A problem in Buddhist Metaphysics
Posted on June 14th, 2018

R Chandrasoma

While the plight of Man in an unfriendly Universe and the struggle to achieve an emancipation that radically terminates his existential woes are the chief concerns of the Buddhist Pilgrim, there are issues – both historical and cosmological – that cannot be ignored. Let us start with planetary history – as currently revealed by the latest scientific knowledge of this history – the story of life on Earth, The latter separated from the solar nebula about 4 to 5 billion years ago and for the major part of its history was ‘abiotic’ – ie devoid of all life and sentience, The earliest manifestation of life was stunningly simple – the microscopic Prokaryotes represented today by the likes of bacteria and related unicellular forms. For more than a billion years life failed to make the grade to multi-cellular organization – let alone brains and consciousness, The latter kicked off a ‘mere’ half a billion years ago when – following the so-called Cambrian Explosion –  brains, nervous systems and sense-organs became part of the ‘equipage’ of complex life. The first large-brained conscious ‘Primates’ –  the likes of the Neanderthal Man and the powerfully built and beautiful Cro-Magnon Man – flourished a mere fifty thousand years ago.

Here is the the puzzle that challenges the Buddhist Metaphysican or Philosopher – was Karmic Transmission absent during these long years of Pre-Human evolution? Did the Dinosaurs have a karmic future based on the moods and deeds of these leviathans in their contemporary world? Is a Trilobite ‘karmically’  connected? Suppose we give the standard answer that those devoid of conscious states – paradigmatically  represented in humans – are not caught up in the great scheme of retributive causation, we are forced to accept the position that Heavens and Hells came into existence only after the advent of Man. That a Pre-Human ‘Monkey’ has ‘karmic entailments’ based on his ‘moral performance’ is surely absurd.  Since fallible being subject to moral scrutiny did not exist for most of planetary history, we must suppose that such ‘punishment and reward centres’ are a recent ‘production’ – since moral culpability and reward only follows thinking brains and advanced social life – feature found in a tiny elite of living species.

There is a feature of heavens and hells that is rarely reflected on by religious scholars – there is no reproduction in Hell – nor do the ‘Devas’ in Heaven ‘mate’ and have ‘baby Devas’. The ‘Prethyas’ are supposed to be ‘sexed’ but there is no understanding  of copulation or birth in their wretched world. The upshot of this ‘absence’ is that both Heavens and Hells are ‘supported ‘ by the reproductive bounty of the human world. Without deeds and misdeeds in our (Human) world the karmic energy that sustains Heavens and Hells fails and they have no place tin the great system of the world, Until the advent of Man, moral dilemmas had no ‘force’ as an agent of cosmological significance. Man’s advent not only changed our planetary world – it also created a need for Heavens and Hells.

17 Responses to “A problem in Buddhist Metaphysics”

  1. Lionel Says:

    With all the respect to pure Buddhism, may I ask another question. Why most of the Buddhist countries, with majority of people believing Karma and rebirth are still poor compare to other countries?

  2. Randeniyage Says:

    Writer appears to be someone who rejects all religions including Buddhism which is understandable. However, karma concept is not the main aspect of Buddhism, but the suffering and cessation of suffering. As such, there is no metaphysical truth in Buddhism but four noble truth, which can be understood by any human being.
    There is no pre-human monkey who evolved to human state according to Buddhism. The writer himself should understand how karmic cycle works by experimenting.
    Without reading Buddhism in depth, one should not play with words and insult Buddhist concepts.


  3. Ratanapala Says:

    With all the technology available today they have not been able to replicate life in the laboratory. At CERN they are able to produce the conditions close to the so called Big Bang. No amount of ‘primordial soups’ concotted by scientists beginning with Prof Cyril Ponnamperuma with whatever recipes have not been able to bring about life or even a single cell, a sentient being that can reproduce a copy of itself and show signs of sentience – a sense of presence. Artificial Intelligence is the only thing man has been able to produce that might one day rival himself.

    The popular model of the Universe – also called the Standard Model is a hotch potch of assumptions to fit in what is yet to be explained. These include Inflation, Dark Energy and Dark Matter let alone single explanation of all known ‘forces’ of nature – The Standard Model of particle physics is the theory describing three of the four known fundamental forces (the electromagnetic, weak, and strong interactions, and not including the gravitational force) in the universe, as well as classifying all known elementary particles. A final theory that explains everything still eludes mankind.

    Then on the other end there is no consensus on what constitutes reality. There are models and models that try to explain reality but we are yet to arrive at a final model that explains reality or a Theory of Everything. String Theory and Parallel Universes remain just theories!

    It is a futile attempt to disprove Buddhism which is built around mind and conciousness, through science. As far as our mundane minds are concerned, we will still be mired in relative realities one model leading to another model – just like biblical earth centric model gave way to Coppernicus’ helio centric model then to Newtonian, Einstein and now the Quantum models.

    Just as Nalin De SIlva used to say – One ‘story’ giving way to another and they continue to remain ‘stories’ that explain ever more closely what is observed than the previous story! The new stories provide the new ways of looking at our existence.

    The quest for the ultimate theory of everything will continue just as it was many thousands of years ago. Buddhism shows a way out of the quagmire – Cleansing the Mind!

  4. Charles Says:

    Problem in Buddhist Metaphysics is interesting to the extent that it is also the result of mental provocation to understand the teachings of the Buddha beyond what the teachings cover.

    The Buddha taking a handful of leaves from the ground in a forest had asked the Bikkhus, what is more Bikkhus the leaves in my hand or the leaves in the forest. The Bikkhus answered the leaves in the forest are more. Then the Buddha had said that what he had told them is as little as that fist full of leaves and what had not been explained is like the leaves in the forest. Again when a Bikkhu asked the Venerable One what is the beginning of the world he explained with the well known simile of the man hit with an arrow. What the Buddha had taught is what is essential for the man to liberate himself from the suffering in Samsara. The evolution of cells to finally become an intelligent human being had been in stages. There are certainly more qualified persons to explain the issue in length, but what I say is to the extent of my knowledge.

    It is the intelligent man, speaking Biblically, who finally “ ate the apple of wisdom”. The suffering started with the development of the mind which unable to understand the reality of existence created using the identity of the form- the body (rupa) created a being a self., which was the beginning of the Samsara with suffering (dukkha sacca) a self being the cause of suffering ( samudaya sacca). The Buddha found that this suffering could be stopped nirodha sacca)and showed the eight fold path (magga sacca). The is in short where the teachings of the Buddha comes to fill whatever empty space in the spectrum of knowledge.

  5. aloy Says:

    I think the rulers who lived in ancient times used religions to control people and use them for building empires or regions of influence with minimal force. In Abrahamic religion it is introduced with brutal force and has been successful in controlling most parts of the world. In Christianity what they preach in church service is mostly how the Jews made their bread and wine and how they lived at that time. These are hardly relevant to present day circumstances. In Buddhism what the monks say in bana is mostly what Buddha said at that time. And it was sensible for Buddha to say that the knowledge they had at that time could be compared to the leaves at hand to what is in the forest. I think today after 2600 years the situation is the same. If not can anyone explain with certainty how the animals who lived the tsunami hit areas escaped while humans got drowned. If the animals could hear vibrations then those outside the contours of the area that got flooded also would have got disturbed. But that was not the case. Perhaps the reason is the animals can live in more than one time space at the same time.
    As to the reason why the Buddhist countries are backward, I think the statement is not entirely true. Look at japan, Korea, Thailand (even China) which are/were Buddhist countries. They have come out of the slumber. Sri lanka’s case is quite different. We are under a colonial mentality created by the western powers. It is so powerful that they wrote books describing our mentality. In 1970s I picked up a book from a bookshop in Oxford street titled ‘Time and Man’. The starting sentence was ‘ In 1805 the governor in Ceylon wrote to the colonial office in London saying that “not a single soul in this island would like to do some useful work and gain an income rather than sitting under a tree and while away the time”. His assertion has been that people have become lazy because they have realized the impermanence and hence do not want to work hard. The book also says how the trains in London run on time and how people are conscious about the value of time and how prosperous they have become. The book explains the Einstein’s theories of time space and at the end say the people of the East (meaning Ceylonese) are wiser giving some reasons. This really was not the case. It was not that Sinhalese became lazy due to their belief. But they did not want to work for the colonials. When I look through my window in Battaramulla house in the morning I can see everybody so busy going to their places of work or actually doing their work. Perhaps in the UK things must have come a full circle, where people want to while away their time in parks and gardens in the morning or drink beer and play football all the time rather than doing some useful work.

  6. Charles Says:

    Aloy you answer all the relevant issue in the article. I also think that the early primitive animals like the Dinosaurs had very undeveloped brains and their was no element of intelligence… same as the animals of today, which have instincts which they use as a life saving strategy. And they do not accumulate kamma.

    All Buddhas were born in India., where there was both poverty and prosperity. In the west the human beings as they became intelligent and literate became creative that was very much later than India. The poverty allowed people as they become intelligent to question why there was poverty, which was not the problem of the intelligent Western man who used poverty to enhance his prosperity.

    It was that questioning that developed into 62 philosophies in India and culminated in one ascetic to awake from the dream of existence to find a way to end human misery

  7. aloy Says:

    Charles, What I was trying to say is that human intelligence and animal instincts given by nature are two sides of the same coin. Humans have lost the survival instincts the animals had as they became brainier. Perhaps some get both very rarely and they can see future present and past too, may be by meditation etc. (ie. time travelling ability?.). They may be the soothsayers, ola leaf readers etc. Perhaps both Buddha and Jesus Christ had exceptional abilities at birth and they became leading figures in human history.

    I wonder to what category our politicos belong, they are great survivors.

  8. Charles Says:

    I am afraid Alloy there is a little distortion in your interpretation of Buddha Dahamma.

    Buddha and Jesus are two different mental processes . But some now think Jesus had been in India and was a Disciples of the teachings of the Buddha- that was on the missing years of Jesus.

    But Jesus of the New Testament is another story , taken away from the Israelist representation in the Bible to represent a Greek and Western world which had been denied a creater God.

  9. aloy Says:

    I am sorry Charles what I meant was that these personalities must have had extraordinary powers that other beings did not have to see the future. I am not at all trying to give a different interpretation to the teachings which are beyond my grasp. I have read about Jesus Christ coming to India during the missing years (ie from the age of 12 to 30 and then again after resurrection till 80s). He must have come to India to study Buddha’s teachings that has spread to middle east and other areas up to Greece at that time. I must apologize if I heart anybody’s feelings.

  10. Lionel Says:

    I like the statement “Buddhism shows a way out of the quagmire – Cleansing the Mind!” in one of the comments. Very true.

    In Dhamma schools, small kids are still taught about unreal stories like walking on lotus flowers when the prince Siddahartha was born. Are these type of teachings help to cleanse the mind?

  11. Randeniyage Says:

    Ven.Ajahn Brahmavamso said,

    “I used to be a scientist. I did Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University, hanging out in the same building as the later-to-be-famous Professor Stephen Hawking. I became disillusioned with such science when, as an insider, I saw how dogmatic some scientists could be. A dogma, according to the dictionary, is an arrogant declaration of an opinion.

    This was a fitting description of the science that I saw in the labs of Cambridge. Science had lost its sense of humility. Egotistical opinion prevailed over the impartial search for Truth. My favourite aphorism from that time was: “The eminence of a great scientist, is measured by the length of time that they OBSTRUCT PROGRESS in their field”!”


  12. Ratanapala Says:

    Whole of Christendom talk of the virgin birth of Jesus, Jesus walking on water, raising Lasarus from the dead and many other fairy tales. These are all stories for the serene joy of the faithful.

    Our realities change with the age of the person as well as with times. At one time the reality of Sun going around the world was a good enough model for all to follow. People lived by this truth and navigators went around the world still believing that the sun goes around the world. The story worked very well for them and they returned home safely.

    Since then we have developed better ‘stories’ that aligns more closer with our observations, but the end is not in sight. According to the latest theories that man has managed to conjure, the whole of the known Universe just popped up out of nothing at the Big Bang! If this is true then we who have come out of ‘nothing’ must really be made of nothing and thus can only be mere jappearences! According to the Einstein’s Theory of Relativity – Past, present and future exist simultaneously. This leaves a myriad of possibilities for the ultimate reality.

    This is why the Buddha taught us to Develop the mind. The stage we are in that Development determines our individual understanding!

  13. Christie Says:

    Buddhism is based on continuity (samsara), cause and effect (heithu pala) and middle path.

    So I do not see a problem with Meata-Physics and Buddhism.

  14. Charles Says:

    The Buddha is a special being who as a layman determined to be a Buddha, and went through thousands of lives of suffering for the service of others. A birth of a Buddha is a rare event in which great happenings such as earth quakes, thunders , untimely blooming of flowers, take place.
    These are special events taking place during the life of a Buddha ( Dhamma Nyama) Prince Siddhartha was still a baby when he attained high concentration and was seated in the air during a ploughing Ceremony of his father. The prince Siddhartha when he was born immediately walked and a lotus bloomed at every step he took.

  15. Charles Says:

    No Aloy, You did not hurt any one’s feelings, I only tried to clarify a point that had not been correctly understood. We always learn, that should be an on going effort.

  16. aloy Says:

    I will try to give my own two cents worth to another phenomenon: the beaching of whales considered to be mammals. In this case it is against the animal. May be they enter into a future time space where the sea level is high due to extreme high tide known as king tide or a storm and try to swim close to beach only to be beached as there isn’t enough water to swim at the material time.
    All these can be explained if we believe that the mind can do unusual things, I believe.

  17. Christie Says:

    Buddha is not relevant. (Buddhism is)

    Matter and energy are the same. (nuclear explosion)

    Space, energy (matter) and time are the basics of Physics (physical existences that can be understood by Meta (mind).

    Should we (limited by our own Mets-Physics) go to extremes to explore.

    Buddhism and Metaphysics and as a religion are different things. In this case comparing or analyzing it with other religions are questionable. Because understanding and believing are not the same.

    There is a huge difference between Buddhism and Hinduism and other belief based Meta-Physics.

    Our human (animals from one cell to multi) is based on Carbon.

    Imagine a whole living world based on Silicon.

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