An Indifferent Universe

When I was first introduced to Buddhism, over ten years ago now in early University days, I found the ‘Noble Truth’ of suffering to be profoundly pessimistic. That only lasted a few days, fortunately, as I had a great professor who showed the broader context and meaning of this central aspect of Buddhism. I have since come to see Buddhist cosmology as neither pessimistic nor optimistic, but rather morally balanced; perhaps, in a word: indifferent.

So I was struck today in reading the accounts of the effect this has had on two fellow Westerners who have stumbled into Buddhism, Paul Dahlke and Dave Webster.  Paul Dahlke (1865-1928), pioneer of Buddhism in Germany and founder of “Buddhistische Haus” in Berlin, wrote the following of Buddhist ethics in 1908:

… I stand in the universe quite alone travelling in utter solitude the path of Samsara. My deed alone goes with me, but not as a companion, only as my shadow. Thus I travel on like a man at evening wending his way eastwards over an infinite stretch of snowy plain or through an endless waste of sand, with nothing behind him but the long trail of his own footsteps, nothing before him but a giant shadow; beside himself — nothing.

And in a post at his Dispirited blog (book review forthcoming), Dave Webster had this to say:

While others may choose to focus on the consolations that faith offers post-death, I am much more interested in this indifference. It seems instructive. Post-death threats and promises have not promoted ethics, and many religious thinkers have also taken this view. I am sure that there are those who believe (and claim evidence, but this is another matter), to an extent, that death is survivable: but I am not interested in that. The evidence is sketchy (at very best), and this world is without us once we die. It is this world that interests me. A mortal being is what we are to this world. Even if we look beyond death, this world is a place where we are mortal. It is only effected by what we do before death. What happens beyond is irrelevant.

As for the Buddha, it’s not clear what he thought of ‘beyond’ death. He considered questions about what happens to an awakened being after death to be a profound waste of time. When he was challeneged to teach about the finitude/infinitude of the cosmos and the afterlife of awakened ones, he suggested:

It’s just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a brahman, a merchant, or a worker.’

He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me…

until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short…
until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored…
until I know his home village, town, or city…
until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow…
until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark…
until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated…
until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird…
until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.’

He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.’ The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.

“In the same way, if anyone were to say, ‘I won’t live the holy life under the Blessed One as long as he does not declare to me that ‘The cosmos is eternal,’… or that ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist,’ the man would die and those things would still remain undeclared by the Tathagata. (MN 63, emphasis mine)

In the recent movie The Grey, Liam Neeson plays a character who sounds an aweful lot like this. He has lost his wife and nearly his entire will to live, but as his companions in the dark, frozen north begin talking about faith, hope, and God, he tells them, “I wish I could believe in that stuff. But this is real: the cold. That’s real: the air in my lungs…” When a companion asks him, “What about faith?” He just answers, “What about it?”

The character is neither emotionally cold nor nihilistic though. The flashbacks to him with his wife show his warmth, but here, now, he walks alone. It seems to be this balanced approach that keeps him alive as others perish, one distracted and fearful, another just giving up.

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  • Kenneth Elder

    Actually in the Pali texts of the oldest sect of Buddhism the Theravada Buddha frequently mentioned people’s afterlife. One example is when a ragged beggar walked into a very rich man’s house he was roughly removed and thrown on a trash pile. Buddha was walking by and said to the rich man that this beggar had been the man’s deceased father in his previous life. Buddha added that his father’s miserly refusing to give any charity to anyone led to his rebirth as a poor man. When King Bimbasara was killed by his power hungry son Buddha said that the King had attained the first level of Nirvana, Stream-entry and had been reborn in the first level of heaven. He said that the King could have chosen rebirth in a higher heaven but was attached to life in the first heaven. Buddha taught that all levels of heaven and purgatory are temporary and that only Nirvana frees us from the wheel of birth and death. The Stream-enterer has a maximum of 7 lives left in human and sense plane (astral) heavens before attaining final Nirvana. Buddha refused to answer whether those at the last stage of Nirvana the Arahat existed or did not exist after death. He did say that they were free of rebirth. Nirvana being beyond rebirth and death is beyond the duality of existence and non-existence.

    • Ling

      Actually I thought Buddha did not refuse to answer “whether those at the last stage of Nirvana the Arahat existed or did not exist”, his answer was that they are free of rebirth…

  • Joe Cummings

    Yes the suttas are full of references to multiple lives, which Western Buddhists typically ignore.

  • Ling

    In Kalama Sutta, Buddha elucidated the benefits for this life, for this moment, of walking the path, among them:

    “‘If there is a world after death, if there is the fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then this is the basis by which, with the break-up of the body, after death, I will reappear in a good destination, the heavenly world.’ This is the first assurance he acquires.

    “‘But if there is no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.’ This is the second assurance he acquires.

    • Justin Whitaker

      @Kenneth – I agree with you. In Theravada, rebirth is well established. Theravada, however, isn’t the ‘oldest sect’, but rather the oldest surviving school with a complete canon, or something more limited like that. Not that that matters too much, but it’s important for all to keep in mind. See:

      @Ling – that sounds very plausible. Often what the Buddha said about something depended on how it was stated and who he was talking to – i.e. context. If you know the sutta, please let us know and we’ll have a look.

      @Joe – You’re absolutly right – and ignore or just dismiss. Some recently have been grappling with the ethical/philosophical issues of ‘naturalizing karma’ (I wrote about them here: but the question/issue is very much alive today.

      @Ling – I’ve taught this passage as a sort of Pascale’s Wager in terms of Buddhist ethics. This in particular doesn’t tell us anything about the Buddha’s stance on rebirth, but rather how he taught ethics to a group of wise skeptics.

  • atomic geography

    My reading of the word “declared” is not that the Buddha is saying it doesn’t matter,but rather that it is “undeclarable”, that the truth is neither existence nor nonexistence but the middleway that does not deal in categories.