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This is NOT a duplicate question. Have seen other similar questions but their questions were very different from what I am about to ask.

The modern Cosmology is clear. 13.8 billion years ago, the Universe started to form, then 4.5 billion years ago the Earth was formed, then 3 billion years ago primitive forms of life was created, then 200,000 years ago early humans came to existence, and finally we have modern human civilizations about 5000 years ago.

This is in sharp contrast to Buddha's claims of having past lives hundreds of thousands of years ago, millions of years ago, billions of years ago, trillions of years ago, etc when there was either no life or no humans. Buddha already lived close to the formation of human civilization, he couldn't have possibly lived so many lives given in vivid details in Jataka tales and other scriptures when there were no human civilizations or humans to begin with.

So, how do Buddhists deal with this? Do they deny science? Do they think that millions of years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, there was Buddha? Do they think when the Universe wasn't even formed trillions of years ago, Buddha lived a life? If you guys accept Science, does that mean Buddha lied all along? Did he just make up those stories to attract more followers?

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  • I had to edit something so I could fix the kinda accidental downvote.
    – Lowbrow
    Dec 13, 2023 at 8:55

6 Answers 6

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The scriptures (called 'sutta') attributed to the Buddha actually have extremely few descriptions of past lives and these few scriptures are often in conflict with natural history, such as with events in these few scriptures occurring in the same towns in India & having the same technological development as during Gotama Buddha's lifetime. Scriptures about 'past Buddhas' occurring many 'eons' in the past are similar. One can only conclude they were fictions composed after the Buddha's passing. None of this fiction diminishes the Buddha's Teaching because the Buddha taught two types of teachings:

  1. Teachings of liberating truth.
  2. Teachings leading to merit (goodness).

When one formally takes refuge in The Teachings, it is exclusively refuge in the verifiable teachings of liberating truth. The other type of teachings are merely optional.

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The Jataka tales were not spoken by the Buddha but came after. The best record we have of what the Buddha spoke is the Pali Canon.

In the Pali Canon details about the Buddha’s past lives are much more scant. It is also not clear to what extent any given sutta in the Pali Canon is authentic; modern scholars agree that changes and additions have been made to the canon, although the consensus is that the general structure of the teachings have remained intact. So I take them with a grain of salt.

Nonetheless the general teaching is that past lives extend back trillions of years. In Buddhist cosmology the universe expands and contracts - this is not incompatible with modern physics - look up “big crunch” theories.

Specific stories about the Buddha’s past lives, or about things like the 32 marks of a great man, to me look like they are likely later additions.

But okay, how is it possible that the Buddha claimed to have human lives going back millions of years? I understand this “realm” we live in to be a specific material realm which includes animals and would include alien species. Going back in time, the past lives could be alien species which are similar to humanity because they are in the same material realm.

That is how I reconcile it.

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Sabbe Dhamma Anatta. Science is a Dhamma called Dhamma niyama. It means that teachings of Science are not-Self. What are the teachings of science? Science teaches that evidence of a phenomena must be repeatable in time and the evidence should be verifiable by anyone.

Why is Science not-self ? Because it’s teachings are impermanent. How is it impermanent? It is impermanent because evidence based science can fail to repeat itself in time and the evidence can vary from person to person. Or , the evidence based science can change in time.

Therefore if science says universe is 13 billion years old then this fact can change in time. Science may have to conclude that Universe is only 60 years old. Or, Science might conclude that Universe is a figment of imagination.The cosmological facts can change depending on new found evidence. If we meditate from emptiness point of view we realise that all phenomena are empty of self. The space is infinite but the space arises , changes and vanishes.

Another example of impermanence would be this : it is said that Earth is attracted to Sun gravitationally. However this fact can change and it can be concluded that Earth is attracted to Sun because of magnetism!!!

We need to see things from a perspective of impermanence. It applies to all conditioned phenomena, including cosmology and the teachings of cosmology.

Buddhas lived many lives but in the end he says that all those worlds or lives were not self. In other words , that life or lives were not me , mine or myself.

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So, how do Buddhists deal with this? Do they deny Science?

If I can call myself "a Buddhist" then I'd say no, generally not.

Do they think that millions of years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, there was Buddha? How do Buddhists reconcile Buddha's descriptions of past lives with modern Cosmology and natural history?

Personally, if a sutta said that something happened "a hundred thousand generations ago", I wouldn't imagine that means literally "2 million years ago" -- I read it as a metaphor for Time immemorial, and (its literal meaning being) the least important part of the sentence.

How many "moments" have you experienced in your life? I guess it's "uncountable" in some sense.

It's irrelevent or secondary to the main problem (e.g. that the people you love are dying or dead).

You might want to read Wikipedia's Buddhism and science or something like that. One phrase I noticed there was,

Therefore, while the Dalai Lama thinks that evolution "gives us a fairly coherent account of the evolution of human life on earth," he also holds that karma and consciousness have central roles in nature and therefore biology cannot explain all aspects of life (such as consciousness, religious experience or morality).

Did he just make up those stories to attract more followers?

The Buddhist texts may contain some imprecise or metaphorical language. Like some children's stories begin with, "Once upon a time", that doesn't detract from their importance nor make them untrue.

The first stories they taught me at school, had me memorize, were from La Fontaine. They're obviously not literally true -- fables -- but they're moral and apparently worth teaching.

Another thing is that the Buddhist doctrines are very extensive. You might find one or two questiuonable details (e.g here or here); but I think it's nonsense to disparage the doctrine as "claims" or "lies" or "stories to attract more followers" -- also wrong (mistaken) to pose it as a dichotomy with "Science".

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The age of the universe stated at roughly 13.8 billion years is based on the ΛCDM model. It is the current standard cosmological model. However, this model is not without its criticisms. You can read about the issues with this model in the wiki link referenced.

Not too long ago, the latest observations from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) even prompted arguments for and against the age of the universe to be twice as old. Such controversies will likely occur with new observations and discoveries (although the latest is that the 26.7 billion years old theory appears to be debunked).

Personally, I am more concerned that we have a model that attributed more than 95% of the universe as dark energy and dark matter, yet both of these are not experimentally verified or detected. Without a better understanding or idea of these things, we cannot come up with a better cosmological model and we are kind of stuck in a vicious loop.

Why is a better model important? Firstly, it will either affirm or change the age of the universe as we currently know. Secondly, it could potentially answer the question if our universe is cyclical as believed in both Buddhism and Hinduism.

Although the OP didn’t exactly state it, I believe they might be alluding to the sutras mentioning that there are prior Buddhas (DN14) before our Buddha Gautama. Even within this same aeon, there had been 3 other Buddhas i.e. Kakusandha, Konagamana and Kassapa. Which would seem incredulous because wouldn't they be in the age of the dinosaurs!? I could be wrong but I believe that in the Mahayana tradition, there is a belief that these 3 prior Buddhas could have existed in other galaxies and not necessary ours. To assume that all life can only existed on this planet in the Milky Way displays a lack of imagination.

Personally, as a Buddhist, proving the 2nd point (of a cyclical universe) is actually more interesting. A proof of a cyclic universe model would lend additional credence to the idea of rebirth as many of the sutras (e.g. DN14 linked above) mentioned about different rebirths in prior aeons. I believe this proof will have profound spiritual and soul-searching implications for many.

Lastly, I think we need to be patient. As mentioned, there is still a lot about the universe that we currently lack experimental and verified data on. It is really hard to decide on the truth when more than 95% of the evidence is unverified or uncertain. With Metta.

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  • So, if I understand correctly, you are saying that the previous births of Buddha is from different galaxies and previous Universe during previous cycles of cosmos? Dec 13, 2023 at 14:59
  • Same universe but different galaxies. This aeon is special as there are five Buddhas. Buddha Maitreya being the fifth and last Buddha of this aeon. In other aeons, there is usually only one Buddha.
    – Desmon
    Dec 13, 2023 at 16:17
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The modern cosmology is not clear. It is a highly reasonable assertion. There are counter theories as to the age of the universe. Centuries ago, gravity was not discovered. It does not entail that gravity did not exist. Once Newton gave a theory of gravity, it was defeated by Einstein's theory of relativity. It did not mean that gravity changed- it meant how we as humans understood nature through physics became much more aligned with observed phenomena. Physics is not set in stone. A conferences can happen tomorrow in which new results are published which disproves what was held true till today. Furthermore, if science has not been able to prove life after life, then the onus is on the scientists to come up with the measurements or experiments. As philosophers, Buddhists have given their reasonable and logical account of it. There is a difference between science and scientism. Some people against the scientifc temperament, hold on to views uncritically.

As a point of information in contemporary research, you will find Madhyamaka interpretation of quantum physics. So there are people, who not being cynical and being open-minded, approach things and thus are able to reconcile. People who ask out of cynicism or are close-minded cannot hope for reconciliation.

As another point of information, I counter-question you- where is the atom? or even the electron.-> There is no atom or electron- those are labels we have for a set of phenomena which is observed under certain conditions. So, again, what physics is and what someone believes it to be are different things. Similarly, what Buddhism speaks about rebirth and what people assume it means, are different things.

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