Where Did the Universe and Life Come From?

While Buddhists do not believe in the existence of a creator-god, the existence of the universe cannot be doubted, nor can the existence of life be denied. According to Buddhism, the most basic elements that comprise the universe are empty of self-nature, and the elements that comprise life are also devoid of self-nature. This lack of a separate selfnature, called emptiness, is the only unchanging truth in the universe. That it is an unchanging truth implies that emptiness has no beginning and no ending: emptiness is the true state in which the universe and life have always existed.

Buddhists believe that all phenomena, including change in the universe and the cycle of birth and death, are consequences of the karma [intentional actions] of sentient beings. Karmic energy refers to the causal force produced by sentient beings’ behavior, good or bad, which continually permeates or “colors” the field of consciousness (shitian)— the primary element of life. Karmic energy waits in the field of consciousness for the right external conditions to induce it to sprout and grow. This process is similar to planting seeds in the soil: the seeds wait for the inducement of sun, air, and water to sprout and grow. In Buddhism, this process is called the activation of karmic energy. Performing karmic action is the cause for activation of karmic energy, whereas the activation of karmic energy is the fruit of karma. The adage “There are always consequences to doing good or evil” describes this principle.

Karma can be done individually, or collectively enacted by a group of people. Some karma, though individually performed, may be the same as other people’s karma. And some, though collectively performed, may vary in degree among the group members. Thus, karma can be understood in two general categories: collective, or shared, karma and individual, or non-shared, karma.

Due to collective karma, beings receive the same karmic recompense. For example, the earth is engendered by the karmic energies of the countless past, present, and future beings of our world. Infinite worlds exist throughout the universe, each formed according to the distinct collective karma of different groups of beings. So if it turns out that there really are human beings on Mars, a Martian would not necessarily take the same physical form as a human living on Earth. Even the stars and planets without life are the karmic consequences of sentient beings, as these celestial bodies serve as the backdrop to the stage in which sentient beings live. In short, each and every thing in the universe exists for some reason. For example, the Sun could not possibly support life. But without the Sun, life on Earth could not survive. Although there are a lot of things whose reason for existing cannot be proved scientifically, Buddhists believe they are engendered by sentient beings’ karmic energy, which is the reason they exist.

As for the first appearance of life on Earth, Buddhists believe that all living beings, from single-celled organisms to human beings, first emerged on this planet through spontaneous birth.

After the earth was formed, beings from the sixth heaven in the realm of form, the Heaven of Light-Sound, flew down to Earth and became the first human beings. But on Earth they fell into bad habits, craving for and becoming attached to a certain natural food. This food made them so heavy that they could no longer fly, so they settled here.[1] Actually, this was just the consequence of their karma: after they had exhausted their karmic rewards of staying in the heavens, they had to descend to Earth to receive retribution for previous actions. Similarly, since Earth was engendered by collective karma of sentient beings, it is inevitable for these beings to experience the karmic result of life on Earth. After the karmic energies that lead one to live on Earth dissipate, other, new, karma may cause one to live on other worlds.

Because of non-shared karma, sentient beings on the same Earth take forms of differing status, from insects to humans. Among humans, some are born poor, others rich; some are intelligent, others foolish— they differ in countless ways.

In fact, from a broad perspective shared karma can itself be a kind of non-shared karma. For example, the karma shared by all the sentient beings on Earth is not shared by sentient beings in other worlds. Similarly, non-shared karma can itself be shared karma. For instance, to be born as a black African or a yellow Asian is the result of different karma; yet both share the karma to be humans on Earth. By reasoning through analogy, we can see that people within one country differ in countless ways, and even siblings have different personalities, achievements, and feelings toward life experiences.

This entry describes how Buddhism views the existence and the origin of our universe and life.

 


  1. See the Chronicle of the World Sūtra, the Daloutan Sūtra, and the Sūtra onthe Arising of the World. Author.
    The Chronicle of the World Sūtra, which describes early Buddhist cosmology, is not available in Pali as one sutta, but some of its contents can be found in the following suttas from the Dīgha Nikāya: Mahāgovinda Sutta (no. 19), Pāt.ika Sutta (no. 24), Cakkavatti-sīhanāda Sutta (no. 26), and Aggañña Sutta (no. 27). Trans

SOURCE:

Orthodox Chinese Buddhism: A Contemporary Chan Master's Answers to Common Questions. (2007)
by Master Sheng Yen | Translated by Douglas Gildow and Otto Chang. | ISBN 978-1-55643-657-4

ADDITIONAL NOTES ON SOURCE:

Lists of errata, suggested changes and comments by Douglas Gildow