Creation- A Buddhist Perspective

Thank you to Grant R. Shafer

Like Hinduism and unlike Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Buddhism does not propose a personal creator God and a single creation of a single universe.  A little like string theory, Buddhism envisions an infinity of individual universes created and destroyed in time without beginning and without end.

Buddhism critiques the Hindu Creator, Brahma, as follows.  After a universe emerges, a first being is born in it when his karma, the effect of his previous actions, dictates.  He desires company.  When their karma dictates, other beings are also born.  Forgetting his previous existences, the first being imagines that he has created the later beings because they arrived after his wish.  Because he is there when the beings arrive, they accept that he is the Creator, forgetting their previous lives.  In the Roman Empire, Gnostics interpreted Jehovah’s claim to be the only God similarly.  Jehovah was simply ignorant of the other gods preceding him.

Buddhist ideas of creation are of 2 kinds, cosmological and psychological, stated in the Buddhist scriptures.  The basic Buddhist scriptures are divided into 3 parts, Sutras, which contain the Buddha’s teachings, Vinaya, which are rules for monks and nuns, and Abhidharma, philosophical expansions of the Buddha’s teaching.

Abhidharma contains a cosmology which most Buddhist schools accept with minor variations.  There are 4 principles relevant to creation: 1. There is no creator God because the world (we might say “multiverse”) arises from dependent origination, which I will sketch under psychology.  2. The world is without limit in time or space.  3. There is a hierarchy of realms of existence.  4. All beings are repeatedly reborn in these realms according to their karma.  Even beings in hell are released when they have destroyed their bad karma, and gods fall from heaven when they have exhausted their good karma.  This cycle continues unless a being attains nirvana.

There are 3 main realms of existence.  The realm of desire is divided into 6 births. 4 are the consequence of sin: in hell, as a hungry ghost, as an animal, or as a jealous god.  2 are the consequence of good works: as a human or as a happy god.  The realm of form is the consequence of very good works and is inhabited by higher gods.  The formless realm is the reward for advanced meditation.  In meditation, monks travel through all these realms.

There are innumerable universes, each containing the 3 realms, most with their own Buddha.  Each universe lasts for 1 mahakalpa, the time which is needed to wear down a mountain 7 miles wide and 7 miles high by touching it with silk once every 100 years.  Each mahakalpa consists of 4 kalpas.  The first kalpa comprises the formation of a universe, beginning with the birth of the wind.  (Compare the spirit of God hovering over the waters in Genesis.)  The second kalpa includes human history as we know it and ends when all beings have escaped from the realm of desire to the realm of form.  The third kalpa consists of the destruction of the material world in which beings once lived.  The fourth kalpa contains only empty space.

This cosmological scheme is integrated with a psychological one because our desires create the world.  The working of death and rebirth in the individual is called dependent origination, including 12 steps, each producing the next.  They are ignorance, will, consciousness, name and form, 6 sense-organs, contact, sensation, craving, attachment, becoming, birth and rebirth, old age and death.  This cycle is endlessly repeated unless the being attains nirvana.  Dependent origination also creates the world which a being inhabits.

Buddhist cosmology is best understood as myth, like the 3-level cosmos of the Hebrew Bible, but the idea that consciousness creates physical reality has some support from quantum mechanics, in which what is observed is affected by the observer.