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Leading Buddhist scholar Donald S. Lopez Jr. explores the origins of this 2,500-year-old religion and traces its major developments up to the present, focusing not only on the essential elemenmts common to all schools of Buddhism but also revealing the differences among the major traditions. Beginning with the creation and structure of the Buddhist universe, Lopez explores the life of the Buddha, the core Buddhist tenets, and the development of the monastic life and lay practices. Combining brilliant scholarship with fascinating stories -- contemporary and historical, sometimes miraculous, sometimes humorous -- this rich and absorbing volume presents a fresh and expert history of Buddhism and Buddhist life.
The universe has no beginning. It is the product of karma, the law of the cause and effect of actions, according to which virtuous actions create pleasure in the future and nonvirtuous actions create pain. It is a natural law, accounting for all the happiness and suffering in the world. The beings of the universe have been reborn without beginning in six realms, as gods, demigods, humans, animals, ghosts, and hell beings. Their actions create not only their individual experiences of pleasure and pain, but also the domains in which they dwell. The physical universe is thus the product of the individual and collective actions of the inhabitants of the universe. Buddhist practice is directed largely at performing deeds that will bring happiness in the future, avoiding deeds that will bring pain, and counteracting the future effects of misdeeds done in the past. And there are some who seek the ultimate goal of freedom from the bonds of karma and the universe it has forged.
The workings of karma are understood over the course of lifetimes without beginning, and thus Buddhists speak not only of days and months and years, but also of aeons. The cosmological systems of Indian Buddhism describe a universe that passes through four periods: creation, abiding, destruction, and nothingness. The physical universe is created during the first period, which begins when the faint wind of the past karma of beings starts to blow in the vacuity of space at the end of the previous period of nothingness. Beings come to inhabit the world during the period of abiding. During the period of destruction, the physicaluniverse is incinerated by the heat of seven suns. This is followed by a period of nothingness, after which the fourfold cycle begins again.
According to a widely known creation myth, the first humans in the present period of abiding had a life span of eighty thousand years. Free from the marks of gender, they were able to fly and were illuminated by their own light; there was no need for a sun or moon. They also did not require food. At that time, the surface of the earth was covered by a white frothy substance. One day one of the beings descended to earth and dipped the tip of its finger into the substance and then touched the finger to its tongue. The taste was sweet. Soon everyone was eating the white substance, which would naturally replenish itself. But the introduction of this food into their bodies soon caused them to lose their natural luster, and the sun and moon appeared to illumine the sky. The added weight of their bodies soon made it impossible for them to fly. The white substance evolved into a naturally growing huskless rice that would be ready to harvest again the day after it was picked. But as the beings ate more and more of the rice, it became necessary for them to somehow eliminate the waste that was accumulating in their bodies, and the anus and genitals developed. One couple soon discovered an additional use for the genitals and engaged in sexual intercourse for the first time. The others were scandalized, pelting them with mud. Soon, to hide their shameful activities, people began to build houses. Growing too lazy to pick the rice each day, they began to take more than they needed and hoard it in their homes. As a result, the rice developed husks and required more and more time to grow. Soon people began to steal from one another, requiring the election of a king who would enforce a system of laws. And this is how human society began.
In this myth we see the story of a fall, from a state of luminous freedom to slavery to the land. From the single fateful act of tasting the white, sticky substance came first the sun and the moon, then the need to eat food, then gender, then sexuality, then settlements, then society. According to Buddhist cosmology, things have continued to decline, with the human life span decreasing to one hundred years, at which point the Buddha appeared in history. There are numerous predictions as to how long his teaching will remain in the world, ranging from five hundred to five thousand (or even twelve thousand) years. The life span of humans will continue to drop over many millennia, until it reaches only ten years, a time of pestilence, famine, and war, with armies of children fighting bloody battles. At this point, the life span will begin to increase, growing slowly back again to eighty thousand. The world will be like a heaven, with wish-granting trees bearing their fruit and society free from the need for any form of government. It is when the human life span is at its apex of eighty thousand years (some five billion years from now) that the next buddha, Maitreya, will appear. After twenty cycles in which the human life span ranges from eighty thousand to ten, this universe will be destroyed.
In the meantime, humans inhabit a flat world that has at its center the square Mount Meru, its four faces made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and crystal. The mountain is surrounded by seven concentric ranges, beyond which there is a great ocean, with island continents located in the four cardinal directions. Humans inhabit the southern continent, called Jambudvipa (Rose Apple Island), facing the lapis side of Mount Meru, which makes the sky and ocean blue.
Six realms are located in this world, populated by beings who are born there as a result of their karma. Together, these six constitute the Desire Realm, so called because the beings who populate it are driven by desire. The first and highest is the realm of gods. These are abodes of pleasure, ranging from pleasure gardens filled with the sound of celestial music, the scent of jasmine, the taste of ambrosia, and the touch of beautiful women, to sublime immaterial states of deep concentration distinguished by various levels of mental bliss...