Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Extraterrestrial Life

Yesterday IS IT REAL asked the question, 'Did the Buddha believe in life on other planets?' It's an interesting question. In several places but in particular in the Acchariyaabbhutadhamma Sutta (M.III,123-4), the Buddha speaks of the 'interspace of vacancy, gloom and utter darkness where the moon and the sun, mighty and powerful as they are, cannot make their light prevail' (this sounds like intergalactic space to me) and the 'beings born there' (satta idhupapanna). While this could refer to life on other planets I don’t think it does. Firstly, this passage seems to be didactic, used to illustrate a particular point, and not meant to be taken literally. And if it were taken literally it looks to me as if it is would be referring to devas or spirits inhabiting space, not embodied entities residing on the surface on a particular planet. So I would maintain that the Buddha did not speak of life on other planets. If in anyone else knows of something the Buddha said that would contradict this, let's have it. We could then ask, 'Would the idea of life on other planets be at odds with Buddhist doctrine?' I can't see that it would. If extraterrestrial life were discovered (and apparently scientists consider this scenario to be quite plausible) there is no reason why dukkha, anicca and anatta would not apply to them and therefore that the Dhamma would not be relevant to them, if they had the intelligence to understand it. I imagine that some other religions would find such a discovery troubling. It would become increasingly difficult to maintain that humans were a special creation and that man was made in God's image. And if it were found that this extraterrestrial life were more highly developed than us, this too would require major adjustments within the theistic traditions. It would also probably spell the end of the 'they came from outer space' genera of movies and novels.
In the Tipitaka quote above is Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation.

1 comment:

Anandajoti said...

Dear Venerable, this is the passage that IS IT REAL? mentioned, and that was referred to by Ajahn Brahm (Anguttaranikaya, The Chapter of the Tens, Sutta 29, part, trans. by Nyanaponika Thera and Bhikkhu Bodhi):
(2) Monks, as far as sun and moon revolve and illuminate all directions by their radiance, so far does the thousandfold world system extend. And in that thousandfold world system there are a thousand moons, a thousand suns, a thousand Mount Sinerus the king of mountains, a thousand Jambudipa continents, a thousand Western Goyana continents, a thousand Northern Kuru continents, a thousand Eastern Videha continents, a thousand four great oceans, a thousand Four Divine Kings and their heavens, a thousand each of the heavens of the Tavatimsa devas, of the Yama devas, of the Tusita devas, of the devas Who Delight in Creation, of the devas Who Control What Is Created by Others, and there are a thousand Brahma worlds.

As far, monks, as this thousandfold world system extends, Mahabrahma ranks there as the highest. But even for Mahabrahma change takes place, transformation takes place. When seeing this, monks, an instructed noble disciple is repelled by it; being repelled, he becomes dispassionate towards the highest, not to speak of what is low.