. However, it is a darkness that prevails now. Neither sun nor moon is shining, neither are the zodiac signs or the stars, day and night do not exist and there is no difference between the male and female sex. While the new world’s tissue becomes thicker, similar to skin, the reborn beings of this world slowly taste the material substance, this ‘cream-like earth’, with their fingers. They lose their shine, the moon and sun are appearing, day and night arise. Sexual differentiation and reproduction take place and human societies, organized by a caste system, develop. Sustenance becomes scarce. This results in greed and competition lead to violent conflicts. To ensure peace, the people elect a ruler who passes laws and punishes those who break them.

The history of every single world falls into four parts, each of which lasts a Kalpa, an unpredictably long period. In the first period of the world's destruction, it is destroyed by fire, water, and wind. Until the creation of the new world, its inhabitants live in a kind of realm of gods, as previously described. In the second period, the world disappears completely. What is left is a space of great and endless emptiness. At the beginning of the third period, a gentle wind blows, which then becomes stronger and stronger. That is when the other elements of coarse materials come into being. This is how eventually a new world emerges. In the fourth period, the actual history of the world begins. Humans live in a state of innocence that is similar to paradise. They are content, joyful, and don't need to work. However, the greater the greed, the worse the situation becomes. The process starts all over again and continues endlessly.

The purpose of this myth is to refute the Brahman tradition in Hinduism. Moral behavior is claimed to be more important than someone’s origin and affiliation with a certain caste. However, the strong belief that an ethical and moral law, the Dharma, determines the universe is something that can be found in both Hinduism as well as Buddhism.

The Buddha was critical of the belief that suggested a creator deity (īśvara), “if this belief is based on an understanding of the world in which everything is predetermined by a creator so that humans are no longer responsible for their spiritual development. [...] It is due to this reason that the Buddha also rejected a deterministic understanding of karma's effect as well as the materialistic concept according to which our actions have no moral or spiritual consequences whatsoever.” (Schmidt-Leukel-2017: 107-108)

Part of the ethos of Buddhist behavior is the social engagement in society, in the Mahāyāna this is guided by the bodhisattva ideal, persons on the way to buddhahood who put the welfare of all beings above their own.

Literature:

  • Franke, R. Otto. Das Buch der langen Texte des Buddhistischen Kanons. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 1913.
  • Freiberger, Oliver & Kleine, Christoph (2011). Buddhismus. Handbuch und kritische Einführung. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
  • Mall, Ram Adhar (1982). Indische Schöpfungsmythen. Eine Einführung. Bonn: Bouvier Verlag HerbertGrundmann.
  • Nyānatiloka,Mahāthera (2013). Die Lehrreden des Buddha aus der Angereihten Sammlung. Stammbach: Beyerlein & Steinschulte.
  • Keown, Damien(2010). A Dictionary of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Kindle-Version.
  • Schmidt-Leukel, Perry (2017). Buddhismus verstehen: Geschichte und Ideenwelt einer ungewöhnlichen Religion. Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus.

Creation from a Buddhist perspective - A text by Prof. Dr. Carola Roloff

Creation from a Buddhist perspective.pdf (84.6 KiB)

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