Rediscovering the Buddha: Legends of the Buddha and Their Interpretation

By Hans H. Penner | Go to book overview

18
The Cosmological Structure

Some scholars say that the cosmology in part I is a joke or an ironic story. I agree with K. R. Norman, a leading philologist in the study of early Buddhism, who says, “Joking is not a well-known or highly approved Buddhist pastime.” Be that as it may, the one thing we do know is that the Buddhist tradition did not take the account as a joke. So let us take the tradition seriously and read the cosmological story literally as a story about the history and structure of the cosmos and the beginning of society. Just remember that when you read “Buddhists” or “the Buddhist religion,” “Buddhists think that” or “Buddhism teaches,” I am referring to Theravada Buddhism, the Buddhism of the Pali texts of South and Southeast Asia, the myths of part I.

There are at least three basic differences between the Buddhist cosmology and the cosmologies of the three monotheistic religions most of us are familiar with. Buddhists do not think that the cosmos has a beginning or end. Thus the Buddhist religion does not have a cosmogony, a myth such as Genesis 1 that describes how the cosmos began. The first sentence of the text you read does not begin with “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” For the Buddhist, the cosmos is a process that has no beginning or end; it evolves and devolves in a pulsating rhythm throughout vast, endless cosmic aeons. This conception of the cosmos is clearly in opposition to myths of the cosmos that do have a beginning and end, such as those described by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in which the

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