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As no major principles of Buddhism contradict it, many Buddhists tacitly accept the theory of evolution. Questions about the eternity or infinity of the universe at large are counted among the 14 unanswerable questions which the Buddha maintained were counterproductive areas of speculation. As such, many Buddhists do not think about these kinds of questions as particularly meaningful or helpful from a religious perspective. One does not need to know the origin of life, nor agree with the Buddha's position on scientific topics, in order to achieve enlightenment. In the Majjhima Nikaya, a potential follower asks the Buddha for an answer to the problem of cosmogony:

In response, the Buddha said, "It is as if a man had been wounded by a poisoned arrow and when attended to by a physician were to say, ‘I will not allow you to remove this arrow until I have learned the caste, the age, the occupation, the birthplace, and the motivation of the person who wounded me.’ That man would die before having learned all this. In exactly the same way, anyone who should say, ‘I will not follow the teaching of the Blessed One until the Blessed One has explained all the multiform truths of the world’ - that person would die before the Buddha had explained all this."

The Buddha argued that there is no apparent rational necessity for the existence of a creator god because everything ultimately is created by mind. Belief in a creator is not necessarily addressed by a religion based on phenomenology, and Buddhism is generally accepting of modern scientific theories about the formation of the universe. This can be argued either from the standpoint that it simply does not matter, or from an interpretation of the Agañña Sutta favoring the notion that it describes the basic concept of evolution.

Aggañña Sutta

In the Aggañña Sutta, found in the Pali Canon, the Buddha does appear to give a highly detailed answer to this issue. The Buddha, speaking to the monk Vasettha, a former Brahmin, states the following:

There comes a time, Vasettha, when, after the lapse of a long, long period, this world died. And when this happens, beings have mostly been reborn into the Realm of Radiance [as devas]; and there they dwell, made of mind, feeding on rapture, self-luminous, traversing the air, continuing in glory; and thus they remain for a long, long period of time. There comes also a time, Vasettha, when sooner or later this world begins to re-evolve. When this happens, beings who had deceased from the World of Radiance usually come to life as humans... now at that time, all had become one world of water, dark, and of darkness that maketh blind. No moon nor sun appeared, no stars were seen, nor constellations, neither was night manifest nor day, neither months nor half-months, neither years nor seasons, neither female nor male. Beings were reckoned just as beings only. And to those beings, Vasettha, sooner or later after a long time, earth with its savours was spread out in the waters, even as a scum forms on the surface of boiled milky rice that is cooling, so did the earth appear.

Because the Buddha seems to present a model of cosmology wherein the universe expands and contracts over extremely long periods of time, this description has been found by some to be consistent with the expanding universe model and Big Bang. The Buddha seems to be saying here that the universe expands outward, reaches a stabilising point, and then reverts its motion back toward a central point resulting in its destruction, this process again to be repeated infinitely. Throughout this expanding and contracting process, the objects found within the universe undergo periods of development and change over a long stretch of time, according to the environment in which they find themselves. Following this passage above, the Buddha goes on to say that the "beings" he described in this paragraph become attached to an earthlike planet, get reborn there, and remain there for the duration of the life. As a consequence of this, physical characteristics change and evolutionary changes takes place. This is often interpreted as a very rough theory of evolution. Furthermore, the Aggañña Sutta presents water as pre-existent to earthlike planets, with the planet forming with water and the life moving from the water onto the earth. The Buddha does not talk about a specific earth, but about earthlike planets in general.

The Aggañña Sutta does raise an issue about the importance of the question; if the Buddha regards the answer as meaningless, why would he give a teaching on it? And if he does not regard the answer as meaningless, why did he not provide it to another person who asked? One of the answers could be that he gave the teaching to people who had a very fixed idea of the existence of the universe or tried to explain the creation seen on a relative level. The Buddha likened his teaching to a doctor's medicine to cure a patient's suffering. The medicine must be of the right content and right amount to the right patient at the right time. As such, there is no absolute truth as there is no single, absolute cure-all medicine fitting all patients.

References

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