Samsāric Time Scale, Buddhist Cosmology, and the Big Bang Theory

Revised May 22, 2018

1. In order to really understand the Buddha’s message, one needs to grasp the unimaginable length of the samsāra (the rebirth process). The Buddha said that there is no discernible beginning to sentient life. It always existed, and it will exist until one attains Nibbāna.

2. This a bit difficult concept for many, because many cultures/religions have the concept of a set time of Creation. If there is a First Cause (such as Creation), then there must be a time that everything got started. But if there is no Creation, then there cannot be a set time for a beginning.

  • Even as recently as at beginning of the 1900s, Lord Kelvin, one of the top scientists of the day, estimated that the age of the Sun was < 40 million years based on gravitational contraction (atomic structure was not known at that time), and our knowledge of the universe was pretty much limited to the Solar system.

3. Vindication of the Buddha’s teachings on the long samsāra started at the beginning of the 1900s with the advent of quantum mechanics and relativity: Discovery of radioactivity in 1898 by Becquerel and Einstein’s explanation of the photoelectric effect in 1905 led to the quantum theory of atomic structure, which in turn led to the correct picture of atomic fusion as the source of solar energy.

  • So, by 1956, the age of the solar system was known to be > 4 billion years. Yet, even billions of years is hardly the same as “beginning-less time”!

4. But there was more to be discovered. By 1929, Edwin Hubble proved that the distant galaxies are moving away from each other and from our galaxy, and that our galaxy is but just one of many galaxies. This was a vast understatement since now we know that there are billions of galaxies in our observable universe! And they are flying away from each other, i.e, the universe is expanding.

  • The discovery of the microwave background radiation in the 1960s led to the conclusion that our universe started off with the “Big Bang” about 14 billion ago.
  • However, it is just a theory.

5. The most accepted explanation for such “big bang origin of the universe” is the inflationary theory of Alan Guth (see, “The Inflationary Universe” by Alan Guth, 1997). In the inflation theory, if one “Big Bang” is possible, then it is a given that many other “Big Bangs” are possible. The total energy of our universe is completely consistent with adding up to zero.

  • If a universe requires a sum total of zero energy to produce, then “the universe is the ultimate free lunch”, as Guth explains in his book (pp. 247-248). Thus, implied in the inflation theory is the existence of multiple universes.
  • According to the “cyclic theory” model, which is an alternate theory, the same universe comes to a “Big Crunch” which leads to another Big Bang, and the whole process keeps repeating. So, there is no beginning to time either; time is infinite.

6. There are several theories currently being explored in quantum mechanics that are related to cosmology. There is one theory that requires a universe being existing for each possible event! So, there may be an infinite number of parallel universes. For example, see “The Beginning of Infinity” by David Deutsch (2011). In all these theories there are multiple universes that always exist.

  • If that is not enough to boggle one’s mind, there is another theory in quantum mechanics called the “Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics”. It speculates that multiple universes are created at each time a quantum event takes place!

7. Buddha’s explanation of how the universe operates is detailed in the Aggañña Sutta (DN 27). However, all English translations available today are not correct. A good translation of the sutta with details would need to a good background in Buddha Dhamma.

8. I would like to close this essay with a simile from the Buddha that he used to describe the unimaginable length of samsāra, and to point out that our time in this life is less than a blink of an eye compared to the length of samsāra. The Buddha used a great eon as the measurement unit to help his followers visualize the enormous length of samsāra.

  • In Buddha Dhamma, the Earth keeps going through a cyclic process: it forms, stays in that state, starts being destroyed, and stays in that destroyed state. That whole process takes a great eon (mahā kappa) , and then the whole process repeats, again and again..
  • The length of a great eon (mahā kappa) is said by the Buddha to be longer than the time it would take a man to wear away a mountain of solid granite one yojanā (about 7 miles) around and one yojanā high, by stroking it once every hundred years with a silk cloth.
  • These days scientists use the word “eon” to denote the duration of a universe (from the “big bang” either to a “big crunch” or just fading away). That will be proven to be incorrect in the future. I hope I will live to that day!

9. Just for fun, I estimated the mass of the material that needs to be removed by the silk cloth each time (this happens every 100 years). Using a 7-mile cube of stone with a density of 2515 kg per cubic meter, I calculate the mass of the mountain to be 3.5 x 10 ^6 kg.

  • Assuming the lifetime of our Solar system to be 10 billion years, I calculate the mass removed by each stroke is about 36 grams or about 1.2 ounces. This appears to be a reasonable number!
  • When we try to visualize the wearing of a mountain we can imagine how long a time period that is.

10. Yet, that is still nothing compared to the length of the samsāra. Infinity is a concept that is hard to wrap one’s mind around; see, “Infinity – How Big Is It?”.

  • One day the bhikkhus asked the Buddha how many great eons had already passed and gone by. The Buddha told them, “Suppose, bhikkhus, there were four disciples here each with a lifespan of hundred years, and each day they were each to recollect a hundred thousand great eons. There would still be great eons not yet recollected by them when those four disciples pass away at the end of a hundred years. Because, bhikkhus, this samsāra is without discoverable beginning”.
  • Another simile given by the Buddha to indicate the length of samsāra is the following: Each and every living being has been one’s mother, father, or a close relative in this unimaginably long samsāra.
  • One could get an idea of why infinity is so hard to fathom by reading about what scientists say about infinity; a very entertaining book is “The Beginning of Infinity” (2011) by the physicist David Deutsch.

January 24, 2019: Relevant post: “Buddhism and Evolution – Aggañña Sutta (DN 27)“.

July 20, 2019: New series on “Origin of Life“.

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