Thursday, February 22, 2007

Creation... and The End of the World

I did a little research on the question raised yesterday in a comment by Mark, a student at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri, where I curated an exhibition and lectured last fall. His question (read it in full in yesterday's "Comments" section) was about the creation. If there were no deity to perform the act, he asked, how was it done--and why?

I was interested in Mark's question because, in fact, I had given little thought to the matter and was ill-informed about Buddhist thinking about the origins of the universe. As it turned out, this was no great surprise, since the Buddha clearly discouraged speculation on the subject, as he appears to have done most frequently with the great unknowables. One answer I came up, however, was in an essay by one A.L. DeSilva in an essay on the website, Buddhism Today:

"Buddhism says little on this subject," writes DeSilva, "and for a very good reason. The aim of Buddhism is to develop wisdom and compassion and thereby attain Nirvana. Knowing how the universe began can contribute nothing to this task." DeSilva continues with this story from the Buddhist texts:

Once a man demanded that the Buddha tell him how the universe began. The Buddha said to him "You are like a man who has been shot with a poison arrow and who, when the doctor comes to remove it, says 'Wait! Before the arrow is removed I want to know the name of the man who shot it, what clan he comes from, which village he was born in. I want to know what type of wood his bow is made from, what feathers are on the end of the arrow, how long the arrows are, etc etc etc.' That man would die before all these questions could be answered. My job is to help you to remove the arrow of suffering from yourself." (Majjhima Nikaya Sutta No. 63)

A good story. One of the appealing things about the Buddha is that he told a good story--at least to judge from the reports of those who carried them in memory and those who eventually wrote them down. It bothers me that Evangelicals spend so much time and effort agonizing over the beginning and the end of the world. I suppose it's because their concern is with what they believe to be the eternal soul, and what will happen to it after death. In this light, the Buddhist concept of rebirth seems infinitely more expansive and humane. Do-overs, to me, are definitely preferable to eternal damnation--a fate which Evangelicals tell me I must expect if I'm not "reborn in Christ."

In any event, to believe in the literal word of the Bible on the subject of creation despite centuries of empirical scientific evidence seems to me willfully obtuse. The Buddha would surely shrug off that kind of ignorance. As for the end of the world, the Armageddon that Evangelical Christians like to wave like a warning cudgel--and which they appear to embrace in the belief that they alone will be spared... well, I like the incisive, playful irony of Robert Frost:

SOME say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Wise words written in 1920. And of course, there's always the anticlimax T.S.Eliot offers in The Hollow Men:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

(My thanks to Michael Davis at Michael's Scribblings for reminding me of these two visions!)

So what would the Buddha say? I think he'd say simply, don't bother your head about the things you can never know. Take heed of the present moment, and put your efforts into developing that wisdom and compassion. As for the origin of the world, as DeSilva nicely puts it at the end of his short essay: "Buddhism concentrates on helping us solve the practical problems of living - it does not encourage useless speculation. And if a Buddhist did wish to know how and when the universe began he would ask a scientist."


carly said...

Peter, One of the amazing things about our new Cavalier is that she reminded me of something wise. She lives in the moment. One second she's chewing on a stick, the next, running after a butterfly. How smart nature is! She's simply content with what is. She never wastes a moment fearing the next moment. When it comes up, she'll just handle it as best and capably as she can. Some dogs suffer at the hands of men, but left alone they handle life with the proper measure of attitude, moment by moment and truly in the moment. She surely looks like she enjoys life to the fullest.

Mark said...

Thanks for the edification. Some of this stuff is pretty difficult to wrap one's head around, but fun to think about none-the-less. I'm going to go live in the present today and enjoy life.

Eli said...


Thanks for the excellent response. I'm Mark's friend and suitemate, and as we are both potential philosophy and religion majors, we have a great time reading your blog here and discussing the questions and points it raises.

As a Christian who once tried out several different religions, I always find it fascinating to look at the similarities between them to find the kernels of truth present in each faith. I feel that if most Christians adopted a slightly more Buddhist frame of mind--that is, if they spent more time actively worshiping and praising God in the present instead of trying to figure out the secrets and stories of the past--they wouldn't receive nearly as much flak from other religions.

I love Buddha's philosophy that there's no need to fret about unknowables, and wish so much that my Christian compatriots spent more time in the midst of God rather than observing from a distance.

Thanks for a great resource, Peter!


PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks for the comment! It's always a thrill to hear from a new voice. Please stay in touch. Cheers, PaL

PK said...

I wrote to Mother the other day, mentioned to her that I hadn't been meditating as much as I should, this is what she wrote back. "I found that the longer you do your meditation the more it becomes a part of your day. Maybe it's because of age [she's 83] but one does fall into a daily rhythm - and meditation becomes as much a part of it as exercising and eating. It's not so much a "time apart" as it is "apart of your time", and as such becomes a part of you." I like living in the today, whatever I manage to put into my mind that really doesn't belong there, I have the opportunity with meditation to quell it. I really don't want to go into my tomorrow with yesterday dwelling in there. I also choose to be a better person day by day, I know this does it. I too would like to be able to, 'handle life with the proper measure of attitude, moment by moment and truly in the moment.', as Carly said... Sleep well Peter...

Robin said...

Thanks for this wonderful sharing.

There is no begining .. but is there an end?

People asked me before ..

Well, I answered that there is no begining for suffering (to the question - which is the first seed planted for suffering).. but definitely there is an end to suffering.

On the belief of a all loving forgiving God, I always asked if God is all loving, why does he not make all the sufferings disappear? Why do we still have earthquakes and tsunami?

My belief is still that God or any enlightened being is a teacher, showing us the way to help ourselves out of this suffering...

What do you think? (hmmm.. we may have to continue this discussion on email instead)

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Anonymous said...

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Matt 6:34