The Origin of Life in the Universe: Buddhist Perspective
Posted on August 5th, 2010

Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge M.D.

‘There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our thoughts.’  Bertrand Russell

 The origin of life has been a subject of speculation in all known cultures. In the modern era, this question has been considered in terms of a scientific framework. Lord Buddha’s’ explanation of the origin of the Universe, compatible with the modern scientific explanation. Buddha described the origin of the Universe and life in the Aganna Sutta 2500 years ago. According to Buddha’s explanation the universe being destroyed and then re-evolving into its present form over a period of millions of years. The Buddha did not believe in the existence of a supreme god or creator of the universe. The Lord Buddha presented a model of cosmology wherein the universe expands and contracts over extremely long periods of time, this description has been found by some to be consistent with the expanding universe model and Big Bang. The Buddha explained that the universe expands outward, reaches a stabilizing point, and then reverts its motion back toward a central point resulting in its destruction, this process again to be repeated infinitely.

 The Big Bang Theory

Sir Fred Hoyle – a renowned British astronomer coined the term “Big Bang. Big Bang Theory explains the beginning of the universe. The big bang theory proposes that the universe was once extremely compact, dense, and hot. Some original event, a cosmic explosion called the big bang, occurred about 13.7 billion years ago, and the universe has since been expanding and cooling. The theory is based on the mathematical equations, known as the field equations, of the general theory of relativity set forth in 1915 by Albert Einstein.

 The ,Aggana utta found in the Pali Canon in which the Buddha, speaking to the monk Vasettha, a former ,Brahamin states the following:

“Now there comes a time, Vasettha, when after a long period of time this world expands .

In this stanza the term world has a wider understanding. Here the Buddha refers to the Universe. The Buddha said “Space has no end, and there are endless numbers of worlds.” This means that the universe has no limit, and has an endless number of stars and planets.

The big bang was initially suggested because it explains why distant galaxies are traveling away from us at great speeds. The theory also predicts the existence of cosmic background radiation. The Big Bang Theory received its strongest confirmation when this radiation was discovered in 1964 by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, who later won the Nobel Prize for this discovery.

Origin of Species

AggaĮՠձĮՠձa Sutta is in complete agreement with scientific evolution. The AggaĮՠձĮՠձa Sutta presents water as pre-existent to earthlike planets, with the planet forming with water and the life moving from the water onto the earth. The first life formed on the surface of the water and again, over countless millions of years, evolved from simple into complex organisms. . According to Buddhism, world systems always appear and disappear in the universe.

 The Buddha further says,

There comes a time, Vasettha, when, after the lapse of a long, long period, this world died. And when this happens, beings have mostly been reborn into the Realm of Raiance and there they dwell, made of mind, feeding on rapture, self-luminous, traversing the air, continuing in glory; and thus they remain for a long, long period of time. There comes also a time, Vasettha, when sooner or later this world begins to re-evolve. When this happens, beings who had deceased from the World of Radiance usually come to life as humans…now at that time, all had become one world of water, dark, and of darkness that makes blind. No moon nor sun appeared, no stars were seen, nor constellations, neither was night manifest nor day, neither months nor half-months, neither years nor seasons, neither female nor male. Beings were reckoned just as beings only. And to those beings, Vasettha, sooner or later after a long time, earth with its savours was spread out in the waters, even as a scum forms on the surface of boiled milky rice that is cooling, so did the earth appear.”

 “Now there comes a time, Vasettha, when after a long period of time this world expands. When the world expands beings for the most part fall from the realm of Radiance and come here; and they exist made of mind, feeding on joy, self-luminous, moving through the air, constantly beautiful; thus they remain for a long, long time. Now at that time, all had become one world of water dark, and of darkness that makes blind. No moon nor sun appeared no stars were seen, nor constellations, neither was night manifest nor day, neither months nor half-months, neither years nor seasons, neither female nor male. Beings were reckoned just as beings only. And to those beings, Vasettha, sooner or later after a long time, earth with its savors was spread out in the waters. Even as a scum forms on the surface of boiled milky rice that is cooling, so did the earth appear. ~

The “beings” that The Buddha he described in this sutra are attached to an earthlike planet, get reborn there, and remain there for the duration of the life. As a result of this, physical characteristics change and evolutionary changes take place. This is could be interpreted as a form of evolution.

 Modern science says that some millions of years ago, life originated in the ocean which evolved from simple into complex organisms. All these processes are without beginning or end, and are set in motion by natural causes. World came into existence by nature and that nature is not an intelligent force.

For centuries the origin of Life was thought to be the result of Abiogenesis .The doctrine of Spontaneous Generation holds that organic life could and does arise from inorganic

matter. Louis Pasteur disproved Spontaneous Generation. Buddhism never claimed that the world, life, sun, moon, stars, wind, water, days and nights were created by a powerful god.

 The Theory of Evolution

Darwin believed all the life on Earth developed gradually over millions of years from a few common ancestors. Darwin’s general theory presumes the development of life from non-life and stresses a purely naturalistic (undirected) “descent with modification”. That is, complex creatures evolve from more simplistic ancestors naturally over time. In a nutshell, as random genetic mutations occur within an organism’s genetic code, the beneficial mutations are preserved because they aid survival — a process known as “natural selection.” These beneficial mutations are passed on to the next generation.

 Primordial Soup Theory

Aleksandr Ivanovich Oparin developed one of the first modern theories about the origin of life on Earth .The theory which in 1924 made Oparin famous concerns abiogenesis, the spontaneous generation of life from non-living chemical substances. Oparin believed that conditions on primitive Earth were different to those of the present. He suggested that the ancient seas were like a ‘primeval soup’ which contained many organic compounds. These were created when sunlight, a virtually limitless source of energy, reacted with chemicals in the water. These organic compounds formed the basis of life. They combined, becoming increasingly complex, until living cells were formed. The Primordial Soup Theory suggest that life began in a pond or ocean as a result of the combination of chemicals from the atmosphere and some form of energy to make amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, which would then evolve into all the species. The Primordial Soup Theory states that Life began in a warm pond/ocean from a combination of chemicals that forms amino acids, which then make proteins. This is supposed to happen at least 3.8 billion to 3.55 billion years ago.

 Definition of life

Living beings are protein-made bodies formed by one or more cells that communicate with the environment through information transfer carried out by electric impulses or chemical substances, and capable of morpholigical evolution and metabolism, growth and reproduction. Life is a chemical system able to replicate itself through autocatalysis and to make mistakes that gradually increase the efficiency of the autocatalysis.

 DNA and Life

DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms. Nearly every cell in a person’s body has the same DNA. Most DNA is located in the cell nucleus. DNA is the genetic material of all cells, containing coded information about cellular molecules and processes. DNA consists of two polynucleotide strands twisted around each other in a double helix.

Dr. Ponnamperuma’s Research

Dr.Cyril Ponnamperuma, an eminent researcher at the University of Maryland, whose career focused on explorations into the origin of life and the “primordial soup” that contained the precursors of life. Dr. Ponnamperuma began to delve into this primordial soup and set up variations of Miller and Urey’s original experiment.

The classic experiment was conducted in 1953 by Dr. Harold C. Urey and Dr. Stanley L. Miller. They assumed the early atmosphere was rich in hydrogen, as that is the most abundant element in the universe. And so they mixed methane and ammonia, which contain hydrogen atoms, with molecular hydrogen and water vapor in a flask. They introduced a continuous electric spark, to provide the energy that might have come from lightning. Out of the resulting chemical reactions came a residue of more complex molecules, including some amino acids. These molecules collected in the water in a lower flask, which simulated the early oceans, and suggested what might have been the hypothetical primordial soup in which living molecules came together.

Having changed the proportions of the elements from the original Miller-Urey specifications slightly, Ponnamperuma and his team sent first high-energy electrons, then ultraviolet light through the mixture, attempting to recreate the original conditions of the earth before life. They succeeded in creating large amounts of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), an amino acid that fuels cells. In later experiments with the same concoction of primordial soup, the team was able to create the nucleotides that make up nucleic acid””‚the building blocks of DNA and ribonucleic acid (RNA).

Theory of Panspermia

Dr. Chandra Wickramasinghe – Professor of Applied Mathematics and Astronomy, School of Mathematics, Cardiff University, UK asserted: “Life did not start here on earth but in space . Theory known as panspermia- the science that teaches earth and other planets in the universe may have been seeded for life by microorganisms carrying comets. Life did not start in a primordial soup spontaneously here on earth as believed earlier but it started 4000 million years ago on comets and traveled through space to earth and countless other planets. He played a key role in establishing a connection between astronomy and biology. His work in the 1980’s showed for the first time that cosmic dust had properties that resembled the properties of living material and their degradation products. The concept of life being a cosmic phenomenon supported by space science, geology and biology. In this context life on Earth resulted from the introduction of bacteria from comets, and the subsequent evolution of life required the continuing input of genes from comets. Viable bacteria are of cosmic origin. They were present already in the material from which the solar system condensed and their number was then topped up substantially by replication in cometary material. Thus the impacts of cometary material would have brought them to Earth. The idea of life being a cosmic phenomenon is fully in tune with Buddhist as well as Vedic philosophy.

Conclusion

Buddhism teaches that every man in the universe is his own lord, controls his own destiny, and is not controlled by any other man or any supernatural God. In Malunkyaputta’s story the Buddha explained the debate of origin of the universe is a waste of time. According to the Lord Buddha man’s instantaneous problem is his own suffering and his task is to liberate himself from the Sansara. To exemplify this, the Buddha explains the tale of a man who was shot by a poisoned arrow. This unwise man refused to have the arrow removed until he was told who shot the arrow, what he looks like, his cast , names of his parents ,the kind of wood the arrow was made of and so forth. The Buddha said that before the man could achieve complete information, he would be dead. Likewise, our immediate mission is to be enlightened, not to speculate about the metaphysical.

 

13 Responses to “The Origin of Life in the Universe: Buddhist Perspective”

  1. gunarat Says:

    This subject is a matter of supreme interest to me.

    I will be very grateful to Dr Jayatunge if he can respond to the following:

    1. Can he translate Pali ino English? If not whose trnslation of Aganna Sutta is he using?

    2. What is the authoritative source for the assertion: “Buddhism teaches that every man in the universe is his own lord, controls his own destiny, and is not controlled by any other man or any supernatural God”? Does not this assertion, unless correctly qalified, contradict the “anatta” component of ti-lakkhana (the other two components being anicca and dukkha)?

    Anatta is translated as “no-self” and/or “interdependence.” Paticca samuppada, the crux of Buddhism, asserts that everything is interdependent, interconnected and interactive. If so, how can everyone be his/her/its own lord?

    If the Pali suttas have been mistranslated by omission or commission, we should remedy the situation NOW.

    Shelton Gunaratne, professor emeritus
    Moorhead, MN

  2. Andare Says:

    Professor Emeritus Shelton Gunaratna has raised a very important point. I think the Buddhism preached by many priests is the “Anatta” theory which is no soul. I would like to draw the author’s and Professor Gunaratna’s attention to a little known book written by Peter Masefield called “Divine revelation in Pali Buddhism”. Peter Masefield was a Pali Scholar who was not satisfied by the existing translations of Buddhism and went to the original Pali texts to translate. I found it a very interesting book. There is also the answer given by the Buddha when he was asked what is Nibbana. “O bhikkus, there is the Unborn, the Ungrown, and Unconditioned. Were there not the Unborn the, Ungrown and the Unconditioned, there would be no escape for the born, grown and conditioned.——————–   etc”.  He goes on to say “Here the four elements of solidity, fluidity, heat and motion have no place; the notions of length and breadth, the subtle and the gross, the good and evil, name and form are altogether destroyed; neither this world or the other, nor coming or going or standing, neither death nor birth nor sense objects are to be found.” See page 37 (hard copy edition) of “What the Buddha Taught” by Walpola Rahula. In our humble opinion, Nirvana is the experience of this Universal Power (what ever you call it) by the human Consciousness.

  3. sharpeshooter Says:

    My advise to anyone is not to mix Buddhism with Science. They truly contradict each other except for one paramount concept of cause and effect. Science is a narrow yardstick we use to prove concepts through experiments. To explain what an experiment is its a process when repeated produce varifiable, same results. So it all depends if only there is an apparatus and a method to use to prove a concept, theory or law. If any thing cannot be proved in a laboratory, then it is considered not existing. We possess LIMITED knowledge and a Thathagata possesses UNLIMITED direct knowledge on ANY subject. A Thathagata can go back in time thousands of aeons of world contractions and expansions and thats how Aganna Suttra and Brahmajala suttras were proclaimed and can see things through divine eye, beings which no scientist can see through a telescope. Probably Jesus did possess Jhana powers and only he could go back just one previous birth, where he proclaimed of his ‘father’ as God of creation or some thing similar to that. Buddha too was once the Almighty God himself as stated in the following suttra but the difference is that when he became the Buddha he realised that the creation was not affected by an Omnipotent God but through Dependent Origination.
    “Itivuttaka: The Group of Ones 22
    This was said by the Blessed One, said by the Arahant, so I have heard: “Monks, don’t be afraid of acts of merit. This is another way of saying what is blissful, desirable, pleasing, endearing, charming — i.e., acts of merit. I am cognizant that, having long performed meritorious deeds, I long experienced desirable, pleasing, endearing, charming results. Having developed a mind of good will for seven years, then for seven aeons of contraction & expansion I didn’t return to this world. Whenever the aeon was contracting, I went to the realm of Streaming Radiance. Whenever the aeon was expanding, I reappeared in an empty Brahma-abode. There I was the Great Brahman, the Unconquered Conqueror, All-seeing, & Wielder of Power. Then for thirty-six times I was Sakka, ruler of the gods. For many hundreds of times I was a king, a wheel-turning emperor, a righteous king of Dhamma, conqueror of the four corners of the earth, maintaining stable control over the countryside, endowed with the seven treasures[1] — to say nothing of the times I was a local king. The thought occurred to me: ‘Of what action of mine is this the fruit, of what action the result, that I now have such great power & might?’ Then the thought occurred to me: ‘This is the fruit of my three [types of] action, the result of three types of action, that I now have such great power & might: i.e., giving, self-control, & restraint.'”
    Sunil Vijayapala

  4. Fran Diaz Says:

    A good subject to talk about – thanks to Ruwan. Here (to my limited knowledge) is a possible explanation as to why the Buddha at that time he walked the earth in India, is supposed to have said “there is no God ….”.

    At that time, Indian culture was riddled with Casteism, with Dalits or Untouchables having no caste at all – they were the slave labor of India, born into various sectors of servitude, to die in those sectors, and their children to be born into the same status, over and over again. At that time, a Dalit could not even accidentally tread on the shadow of a caste person, such was the lowly status. In the Vasala Suthra it is said that the Buddha, when such a Dalit man hid himself when he saw the Buddha approach, called out to him with compassion & love, and preached the Dharma to him, and thus released his man from his state of misery.
    At that time, the whole Caste Structure had been incorporated into the existing Hindu religion through the Laws of Manu, enacted over 3,000 yrs ago. The Buddha was born into this society and perhaps saw that he had to break the existing order of social structure in order to release hundreds of thousands of human beings (Dalits) from suffering. Therefore, he is supposed to have stated ‘there is no God (I am adding ‘who commanded that there be Dalits in the Hindu religion …’ ).

    Besides, the Buddha is supposed to have said, as Andare says : “O bhikkus, there is the Unborn, the Ungrown, and Unconditioned. Were there not the Unborn the, Ungrown and the Unconditioned, there would be no escape for the born, grown and conditioned.——————– etc”. What other dimension was the Buddha referring to, other than the unseen dimension of the Godhead, which is experienced by human beings in Nirvana ? I believe that what the Buddha referred to as Truth is one and same as God (as another dimension which unseen & eternal).

    At the time of Enlightenment, the Buddha is supposed to have become Omnipresent, Omnipotent & Omniscient. Did he not at this time merge with God or Truth which has the same characteristics ? also if God or Truth is everywhere, is it not within each human being too, waiting to be realized in Meditation ?

    Readers, please feel free to correct me if I am wrong.

    Mr Prem Rawat gives talks on this subject at http://www.wopg.org.

  5. Janak Says:

    The conclusion of the article is dead accurate. Buddha very clearly separated research in to ‘arya’ and ‘anarya’ categories. All the ‘research’ the US is doing on the origin of universe and life are clearly ‘anarya’ research because the truth about can never be known due to passage of time. But Buddha has said that these things originate and perish in a cyclic way. To escape from samsara, only that understanding is helpful.

    What the ‘professor emeritus’ is trying to do by splitting hairs on little issues is also unhelpful. All the titles we use to describe ourselves only add to ‘mana’ and it defiles the mind, hindering salvation.

    As Mr Vijayapla says, Buddhism does not have to be scientific .

    In Buddhism we have the best and most accurate description of every thing and path to salvation!

    Good luck.

    Janak

  6. gunarat Says:

    Janak has clearly misinterpreted my intention in bringing to public attention what seems to be a clear contradiction in Buddhist philosophy.

    I express my umbrage at his callous statement “What the ‘professor emeritus’ is trying to do by splitting hairs on little issues is also unhelpful.”

    The attempt to resolve two contradictory concepts–anatta (which emphasizes interdependence) and atta (which emphasizes the sovereignty of the individual)–as fundamental to Buddhism is not a matter of “splitting hairs.” Can Janak give some indication about whom he is referring when he asserts that such a resolution is “unhelpful.”

    As a journalist and a journalism educator, I have been trying to use Buddhist philosophy as an alternative and/or supplement to the putative “scientific method,” which cannot go beyond measurable tangibles, to explain universal phenomena. Sharpshooter (Sunil Vijayapala) is quite right.

    The crux of Buddhist philosophy is the principle of paticca samuppada (dependent co-origination), which preceded Western systems theory by 2,500 years. Based upon the Four Noble Truths, this principle asserts that all universal phenomena are interconnected, interdependent and interactive.

    The paticca samuppada principle, therefore, is consistent with the ti-lakkhana: anatta (no-self/interdependence), anicca (impermanence) and dukkha (unsatisfactoriness/suffering)–the three truths of existence. The ‘scientific method’ is unable to confirm the interaction of everything even in this age of supercomputers. Thus, Western science has debunked Buddhist philosophy into the philosophical realms of ontocosmology and axiology. Western scholarship associates “science” exclusively with epistemology. The East obsequiously follows this bias of the West.

    The emphasis in Buddhist philosophy is clearly on anatta. If Buddha also said that “every man in the universe is his own lord, controls his own destiny, and is not controlled by any other man or any supernatural God,” we Buddhists must not dismiss it as “hair splitting.” We must provide the context of that statement or look for translation errors.

    Science has helped the world to understand only those things that are measurable. But it cannot confirm knowledge acquired by the likes of Buddha through transcendental meditation. Science alone cannot resolve all the mysteries of the mind. Buddhist philosophy enables lines of inquiry beyond the “scientific method.” To enable that role, Buddhist philosophy must be contradiction-free.

  7. sharpeshooter Says:

    Being a contemplative its so refreshing to note the depth of understanding of Buddhism of some readers in this forum. When we were kids the Buddhism existed was of not meditation and understanding but knowledge and engage in Poojas. Thanks to our Buddhist monks, majority who are in fact Poojakawarus. Mis-translations of Pali has being a subject of recent times and Ven. Punnaji residing in states is very critical of some so called scholars who have mislead people some concepts of Buddhism attributed to incorrect translation. Fools like us who depend on English which is basically an inconsistent language have to depend on English books. Even Vissudhimagga which I read 3 times has in my opinion some areas which needs to be revisited (I have no knowledge of Pali) as these were translated by basically people of Christian background who embrased Buddhism. If one concentrate on the concept of Anatta ALONE during his or her life, and UNDERSTAND it, even with heedlessnes on sensuailty, one can in this very birth become a Sotapane(of course needs shedding of precepts, poojas, tites, rituals and doubt on Buddha, Dhamma and Sanga). May this forum bring some light to all. Sunil Vijayapala

  8. sharpeshooter Says:

    correction tites to rites – Sunil V

  9. sharpeshooter Says:

    Well we need to appreciate at least there is one person who can think to himself and makes interesting conclusions about everything, (the final word) draws his brilliant ideas through his own understanding of worldly affairs, his own rationalism, his own view about ancient Sinhala wisdom and one wonders whether all this heading for SPECULATION or what? I do not know about others but I certainly enjoy this, there’s considerable humour!.
    Sunil Vijayapala

  10. Laxman GODEGAMA Says:

    gunarat & jayatunga,

    Patichcha Samuppadaya explains the cyclic Samsara and the way to escape from it.

    One is kept bound to the Samsara by the links of interdependencies created by Thanha. These links are strongest towards ones own non-existent self!!!

    However, according to Buddhism, as far as the man is able to break away from these almost unbreakable links, he remains the master of his own destiny.

    Thus there are no contradictions among the following Pali verses:

    Mano Pubban Gamadamma, Mano Shettha Manomaya …

    Aththahi Aththa Noonatho, Kohinatho Karosiya
    Aththanava Sudannaena, Natham Labathi Dullaban.

    Puththa Maththi Danam Maththi, Ithi Baalo Vihannathi,
    Aththahi Aththa Nonaththi, Kutho Puththa Kutho Danan.

    It is sad to see that our Buddhists misunderstand the “master of own destiny” and do what ever comes to their heads as if there is no tomorrow!!!

    Almost all the words we know, Singhala, Pali, English or otherwise came from others. Ideas and concepts have a better chance but let us remain humble as the task of understanding and mastering Samsara is huge and it is always done with the help of others.

    And then there are earthly realities – the powerful USA, the greedy world business, the neo colonialism, the LTTE idiots, etc etc.

    Even so, we must all endeavour to make Lanka live so that the world will have a refuge where they can come and listen to the sublime Buddha Dhmmma, in a most humane environment.

  11. kolita Says:

    Ruwan,

    Your article on the origin of life on earth was very interesting. You had put into it information that would have taken long for an ordinary person to gather reading scores of books. It is only a few people who can impart scientific information in so simple and a very readable style for people who have no such knowledge of science to understand.

    Thank you , Ruwan

  12. S de Silva Says:

    Well, well this is deep stuff – and thanks to all for the contributions. In my very simple analysis within Buddhism, time creates everything, time changes everything and time destroys everything – so in my book TIME is God !! – S de Silva – London

  13. De Costa Says:

    Dear De Silva,
    Time creates humans. Humans create time (clocks) ? So replace all other symbols with clocks to represent God?.
    Please do not insult “deep stuff” and dilute the debate. But your approach is correct( i.e. “since I do not understand 100% , I shall keep quiet “).Problem was you went beyond that.
    Sunil is right. Comparing with science, one insults Buddhism, belittles Buddhism to some extent.
    Even by calling a “philosopy” people belittles Buddhism because no one would leaves his young family and enormous wealth and comfort in search of a great philosopy. This is a somewhat dangerous subject. By trying to professors one could harm oneself.

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