illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
A few days ago, posted an explanation
(plus.google.com/+JustinWhitaker/posts/XjrXJgFzA6C) on the Aggañña sutta (DN 27). In the second part of this sutta, the Buddha tells a story of how human beings came to dwell on Earth, i.e. proposes a story of the Creation.
Justin did so in relation to a TV show… a show from the same series that triggered my recent post on ’Apocalypse’ as ‘enlightenment’? ‘Enlightenment’ as ’apocalypse’? (gplus.wallez.name/27Ey6YSSi1N). Visibly, this show is good at providing food for thoughts ;-)
It might be noted that an historical reading of the Pāḷi Canon might suggest that this Aggañña sutta might have been grown in importance at a later date. In the third part of the sutta, the Buddha discusses the origin of hindu castes. While Hinduism was gradually spreading over India in that period, it wasn't yet particularly dominant in the region where the Buddha lived, at the time of the Buddha… Sure, the Buddha could know of the hindu views and of their growing influence, he might also have replied to proselytisation efforts by hindus, and yet he would have replied to these views just like he would have replied to many other views.
As he often did (as attested by many suttas), the Buddha took the views of his interlocutors, to then bend them into a wiser perspective. In this instance, he appropriates their description of castes, to then assert the universality of wholesome behaviour! He also appropriates their claim of knowing the origin of the world, to turn it into a denunciation of 'craving'!
That he often used such a pedagogical method creates a heightened risk when suttas are partially quoted, because the quotes might reflect more the positions of an interlocutor of the Buddha than that of the Buddha himself!
Of course, Justin didn't fall for such a mistake of misquoting: his presentation of a specific text, the Aggañña sutta, clearly states that it is a moral myth first and foremost, rather than some definitive view on the Creation. However, someone else who read his post then wrote another post… in which the second part of the Aggañña sutta apparently became "the (!) Buddhist take on creation" (tvblogs.nationalgeographic.com/2016/04/22/where-did-we-come-from/).
So, below, I discuss how this Aggañña sutta does not constitute all the Buddha says about the creation (for a translation of the sutta as well as useful notes, see Piya's dharmafarer.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/2.19-Agganna-S-d27-piya.pdf).
I'm not convinced that the "discourse of origins" from this sutta is about "creation", in and of itself. The key reason, to start with, is that there's no "creator", only causal unfolding!
So it seems very much an ethical teaching to me, and I agree with Justin's conclusion that « the sutta is a morality tale wrapped in a cosmogony. » The wrapping is not to be taken seriously though, it's just a gift wrapping, the gift being the moral teaching! To take the wrapping seriously would go against many other suttas, and basically take one sutta out of context for the sake of confirming one's craving for a definite answer regarding the "creation"!
One key idea in Buddhism regarding the 'creation' is that the self-perceived 'creator' is only delusional (about being the cause of the creation).
This is supported in the Brahmajāla sutta (DN 1), §40–44 (www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.01.0.bodh.html#paragraph-40).
A few paragraphs before, in the same Brahmajāla sutta, the beings involved in the "discourse of origins" are described. They pre-existed the 'contraction', so if there was a 'creation' then it had to be before the 'contraction'… which then sends us into a potentially cyclical world, of which the origin cannot be found (due to infinite regress). In modern science, this would link to the en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Bounce theory.
In a sense, the Buddha accepts that one being might see himself as 'the creator' (with reasons to back this up) and others might also see that being as 'the creator' (with reasons to back this up)… but he asserts that this is an ignorant perception and a faulty reasoning (an ab ignorantiam logical fallacy, in fact)!
One way to look at the infinite regress even with a 'creator' is in questioning what intention caused the creator to create, then what caused such an intention, then what caused that, etc. It then appears the creator is subject to tendencies and causalities (i.e. karma)… and one ends up having to ask what created these… the creator is created, therefore is not 'the' creator… This was made explicit very clearly by Nāgārjuna, but the idea long preceded Nāgārjuna! It basically ends up with "we, humans, don't / cannot know what 'created' the world… so stop seeking an answer, and most importantly do not answer 'God' without proof, or that's just prejudice / preconception, not 'seeing' " (the Canonical version of this would be Acintita sutta (AN 4.77)).
This is not so much about asserting the factual existence of an infinite regress than about avoiding to waste time trying to find a beginning that cannot be found!
The Assu sutta (SN 15.3) has the Buddha state « From an inconstruable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. »).
The Tiṇakaṭṭha sutta (SN 15.1) has « Monks, without an end is the train of existence, a beginning cannot be pointed out of beings enveloped in ignorance and bound by craving, running from one existence to another. »
The Buddha rejected the relevance of attributing everything to a creator, as he described the 'sectarians' in Tittha sutta (AN 3.61). That is not necessarily to say that he entirely rejected the idea of a creation, BTW, but rather would question the usefulness of dwelling on such questions and views, which can prove spiritually counter-productive.
It goes thus: « There are brahmans & contemplatives who hold this teaching, hold this view: 'Whatever a person experiences — pleasant, painful, or neither pleasant nor painful — that is all caused by a supreme being's act of creation.' » to who the Buddha replied: « Then in that case, a person is a killer of living beings because of a supreme being's act of creation. A person is a thief... unchaste... a liar... a divisive speaker... a harsh speaker... an idle chatterer... greedy... malicious... a holder of wrong views because of a supreme being's act of creation. » and the Buddha continued to his saṅgha « When one falls back on creation by a supreme being as being essential, monks, there is no desire, no effort [at the thought], "This should be done. This shouldn't be done." When one can't pin down as a truth or reality what should & shouldn't be done, one dwells bewildered & unprotected. One cannot righteously refer to oneself as a contemplative. This was my second righteous refutation of those brahmans & contemplatives who hold to such teachings, such views. »
The idea that discussing of the creation might be spiritually useless or even misleading, is asserted clearly in the Kathavatthu sutta (AN 10.70), when the Buddha said: « It isn't right, monks, that sons of good families, on having gone forth out of faith from home to the homeless life, should get engaged in such topics of conversation, i.e., conversation about kings, robbers, & ministers of state; armies, alarms, & battles; food & drink; clothing, furniture, garlands, & scents; relatives; vehicles; villages, towns, cities, the countryside; women & heroes; the gossip of the street & the well; tales of the dead; tales of diversity, the creation of the world & of the sea; talk of whether things exist or not. »
With all these references, it should now be clear that the very existence of "the (!) Buddhist take on creation" is an illusion.
Historically, some teachers —including within the most orthodox tradition— may well have answered questions on the creation, notably if they saw that a clear answer would allow their students to go back to studying something else (e.g. how their own mind works!) and stop dwelling on a pointless quest… but this has to be understood as an "expedient means", not the transmission of the Buddha's insight.
If anything, the Buddha's insight about the creation is that… dwelling on such a question is, spiritually speaking, a waste of time!
See also gplus.wallez.name/3N9DUFYPnh7 and its annex gplus.wallez.name/g7achUU7wci