Two Universes

Cosmology East and West

Pre-modern Europeans and Asians lived in two different universes. To the educated European the universe was a clockwork mechanism bounded in both time and space. In space the universe was a set of crystalline spheres enclosed within a definite limit. ( I have read that compared to modern astronomy, the universe of Aristotle would fit inside the orbit of Jupiter.) The temporal limits became defined with the input of Judaic eschatology during the imperial period. The universe was created at a definite moment in the past and would progress through a historical evolution to a pre-determined end.

The Asian, or at least the Indian, universe was unbounded in both in both space and time. This world system of ours was seen as only one of an infinite number. In the time dimension there were also no limits. The universe was both beginingless and endless, cycling through immensely long eons of evolution and involution.

It is an interesting topic for speculation how living in each of these universes effected the lives and thoughts of the inhabitants. On a superficial level, it wouldn't have made much difference. People in all cultures go about their business of making love, war and money without much concern about cosmological questions. But what about the higher life of philosophy and spiritual development? Surely the cosmological background must have effected thought in subtle ways.

The limited universe of the west re-inforced another important component of the European world-view; the cult of the individual inherited from classical Greece and refined by Christianity. Just as there was a clear boundary between the world and the outer void, so too there was a clear demarcation between self and other. The universe was peopled by clearly individualized selves, endowed with immortal souls, all the way from the Big Self of God in his heaven to all the little folk down below.

With the scientific revolution, from the end of the 17th century through the 19th, much of the old structure was dismantled. The heliocentric model, the discovery of galaxies, the understanding of geologic time and the evolution of species remade the entire universe. Of course, some refused to make the transition and clung to biblical certitudes, but for those who crossed over the new universe was a radically different one.

However, one thing was retained and even reinforced; the cult of the individual. It was in the midst of this philosophical revolution that we saw the American and French revolutions with their ideologies of individual rights. With God dethroned, the supreme value was now the individual human ego.

The boundedness of the universe was undermined, but the human unit was still clearly bounded in both time and space. Associated with a physical body and having clear temporal boundaries of birth and death, outside which it did not exist at all, the human individual was as clearly demarcated an entity as Aristotle's spheres.

Into this mix we now see Buddhism coming from the east to add a new flavour to the thought of the west. It is probably no accident that the being who had the great realization emerged from the milieu of India. The Buddha's view of not-self fit comfortably into the unbounded Indian universe. Instead of a clearly defined self with fixed boundaries, the Buddha taught a series of discrete mind-moments, themselves void of substance, stretching in an infinite regress into the past and future, linked to each other by cause-and-effect but not by identity.

This view totally eradicates the western cult of the individual in both its eternalist and its annihilationist forms.

Is this the underlying reason why so many new western Buddhists either reject the teachings around karma and rebirth or misunderstand them so perversely? Is it because it threatens the comfortable cult of the individual, that core idea that wasn't touched by the revolutions of Copernicus, Darwin or Freud?

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