Dhamma Aboard Evolution-Breakthrough Research on the Aggañña Sutta now expanded into  book  
Posted on December 3rd, 2014

  By Prof. Suwanda H J Sugunasiri, writing from Canada

The Buddha’s universe is compatible with Western Science”, I boldly proclaimed, introducing  Part I of my recent research on  the Aggañña Sutta  of the Dīgha Nikāya. No ‘satire’ or ‘parody’ as claimed by acclaimed western scholars,  Prof. Bruce Mathews, Dean of Arts at Acadia University, Canada, notes how the   study …provides a unique insight into Gotama Buddha’s putative scientific insight…”

The   study seeks   to establish that segment # 10-16 of the Sutta is a historically and scientifically accurate picture of Devolution and Evolution. Compatible as it may be with Western Science, the research points to   the Big Bang (13.5 billion years ago), however,  as  being the Devolutionary phase (samvaṭṭa), leaving no room for a theistic first cause as implicit in the Big Bang.  In this Devolutionary phase are âbhassara Beings that are ‘self-luminous’, ‘mind-made’ and  ‘sky-flying’.   Ābhassara Being  has been traditionally understood as referring to  one from the  Abhassara Brahma Realm who has attained to the higher spiritual experience of the 2nd Jhana.  But I  take it  in a literal etymological sense as ‘Hither-come-shining-arrow’,    identifying it with  a Photon with Consciousness.  This, as noted by a critic,  has been  the breakthrough that has allowed me to explore the Sutta as Cosmology.


I’ll spare the reader with the details of how the universe unfolds, referring them to my earlier article (March 8, 2014). But just to give an overview, the Ābhassara Beings  move over ‘to the present’, i.e.,  the Evolutionary phase (vivaṭṭa), when  it’s ‘all water’ and ‘blinding darkness’.  And  no females and males (yes, in that order).  Next appears the earth (4.5 bya).

Well, whaddaya expect?  Beings go hungry, and one of them digs its finger into the savoury earth and tastes it. Hmm, yum yum! Others follow, and now the Buddha tells us that ‘craving’ has set in. Savoury earth giving way  to mushroom like ‘ground pappataka’, ‘badalata’ and ‘rice’,  over time, something else happens to Beings. Their luminosity disappears, and the skin colour changes. You guessed it  – bragging about being handsomer than you others over there!  Jealousy and hatred   making  their appearance, something else, too. Sexuality matures in the Beings, and there’s sex, couples running into hiding to get away from cowdung hurled at them. Houses get built. Food getting more abundant, there’s hoarding, attracting thieves.

Craving, passion, theft …. Hm,  lawlessness. Beings get together and  elect the handsomest as the Great Elect for a promise of half the share of the crop. This, then,  is the gist of the seven paragraphs of the Sutta dealing with cosmology.

The study, with additional material (see below)  is now available in book form,  under the title   Dhamma Aboard Evolution: A Canonical Study of Aggañña Sutta in relation to Science.

            I was happy to see the   positive reaction to my research,  among both  lay and Sangha.  Ajahn Punnadhammo Mahathero, of Canada, speaks to the … exacting scholarship” which   teases out many fascinating and unexpected parallels to the modern scientific account..”

Mahathera Madawela Punnaji, of Sri Lanka, formerly of Toronto and now teaching in Malaysia, sees my research as  …a monumental presentation of a generally ignored part of the teachings of the Buddha.”

Prof. Emerita Lily de Silva  appreciates the … profound interdisciplinary knowledge..”, and the British  Biologist and author of Science Set Free, Dr Rupert Sheldrake,  notes how my research goes into areas I’ve never seen explored before in Buddhist scholarship”.

But   traditionalists also had their  day. Wasn’t the question of the beginnings of  the world  one of the ‘undeclareds’ (avyākata) of the Buddha? They’re  presumably thinking of the  Culamalunkya Sutta.   Yes, indeed. But for the very good reason that it does not lead to … to Nibbāna”, as explained by the Buddha. Secondly, the audience was not intelligent enough either. In the Agganna Sutta, the Buddha was speaking to  two intelligent listeners, Brahmin youth Vàsettha and  Bhàradvàja who had given up on their Brahminism, and were on a spiritual search. They undoubtedly had in their heads the Vedic myth of the beginnings of the universe. It was to dislodge this  mythical  view of  the universe, and the claims of the superiority of Brahmins, then,  that the Buddha uses the niche to unfold the universe. So did it lead to Nibbāna? You bet! The   two youth eventually become disciples and attain Arhanthood. So Evolution was  indeed the vehicle aboard which  Dhamma comes to be  accessed.

This is one of the points I speak to in my book Dhamma Aboard Evolution, in   Chapter 12, Intended Audience”. In   Ch. 11,   Cutting through the Vedic Myth”, I contrast the Buddha’s objective view of the universe with the mythical take on it in the Vedas. In another chapter, I   make the point that while the Buddha did  indeed have the intention of outlining the universe (13), it is merely as a takeoff to make the  critical point, a refrain in fact in the Sutta – that ‘Dhamma is the best’(Ch. 14), explaining the title. It is as if the Buddha takes us on a space flight to allow us a glimpse of  the ground reality that Dhamma is best! The reader will also read about the Structure and Quality of  Agganna Sutta” (15).

For Western Scientists, from Greek times right up until Einstein, the hand  that had guided  them, and this  may come as a surprise to many, was ‘Trust in God’.   Thus I invite  Buddhist scholars to take a bold stand of ‘Academically Engaged Buddhism’ by adopting  Trust in the Buddha as a Methodological Imperative” (Ch. 17).

Finally, we’re  all familiar with the well-known beast fables, Pancatantra  and the Hitopadesha. But do you know the originator of  this literary genre?  If you read the Appendix, Buddha as Originator of the Embedded Story Genre”, you’ll see   how  much the genre is owed to the Buddha, both in style and content.

Dhamma Aboard Evolution: a Canonical Study of Aggañña Sutta in Relation to Science (ISBN 978-0-9867198-5-1)  is now available as an ebook for FREE download at



(US Fulbright Scholar Prof. Sugunasiri is  Founding Editor of the Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies,   now in its tenth year. Author of You’re What You Sense: Buddha on Mindbody, 2001;  Sri Lanka: Buddhist Cultural Centre, his leadership of over three decades  in Canadian Buddhism  is featured in Wild Geese  (Harding, John, Victor Hori and Alexander Soucy (ed.), 2010, McGill-Queen’s University Press)).


One Response to “Dhamma Aboard Evolution-Breakthrough Research on the Aggañña Sutta now expanded into  book  ”

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