BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS: The Buddhist Mythos of the Arising and Passing Away of the World

published in Buddhist Perceptions of Desirable Societies in the Future: Papers prepared for the United Nations University, eds. Sulak Sivaraksa et al. IRCD: Bangkok, Thailand. 1993

James J. Hughes Ph.D.

The desperate irony of our day is that we humans have created a world system which we now treat as if it had a will of its own, a Frankenstein threatening to destroy its creator. The religious fantasies of our ancestors about fiery and icy destruction of the earth, by gods judging humanity, have now become real possibilities, except that these angry gods are simply our own ideological, economic and military systems, the material aspects of our alienation from reality.

The practice of Buddhism involves a fearless analysis of things, of their causes and effects, of the beginnings and endings in the process of becoming. For the Buddhist, the "inner" psychological world cannot be divided from the "outer" material world, understanding the interdependence of mind and world, and all things, is central to the Buddhist struggle to overcome suffering and bring about peace. Penetrating analysis based on such "correct views" allows us to see the dense network of "causes" and conditions that make up today's destructive system, to see its individual elements and its complex whole. Only then can we overcome fear, despair, confusion and dogmatism and effectively work on personal/social transformation.

The Buddhist teachings on the arising and passing away of the world were given for the sole purpose of establishing such a correct understanding and practice. The scriptures examined here were designed to overturn oppressive, primitive views on the nature of self, society and nature and orient us towards a transformative vision, they were not an exercise in speculation about cosmology.

The Buddha rejected speculation for its own sake in the story of the monk who demanded to know from the Buddha whether the world was eternal or not, and whether an enlightened person reincarnates. Since the monk's inquiry was merely for intellectual entertainment, and not an attempt to establish "correct view" the Buddha compared him to a man shot by an arrow. Rather than pull the arrow out, the man demands to know the name, family, village and race of the archer, the components of the arrow, and whether indeed it is an arrow. People who persist in asking such questions, says the Buddha, like this wounded but stubborn man, will die without knowing the answers.

I am one who says: whether the world is eternal or not, there is birth and death, and suffering and woe, and lamentation and despair. What I teach is the means that lead to the destruction of these things.
Remember therefore that what I have said, I have said, and what I have not said I have not said. Why didn't I answer these questions? Because they are not profitable, not the principle of the holy life, they do not lead to peace, to supreme wisdom, to Nibbana.
Majjhima Nikaya 163

But the Buddha did teach on these questions when it helped to establish correct view. The revered scholar, Buddhaghosa, who systematized the Buddhist teachings ten centuries after the Buddha, notes:

As long as a person is vague about the world, About its origin, About its ceasing, and about the means that lead to its cessation He cannot recognize the truths. Visuddhimaggha

Examples of those "who are vague", according to Buddhaghosa, are those who believe the world was created and will be destroyed by an omnipotent Being or Basic Principle, those who say the world comes from Time, or from Nature, or from the essential natures of things, fatalists who hold that the world is composed of atoms which are determined by past causes, or those who preach that all is the result of chance.

The Buddhist creation and destruction mythos should not be approached in the literal way that many Christians interpret the Bible, rejecting scientific views, and resigning oneself to the inevitable Apocalypse since current events are signs of the coming of the End. Rather, the Buddha taught with a great tolerance for traditional beliefs, adapting the message through different symbols to fit different levels of understanding and different cultures. His use of mythology was creative and allegorical, designed to create correct attitudes but not to be argued over as verifiable history. The Buddha reveals the humor of the storyteller in these stories, not the dogmatism of the prophet.

For example, the first story presented here, of the origin of the belief in god. It comes from a scripture in which the Buddha was refuting the errors of Eternalism and non-Eternalism. The Buddha explains how many sincere people, after arduous meditation and introspection, remember previous existences with heavenly gods, and falsely conclude these gods are eternal or omnipotent. The Buddhist view, radically different from the Hindu, was that these gods were just another form of our human personality, subject to all the egotism, loneliness, and jealousies of human beings, and controlled by the same laws of cause and effect. In this story Brahma is the first to appear in the newly recreated universe, in the uppermost heaven, precisely because he had the lowest stock of merit of all the innumerable beings who had waited out the destruction of the universe in the bodyless state. Out of loneliness he desires companions, and when they purely coincidentally appear, he concludes he is creator and ruler of the universe. The new gods, in their innocence, accede that he is indeed their creator. When beings finally devolve to human size, they remember this experience of Brahma and create a notion of an eternal unchanging God. Rather than directly attacking the belief in gods, who play no role in Buddhism, the Buddha merely assures us that they are not our creators and lords, while poking fun at them.


Next to this simple anecdote, the Agganna Sutta stands as a profound and multilayered story worth much deeper examination. One thing that is seldom pointed out about this sutta is that its primary purpose was to alleviate the discomfort two former brahmins had from having renounced their caste, by elaborating a history of the world in which the Buddha's monks and nuns, and the warrior caste from which the Buddha came, are superior to brahmins. Many Buddhists see uncomfortable with the force of the Buddha's warrior-like brahmin-bashing, and ignore his appreciation of his Shakyan clan origins.

The Shakyans were a warrior-dominated republican federation, called "sangha", with an aristocratic democratic tradition comparable to the Greeks, and Siddhartha Gautama's father was the Speaker of their Congress. In the Buddha's day, this system of government was being destroyed, culturally by the spread of brahminic caste and religious ideology and militarily by the spread of imperial monarchies. When the Buddha established democratic procedures, such as regular meetings with secret ballots, subcommittees and the right of minority groups to schism, within his monastic Sangha, he was attempting to preserve an important part of his own clan tradition, which he felt was ideal for the achievement of human liberation. In the Agganna, the Buddha says that the monks and nuns have become "children of the Shakyans", sons and daughters of the Enlightened One, and through him, children of the truth. The monastic Sangha was a society of spiritual warriors, heirs to the warrior caste's aristocratic virtues and to its historic conflict with the brahmins.

An anecdote which helps set the stage for this sutta is found in the Ambattha Sutta. In the Ambattha, a young brahmin scholar is sent to determine if the Buddha actually possesses the 32 physical marks that a Great Man (Maha Purusha) was supposed to have according to Indian mythology. After striding arrogantly into the Buddha's assembly, the Buddha remarks on the young brahmin's lack of manners, something like: "Didn't anybody ever teach you how to behave in front of holy men?" Offended, Ambattha responds "Respect is for brahmins, not for menial black shavelings like you, fella!" He repeatedly insults the Buddha and his former clan, the Shakyans, and recounts a story to prove that Shakyans are all disrespectful menials.

Once, Gotama, I had to go to Kapilavatthu...and went into the Shakyan's Congress Hall. Now at that time there were a number of Shakyas, old and young, seated in the hall on grand seats, making merry and joking together, nudging one another with their fingers, and for a truth, methinks, it was I myself that was the subject of their jokes, and not one of them even offered me a seat. That, Gotama, is neither fitting, nor is it seemly, that the Shakyas, menials as they are, mere menials, should neither venerate, nor value, nor esteem, nor give gifts to, nor pay honour to brahmins.

So, the Buddha decides to teach the boy some humility by explaining how his clan is descended from the "very black" son of a Shakyan slave-girl. "Admit that it is true" demands the Buddha, and when the lad refuses several times, the Buddha threatens that his head will be "split into pieces on the spot." Finally the lad sees the god of fire preparing to smash him with a ball of molten iron, becomes terrified, throws himself at the Buddha's feet, screeches "What was that you wanted me to admit?!" and admits that the Buddha was right. Subsequently the boy open to the fact that the Buddha is a Great Man. Again, the story is an example of how teaching origins are important to spiritual instruction.

In the Agganna Sutta, the two former brahmins report that their former clansmen insult them now that they are monks for ...having gone over to the lower classes to shaven-headed wanderers, to the vulgar rich, to the dark-skinned and those who go about on foot... the dirt from brahmin's feet.

The Buddha remarks that the brahmins have forgotten their origins, for they are just as human as the rest, subject to the same faults and as able to achieve the perfection of perfect knowledge and conduct as the other classes. Once spiritually liberated, the enlightened person is beyond and superior to all secular castes and classes. The Buddha points out that though his Shakyan clan has been subjugated by King Pasenadi, yet King Pasenadi treats the Buddha as a supreme king. Though the Shakyans are conquered, their wise man, Shakya-muni, by conquering the illusion of self, has become lord of all.

The Buddha rejects the value of inherited status and asserts a meritocracy. Both at the beginning and ending of the sutta he emphasizes that the classes originally arose from a natural division of labor according to ability and according to Dharma. But the brahmins have risen up out of ignorant pride, even though in talents they war inferior to warriors and renunciates.

We can easily understand why the brahmins would criticize the Buddha's close association with the poor, the dark-skinned non-Aryans, and the lower castes, but that his association with "the vulgar rich" disturbed them is worthy of note. In the Buddha's day, as agricultural surplus grew, and with it towns, trade and the division of labor, a newly emergent merchant class was making itself visible, challenging the traditional notions of social status, and in particular the brahmin's claims to status and power based on their parasitic sacrificial function. Though later centuries would see wealthy people from lower castes slowly absorbed into higher castes, in the Buddha's day it appears they were a progressive class, rooted in urban mercantile rationality, and therefore more open to the rationality of the Buddha's teachings. In modern terms we might say that the Buddhist movement was a cross-class, crosscaste alliance, led by the republican warriors and a revolutionary vanguard of classless, wandering philosophers, opposed to the rise of reactionary brahminism and authoritarian imperialism.


The world, in the Buddhist mythic reconstruction, is part of a universe that is periodically collapsing in on itself, and reexpanding in great, billion year aeons, as discussed further later in this essay. This framework creates a problem for Buddhist metaphysics, though, since the Buddha had used traditional ideas of reincarnation as the basis for non-practising Buddhists' morality. (The practising Buddhist cuts through attachment to good and bad karma, to notions of Good and Evil, and to rebirth in the heavens, and instead practises a set of ethics that come naturally from insight, selflessness and compassion, the critical insight of Buddhism is that there is no "self" which could reincarnate). According to Buddhism if one does not attain enlightenment one is doomed to eternally be recycled through the different realms of the neurotic material world, samsara.

What, then, if the whole universe, including the heavens are destroyed? Doesn't that mean that all the lazy people will eventually achieve automatic enlightenment? No, amends the Buddha, because right before the whole material world goes burst, all beings will reincarnate into a bodyless state, bundles of consciousness which, while highly purified, are not enlightened and will begin cycling around on the convey or belt of the material world once the universe reappears out of its ultimate black hole. It sounds like an ad hoc explanation for an unforeseen complication in the metaphysical scheme, but then, if one believes everything the Buddha says literally then one will probably believe this also, and if one is looking for allegory, then it doesn't really matter.

The symbolic significance of these countless, highly purified, bodyless consciousnesses floating in the 4th dimension is what draws the attention: this is "human nature", or "sentience", minus all the neuroses and hangups but for that last knot, the illusion of self-nature. These mind-energies, completely outside the material universe, are tuned into celestial bliss as a result of count-less good deeds and meditative absorptions (as opposed to meditative insight which leads to liberation). Yet they are still as far from, and as near to, enlightenment as we in the human plane since they still have the concept "I am grooving on celestial vibrations." This is central to Buddhist psychology: that bliss is nice, and is achievable through good works and meditations on topics such as compassion, devotion etc., but bliss, and rebirth in the heavenly and bodyless realms, isn't enlightenment. Even after a billion years communing in a sexless, hierarchyless, immaterial state with one's concept of Emptiness, this basic bit of ignorance-flawed mind will re-enter into a relationship with the world to mutually recreate heavens, sun, moon, body, sex, society and the world of the ten thousand things.

Comparisons can be drawn between all cultures' accounts of Creation and the process of evolution of an infant's consciousness. The infant starts in a pure unity with the Great Mother, in a state of undifferentiated perception, a dark bodyless state, till, with birth into the world, it steps beyond "I am" to "I am here."

Then, after the world began to re-evolve, the beings... came to "hereness"...

Like the Judeo-Christian account, the world begins as a blinding dark formless "void". But, in the Buddhist account, the light that spreads on the waters early in the process of creation is not God, but re-incarnated humanity, still made "of mind, feeding on bliss, glowing from within, and traveling the air." In the Judeo-Christian account the primordial act of alienation is the eating of "the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil." For the infant it is the realization that its "apple", the mother's breast, is actually a separate, though regularly desired, object. In the Buddhist account, also, "the fall" involves oral gratification, as the pure life-force is driven by the seed of ego-illusion to taste the milky pudding that covers the prehistoric waters of our cooling molten earth, the same custard that fed our micro-organismic ancestors. As the luminous beings are overcome with desire, their devolution begins. Rather than Man being created by God from the earth's dust to be given dominion over the earth, humanity and nature mutually recreate each other as part of one process.

In the Agganna Sutta, the changes in the material world provide conditions for the development of, and provoke changes in and actions from humanity. We in turn effect the world. This interdependence is a good example of the Buddhist understanding of "co-dependent origination" or "co-evolution" (paticcasamudpada). Co-evolution is on the one hand the view that all things are involved in a web of two-way causality in which every A effects B and is in turn effected by B, and, on the other hand, "simultaneity" or "synchronicity", where A and B arise, develop and pass away in such interdependence that analysis of causal links becomes meaningless. As our greed increases our inner light disappears and the sun appears, our bodies solidify as the earth solidifies.

In the Judeo-Christian account Adam and Eve's willful disobedience of God and breaking of union with Him leads to the shameful realization that they are naked, and after being cast out of the bountiful garden, they are punished with the necessity of laboring in order to survive. But for the Buddhists the differentiation of beings' bodies into beautiful and ugly, male and female, arises naturally from biological development associated with the eating of material food and excretion of waste. In turn, naturally, vanity, lust, and aversion arise, and the natural abundance of the earth declines. The effortlessly gathered vines and mushrooms give way to paddy that needs sowing, harvesting and threshing.

For the Jews and Christians, woman was created from Man's rib, a secondary servant and help-mate. The "Fall of Man" is the fault, of this weak woman, Eve, whose sensuality and curiosity lead her to be seduced by the rebel angel into seeking forbidden knowledge. For this, she and all future women are punished with pain in childbirth. The Agganna Sutta, rather, has the two sexes develop simultaneously, neither superior to the other. Sexual desire develops simultaneously in both sexes from mutual examination, and its first expressions are seen with disgust by the other beings because the couples are treating each other as objects for sense gratification, rather than as the luminous consciousnesses they so recently devolved from.

The Sutta stresses that sexual coupling leads to the establishment of households, which in turn are the preconditions for "hoarding", which arises as the paddy becomes more difficult to harvest. Anthropologically we know that the storage of grain was a critical step in social evolution, beyond the hunter- gatherer and primitive cultivator's decentralized organic relationship with nature, to a more settled, agricultural relationship in which the unsettled wild becomes a foreign "other". The Sutta show hoarding leading to further deterioration of the organic unity with nature necessitating first cultivation, then division of the commons into plot of private property. Private property, then, is not just the result o greed, but of the relationship of the household units of production consumption to an increasingly difficult natural environment. It is interesting to note that all the elements of Marxist and socialist-feminist anthropological theories of the evolution of early modes of production private property, family structure, and, as discussed below, the state are present in the Buddhist account, though of course in a pre-theoretical way.

Many commentators have pointed out that the Agganna Sutta' account of the arising of government was a "social contract theory' as opposed to the prevalent Hindu "divine right" concepts. That is, when private property leads to theft, and in turn to censure, Iying and punishment, the people convene to choose the wisest and ablest of their number to administer justice. The Buddhist concept of government is of a human institution to be established and maintained with the consent of the people in order to mediate social conflicts resulting from competition over resources Only those attempting a Marxist-Buddhist dialogue, though have pointed out the way in which private property is one of the "causes' of the organization of coercion, that is, the State, and from the State arises the first class division. The important difference is that the Sutta has the first state as democratically and consensually established and the ruling class which arises from it as benevolent rather the exploitative. It is a "worker's state" with a privileged, but wise an just, bureaucracy.

It is also here where the Buddha retums to the polemic against brahmins. He shows the warriors arising first as those popularly chose as the most able and just, and the brahmins only arise later from those who could not endure meditation in the forest, and settled in the town to make and recite books.

At that time they (the brahmins) were looked upon as the lowest though now they are thought the best.

Similarly, according to a natural "dharmic" division of labor the other classes arise also, and from their ranks, the homeless monks. In the secular world, announces the Buddha in conclusion, the warriors are the superior caste, and the monks transcend all the ordinary classes

It is important to emphasize that the Buddha did not imply that caste qualities are actually inherited, only those first generations would actually have a close correspondence between ability and status. Later, as the famous couplets in the Dhammapada point out, a brahmin is not born a brahmin but must become one by his actions. Only in this context does the Buddha say:

The warrior is the best among these people who trust in lineage.

Anyone from any caste or class who treads the path of a warrior's virtues, exhibiting justice, intelligence, concern for the people's welfare and leadership, is a true warrior, just as the way of the homeless renunciate is open to all.

Another point is that the Buddha's story of the evolution of caste/class society places "those who put away evil habits and meditated in huts" and "those who repeated the scriptures" as the second and third strata in the status hierarchy, after warriors. Yet the homeless monks are placed beyond class. This should be instructive to many Buddhist monks today who believe either meditation or scholarship to be the more important pursuit. Both of these things are important elements in the monastic life, but are merely parts of the larger revolutionary social process of the Sangha, meditation and/or scholarship by themselves still leave one trapped in class consciousness.

In the Agganna Sutta we see the first two Noble Truths, suffering and its cause, but only at the end of the Sutta is there a suggestion of Noble Truths Three and Four, the cessation of suffering and the path to it. As in the Buddhist psychological account of the chain of twelve mutually reinforcing elements which bring about neurotic mind, elements which are each counteracted by the meditations and practices of the spiritual path, the Agganna Sutta introduces us to the chain of causation which leads to humanity's alienation from nature, each other and from our inner wisdom, and then suggests a holistic, countervailing process, a counter-culture, counter-psychology, counter-economy and a counter-polity, to reverse each element in the downward spiral. Coercion must be replaced by cooperation, private property by propertylessness, family and home by the community of wanderers, hierarchy by egalitarian democracy, division of labor by equal sharing of community labor. The use of the opposite sex as a sex object must be replaced, respectful relationships between androgynous individuals beyond greed and ignorance. Rather than living at war with nature, the countervailing society strives to be at peace with nature, as the forest monks were, living lightly on the land. The Sangha is the embodiment of this countervailing process which negates caste, class, sex, race and family, yet its spiritual warriors live in an interdependent relationship with the society of which it is the negation. On the one hand they draw from and are supported by the neurotic society, and on the other they establish their influence in the society. Though this influence is felt at many levels it is most clearly seen in the relationship of these spiritual warriors with the secular warriors, the leaders and rulers of society.


The Vajjian Sutta is another example of the discussion of the rising and falling of things, in this case, a healthy republican democracy. The Vajjians, like the Shakyans, were absorbed during the Buddha's period by an expanding monarchy. According to the Buddha, the most important condition for the health of their society, and defence against monarchical imperialism, was for them to continue to:

meet together regularly in their republican assemblies, gathering, deciding and dispersing in common agreement.

The Buddha repeats this as a condition of health for the Sangha. This is not an ordinary confrontational democracy, with irreconcilable conflicts between interest-groups, but the achievement of a consensus through broad and equal participation in face-to-face decision-making. The secular republics were decaying because the growth of mercantile culture and its attendant individualism were destroying the cultural fabric, and the brahmins and monarchs were merely there to finish the job and start knitting the new weave. Authoritarianism is seen as another step in the decay of the social fiber, the democratic process which chooses a benevolent ruler in the Agganna Sutta survives in a reduced form in these republics, and finally is only preserved by the Sangha.

The regime recommended here has a social welfare focus. Both the protection of women from violence, and the care for and respect towards the elderly are seen as central to social health.

Why does the Buddha say that free access of the wandering philosophers contributes to social health? On one level, there is here the traditional religious notion that the presence of renunciates and sages set a high ethical standard, discouraging individualism and antisocial behavior. But more deeply, at a sociological level, these philosophers functioned as a decentralized news media, challenging, critiquing and educating the society, and articulating popular needs and aspirations on the basis of their organic interdependence with the common people. In the Buddha's day, the expanding monarchies were putting pressures on the highly amorphous and decentralized bands of philosophers to coalesce into structured and recognized groups, in order to respond to the authoritarian challenge. The Buddha is reminding his compatriots of the strength of an open society.

The law and tradition that grow out of the democratic and consensual process are "legitimate" authority, the stability and solidarity of such a society is the best environment for the progressive development of lay people and the Sangha. Therefore the Buddha recommends that citizens of the republics respect the rule of law. Some conservative Buddhist teachers have interpreted this passage (like the Christian "render unto Caesar...") to be a demand for obedience to all political authority. This ignores both the Buddha's demand that we examine all traditions and authorities critically to decide for ourselves what is correct, and the nature of the regime that the Buddha is recommending respect for, one in which law is made with broad participation. Though the Buddha never explicitly discusses the utility or morality of civil disobedience or revolution, he does describe regimes which, through not acting in the interests of their citizens, cause the public to flout the law, and thereby lead to their own destruction.


The Vajjians and Shakyans, and other republics, were replaced by autocratic monarchies, a further social decline, but the Buddha evolved a strategy of personal discussion and counsel in order to influence the kings and their courts. The Buddha's image of traditional monarchs was of arrogant egotists pursuing imperialistic, unjust policies, guided solely by greed, hatred and ignorance. But if the king could be converted and brought under the away of the Sangha, he could be taught to rule with compassion, selflessness and wisdom, and the degenerative cycle would be halted. The Sangha, that is, as a revolutionary vanguard in organic interdependence with the people, and embodying humanitarian, democratic principles, could establish its hegemony over the State. Such a qualitatively transformed monarch was called a dharma-raja, or dharma-king.

When Siddhartha Gautama was born it was predicted that he would either be a world-conqueror or a world-saviour, in line with the Great Man mythos. Though his father tried to steer him toward conquest of the world, Siddhartha conquered himself instead. The symbol of secular power was the wheel of the war chariot, "the wheel of power", but the symbol of the Buddha's awakening process was "the wheel of Truth" (dharmachakra) of which he was the "wheel-turner" (chakravartin).

By subordinating himself to the way of truth, the just king allows the dharmachakra to turn the wheel of power. In this Sutta, the dharmachakra is symbolized by a glowing flying saucer. It is called and peacefully conquers all lands, when the king provides for all the people and animals of the realm, listens to the counsel of the wise, controls his passions, and most importantly, makes sure that there is no poverty in his kingdom.

This sutta begins with the famous injunction of the Buddha that one must be a refuge and lamp unto oneself by holding fast to the Dharma, and that we must take no other as our refuge or guide. How are we to do this? By observing closely our body and mind in order to attain wisdom and tranquillity. As in the Buddha's advice to the Kalamas, where he rejects reliance on scriptures, authorities and traditions, and recommends personal testing and deciding, the awakened citizen is "self-determining". The awakened citizen does not abdicate personal will to Church, State or King, though she/he is bound by compassion for her fellow citizens to feel responsible to their needs and desires. Only with this anarchist prologue does the Buddha launch into his most pointed statement on ideal kingship.

"Once upon a time..." there was a king, Strongtyre, says the Buddha with tongue in cheek, who was indeed a "strong-tyre", since he turned the wheel of state with the wheel of dharma; though he had a powerful army he ruled the world through non-violence and justice. A spiritual and wise man, he retires at the end of his life to live as a monk, and instructs his son in the ways by which he can earn the symbol of legitimate rule, the Truth-Wheel, since it cannot be inherited.

One duty is to pay close attention to the needs of the different sectors of the population. Two sectors. "the religious" and "the animals" are groups which are rarely addressed by government policy, at least in the West. The rule of the Indian King Asoka, the model of a dharmaraja for the last two thousand years, provides some examples of implementation of such policies. A department of religious affairs was established by Asoka to provide assistance to all faiths more or less equally and the population was exhorted to stop the hunting and slaughter of animals.

The king is enjoined in this sutta to dialogue with spiritual people in order to obtain their advice and enlist them in his ideas for social welfare, an ideal which fits with the strategy of King-Sangha relationship discussed above.

But the most important sector for the king to look after is "the poor", to whom the king must give wealth. While the Agganna Sutta mythologically places the development of private property as one of the chain of causes leading to crime, the state, and class society, this Sutta portrays the most important role of the state to be the amelioration, if not elimination, of poverty through redistribution of property and social policies which prevent the impoverishment of the various sectors. The dharma-raja thus stabilizes, if not actually reverses, the degenerative process.

The king who rules in such a way is shown to be able to establish a non-violent hegemony over all the world, which he does not take advantage of the extract tax or tribute, but merely to establish high ethical standards among his subordinates.

But eventually a king comes who, rather than holding fast to the egoless Dharma, attempts to rule by his own idea. The only mistake he makes is to allow poverty to develop, which leads to theft. Rather than adopting preventative course of action to eliminate poverty, the cause, he provides the offenders with property, in effect rewarding them for committing crimes. When he sees that this "liberal" approach is only encouraging more crime, he turns to the "conservative" policy of execution, which only has the effect of encouraging violent crime.

As society slowly disintegrates generation after generation, lifespans shorten and immoral behaviour becomes more common. All religious, family and political bonds lose their legitimacy and are no longer respected. Even family members hate one another.

The Apocalypse that follows is the opposite end of a cycle which begins in the Agganna Sutta. The temptation arises naturally to compare this scriptural account of Apocalypse with the threatening signs of nuclear and biological warfare, and the worsening condition of the environment, as many Christians do. While such a comparison will be drawn here, the point should be made that religious visions of the end of the world show many similarities which probably have more to do with the lives and psychology of pre-industrial people than with prophetic accuracy. Really, there aren't many alternative modes of destruction outside of warfare, plagues, famines, droughts, earthquakes, floods, and scourges of various critters, so the fact that there are modern equivalents threatening today shouldn't surprise us. What should especially be avoided by Buddhists is the tendency among religious fundamentalists to believe in the inevitability of an increasingly evil world leading to sure annihilation. In the first place, the wars, disease, ecological destruction and famine the twentieth century has already witnessed have more than fulfilled any "prophetic content" in the sutta. What is perhaps valuable in that context is the way the sutta shows the general world crisis to be the precondition for the dawning of a new age. For, in the second place, Buddhism teaches its allegories in order to awaken us to the wise and preventative action needed now to cut through our karma, to break the neurotic cycles, not in order to encourage defeatism. It was the brahmin approach to preach obedience to social and personal karma, the Buddhist approach is to achieve existential freedom from our karma, self-less self-determination.

Nonetheless, the image drawn of a seven-day war, engulfing the whole world and destroying all civilization certainly brings to mind the short but thoroughly destructive course a next world war would take. The later Mahayana texts which speak of a seven-month period of disease, spread by non-human beings (microbes?), bring to mind the after-effects a nuclear or bacteriological war would have. The drought and consequent famine, which is to last for nearly eight years similarly brings to mind the current predictions of world-wide ecological chaos following even a "limited" nuclear war, the sun blotted out for months and years by radio-active dust, causing "nuclear winter", radiated land, plants and animals infertile, the gases which protect us from the sun's rays burned away.

The survivors are those who escaped to "live in huts in the jungle, in mountain clefts" as the few who might survive nuclear war would have to have been in deep shelters, and in areas far from what had been civilization. As they emerge from their caves "they will embrace one another and will be of one mind, comforting each other and saying: "Oh Mortal! You are still alive!" They will reflect on their fallen state, and the path that lead there, and will vow to do good. This commitment is the turning point of a new upward trend, as humanity rebuilds the world and society, and, at the same time, develops spiritually and morally.

The result, after many generations, is a united peaceful world, whose citizens enjoy long life spans and good health. The world will be rich and well populated. Interestingly, the Buddha describes a world with 84,000 cities so close together that a chicken can fly from one to the next. Buddha comments that we might think such a world to be like the hell of the "Waveless Deep", crushed by the billions of humans like being at the bottom of the ocean. But rather than an overpopulated, urban sprawl of polluted mega-cities, in this future vision the Buddha says humanity will pervade the world "as a jungle is by reeds and rushes", that is in a decentralized ecological interdependence.

In Christian theology a debate has gone on for at least a hundred years, and in some sense throughout Christian and Jewish history, over whether the Millenium, the utopian era, will precede or be brought about by the coming of the Messiah. American "post-millenialists", believing that Christ would only return to judge the world after humanity had succeeded in living in peace and justice for a thousand years, had become social reformers working for the abolition of slavery, rights for women and workers, and pacifism. Pre-millenialists on the other hand saw the evils of the world and the coming Apocalypse as inevitable, and in some sense welcome, since it heralded the coming of the Saviour to found his Kingdom. (Some liberation theologians have taken another approach and dispensed with the supernatural interpretation of the Coming of Christ altogether, believing instead that the resurrected spirit of Christ in the people building the kingdom of heaven on earth through inspired action, is the return of the Messiah.)

The Cakkavatti is the only early Buddhist scripture that discusses the coming of the next Buddha, Metteya, or a coming millenium, and it is emphatically postmillenial. After countless generations of ethical, social and material rebuilding from the ashes of the Apocalypse, this progressive social evolution is capped by the coming of a paramount wheel-turning king, symbolizing the re-establishment of the perfect, just, participatory and socialist government depicted in the beginning of the Sutta. Only then as a natural outcome of this historical process, will the next Buddha arise. "He" will draw together a new religious order, which will be joined by the king, who will give his palace over to the poor, homeless and the priests. Symbolically, the coming Buddha brings the "withering of the state", the old administrative apparatuses are turned over to the poor and religious renunciates.

This scripture, as limited as it may seem as potential fuel for popular messianism and millenial revolt, has been the basis of many peasant uprisings, led by those claiming to be either the righteous king, Sanka, or Metteya Buddha himself, come to destroy the evil and establish the new order. The most famous examples are the various insurrectionary Chinese secret societies, such as "the White Lotus Society", which have led uprisings for the last thousand years based partly on the Metteya mythos. More recently, the Buddhist-socialist government of U Nu, Prime Minister of Burma in the 50's, made direct appeals to this sutta and other Buddhist scripture to make its case for social reforms and the validity of Marxist concepts.

The admonition which opens the sutta closes it as well. But two new ideas are added: the meaning of wealth and of power to a Buddhist. Embracing the whole world with a calm and compassionate mind is true wealth, not small-minded nationalist imperialism, plundering riches from other nations so that the master race can enjoy material splendor. True power is the destruction of greed, hatred and ignorance, and the establishment of oneself in mental liberation and insight, rather than the domination of others. The Buddha concludes this "political treatise":

I consider no power so hard to subdue as the power of Mara (the personification of illusion).

The system which oppresses us is based in and supported by illusion, from the inner illusion of ego to the alienated ignorance we live in about our social and political world. One who wants to understand the Buddhist approach to politics must be fearless enough to face and cut through the illusions within which we live.


Buddhaghosa, of the tenth century after Christ, fifth century A.D., was one of the earliest monks, and certainly the most important monk, to attempt a thorough systematization of the psychology, metaphysics, and philosophy of the early Pali Buddhist texts. His Visuddhimaggha (the Path of Purity) remains a textbook for Theraveda Buddhists today. He also synthesizes commentaries of his time to draw out the original materials, as with the addenda to the Agganna Sutta about genitals and cooked millet. Most of the section printed here on the destruction of the universe and cyclic re-creation appears to be a reconstruction of the rare discussions of this subject in the original scripture.

The Buddhist cosmology has two cycles, the social cycle described in the Agganna and Cakkavatti Suttas, and the astro-physical cycle elaborated hereby Buddhaghosa. This astro-physical cycle generally corresponds to the modern notion of the Big Bang, the universe expands for billions of years, then contracts to a point of complete atomization and unification of all the universe's matter/energy. Then the black hole of nuclear plasma explodes back out again to recreate galaxies, suns and planets. The commentary printed here is a description of the contracting period in which humans begin to prepare for the coming destruction by meditating into a bodyless state.

Buddhaghosa asks the interesting question: how can people, suffering from drought caused by geo-physical disturbances and the growing proximity of suns, meditate? Because they are forewarned

heavenly beings who have seen the end of the universe and the new one being born (and) travel up and down the haunts of humans, with their heads bare, hair disheveled, with piteous faces, mopping their tears with their hands, with disordered clothes of dyed cloth, warning of the end.

These benevolent extraterrestrials, disguised as the hysterical lunatics carrying "The End Is Near" signs so often satirized in the press, actually convince we earthlings to accelerate our ethical and spiritual evolution in order to escape into the bodyless state.

Perhaps then we can fancifully translate Buddhaghosa's tale an being that of an intergalactic evacuation plan for intelligent lifeforms, beaming us into.

In Mahayana thought, the Bodhisattva unifies the "feminine" energy of profound wisdom (insight into the Void, interdependence and no-self) with the "masculine" energy of total compassionate dedication to the liberation of beings. Without the integration of both, liberation is impossible, again a reminder to scholars, philosophers and teachers who don't meditate, and meditators who don't analyze and engage with society and the world.

We see the emphasis on taking an active career in this set of verses, in sharp contrast to the pro-renunciatory language of the earlier scriptures. These verses recommend that we become teachers, leaders, ministers, scientists, craftsmen, doctors, even priests in order to help our fellow humans. The verses point out that the Bodhisattva, as a skilled actor, can turn deception into a tool of liberation. She/he can manifest all the behaviors of all living beings. She/he can practice immoral deeds without causing harm or bad karma, and even in the service of instruction. Bodhisattvas devote themselves to strange sects in order to overcome their dogmatism, in other words, they infiltrate other organizations and establish the ideological hegemony of their own nondogmatic, open-systemed view. They can show themselves to be sick or dead, and can "demonstrate the burning of the earth in the consuming flames of the world's end in order to demonstrate impermanence". (Bringing to mind the "die-ins" that are now a common form of antinuclear protest in the West.)

But this section is especially presented as an encouraging postscript to the stories of social and universal Apocalypse. For Vimalakirti advises us of what we must do during the recurrent scourges that will ravage the earth. During famine we must "become" food and drink, for only when people are fed can they be taught and practice the Dharma. We must become medicine during times of plague, and treasures for the poor. During wars we must introduce to non-violence hundreds of millions of living beings. Even before they start.


What then can we learn today from an examination of these ancient myths that will help us turn around our Apocalypse? Most importantly we find a description of a chain of causation involving psychological, social and material processes. These interdependent elements are seen as part of a beginningless and endless series of events, without a "Prime Cause". The Buddha, as a scientist of human suffering, examined the world around him and point-by-point identified the interlocking elements of "the system" (samsara) and elaborated a "countervailing system" to negate each of these elements. The nature of this countervailing system can be discerned both in the institution of the Sangha and in the scripture.

His counter-system sought to replace vanity with sympathy, hatred with compassion, and ignorance with analysis and insight, on this much all agree. But he also saw possessiveness, and property itself, to be powerful reinforcements of our neurosis, to be replaced by voluntary simplicity and communal sharing. Division of labor, and its resulting class society, alienating us from our common human experience, was replaced by the sharing of all labor in a classless society, as in "the beginning" and in the Sangha. Rather than socially stereotyped 'men' and 'women' relating to each other as sexual objects, within the property relations of the patriarchal family, the Buddha sought to encourage respectful egalitarian relations between our true human natures which are neither male nor female (see Buddhist Feminism), also by the author).

All forms of attachment to family, class, race or nation were to be replaced by a compassionate identification with all sentient life, and the material corollary of such compassion, a classless, race-blind, nationless world society of extended families. Exploitation of nature was to give way to ecological interdependence, a step back towards the easy abundance of our mushroom and vine-gathering days.

Most Buddhists throughout history have been blinded to the radical nature of the Buddha's teaching by philosophical idealism, encouraged by ruling elites. They prefer not to speak of this social anarchist Shakyan warrior who threatens to smash open brahmin's heads and insults their patronage. The kings, ruling classes and priest-hoods that have dominated Buddhism have suppressed the democrat, the antiimperialist, and the anti-clerical Buddha. The oppressors have tried to fit the Buddha back into a godly mold, beyond human interests and activity. But the Buddha was a revolutionary humanist, a symbol and teacher of the liberation of human potential, he called upon the masses to renounce primitive beliefs in a Supreme God, beliefs which encourage authoritarian power.

Buddhist scriptures depict at least three different political schemes. The most alienated and alienating is the authoritarian regime, supporting a privileged elite against an exploited poor, engaging in expansionist, imperialist wars, and supported by racist, nationalist and patriarchal forces of cultural reaction, such as brahmins. The second is the social-welfare regime, with limited popular participation, guided by a mass-based vanguard of progressive intellectuals, such as the Sangha. Such a regime can halt the degenerative process. But the highest form of polity is the decentralized, participatory democracy, with face-to-face form of polity is the decentralized, participatory democracy, with face-to face egalitarian decision-making, leading eventually to a 'withering of the state'.

In the Cakkavatti's reconstruction period, no explicit role is mentioned for a clergy in guiding the people to establish the New Order. The re-awakening process is a mass social and spiritual phenomenon which, itself, leads to the re-establishment of pure religion. In the authoritarian regime, the religious and secular intellectuals side with the elites and state against the masses. In the social-welfare regime, a powerful section of the intellectual leadership in society sides with the masses in influencing the state. But in the truly democratic society, the division between intellectual and manual labor, leader and led, is eliminated. We Buddhist citizens, we aspiring Bodhisattvas, must look deeply into the social and material trends of our day, identify and engage with those forces that our progressive vision points toward, not remaining separate from the masses, as Buddhists or intellectuals.

Social change is not a distraction from spiritual growth, it is the discipline within which we grow. If we are merely "meditators in leaf huts" or "repeaters of the scriptures" we are still part of the problem, wisdom without compassion. On the other hand, those who engage in social change without a spiritual base, without a humble appreciation of the big (bang) picture and a non-dogmatic world-view, are at best compassionate without wisdom. Our challenge is to step out of these old illusions and structures of the status quo, as that first dissatisfied warrior did in the Agganna Sutta, to find true liberation in the building of an awakened world and humanity.


Beginning at the turn of the century, two dedicated Pali scholars, Mr. and Mrs. Rhys Davids, made the translation of the entire Pali Buddhist canon into English their life work. As Buddhists with vast scholarly knowledge and an understanding of the social context of the scriptures, they have provided an invaluable service to the spread of the Dharma. Their Pali Text Society translations are still the most common sources in Buddhist studies, but for several reasons they are not appropriate for popular consumption.

The first reason is the archaic British English used, and the attempts to put the translations into rhyming or otherwise poetic couplets. Like attempts to translate the King James Bible into modern idiom, my modifications of the original is suited more to evangelical, than literary and scholarly, purposes. Also edited out are the many etymological and explanatory footnotes, which are very useful to scholars, but confusing for the layperson.

The second reason is the highly repetitive nature of the early texts, which were an oral tradition for hundreds of years. Though many repetitions are edited out in the translations I have carried that process one step further by trying to express in as straightforward a way as possible the message, without interfering with the general structure of the suttas, which also carries meaning.

The third reason for changes is that some terms used betray subtle interpretive biases which, while perhaps technically correct, overall give an incorrect impression. I am not a Pali scholar, and so have only replaced terms with synonyms which I feel, in the light of modern scholarship and modern English, better convey the ideas. Some sentences are direct quotations of the original. For the extremely curious, or scholar, the entire Pali canon has now been put on CD-ROM in romanized type. CD-Roms of other translations are also in the works sponsored by the Electronic Buddhist Text Initiative

I encourage the curious or querulous to refer to the originals. The first section on the belief in God can be found in Dialogues o the Buddha, Part I, p.31, as can the Ambattha Sutta. The Cakkavatti, Vajjian and Agganna Suttas can be found in Dialogues... Part 11, a well as the Lakkhana Sutta, which gives a detailed description of the 32 marks of the Great Man and their symbolic significance. Pali Text Society books are distributed by Routledge and Kegan Paul - London, Henley and Boston, or you can purchase volumes directly from them: 73 Lime Walk, Headington, Oxford OX3 7AD United Kingdom.

The Visuddhirnaggha (Path of Purity) by Buddhaghosa can be obtained in English from the Buddhist Publication Society (PO Bo 61, Kandy, Sri Lanka) - all 900 pages of it. The best translation of the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra is Robert Thurman's (Uma's Dad) The Holy Teachings of Vimalakirti, Pennsylvania State University Press, though these verses were also adapted from Lamotte's translation. Invaluable interpretation, and discussion of the social background, of the suttas can be found in Trevor Ling's The Buddha (1973, Penguin Books, London) and Sarkisyanz's Buddhist Backgrounds of the Burmese Revolution (The Hague).

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