Several years ago, Karma Thinley Rinpoche, a great scholar and master of the Sakya and Kagyu traditions, wrote an essay in Tibetan concerning the reconciliation of ancient Buddhist and modern scientific views on cosmology and astronomy. The text is particularly interesting as it is authored by an outstanding Buddhist scholar trained in pre-communist Tibet, who has spent the latter half of his life in the West. Originally published on his website, here is our translation of this text.
Telescope of Faith: An expression of views on solar and lunar eclipses and so forth
By Karma Thinley Rinpoche
Om – may happiness increase!
Your body of major and minor marks encompasses a thousand sunrays shining on the golden mountain,
Your speech of the three vehicles of the dharma is Brahma’s inexhaustible melody,
Your mind has the profound and vast primordial wisdom of the two knowledges,
I pay homage to Munindra, teacher of gods and men.
There is a sand dune of doubts about whether Mount Meru exists or not,
And the correct analysis of this is a treasure difficult to extract from the ocean of teachings.
Like painting a friendly face,
I will scatter from my fingertips some considerations I have made.
Thus some auspicious verses for the outset.
In regard to the circumstances of solar and lunar eclipses and so forth, and the rotation of the Earth, for many millennia before the development of the views of contemporary scientists, it was thought that there was a vast ground (sa gzhi) which was stationary at the centre of the universe, and the sun revolved around it, a view in which the only similarity to the modern system is that the sun rises in east and sets in the west. According to the Tibetan account of solar and lunar eclipses, following the Indian astrological system, it was thought that the sun and moon were obscured by Rahu. Using depictions of his head or tail, the times of the occurrence of full and new moon days, the months, time periods and so forth were determined. It was explained this way not just figuratively, but the almanacs based on it provided the evidence to prove it, which were used in Tibet for nearly 1,000 years. This is the tradition that the sun and moon revolve around Mount Meru and that they become obscured by Rahu.
Contemporary scientists hold the view that the sun remains at the centre and the Earth is a satellite, and that the moon revolves around the latter. During a solar eclipse, the moon comes between the sun and the earth so that our line of sight of the sun is obscured, and during a lunar eclipse, the earth comes between the moon and the sun so that the moon is darkened. Nowadays, everyone considers this to be beyond disputation.
That being so, one might wonder whether one ought still to have confidence in the earlier traditions of Abhidharma, Kalachakra and so forth. The Bhagawan, two and half thousand years ago, using worldly terminology, names and concepts that were harmonious with the ideas and people’s ways of seeing the world at the time, taught the holy dharma to those previous students and established them on the path of instruction which leads to liberation, fulfilling their wishes. Contemporary scientists, through the power of technology, have determined the sun’s position after many centuries of erroneous views having been continually disseminated. Although there are many true and good aspects to science, there are also some harmful ones, such as the weapons of nuclear energy, which can be used to destroy the world, and in the last century this almost came to happen. By the power of previously having generated bodhichitta and having made aspiration prayers for the benefit of those to be trained, the supreme nirmanakaya came to the realm of the world and demonstrated the twelve deeds. Had he not done this, it is impossible that such teachings as those he gave would ever have been known. With peerless wisdom he accomplished enlightened activities; just knowing the size of the universe, and the distances and number of stars and so on is not the same as complete omniscience. With skilful means from his perceiving the nature of things to be the Four Truths, one should know that it is the Buddha who is omniscient, possessing the unsurpassable benevolence of enlightened activities, undiminished by time.
As previously explained, the sun and moon rise in the east and set in the west, and the size of both were directly seen to be about the same by the sight of ordinary humans, so these things appeared to be established as true. Without teaching anything in contradiction to that, in the Abhidharma pitaka it was taught:
The sun moon are the same size.
The constellations and planets revolve around Mount Meru.
The sutras say that the reason such teachings exist is in order to be harmonious with the world. One might now argue that the Abhidharma is wrong. Contemporary scientists say that the sun is one hundred thousand times larger than the earth and it is ninety-three million miles away. It says in Abhidharma texts that the size of the sun is fifty-one yojanas and its distance from Jambudvipa is just four thousand yojanas. Furthermore, the two systems have divergent accounts of the sun’s rising and setting and so forth. Some scientists say that this way of thinking about the sun and moon is like seeing mountains and forests pass by beside the road from a moving car, and erroneously believing they are in motion. The Buddha never taught anything in criticism of such scientific views. Those previous explanations in the Abhidharma regarding the movement of the sun and moon and so on were taught only in order to be in accord with the world at the time. It is not the perfect definitive meaning, the flawless vision of the Buddha himself, but a provisional teaching that suited the circumstances of the time.
One may wonder whether it is necessary to distinguish what is and what is not in accord with the world in such teachings. The Bhagawan, because of his realisation of definitive meaning, is the master of the profound vision of infinite purity of appearance and existence. In the Lankavatara Sutra it says,
Mahamati, the tathagata does not absolutely distinguish cognition, mental states, and mental consciousness, the skandhas, dhatus, ayatanas and the imprints of unawareness.
The Regent Ajita says
Impure, impure and pure,
And utterly pure are the phases of
Sentient beings, bodhisattvas,
Accordingly, regarding the six classes of sentient beings, they experience cause and effect, suffering, and the illusory appearances of having never abandoned the obscurations of karma and disturbing emotions. The Buddha however has abandoned the imprints of the two obscurations, and having traversed beyond the ten bhumis, has directly obtained the primordial wisdom of the non-dual ultimate meaning. Thus how could their views ever be reconciled? For that reason, taking their views as authoritative, ordinary people with a scientific world view see the Abhidharma and so on as incompatible with it. So without confidence in even a single word of the tripitaka, if one calls it a wrong view, then it is as Khedrup Karma Chakme says,
The benefits of virtue, the disadvantages of non-virtue, and so on
Though one has heard about them, one thinks, ‘It’s not true, it’s a theory’.
This deed can be worse than the five inexpiable acts.
There is no liberation unless one confesses and regrets negative deeds.
In accord with these words, since one might sever all the white virtuous actions of successive lives, it is necessary to develop confidence so that great faults such as those mentioned will never enter one’s being.
Concerning lack of confidence in the provisional meaning, the great Jamyang Sakya Pandita says,
Among the teachings of the Buddha, there are two kinds:
Provisional and the definitive meaning.
His words too, are taught as being either
As things are or not as things are.
The vehicles too are taught as being either
Worldly and transcendental.
And the teachings are called ‘intentional’ (dgongs pa),
‘indirect intention’ (ldem por dgongs) and ‘direct intention’ (drang po ru dgongs):
Thus there are three kinds.
In regard to these, when intending to be in accord with the world
He taught that external objects exist.
When intending to investigate conventional truth analytically,
He taught that such phenomena are mind.
When intending the ultimate meaning,
He taught that phenomena are ‘free from elaboration’.
Thus, concerning the definitive meaning:
Since there are words which are not how things are,
‘Intentions’ and ‘indirect intentions’,
Those intended to be worldly vehicles,
Do not hold everything in the sutras and tantras as definitely true.
The definitive meaning are the words as things are,
Transcendental vehicles, direct intentions
Within the teachings—hold these as true.
That being so, even the tirthikas
Have many true teachings
On love, compassion, generosity and so forth,
While in the teachings of the Buddha, provisional meaning and
Views, indirect intentions and so forth
Which are not the truth are taught.
Thus both contain truth and falsity equally.
So, one may ask, for what reason would we reject the tirthikas
While studying the Buddha’s teachings?
Through the instructions by the Buddha’s provisional meaning
One will engage in truth itself.
Through the instructions of the tirthikas’ truths,
One will engage in only falsity.
Therefore, because we have
Faith in the Buddha, we follow him.
It is important to consider this point and understand it.
It is taught that if one accomplishes virtue during a solar or lunar eclipse, it is multiplied by one hundred thousand and so forth, and so it is very important to endeavour in moral conduct. Thus by treating it as very important to endeavour in accepting and rejecting at those times, monks and laymen, old and young, all had faith in this excellent custom and would not forget its benefits. For example, it is taught in the ritual of White Manjugosha that, if practised during a lunar eclipse, one can see actual signs of merit accumulation. I heard that the Sakya lama Yangsi Rinpoche’s previous incarnation actually accomplished such a sign. During the lunar eclipse, when the moon’s obscuration commences, one places a white seed under the tongue and for the duration of the eclipse, one performs the deity propitiation. When the moon is released, the shoots of the seed come out of the mouth. He told me in conversation that he had actually experienced this himself.
In summary, to instruct trainees on the path of liberation by means of the provisional meaning is a profound skilful means of the Buddha. As he himself said,
Profound, peaceful, unelaborated, luminous, uncompounded:
I have found a truth (dharma) which is like nectar.
Whoever also wishes to understand this teaching
Should remain as I have, silently in forests.
The profound definitive meaning is directly seeing reality as it is. Since it is not understood by ordinary beings, in the beginning, he teaches in accord with the view of the deluded conceptualisation of the world, that everything exists and that I too exist, then later he teaches that that everything does not exist and I too do not exist. The dharma is taught like this in order to accord with the world. As it says in the sutras:
Attachment to provisional meaning alone is incorrect understanding.
Jetsun Mila said,
The lord, the perfect buddha, is also skilled in what is false.
Yet while the provisional meaning dharma continues to go round and round the head,
There will never be understanding of definitive meaning.
Thus it is said that provisional meaning teachings are just a means of guiding trainees.
Furthermore, consider that Sumeru was already well known from the teachings of the Tirthika traditions which arose in India before the Buddha, the Lord of the Shakyas. So Meru was taught in our own sutras and tantras in order to accord with those traditions. In general, by the power of the various kinds of good and bad actions of beings of the six classes, each kind has different perceptual and behavioural dispositions and so forth. Therefore, in order to tame them all, in accord with each kind, in each class of rebirth, the Buddha manifested as the six kinds of Muni to tame each one according to their needs.
If one wonders about the teachings concerning what is at the summit of Meru: since men are of weak merit, the summit is not within range of their sight or deed. The merit of the gods being strong, they have a precious nature which arises from their special nobility, and they have attained the pleasures found there. Those who wish to be there, the demi-gods, the Four Great Kings, nagas, the lords of the earth and so on, can see the golden mountain and the great sea, and so on, while others see the four continents, or the Earth as it is now known. Understand that this variety is accomplished from the different manifestations of the energy and play of the karma and merit of each individual kind of being. Yet, for the sake of training the gods who reside on top of Meru, the miraculous manifestation of the Teacher, having appeared there with the dharma wheels marked on his feet, gradually teaches the many teachings of the sutras and tantras to those gods to be trained in accord with their particular natures and faculties. That is possible because his manifestations are completely free.
In short, all the particular ways in which the miseries of beings’ unpurified obscurations occur, the world and its contents which is the truth of suffering, and the omniscience of buddhahood, have no other causal factor than mind’s own projection. As Acharya Chandrakirti says,
Not awakening, there is the fall into the three existences.
If one awakens, there is no fall into the three.
It is like awakening from the torpor of sleep.
However, because the Bhagawan has abandoned delusion, the root of existence, it is not appropriate to think his vision is a mind-projection like Mount Meru, or like any of the other ways of seeing the world that beings who have not having attained buddhahood see. Accordingly, in the Avatamsaka Sutra, it says,
The perfect dharmakaya buddha,
And all the protectors in the three times
For however many beings to be trained
Completely manifest the rupakaya.
The conquerors have neither day nor night;
No day or night, no lunar month.
The conquerors abide for no year.
In the world, so it is said,
One known as ‘Sun’
Takes ordination, and attains enlightenment.
The Buddha Sun
Has no followers,
Has no kalpa,
Has not even any time.
He is the utterly perfect buddha of the three times.
Similarly, in the Sutra of the Thirty Three it says,
Disciples of mine, by not seeing the three realms, do not rely upon the three realms. Dharmas indeed being emptiness, have no aspirations for the desire realm. Have no aspirations for the form realm. Have no aspirations for the formless realm.
Thus by such explanations one can understand that the three realms and so forth, as they are taught in such texts as the Abhidharma, are all provisional meaning teachings. As the sick are cared for by doctors, the various confusions among the minds of trainees should each be treated in its own way, and accordingly out of the glorious throat of the Buddha comes the melodious sound of the vast and profound dharma. The conceptual analyses of scientists and ordinary people may encompass appearances in accordance with the delusion of subject and object, but such conceptual thought concerns an inherent existence that does not really exist.
The omniscient Situ Dharmakara says,
The holy dharma which was taught by the Teacher principally manifests as a form of speech explaining whatever is appropriate, the cause, fruit and essence of nirvana. The chief condition is the primordial wisdom of the Buddha. The causal condition is the pure mind of the student. On the basis of these two, the student’s cognition is the manifestation itself of the various names, words and letters. Because the Bhagawan does not have imprints motivated by speech, and because he is without the unawareness of attachment to inner wisdom and outer speech, the Tathagata does not elaborate the definitive meaning as a position to be held.
The Teacher himself said,
I do not teach anywhere, yet beings appear everywhere.
Thus one should strive to make certain of the meaning of this. When disciples went before the supreme Teacher at places such as at the top of Mount Meru and Vulture Peak Mountain, he turned different wheels of provisional and definitive dharma. The trainees who listened to the dharma then were a combined assembly of bodhisattvas, gods, nagas, Kashyapa, Ananda and so forth, the great shravakas, and likewise the king and queen, ministers and so forth. Those who were fit to be vessels, who directly saw the face of the Buddha and heard the dharma from him, possessed excellent virtue, pure minds like an ocean and so forth.
In summary, Sakya Pandita says,
Since there is none more wise than the perfect Buddha
In the three worlds,
Therefore, do not mix up sutras and tantras,
Which are his teachings.
Therefore, while keeping in the lotus of one’s heart the vajra words of the Buddha, rely on those words by means of wisdom, faith and confidence even when some of the things taught in traditional accounts of solar and lunar eclipses, such as Mount Meru, are not seen. By the power of the Buddha’s various provisional and definitive meanings―the teachings of the Kangyur―and their commentaries written by lotsawas and panditas―the teachings of the Tengyur and so forth―in short, all the amassed teachings of all the learned and accomplished ones India and Tibet, like a heap of jewels, all that still remains, it is very important to have faith, respect and confidence in that remainder and to propagate it.
These days, because the teachings about Mount Meru and the distances of the sun and moon and so on found in the great Indian shastras such as Abhidharmakosha do not accord with science, young people lose faith in the Abhidharma and so on and have doubts. This is inappropriate. Even the great panditas and siddhas of India and Tibet who authored those teachings, while they composed dharma teachings and shastras in dependence only upon what they actually heard of the three baskets of the Buddha’s words, they certainly did not intend to completely contradict modern scientific views. For example, there are nowadays modern scientific theories, such as that of the very learned western scientist Galileo, who three hundred years ago, after inventing the telescope, saw that the earth revolves around the sun. If someone who later accepts his theory forgets the kindness of those great men who upheld, preserved and spread the three baskets of the holy dharma, and so has no faith, it is like exchanging jewels for glass beads. Such a person thinks that the ultimate basis of the individual systems of tenets is the words of the Buddha alone and nothing else is to be accepted. Yet in the Lord who is the Lotus-Born Conqueror it says:
With skilful means, he manifests individual kayas for trainees.
These days, if a perfect Buddha came into the world, he would teach the dharma in accord with the books and tools of science, and trainees guided on the path of liberation would not have doubts such as these. This is just like the great ones who nowadays uphold the teachings.
That being said, in the Avatamsaka Sutra, in its presentation of world systems, one can see many points of similarity between the ‘galaxy’ as it is understood by science and the three thousand-fold universe. Both have a similar structure and circular shape. In the Bhadracharya Prayer it says,
However far is the extent of space,
That is also the extent of beings,
And the extent of their deeds and defilements.
In regard to such teachings as those concerning the inconceivable arrangement of the sambhogakaya fields, these are difficult to imagine even for scientists with conceptual analysis.
That there is no Mount Meru, and that the Earth orbits the sun and so forth, is not at all the same as the traditional presentations of the three realms;yet in general, between Buddhists practising to attaining buddhahood, and in particular, those on the profound path of complete and perfect enlightenment, and most especially, the noble vajrayana, there is not even a sesame seed of contradiction.
As Nagarjuna says,
Perfectly rely upon the two stages
Of the dharma taught by the buddhas.
First, the development stage,
Then, the completion stage.
Through relying on the yogas of the profound development and completion stages, there is the possibility of practising the key points, the vajra body and mind, like Jetsun Milarepa, and attain the level of an omniscient buddha in a single lifetime.
So in regard to solar and lunar eclipses, the distances of the sun and moon and so forth, and the objects of ordinary sight, the explanations of science and Abhidharma and so on are not in agreement. For example, although my understanding of this is very rough and faulty, greatly learned scientists say that at the beginning of the universe, there were just particles, energy and so forth, and everything arose from these, whereas the Buddhist sutras and tantras say that the universe arises from the variety of actions. One should make certain of the reasoning in the subtle and profound explanations which exist in both systems. Thus the non-sectarian Buddhist scholars have produced detailed, extensive, and clear compositions. Jamgon Sakya Pandita says,
Those who have understood
The essential points of scripture and reasoning
Have properly analysed them; have affirmed and negated.
Since it is difficult to encounter the Buddha’s teachings,
And the freedoms and endowments are difficult to acquire,
Intelligent ones should understand them well and
Investigate them with an unbiased, straightforward mind.
One reason for feeling that I should write down these rough thoughts and views on the nature of the sun’s orbit and lunar eclipses concerns the many young Tibetans who grew up in places like Nepal, and Buddhist students in other countries who place no emphasis on accumulating and purifying, and do not ask about or study these matters. Contemporary theories and sciences have swelled like a wave, and between the earlier and contemporary theories there are differences such as those concerning the nature of the skies and earth, particularly at this time. Thus through the unerring four kinds of reliance, may all young people choose the unmistaken excellent path of abiding happiness, and the door to the peace of good circumstances.
I have written this confused analysis, a shabby construction made from pieces of broken rock, in response to repeated requests, which were made in detail some time ago but not yet fulfilled. Although my understanding of the distance of the sun and moon, the orbits and so on, is very rough, if contemporary non-sectarian masters also wrote an essay of their opinions, I think such a pure offering would be of unsurpassed benefit to chatterers like me.
I wrote this without any understanding.
For the Buddhist scholars had not
Written anything, and
I was asked ‘Please write down your views’.
If this explanation by a deluded mind
Offends learned minds, I request forgiveness.
Yet I hope the true gift of the melodious sound of the good explanation
May reach the ears of young people.
Crossing an ocean of great science
Having boarded the boat of the great pitakas,
To reach the golden island of the great liberation,
I pray those of great fortune come to rest there.
From the blazing sun of the Three Jewels,
On Earth, the lotus grove of the teachings grows evermore.
Until beings are freed from the darkness of suffering,
May they all experience joy, delight and splendour.
This was written by Karma Thinleypa, who confesses any errors herein. If there is any actual goodness in it, may it be a cause for the sun of the Buddha’s teachings, the source of benefit and bliss, to shine in all directions.
Translated by Adrian O’Sullivan, who holds the copyright, in London, England, completed August 2010.