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I heard an atheist ask this question from a christian and found myself lost in this question as well.

Plainly and simply the question is this,

How does your religion fit into earth's history?

His point was that although many religions talk about a very old human race, we are a new species. even if we deny all the archaeological evidence, we still can't answer how such a human civilization escaped the few annihilation earth faced, like the long ice age and the meteor that killed the dinosaurs etc.

Do we as Buddhists have an answer, considering we believe in an even older human race's existence?

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When the Atheist asked his Christian pal about the evolution of this race, there is only some variations of one answer that our education system, the media and so-called information technology promotes. They are the main instruments used by the Western Christian countries in the present day. There is no freedom of knowledge or of media as there is no second opinion given at any time. It is what this ideology decides that is given to the public. The so called alternative view is only another version of the view of the western Christian mindset and people have no choice in this matter. Even today creationism is allowed to be taught in schools and Darwinian evolution and creationism are nothing but twin systems that try to give an answer to the question how the world (universe) was created and then evolved.

What Buddha said on this is found in the Agganna sutta. Agganna Sutta is the 27th Sutta of Digha Nikaya collections. The sutta describes a discourse imparted from the Buddha to two Brahmins, Bharadvaja and Vasettha, who left their family and caste to become monks. These were two brahmins who were insulted and maligned by their own caste for their intentions. But what is important for us here is that the qualities of the Dharma (Law, truth) is the same as the qualities of the Buddha and forms his "truth body" or "Dhamma Kaya”. A reference from the Agganna Sutta says to his disciple Vasettha: "Tathagatassa h'etam Vasettha adivacanam Dhamma-kayo iti pi ...": O Vasettha! The Word of Dhammakaya is indeed the name of the Tathagata.

Dhamma in Buddhism has two primary meanings: the teachings of the Buddha which lead to enlightenment, and the constituent factors of the experienced world. A sankata is an entity arising due to a sankhara; a sankhara is also a sankata, because just like any other sankata, any sankhara arises and falls; thus sankhara is sometimes used to include both. However, a sankata is normally something that arises due to sankhara (a living being, house, nest, a thought, hopes and dreams, etc) and eventually is destroyed. Nothing in this world lasts forever. At the deepest level, anything in this world arises due to the mind. That is what was meant by the Buddha when he said, “manopubbangama dhamma……” or “mind precedes everything else…”. It is this that gets described in detail in the Agganna sutta.

In that sutta, the Buddha explains how conglomerates of “planetary systems” blow up and are re-formed in time scales of “mahā kappas“. He has given a simile to get an idea of the length of a mahā kappa and it is approximately several billion years. And this destruction of a “star system” seems to be what scientists have observed as a supernova. Supernovae are of common occurrence; about three of them can be expected to happen every century in our Milky Way galaxy.

A suddhāshtaka is a “packet of energy” and is the basic unit that all matter is made out of. It is much smaller than in energy compared to a light photon that we see. A humongous number of suddhāshtaka would have the energy of a light photon. A suddhāshtaka, being a sankata, is created by the mind. This is why the Buddha said, “manō pubbangamā dhammā…”, i.e., “everything has mind as the precursor…”.

It is a valid question to ask and observe that in the few annihilation that earth faced, like the long ice age and the meteor that killed the dinosaurs etc., the “what if so? questiion.When the human and animal realms are destroyed, all those beings would be reborn in the first rūpa realms. When that is gradually destroyed, they will be reborn in the next higher realm and so on, until they are all in the Abhassara realm.

Buddha’s explanation of how all living beings in the lower realms get into the Abhassara Brahma realm when our world system (Cakkavata) is destroyed is not properly explained in any text found online. When the Sun starts heating up, fine sense objects start being destroyed, and with time less and less sensual objects will be there to trigger kāma rāga. All humans and animal will move to higher realms (over an antakkappa which lasts billions of years).

Even though all dense material realms are all destroyed at the end of a world cycle, all rūpa and arūpa realms at or above the Abhassara realm remain intact. When the Solar system is “re-formed” after billions of years, they all gradually come down to lower realms. . In the future, it will become clear to us that anything in this world has origins that can be traced back to the mind. That is the story in the Agganna sutta.

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    I doubt some of the statements in the first paragraph: I think that Western countries tend to be more atheist now (in recent generations) than Christian; and I doubt whether creationism is taught in schools, in America or in Ontario, except in "religious studies" classes. – ChrisW Jan 27 '18 at 13:14
  • Thank you my friend, I completely agree. But i have some questions about this part, Theravada Buddhism speaks of this being a special Kalpa. According to the canon, we have had few Buddhas in this Kalpa and the next Buddha is the last one for this Kalpa. But the thing is that we have not existed long enough on this planet that long to receive the teaching of lord Buddhas.... – Theravada Jan 27 '18 at 13:17
  • Note that this end of days scenario you mention come at the end of a Kalpa and we have yet to reach the end of this one. So all the Buddhas mentioned as the ones of this kalpa came and went while no disasters of that magnitude happened. This is the gap i am curious about. – Theravada Jan 27 '18 at 13:17
  • The Baroque Era broke the old rules of the traditional Renaissance. Similarly Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection took over the Adam & Eve in Paradise line of thinking, but it is still Christian. What matters to us is that you and I are fortunate enough to live in a very special time when the True Dhamma of Buddha has resurfaced, and a sea change is taking place right now. So be open to it. The 2012 phenomenon was this. It was the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. It is happening in Sri Lanka right now & may take a few years for others to get to know of it. – Saptha Visuddhi Jan 27 '18 at 14:05
  • Well that is my country too, i have no intention to talk of darwin. What i mean is that we speak of ancient kingdoms in india in the canon but what we can see if we go to a indian natural history museum is that india was full of dinosaurs and other contemporary creatures instead of humans in the described timeline. – Theravada Jan 28 '18 at 1:46
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I am agnostic (which can mean, literally, "without knowing") of an even older race's existence.

Some (many) people understand the Agañña Sutta to be a "parody", of contemporary Brahmanical texts -- see e.g. this answer, or this answer.

There are suttas which mention "no discernible beginning"; and which list "unanswered questions".

See also "akalika" -- i.e. the dhamma being timeless, immediate.


The various historical theories seem to me plausible (or well-argued and widely-agreed by experts given the archaeological evidence ... but not, so far as I know, very relevant to Buddhism), e.g.:

  • The Buddha lived about 2,500 years ago
  • The most recent glacial period ended about 10,000 years ago
  • Anatomically modern humans have existed for about 100,000 years (but modern behaviour including language and "stone age" tools for only about 50,000 years), contemporary with the most recent ice age

What about the stories mentioned in the scripts that talk about kingdoms and civilizations with humans with a life expectancy of about 60000/200000 years and etc. those civilizations couldn't have existed according to modern belief.

You're asking about this kind of thing: First antarakalpa (Buddhist cosmology).

I see that the suttas this comes from (e.g. DN 17 and DN 26 and DN 14) aren't translated on Access to Insight.

Here is a comment on how the translator/editor selected which suttas to include on Access to Insight:

The emphasis here is on practice. For the most part I selected books, articles, and sutta translations that I personally found helpful to develop a better understanding of the Buddha's teachings, rather than texts that tend to fuel intellectual debates on abstract philosophical concepts.

Your question asked "Do we as Buddhists have an answer, considering we believe in an even older human race's existence?" --

  • I think it's possible for Buddhists to not have that belief (being "agnostic" means you also don't have to deny or contradict the belief)
  • If I answer your question about "we", I don't or didn't mean to answer that everyone believes or doesn't believe as explained in this answer. I don't doubt there are some Buddhists who "believe", who may try to reconcile it with (explain it in the language of) modern science, perhaps using words like "other solar systems" or "other universes" etc.

My initial (school) training is more-or-less as a Physicist. My opinion is that every time I see people try to relate Buddhism to Physics, they're wrong (i.e. confused) -- but people do try, you can see it sometimes on this site, trying to relate Buddhism to Einstein's relativity, or to quantum mechanics.

Anyway I think that in general Buddhism describes human perception and psychology (how we feel about the world, how we think, subjective), and sociology (ethics in society), and philosophy (what "good" is, and which are the better "views") ... none of which is in the domain of Physics.

So, I assume that the Agañña Sutta (if it's worth considering at all) is saying something about Buddhism, about human experience (psychological being), and not about Physics (form, astronomy, geology, species etc.). For example maybe the sutta is about the experiences of a single human, and the "long lifetime" at the beginning might be some memory of how the days seemed long when you were young, or something like that.

Anyway, have you read the Agañña Sutta? Does it read to you like a story that you're meant to take literally?

Being from a non-Buddhist background I'm accustomed to reading stories, which aren't meant to be literally true, but which are meant to convey a lesson; including:

  • Christian parables
  • Muslim pedagogic anecdotes
  • Children's tales and fables from all over the world, every times and place, e.g. here and here, and these from Ancient Greece whose author lived maybe just a generation before the Buddha.
  • I'm inclined to put the Jataka tales in the same category, and some of the (prose) tales in the commentaries (e.g. this one) which illustrate the Dhammapada.

Have you read the Rigveda and the Upanishads? It seems to me that the Agañña Sutta is of that style:

  • Told to Brahmins
  • Using a literary style (a "creation myth") which the Brahmins would be familiar with, and which were even part of their trade (wasn't it the Brahmins' job, i.e. their social responsibility and privilege, to study and teach this kind of myth)
  • Adapted to convey (or teach) Buddhist values, including some lesson about desire and food and impermanence, and other concerns like that which we know of from other less fanciful, more straightforward suttas.

Takes the story of "the fox and the crow and the cheese". It's an OK story, about flattery, and getting distracted, and loss, and not sharing; it would be missing the point, IMO, to assume that there must have been a (physical) world in which animals could talk to each other like humans do (it's a fictional world).

Anyway, that's my opinion, in more detail.

I'd like to say this, if I may, in answer to this question, but without wanting to disrespect other Buddhist suttas, about the four noble truths and three jewels and so on.

  • Thank you for the answer, I think i should give some elaborations here. It is not about Lord Buddha's life time. What about the stories mentioned in the scripts that talk about kingdoms and civilizations with humans with a life expectancy of about 60000/200000 years and etc. those civilizations couldn't have existed according to modern belief. – Theravada Jan 27 '18 at 0:07
  • @Theravada I edited my answer, above, to try to address your comment in more detail. – ChrisW Jan 27 '18 at 13:01
  • Thanks friend, i must study more on this. We Buddhists seems to have a loop back when it comes to talking about this kind of things. I must confess that i am at a point of doubt about which part of canon is real and what part is fiction/learning material. As a theravada Buddhist, i never saw any monk or layman take buddhism the same way Christians take their canon, we have been always taught to take the canon as is without any personal interpretations. .... – Theravada Jan 27 '18 at 13:09
  • After comparing the evolution of life on earth to timeline mentioned in the canon about past lives of Lord Buddha & others, there seems to be some differences. I should look into this more. Thanks again! – Theravada Jan 27 '18 at 13:10
  • There are Christians who are taught to believe that, by carefully counting the number of generations told in the Old Testament since Adam and Eve, therefore the earth was created only about 6000 years ago! That theory is popular, in the States; it's a subset of Christian fundamentalism. But the (larger) Catholic Church (and Orthodox Church) does not require such belief. – ChrisW Jan 27 '18 at 13:53
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During ice age we wore animal skin and cuddled near big fires.

Before the meteor fell we gathered food and hid in caves.

Why?

Because of karma.

  • A longer answer is expected my friend, this is a deep question and can't be generalized this way. – Theravada Jan 28 '18 at 1:38

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