What does Buddhist cosmology tell us about the Buddhist view of human potential?
Buddhism, in general, has always tried or tries to understand the paradoxes of the Universe together with human conditioning. From a theological point of view, it can be stated that the goal of Buddhism is to make everyone free from suffering and to find happiness. Original Buddhism is a non-sectarian way of life, which can be followed by anyone, not being a definite religion or a declared philosophy.
Buddhism comes from Hinduism and it is necessary to consider that the Universe has arisen from the breath of Brahman (the soul of the world, supreme creator). Each breathing movement creates (expiration) and destroys (inspiration), forming space and time. For Buddhism, the Universe has always existed and will always exist.
According to physicists, in cosmology, astronomical observations together with the theory of general relativity, which introduced the concept of gravity as the curvature of space and time, have shown that our Universe is neither eternal nor static in its present form. It is in continuous evolution and expansion (Smolin, 1997, p.17-18). This discovery is in accordance with the basic intuition of Buddhist cosmologists of antiquity, who consider that the entire Universe goes through the stages of formation, expansion, and finally destruction. Buddhists believe that the world was not created at one time, but rather the world is created millions of times every second and this will continue to happen and end on its own. In this shuttle of the Universe, there is always a connection between cause and effect with smaller births and catastrophes of all kinds. The systems around us always appear and disappear in the Universe, so the laws that govern the macrocosm (Universe) also happen in the mesocosm (Earth) and in the microcosm (I) and obey rigidly to the universal Dharma (Law). There is a basic tuning in these three parallels, with advances and setbacks, from its own dynamic system.
In the fourth chapter of “The Universe in a single atom”, Dalai Lama covers a plausible explanation concerning Buddhist cosmology. In short, Buddhism explains the evolution of the cosmos in terms of the principle of dependent origin, in which the origin and existence of everything have to be understood in terms of the complex network of interrelated causes and conditions. This applies to consciousness in the same way as matter.
Buddhist cosmology in its various schools or branches is entirely in tune with spirituality and behaviour, starting from the personal cycle, passing through the world and then arriving at the cosmic level. Siddhartha Gautama lived these cycles and only received the title of Buddha at the age of thirty-five when, after six years of spiritual practices, he awoke to the reality that exists beyond appearances.
Who am I? What am I? What is my role in the Universe? These issues arise because of increased cognitive development and are in fact an attraction exercised by pure consciousness that functions behind the mind and is reflected more and more in the mental part of the living being. The human being has the unique ability to re-emerge in the early stage of consciousness, losing his individual entity back to the infinite ocean of bliss. The force that lies behind every existence, every vibration of the universe, its cosmic consciousness. The physical and mental aspects only mean that you use temporarily to express yourself in the manifested Universe. Although humans are generally identified with their body and mind, they have the ability to transcend all these transitory aspects of existence and realize the fundamental unity of everything.
From childhood to adulthood, the human being undergoes a series of important psychological changes that reveal its identity profile. As the Buddha himself tried to show, behaviours reveal the transcendent truth within Buddhism. The completely physical and mental world derives from a superior state to that of the human mind, a state of pure consciousness. This initial state of pure consciousness is the source from which all creation comes, the result of a flow beyond the rational understanding of the human being. The mind of each organism, when its body dies, progresses individually, guided by the cosmic mind, to progressively more developed species. In this sense, the same mind goes through different forms of plant and animal life. In the first organisms, the mind is underdeveloped and the physical structure adopted does not allow its proper expression. Behind the mind actually works the individual consciousness, which is as a reflection of the cosmic consciousness, of pure consciousness from whence the whole Universe flows. As the mind unfolds and develops its higher faculties of reflection, the being begins to feel an attraction for spiritual development. The story of the Buddha shows us just that. His views of past lives in different ways and forms. His own narrative on innumerable rebirths, on karma. The being can consciously accelerate his speed of evolution towards pure consciousness by raising and expanding his mind or regressing to the lower stages of existence, back to the animal state for example. According to the mental state of the being at the moment of his death, its next existence will be determined as seen in the Buddha’s accounts (Chalmers, 1926, p. 15-17). When it is negative, it gives rise to the new experience of life, to reincarnations. People reincarnate because they have karma, that is, negative marks in their minds. In short, those marks or impressions can lead to rebirths in unwanted forms (Williams, 2012, p.57-58).
The human world is marked by the concern to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, which implies a huge number of strategies to achieve such a thing. On a daily level, this occurs with the observance of the doctrine-law (Dharma). The “self” or “I” is nothing more than human nature in its bodily and behavioural form. This illusory or momentary “self”, whose composition consists of bodily reality with the mastery of its five Skandhas can become a problem for the individual when not dealt with precisely. When someone clings to the Five Aggregates, they produce suffering (but it is not stated that the aggregates are, by themselves, the suffering), limiting the individual’s potential and potentially leading him to Naraka*. The illusory ego within each person can never obtain what he/she seeks, whether it be the pursuit of pleasure, the search for perfection or even the concern to be better than the other. All these human factors or failures prevent people within Buddhism from achieving their potential to achieve enlightenment. In this constant struggle for the sake of a kind of perfection, the delusional ego begins to judge its progress obsessively, comparing itself with others, judging others and trying desperately to manufacture happiness without knowing that everything is impermanent, reaching total existential despair. For Buddhism, our highest consciousness is the mind. Buddha used to assert that a man is his mind. The mind is the part based on experiences and knowledge that overcomes death. The human behavioural essence in relation to Buddhism is that which gives rise to the consequences of choices made (cause-effect).
The Buddhist attitude arises from the inner urge to identify with all living and suffering beings. This attitude helps to go beyond or at least minimize one’s own sufferings. Wisdom is the understanding of the truth about what is the apparent reality of this existence and of the conditioned phenomena. When the mind is freed from all thought of “I” and “mine,” the ignorance is destroyed. For many Buddhist philosophies, all people have, in potential; the Buddha nature and everyone have access to this cosmic nature. It only does not become evident because of the clouds of illusion and ignorance. Passing those clouds of illusion and ignorance, the Buddha nature that exists comes into existence and the follower fully sees and fully understands it. He develops Wisdom. He fully understands the three characteristics of existence (Annica, Dukkha, and Anatta) and fully understand meritorious deeds. The human potential in this abounding context must then be focused only on inner wisdom. The realization of emptiness, disregard for worldly things and consideration of the next maximizes the potential contained within each human being for the ultimate goal, it is about abandoning delusions (Shantideva, 2002, p.155-158). It is the imminent and spontaneous will to attain Buddhahood for a greater benefit, not only for the person himself /herself but for the ones around them (Shantideva, 2002, p.9).
When we synoptically view the supremacy of the Buddha in the spiritual domain, their distinctive function of liberating others, the repetition of the attainment of Buddhahood over cosmic time, and the principle that our destiny is the consequence of our past deeds, we can discern the outlines of a bodhisattva career implicit in the historical Buddha’s own teaching but the purpose does not end when you obtain this spiritual state. As the Buddha declared, there is more to it than just Bodhisattva.
“I, too, monks, before my Awakening, when I was an unawaken Bodhisatta, being subject myself to birth, sought what was likewise subject to birth. Being subject myself to ageing… illness… death… sorrow… defilement, I sought [happiness in] what was likewise subject to illness… death… sorrow… defilement. The thought occurred to me, ‘Why do I, being subject myself to birth, seek what is likewise subject to birth? Being subject myself to ageing… illness… death… sorrow… defilement, why do I seek what is likewise subject to illness… death… sorrow… defilement. What if I, being subject myself to birth, seeing the drawbacks of birth, were to seek the unborn, unexcelled rest from the yoke: Unbinding? What if I, being subject myself to ageing… illness… death… sorrow… defilement, seeing the drawbacks of ageing… illness… death… sorrow… defilement, was to seek the ageing-less, illness-less, deathless, sorrow-less, unexcelled rest from the yoke: Unbinding?’ (Ariyapariyesana Sutta)
The aforementioned teaching of the Buddha shows that Bodhisattva is also described as one who is still subject to birth, sickness, death, sadness, disillusionment, corruption, so it is perceived that the human potential for the greater good goes beyond that. It is a fact that such statements can be seen in different ways by the various Buddhist ramifications but the truth is that correct behaviours lead to enlightenment (Williams, 1989, p.216); therefore, thinking that this is an appropriate and final state is wrong.
Human life can then be predetermined in two perceptions: The first fundamental principle is the primitive cause of the succession of deaths and rebirths from immemorial times (it is the principle of ignorance, the extreme principle of individualization). From this principle come the various differentiations of the mind of all living beings, which confuse their limited, disturbed and polluted minds with the true essence of the mind (It is the natural state of everyone, is the inner element that may help in enlightenment). The second Fundamental Principle is the primitive cause of the pure oneness of enlightenment or Nirvana, which exists from the beginning of life (it is the principle of integrated compassion, the unifying principle of purity, harmony, resemblance, rhythm and peace). At a cosmic level it can be noticed many different interactions for many different causes such as the interfaces of the illusory self, the expanding and contracting Universe (breathing of Brahman) or the lotus flower that emerges from the mud (world from below, from darkness ) and opens beautifully to the transcendent (Nirvana, plenitude, spiritual purity). It is as if all these symbologies denotations wanted to show Buddhists followers that the perfection cosmic-spiritual consists in the balance, in the middle path (Madhyamaka), in basic harmony and integral spirituality in the quest incessant of absolute perfection. One can see how important the middle path is for Buddhism. This is what will bring balance in someone’s life, which will potentiate actions for the greater good so when people see the Buddha as a condition of life and not as a being, they may realize their condition of existence. The analytical knowledge acquired by inner vision is the only way to remove the false idea of the “self.” By remaining attentive to all these obstacles at the very moment when they arise and disappear, the disciple establishes full awareness, understanding, discernment, and the attainment of peace.
- Ariyapariyesana Sutta: The Noble Search” (MN 26), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), [4 December 2018]. Available from: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.026.than.html
- Bodhi, B. 2011 Where the Path Divides: Early Buddhism and the Bodhisattva Ideal. [Online]. [4 December 2018]. Available from: https://www.inquiringmind.com/article/2801_22_bodhi/
- Chalmers, R (1926). Further Dialogues of the Buddha. (Reprint Ed.). Virginia: Sri Satguru Publications.
- Lama 14th, D (Chapter 4 the Big Bang and the Buddhist Beginning less Universe). The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality. 2005: Morgan Road Books.
- Shantideva (2002). Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. (First Ed.). England: Tharpa Publications.
- Smolin, L (1997). The Life of the Cosmos. (First Ed.). United States: Oxford University Press.
- Uchiyama, K (2016). What Is a Bodhisattva? [Online]. [4 December 2018]. Available from: https://tricycle.org/magazine/what-bodhisattva/
- Williams, P (1989). Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. (First Edition). Great Britain: St. Edmundsbury Press Ltd.
- Williams, P, Tribe, A & Wynne, A (2012). Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition. (Second Ed.). England: Routledge.
 *Naraka-The term hell in modern Buddhism is not as relevant as it was to Buddhism in the old days. The Buddha, for example, used this term for his teachings to be understood more precisely.