Buddhism and Evolution – Aggañña Sutta (DN 27)

January 24, 2019; revised January 30, 2019; July 30, 2019; February 16, 2020; August 24, 2020; May 12, 2021; July 22, 2022


1. “Aggañña Sutta (DN 27)” is one of several complex suttā that requires a lengthy explanation. One must have a broad background in Buddha Dhamma to understand the sutta. I have been very reluctant to write even this post because it could lead to many questions in many people who do not yet have that background.

  • Agga” means “highest,” and thus, the word “Aggañña” means “highest knowledge,” in this case, about our world.
  • The Buddha delivered the Aggañña sutta to two brahmins (Vāseṭṭha and Bhāradvāja) to explain the “human origins.” That not only Vedic brahmins — but ALL LIVING BEINGS — on this Earth came from Brahma realms at the beginning of the Earth. In other words, each living being on this Earth was a Brahma at the beginning of the present Earth).
  • I must forewarn that some features contradict existing “scientific theories.” Please do not bring them up. I am aware of them. That is why I have been reluctant to write this post.
  • However, at least for those who have faith in Dhamma, there are some benefits in seeing how self-consistent Buddha Dhamma is.
Summary of Sutta

2. Following is a summary:
(i). The universe has no traceable beginning, just like for life; see “Origin of Life.”

(ii). The universe has “clusters or groups” of stars. Our Solar system is one of 10,000 “star systems” (cakkavāla or planetary systems; chakrawāta in Sinhala). There is an infinite number of such cakkavāla in the universe.
(iii). When a star in the vicinity of our Sun blows up in a few billion years, that blast will destroy 10,000 other star systems in the neighborhood. In modern science, such a “star explosion” has a particular name, a supernova.
(iv). Such a cluster of 10,000 world systems blows up from time to time in the universe. Again, scientists observe such supernovae every year.
(v). Science does not know yet that those destroyed star systems re-form over billions of years.
(vi). Not all 31 realms get destroyed when our Solar system blows up at the end of a mahā kappa. Higher lying Brahma worlds (where there is very little “destructible matter”) survive. That is where all living beings on this Earth end up before the destruction of the Earth.
(vii). How all living beings end up in the Brahma realms is a long story.
(viii). Then, when the Earth re-forms, those Brahmā — at the end of their lifetimes in those worlds — are reborn as humans with very light, Brahma-like bodies at first.
(ix). Then the life on Earth evolves to other lifeforms too. That is a “reverse evolution” compared to the “theory of evolution” currently accepted by science. After billions of years, the realms below the Ābhassara Brahma realm will be destroyed again to be re-formed after billions of more years. That cycle will keep repeating.
(x). So, that is the life cycle. It happens all over the universe at any given time. Scientists observe several supernovae in our galaxy yearly (billions of cakkavāla).

Model of the Universe

3. Therefore, life exists in an infinite number of “star systems” where a star provides the energy to sustain life. In our “Solar system,” life exists in 31 realms centered on Earth, located inside, on the surface, and extending out into space. Of course, the Sun is our star.

4. A Buddha appears only in one cakkavāla out of that cluster of 10,000 such cakkavāla in that group; that is our Earth. Brahmā and devas from those 10,000 systems (dasa sa­has­si loka­dhātu) can come and listen to Dhamma on the Earth.

  • Of course, humans from those worlds do not have access to Buddha Dhamma.
  • So, we can see how rare it is for humans to “have access” to Buddha Dhamma. Sometimes there can be many consecutive mahā kappā without a single Buddha appearing!
Model of the Solar System (Cakkavāla)

5. The Buddha stated that the length of one kappa or (kalpa in Sinhala) is unimaginably long. He gave the following comparison. In that time, a man could 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.

6. A mahā kappa consists of 4 “antakkappa, “as explained in the Kappa Sutta (AN 4.156):

Cattārimāni, bhikkhave, kappāsa asaṅkhyeyyāni. Katamāni cattāri? Yadā, bhikkhave, kappo saṃvaṭṭati,..kappo saṃvaṭṭo tiṭṭhati,..kappo vivaṭṭati,..kappo vivaṭṭo tiṭṭhati, ..”

  • “There are four incalculable kappā. Destruction takes place for a kappa, remains in that state (void) for a kappa, re-formation takes place over a kappa, and then it exists in that state for a kappa.”
  • That last stage is where the Earth is now.
  • Each incalculable kappa has 20 kappā.

7. The Solar system will last another 5 billion or so. Thus the total time in the existence of the current Sun (and Earth) is about 10 billion years, according to modern science. That is the existence phase lasting 20 kappā, assuming that the current scientific estimate is correct.

  • The other three kappā take 10 billion years each, which is how the time for a complete cycle takes 40 billion years.
  • The Earth (and the whole Solar system) continues through this cyclic process that takes roughly 40 billion years per cycle, i.e., for a mahā kappa (with the above assumption.)
  • This cycle will keep repeating. There was no “Big Bang” beginning.
Migration of Living Beings at Destruction/Re-Formation of Earth

8. When the Sun dies in the future, it will start expanding and expand to reach the Earth. Long before that, all life on Earth would have been destroyed (except those in higher Brahma realms.)

  • So, what happens to all the living beings on Earth? We remember that while humans and animals live on the Earth, those belonging to the other three lower realms live on or underneath the Earth’s surface. All those will perish.
  • It is a long story, but all those beings move to higher realms as the Earth gets hot.

9. We remember that the deva and Brahma realms lie above the Earth. But the “density” in those realms is well below the “density” of things at the surface. As we know, deva bodies are much less dense than human bodies, and Brahma “bodies” are even more subtle.

  • One critical thing we learn from science is that “more dense stuff” burns first. For example, in an incinerator, we can burn anything dense. But of course, gases are not burned (i.e., not decomposed.)
  • There is nothing much of what we call “material” in those realms. Whatever is there will gradually decay and be replaced by other “fine matter.” Of course, all beings in those realms will also have long but finite lifetimes.
  • The deduction is that all those realms above the Ābhassara Brahma realm will not destroy in the destruction phase. That is why the lifetimes of some Brahmā are many mahā kappā.

10. The bottom line is that all realms below the Ābhassara Brahma realm will eventually be destroyed. By that time, all the living beings would have “migrated” up to that realm.

  • How do all these living beings, including those in the apāyā, migrate to higher realms?
  • That is related to the fact that when the Earth starts getting “hot,” those “mind-pleasing sense objects” will be destroyed over time. Living beings will have fewer “sense attractions,” and thus, their minds will be temporarily freed from “upādāna.”
  • That needs a detailed explanation, but those who understand Paṭicca Samuppāda may be able to at least a glimpse of how it happens.

11. When the Earth is re-formed about 20 billion years after its destruction (10 billion years remaining in the destructed state and 10 billion years for the re-formation,) those Brahmā will start coming down to those newly-formed lower realms.

  • That also will take some explaining. But the critical point is that with time, old “gati” (which have been lying dormant as anusaya) start to re-surface, and the activation of Paṭicca Samuppāda cycles will ensure those “downward paths.”
Conflicts with Current Scientific Theories

12. Now, we immediately run into difficulties with the current scientific knowledge of Earth’s history. According to current understanding, the first humans appeared only about 2 million years ago. Note that a billion years is 1000 million years!

  • Therefore, what we described above is a “reverse evolution” compared to the “theory of evolution” currently accepted by science.
  • We need to go back only 500 years to see how a prevailing worldview changed and became compatible with Buddha Dhamma. See #13 below.
  • I have discussed how Buddha Dhamma has so far withstood past such “contradictions”; see “Dhamma and Science – Introduction.“  I hope the next revision in science will happen during my lifetime.

13. For example, only 500 years ago, the accepted “world view” was that Earth was at the center of the universe with all the stars embedded in “celestial spheres.“

  • If someone had tried to explain that the Earth was rotating around the Sun, he would have had a hard time. Galileo spent the rest of his life in solitary confinement after proving that the Earth was rotating around the Sun.
  • Of course, no one will be prosecuted for proposing any theory these days. Still, they will not be taken seriously by the scientific community.
  • As new experiments/observations provide further evidence, an accepted scientific view changes to accommodate the new evidence. For example, the above change in the world view occurred after Galileo invented the telescope.
  • Of course, adopting that scientific method for mundane purposes is only rational. That is the only way science can make progress.
  • However, when one comprehends Buddha’s Dhamma, one can better understand our world.
The Rarity of Buddha Dhamma in the World

14. There have been four Buddhas in this mahā kappa, and one more Buddha will appear before the destruction of this Earth and the Solar system.

  • Then after 30 billion more years, the Earth will come to exist again in this cyclic process (not the same Earth).

15. In the Vepullapabbatta Sutta (SN 15.20), the Buddha provides the names of the three Buddhas on this Earth (in this mahā kappa) before him: Kakusandha, Koṇāgama, and Kassapa. He describes how a particular mountain had three different names and heights during those Buddha’s times.

  • The point here is that those Buddhas had been on this Earth at times far apart from each other. Considering that the age of the Earth is about 4.5 billion years, it is reasonable to assume that they were about a billion years apart.
  • One piece of evidence in the Tipiṭaka for material from previous Buddhas transmitted via Vedic teachings (with superficial meanings) is given in the post, “Arōgyā Paramā Lābhā..” (see #8 there).

16. By the way, the existence of Buddha Kassapa before the Buddha Gōtama helps explain many questions about the connection between Vedic terms and Buddhist terms. Some examples are kamma (karma), Bhikkhu (Bhikshu), paññā (pragnā), jhāna (dhyāna), Nibbāna (Nirvāna), and so on.

  • After the end of the Kassapa Buddha Sāsana, his teachings were transmitted as Vedic teachings without deeper meanings. I will need to write some posts just on this issue.
  • A good example is the Ānāpāna bhāvanā, which got transmitted as “breath meditation.”
  • After re-gaining Buddha Kassapa’s interpretation during our Buddha’s time, the Vedic description has been retaken hold by the current time. The correct version will be fully restored in the coming years. But, of course, it will again disappear to be rediscovered by the Maitreya Buddha in the future.

17. Furthermore, there have been only 7 Buddhas within the past 91 mahā kappā; see “Mahāpadāna Sutta (DN 14)“.

  • There have been 30 mahā kappā without a single Buddha before the current mahā kappa. That is 1200 billion years or over a trillion years!
  • Even in this mahā kappa, the Gōtama Buddha Sāsana would last only 5000 years, a negligible time compared to a mahā kappa. That is why we should not waste this rare opportunity.
Origins of the World – Limits of Inquiry

18. The human mind is naturally curious. We want to know everything, especially regarding this wondrous place called the universe. It is mind-boggling but exciting at the same time. Growing up, I spent a lot of time reading science fiction and speculations about the origins of the universe, etc.

  • One time, Ven. Moggallāna, who was only second to the Buddha in psychic (abhiññā) powers, wanted to explore the universe and see for himself how far he could go. He got lost! Buddha had to come to his rescue.
  • Then there is the account about a yogi, Rohitassa, who developed abhiññā powers. He wanted to see the end of the world and took off looking for it, got lost, and died. He was reborn as a deva, came to see the Buddha, and told the Buddha about his quest. See, “Rohitassa Sutta: To Rohitassa.“

19. Cosmology is one of the things that the Buddha declared “unthinkable (acinteyya)” for an average human; see, “Acinteyya Sutta (AN 4.77)“:

“There are these four things that one should not conjecture about and would bring anxiety and madness to anyone who speculates. Which four? (i) capabilities of a Buddha, (ii) subject of jhānā, (iii) detailed knowledge of kamma/kamma vipāka, and (iv) origins of the world.

  • One can spend a lifetime looking into the details of those subjects and getting nowhere.
  • However, we can gain some insights by having a rough idea about those subjects, as we saw above. One gets into trouble when one tries to get into details.
  • We will explore some more aspects in the future that are beneficial for progressing on the Path.

20. Please keep that in mind when you comment on the discussion forum. We can learn a few things from the sutta, but it is useless to get into arguments about how it contradicts current scientific findings.

July 12, 2019: I have started a new subsection, “Origin of Life,” to discuss the necessary background material for future posts on the Aggañña Sutta.

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