Buddhist cosmology, a term which does not occur in everyday conversation. What then, is cosmology? The dictionary defines it as a branch of philosophy dealing with the origin, processes and structure of the universe.
This may sound like a rather formidible definition, whose exploration has little relevance to the problems we encounter in everyday life. Actually, the opposite is true, since an understanding of the workings of the universe and the cosmic laws that are involved in its unfolding pattern can provide us insignificant humans with precious guidance. If we are wise enough to follow this guidance we may avoid the bad decisions that can lead to undesirable consequences, and instead will be able to make progress toward positive goals during the course of our lives.
Furthermore, because of the infinite wisdom of our Lord Sakyamuni Buddha and his predecessors who appeared on earth long before His time, we are the lucky inheritors of a cosmological tradition of such awesome grandeur that it totally eclipses corresponding conceptions in western religions. Even before the time of Lord Buddha, the Indian sages and thinkers through imagination, the use of super-normal powers and the contemplation of a most ancient wisdom inherited from pre-historic times, managed to arrive at the conception of such a vastness and immeasurability of time and space that for all practical purposes they had arrived at the point of infinity.
Buddhist literature clearly bears witness to the fact that the Lord Buddha, with his supernormal vision, purified and perfected this understanding of the virtually limitless extent of the universe as well as the incalculable length of time required in the past, present and future for the cycle of arising and passing away of spheres of phenomenal existence to run their course. According to Lord Buddha, the beginning of the whole of phenomenal existence of which the universe known to science is but the lowest of thirty-one planes, is incalculable; it has no perceptible beginning.
The material universe consists of an infinity of world systems scattered through boundless space, each coming in to existence and passing away through beginningless and endless time.
In an attempt to provide his disciples with some idea of the vast amounts of time required for the unfolding of their life-patterns, the Buddha declared that the amount of mothers' milk drunk and tears shed during their previous existences was greater than the waters of the four mighty oceans.
The grandeur, the broad horizons and the limitless vistas contained in the Buddhist conception when contrasted with the narrowly geocentric conceptions found in Semitic religious literature, especially the Bible, can in the words of one prominent author, "seem like stepping out from a windowless cabin and gazing up into the star-filled midnight sky."
A world period of virtually incalculable length is referred to as a kalpa or maha-kalpa. This kalpa is divided into four shorter periods, each of which is so long that it cannot be measured even in terms of thousands of years. During the first period of a kalpa, the previously exisisting world system is completely destroyed or resolved into its constituent elements. The majority of beings residing in its various planes of existence are reborn into the Brahma world, the highest and subtlest plane of phenomenal existence, which is exempt from destruction or dissolution. As the second period of the kalpa commences, we find that the residual energy of matter, representing total objectivity, and the Brahma world and its inhabitants, representing complete subjectivity, are isolated from each other at the opposite poles of phenomenal existence. This absence of interaction continues until the third period of the kalpa is well under way. During this period the world system re-evolves from the residual energy of matter, while most of the beings return from the Brahma world to reborn on a dark and water covered earth. This does not seem to inconvenience the mind-generated beings, since they continue to live much as they had formerly in the Brahma world, self-luminous, nourished by rapture and not divided into different sexes.
With the passage of an immense length of time, conditions begin to change. A scum, with the character of boiled, milky rice, begins to accumulate on the cooling earth, and the terrestial inhabitants begin to taste it and enjoy the sensation. This new sense pleasure leads to craving and an ever increasing dependence on the scum for nourishment. The earthly residents find that their formerly light, ethereal bodies become gross and solid and more differentiated in shape and appearance. Gradually, the waters covering the earth subside; the mists disperse and the sun and moon are clearly revealed in the heavens.
With the continuation of this period of evolution, first lichenous growths, then creeping plants and finally edible grains appear. As the beings learn to subsist on these food sources, they become even more gross, losing their bright and radiant character. They eventually become differentiated into many species, as well as into male and female genders. This separation into two sexes leads to lust, passion and hatred, and the concomitant development of family grouping, and all the institutions of society. The blood smeared record of the last few thousands of years bear witness to the conditions which are typical of the last phase of the third period of the kalpa.
The fourth and last division of a kalpa finds the world system remaining at the stage of development it has already achieved until the commencement of the next kalpa, during which the whole process is repeated again. Whether we like it or not we are now residing on the fringes of the fourth period of the present kalpa.
It should be apparent that this incredible process contains within it a distressing paradox: As the world system follows a path to greater material progress, each upward step on the material plane is accompanied by a corresponding downward movement of psychic or spiritual degeneration.
This principle applies to the entire world system, of which this insignificant planet plays a tiny part. Incidentally, this world system contains as many as 10,000 worlds.
There are so many of these world systems and the length of a single kalpa so incredibly long, that the appearance of a Buddha is a comparatively rare event. Some kalpas are known as empty kalpas because a Buddha does not appear. Other more fortunate kalpas may be blessed by one or more Buddhas. Our own world system has been favored by 28 Buddhas, including Sakyamuni, during the course of many kalpas. The kalpa in which we are now living has the distinction of being a greatly auspicious kalpa of five Buddhas: Kusanda, Konagamana, Kasyapsa, Sakyamuni and Maitreya, who is yet to come.
We now turn our attention to the many sentient and intelligent beings of various kinds who have existed in this universe as well as in the countless universes over immeasurable time periods. Even though it is generally agreed that enlightenment can occur only to a human being, there exist higher and happier planes of existence, endowed with beings of greater beauty, happiness and power than humans are blessed with. Rebirth in these realms is reserved for those beings who performed meritorious deeds and led virtuous lives. However, these heavenly states are not permanent, and when the good karma has been exhausted, these spirits will have to be reborn on the human plane again.
Below the human plane there are several levels of painful existence, including terrible hell realms, where those beings who have committed evil deeds are punished until they have been rehabilitated and have developed the desire to progress back to the human realm, which is the only one where enlightenment and Nirvana can be reached.
However, as we have seen, time and space are virtually infinite in extent and a being's state during any particular life depends upon the karmic influences brought over from previous lives. This karmic energy determines his predilections, attitudes, and to a considerable extent, his conduct and character. Having free will, it is up to the individual whether he will surrender to the negative karmic energy with which he came into this world and make no effort to correct his evil tendencies. In such a case his next rebirth will probably be less desirable than the present one. On the other hand, if the individual, at the instigation of his Buddha nature, through sustained and committed effort succeeds in purging his nature of many of its flaws and allows his consciousness to rise to a higher level of wisdom, compassion and insight, his next rebirth will undoubtedly be a more favorable one, with more opportunities for progress to the only goal that is important - enlightenment.
Thus, the individual is totally responsible for his fate. All karma laden beings are reborn to experience endlessly transforming destinies determined totally by their prior choices and actions in this and previous lives. The Buddha did not proclaim the depressing reality of samsara with its inevitible suffering and disatisfaction that could go on and on virtually forever without a very wise and compassionate motive. He wanted his followers to realize that the two causes of the dreadful inevitability of ceaseless rebirth are desire and ignorance. If these can be overcome through the attainment of knowledge and wisdom, then release from the necessity for further rebirths can be achieved. This deliverance from samsara, is, of course, Nirvana.
The Buddha expanded his discussion of the causes of rebirth into the famous sermon on the twelve links in the chain of conditioned genesis known as Pratitya Samutpada. Dependent co-arising, or the Buddhist law of moral cause and effect, is thus expressed in the twelve links or preconditions leading to continued suffering and bondage to rebirth. Each precondition depends upon the one before it. Thus, when ignorance ceases, dispositions cease, consciousness ceases, and so on all the way to aging and dying that cease when rebirth ceases.
Some time after the Parinirvana of Lord Sakyamuni Buddha, His vision of samsara, the cycle of existences, combined with the twelve links of dependent causation was expressed as a diagram, often elaborated as a detailed painting, called the Wheel of Life. It schematically represents the drama of personal choice and consequence. As we can see from the diagram I am holding, the whole wheel is held in the mouth and claws of Mara, who in this case represents impermanence and death. Around the periphery of the wheel we see the twelve preconditions or links in the chain of conditioned genesis. In the center we usually see the representatiuon of the three poisons: the rooster symbolizing desire, the snake symbolizing anger-hatred and the pig symbolizing delusion. These poisons are considered to be the driving forces of the cycle of existence. An individual's response to these forces generates karma, which determines where on the wheel he will be reborn.
As we examine the diagram we can see that there are six realms into which beings are reborn. Rebirth in heaven, the titan realm or the human realm is a reward for virtuous lives and meritorious acts, while rebirth in the animal realm, the hungry ghost realm or the hell realm can be considered well-deserved punishment for lives spent harming others and wallowing in ignorance and evil, while making no effort to grow and attain a higher level of consciousness. However, as I said earlier, residence in hell may last an extraordinary length of time, but fortunately, not forever. Rebirth into these three lower realms can be considered the Buddha's tough love, which assumes this form to teach and rehabilitate them, so that after their karmic debt has been paid, they will be able to regain human status.
The human realm, although technically lower than the heaven realm or the titan realm is more important, since only there can wisdom and virtue be increased. As mentioned earlier, heavenly beings reborn in the two highest realms reside there only temporarily as a reward for outstanding meritorious acts in the past. However, when that good karma runs out they are subject to birth in a lower realm. This expulsion from their former state of pleasure and privilege can be exceedingly painful.
Therefore, all realms of samsara with their transience, suffering and death are undesirable. Only one goal, since it is permanent and forever free from suffering, is really worth attaining. It is the release from the wheel of life altogether. This is Nirvana, release from rebirth, which transcends totally the grim cycle of existence we call samsara.
Therefore, in a statement that has echoed through the ages, Buddha hurled the challenge to each individual with the words:
"Here is the path leading to the end of suffering. Tread it."