Sunday, August 23, 2009

Mr. Know-it-all?

The Buddha said that all sentient life can be classified according to whether it is egg-born, womb-born, sweat-born or spontaneously-born (S.III,240). The first two of these are clear enough. The fourth one refers to the devas. It’s the third one, swear-born (sansedaja), that needs a bit of explaining. The ancient Indians, like almost everyone else in the world until the 19th century, believed in spontaneous generation - the idea that life can emerge from lifeless matter. They would wash, bathe, put on clean clothes and in a day or two they would have head and body lice again. They couldn’t understand where these tiny creatures came from so they deduced that they were born out of their sweat. Maggots in rotting meat were believed to have spontaneously generated too, and for the same reasons – people couldn’t see where they came from. In believing in spontaneous generation the Buddha was in good company. Aristotle accepted it as did St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas after him. In the late Middle Ages spontaneous generation was used as evidence for the doctrine of Immaculate Conception - if life can come from dead matter, why can’t conception take place without sex? Franceaso Redi in the 17th century did a few experiments that cast serious doubts on spontaneous generation and finally in 1854 Louis Pasteur proved conclusively that it is false, although I know that many simple people in Sri Lanka still take it for granted.
Anyway, if the Buddha is ‘all-knowing’ (sabbannu) how come he believed spontaneous generation? Well, there are two ways of understanding sabbannu - the Flat-Earth Buddhism way and the other way. According to FEB (see my blog for 27,1,2009), the Buddha knew absolutely everything - how many bricks there are in the Great Wall of China, the number of grains of sand on Bondi Beach, that I was going to fail my maths exam in 1967, etc. The Tipitaka says ‘all-knowing’ and ‘all’ means ‘all’, everything, every thing, event and occurrence that ever has and ever will happen. Concerning spontaneous generation and other evidence that the Buddha didn’t know everything, Flat Earth Buddhists will cast aspersions on science. They can and do say, ‘Well, science might be wrong. Perhaps one day we will find out that some life is spontaneously generated. After all, science doesn't know everything’.
The other way of looking at it is within the context of the Dhamma. In the very interesting Sabba Sutta (the Discourse on the All, S.IV,15) the Buddha says that for him ‘the all’ means the senses and their objects, i.e. the eye and visual objects, the ear and sounds, etc. in other words, the process of cognition and the desire, craving and conceptualizing that it triggers, was fully understood by the Buddha. In another place the Buddha denied that he was omniscient but affirmed that he had the Three Knowledges (tevijja, M.I,482). So the Buddha was not a Mister Know-it all, although he did know everything necessary to attain enlightenment.


aah-haa said...

How sentient life begins is still being unravelled. Whether life is spontaneous or conceived, one should not have any preconceived idea that we know everything as yet. While everything could be explained in due course, one cannot already know in advance. A child may be precocious in learning but if he claims to be ‘all-knowing’ he is prehensile juvenile. Gravity exists long before Newton explained it. Flat-earth Buddhists should take a meditative walk to the edge of the world and give us an explanation.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Not believing in spontaneous generation is not ‘a pre-conceived’ idea, it’s actually a ‘post-conceived idea’, conceived after irrefutable evidence has shown it to be incorrect.

no said...

Somehow I wonder why the Buddha would want to talk about such things. My suspicion is, in all probability, discourses of this genre were added in by scholarly monks in later years so as to make Buddhism look like a comprehensive and scholarly system of knowledge. Anyway, it was good that the Venerable has drawn attention to the FEB post of Jan. I found a very enlightening discussion there. Ah, "aridity" in the monastic life... so expressive. It should add some understanding to the Ming Yi case. Do continue to refer back to previous posts, for the sake of late comers like me who, like most people I suspect, will only skim through old posts.

Ken and Visakha said...

The Buddha was a master at setting priorities, wasn't he?

A Handful of Leaves

The Blessed One was once living at Kosambi in a wood of simsapa trees. He picked up a few leaves in his hand, and he asked the bhikkhus, ‘How do you conceive this, bhikkhus, which is more, the few leaves that I have picked up in my hand or those on the trees in the wood?
‘The leaves that the Blessed One has picked up in his hand are few, Lord; those in the wood are far more.’
‘So too, bhikkhus, the things that I have known by direct knowledge are more; the things that I have told you are only a few. Why have I not told them? Because they bring no benefit, no advancement in the Holy Life, and because they do not lead to dispassion, to fading, to ceasing, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana. That is why I have not told them. And what have I told you? This is suffering; this is the origin of suffering; this is the cessation of suffering; this is the way leading to the cessation of suffering. That is what I have told you. Why have I told it? Because it brings benefit, and advancement in the Holy Life, and because it leads to dispassion, to fading, to ceasing, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana. So bhikkhus, let your task be this: This is suffering; this is the origin of suffering; this is the cessation of suffering; this is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.’
– Samyutta Nikaya, LVI, 31

MidPath said...
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MidPath said...

There is a book titled: The Buddha's Explanation of the Universe. It may be an interesting read. I also learn that the one has to walk the Path himself. Is that what the Buddha was telling the Monks when He refers to direct knowledge? Otherwise it would seem that knowledge or knowing does not bring about advancement.

Buddha said...

Dear Dhammika..
In some versions of Ramayana...While Rama's Messenger Hanuman Crosses the Sea to reach Lanka, his sweat falls on the Sea and its taken in by a Fish...Hanuman is a Celibate God , But the Fish Immediatley gets Concieved and a Son is Born.
Hanuman is Considered a Brahammachari (Never married or Never had sex)
We can infer that this "Sweat Born" is also in Hinduism.

reasonable said...

In a similar way, some Christians find it difficult to accept the idea that God's "all-knowing" does not involve knowing what I will be eating on next year's 7th July. Omniscience does not mean knowing such details of the future. Omniscience involves knowing what can logically be known and does not involve knowing things that are absolutely impossible to know, just as omnipotence does not mean having the ability to do even the nonsensical things such as drawing a round square but only the ability to do all things that are not absolutely impossible to be done. Just as there are Flat Earth Buddhists there are also Flat Earth Christians.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Buddha,
Although I have never heard that story you mention, I do know that there are many stories of celibate ascetics ejaculation in water or on land and an animal drinking the water or retain the grass on the land and then conceiving. Either way, the belief in spontaneous generation did exist in Brahmanism and later in Hinduism because it was widely believed in India as it was elsewhere.

aah-haa said...

The raging fire in Athens reminds me of a phenomenon called spontaneous combustion. A material element can burn itself without being ignited by another source. That is when the ambient temperature is higher than its flash point (something like that). Could life be spontaneous in the FIRST INSTANCE?
The cosmos is vaster than the region our latest telescopes can probe. There is life beyond planet Earth and Darwinian evolution would eventually lead to the emergence of creatures capable of determining their origins.