The accumulation of a single person’s bones for an aeon would be a heap on a par with the mountain, so said the Great Seer [the Buddha]. But when that person sees with right discernment the four Noble Truths — stress, the cause of stress, the transcending of stress, and the Noble Eightfold Path, the way to the stilling of stress — having wandered on seven times at most, then, with the ending of all fetters, he puts a stop to stress.
Some people see the impermanence of life and their selves as a reason to enjoy life as long as they can, and live it up. But Buddhism thinks very long-term. Let’s look at another important concept in Buddhism called samsara, which means “aimless wandering”. The Buddha, while deeply meditating under the Bodhi Tree on the night of his Enlightenment, saw all his past lives laid out before him: princes, paupers, animals, etc.
“When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, & attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of recollecting my past lives. I recollected my manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two…five, ten…fifty, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand, many eons of cosmic contraction, many eons of cosmic expansion, many eons of cosmic contraction & expansion: ‘There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.’ Thus I remembered my manifold past lives in their modes & details.
—Maha-Saccaka Sutta MN 36
The number of lives was countless, and he realized that if he continued on as he did, he would continue to wander aimless through countless, countless cycles of rebirth. These eons and eons of lifetimes were measured in kalpas, which is a very long span of time in Indian culture. The exact definition of a kalpa varies, but it can often be measured in hundreds of thousands of years at minimum, or even as great as millions or even billions of years.
Our Big Universe
In ancient Indian-Buddhist cosmology, the universe is seen as near-infinitely large, and near-infinitely old. Unlike religions that see a definite, often short, beginning and a precise moment where it will end, Buddhism sees the Universe as beyond measure and ultimately unknowable. Though ancient Indian people knew nothing of astronomy, modern-day scientists have confirmed that the known Universe is indeed very old (13.7 billion years old), and 28 billion parsecs or 53,200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles across and growing faster and faster. Also, what lies before the Big Bang is unknowable at this time.
Perhaps the ancient Indians were not so far off as one might expect…
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