Buddhism and Evolution – Aggañña Sutta (DN 27)

January 24, 2019; revised January 30, 2019; July 30, 2019


1. Aggañña Sutta is one of several complex suttas that requires a lengthy explanation. To understand the sutta, one needs to have a broad background in Buddha Dhamma. 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 necessary background.

  • Agga” means “highest” and thus 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 right now was a brahma at the beginning of the present Earth).
  • I must forewarn that some features are in contradiction to 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, there are some benefits at least for those who have faith in Dhamma, in seeing how self-consistent Buddha Dhamma is.

2. Following is a summary:
(i). The universe has no traceable beginning, just like for life.
(ii). The universe is made up of “clusters or groups” of stars. Our Solar system is one of 10,000 “star systems” (called 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, 10,000 other star systems in the neighborhood are also destroyed due to that blast. In modern science, it is called a supernova.
(iv). Such 10,000 clusters of world-systems blow up from time to time in the universe. Again, such supernovae are observed by scientists every year.
(v). What science does not know yet is that those star systems, like our Solar system, are re-formed 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 of “destructible matter”) survive. That is where all living beings on this Earth ends up before the destruction of the Earth.
(vii). How all living beings end up in the brahma realms is a long story by itself.
(viii). Then when the Earth re-forms, those brahmas — at the end of their lifetimes in those worlds — are re-born as humans with very light, brahma-like bodies at first.
(ix). Then the life on Earth evolves to other lifeforms too and eventually is destroyed again after billions of years. That is a “reverse evolution” compared to the “theory of evolution” currently accepted by science.
(x). So, that is the life cycle. It happens all over the universe at any given time. That is why scientists observe several supernovae even in our galaxy each year (which has 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 that are 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. Brahmas and devas from those 10,000 systems (dasa sa­has­si loka­dhātu) can come and listen to Dhamma on the Earth.

  • Of course, no humans from those worlds have access to Buddha Dhamma.
  • So, we can see how rare it is for a human to be able to “have access” to Buddha Dhamma. Even on our Earth, there are many mahā kappās without a single Buddha appearing!
Model of the Solar System (Cakkavāla)

5. The Buddha stated that the length of a great eon (mahā kappa or mahā kalpa in Sinhala) unimaginably long. He gave the following comparison. In that time, a man can 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” (or simply kappās), as explained in the Kappa Sutta (AN 4.156):

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

  • “There are four incalculable kappās. 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.

7. The Earth (and the whole Solar system) keeps going through this cyclic process that takes roughly 40 billion years per cycle, i.e., for a mahā kappa.

  • The Solar system is expected to last another 5 billion or so, and thus the total time in the existence of the current Sun (and Earth) is therefore about 10 billion years. That is the existence phase that lasts a kappa.
  • The other three kappas take 10 billion years each, and that is how the time for a complete cycle takes 40 billion years.
  • 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 will expand to reach the Earth. Long before that, all life on Earth would have been destroyed.

  • So, what happens to all the living beings on the Earth? We remember that while humans and animals live on the Earth, those beings 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 starts to get hot.

9. We remember that the deva and brahma realms lie above the Earth. But the “density” at those realms are 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 delicate.

  • One critical thing we learn from science is that “more dense stuff” gets burned first. For example, in an incinerator, we can burn anything dense. But of course, gases do not get burned.
  • There is virtually nothing much of what we call “material” in those realms. Whatever is there will gradually decay and replaced by other “fine matter.” Of course, all beings in those realms will have long but finite lifetimes too.
  • 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 brahmas are many mahā kappās.

10. The bottom line is that eventually all realms below the Ābhassara brahma realm will 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 apāyās, migrate to higher realms?
  • That is related to the fact that when the Earth starts getting “hot,” those “mind pleasing sense objects” start getting destroyed. Living beings will have less and less “sense attractions,” and thus their minds will be temporarily freed from “upādāna.”
  • That needs a detailed explanation, but those who understand Paticca Samuppāda may be able to at least a glimpse of how it happens.

11. When the Earth is re-formed about 30 billion years after its destruction, those brahmas will start coming down to those newly-formed lower realms gradually.

  • That also will take some explaining. But the critical point is that with time, old “gathi” start to re-surface, and the activation of Paticca 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, 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 the prevailing world view had to change to be 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 a “celestial spheres.“

  • If someone 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 providing evidence that the Earth was rotating around the Sun.
  • Of course, no one will be prosecuted for proposing any theory these days, but will not be taken seriously by the scientific community.
  • As new experiments/observations provide further evidence, an accepted scientific view is changed to accommodate the new evidence. For example, the above change in the world view occurred because of the invention of the telescope by Galileo.
  • Of course, it is only rational to adopt that scientific method for mundane purposes. That is the only way science can make progress.
  • However, when one comprehends Buddha Dhamma, one can get to a better understanding of our world.
The rarity of Buddha Dhamma in the World

14. There have been four Buddhas in this mahā kappa, and one more Buddha is expected to 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):  In this sutta, 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 three different heights during those Buddha’s times.

  • The point here is that those Buddhas had been on this Earth at times far part 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 Tipitaka for material from previous Buddhas transmitted via Vedas (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 help explain many questions that people have on the connection between Vedic terms and Buddhist terms. Some examples are kamma (karma), Bhikkhu (Bhikshu), paññā (pragnā), jhāna (dhyāna), and so on.

  • Even after the end of the Kassapa Buddha Sāsana, his teachings were transmitted as Vedic teachings, of course without the 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 the time of our Buddha, by the current time, the Vedic description has retaken hold. It will be restored in the coming years, but of course, it will again disappear to be re-discovered by the Maitreya Buddha in the future.

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

  • There have been 30 mahā kappa without a single Buddha before the current mahā kappa. That is 1200 billion years or over a trillion years!
  • An even in this kappa, the Gōtama Buddha Sāsana would last only 5000 years, a negligible time in terms of a 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. I used to spend a lot of time reading science fiction as well as speculations about the origins of the universe, etc. when I was growing up.

  • 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 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 should not be conjectured about and would bring anxiety and madness to anyone who speculates about them. Which four? (i) capabilities of a Buddha, (ii) subject of jhānās, (iii) detailed knowledge of kamma/kamma vipāka, (iv) origins of the world.

  • One can spend a lifetime looking into the details of those subjects and getting nowhere.
  • However, as we saw above, some insights can be gained by having a rough idea about those subjects. 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 make comments at the discussion forum. There are a few things we can learn from the sutta, but it is useless to get into arguments about how it contradicts scientific findings at present.

  • I have opened a new topic, “Post on “Buddhism and Evolution – Aggañña Sutta (DN 27)” for comments and questions at the discussion forum.
  • Also, please read the post carefully before making a comment or asking a question. There is a lot of material there.

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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email