Saturday, 29 June 2013

Buddhist Eschatology

According to a dictionary, “Eschatology” is said to be “the part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.” Etymologically eschatology said to be derived from Greek eschatos/eschatē/eschaton meaning “last” and logia “theory/study.” I would like to tentatively define it as a kind of “theory of the final destiny of the world and its inhabitants,” according to any religious or non-religious ideology or philosophy. Some of us might object to using terms such as eschatology in the Buddhist context with the argument the term and concept are alien to Buddhism. I do not necessary buy this argument. If one writes in Sanskrit, Pāli, Tibetan, or Chinese, one might forgo using such terms but as long as we attempt to express in a European language, I think we cannot avoid employing these terms. Sometimes, such terms might even help us to capture Buddhist ideas (for which there is not fixed technical term) in a precise, pregnant, and crystal-clear manner. As far as I am concerned, we do not seem to have, for example, a Sanskrit or Tibetan term for eschatology. Admittedly, utter care should be taken that the terms we employ are clearly defined so as to minimize wrong associations and ambiguities. Needless to state that terms are like the proverbial finger that points to the moon.

There is a Wikipedia entry on “Buddhist eschatology,” which is, however, pretty poor. “Buddhist eschatology” would be like Buddhology. Every Buddhist system or scripture might have its own ideas of eschatology. The challenge is, therefore, how best can we gain a diachronic and synchronic view of Buddhist eschatology. The kind of eschatology that a Buddhist system proposes or presupposes would depend on the theories of cosmology, cosmogony, soteriology, Buddhology, ontology, epistemology, gnoseology, and what I call “Sentientology” (i.e. theory of sentient beings) that that particular system would presuppose or propose. So we will have to first try to trace, examine and determine eschatological ideas found in the most conservative form of Buddhism and then study how these ideas have developed. This is obviously not an easy task.

Here are some avenues of exploration: (a) What are the ideas of evolution and devolution (and dissolution) of the external and internal world? (b) What forces sustain external and internal world? (c) Can one speak of an individual or personal eschatology and a universal eschatology in Buddhism? (d) Where do the Buddha and his teaching (or more so their disappearance from the world) fit into the broader picture of Buddhist eschatology? (e) How absolute are the Buddhist eschatological ideas? (f) Is an absolute end of the world and its inhabitants at all possible? Is nirvāṇa the eschatological absolute (LS 1969: 159, referring to de la Vallée Poussin)? If so, is nirvāṇa possible on a universal scale, or is it possible only on a personal level? What about the ideas that buddhas never pass away, and dharma would never disappear? Is emptying of saṃsāra possible? What about sems can gsar skye? 


  1. Hi,
    the message will be splitted...;

    yes, interesting, thought-provoking questions. No doubt, here, from the Buddhist perspective, we have to explore the Abhidharma-corpus of Buddhist scriptures, especially the Sarvastivada/Vaibhasika viewpoints, which should not be undervalued (I imagine that here we should/must differentiate adequately primordial soteriological concerns from scientific philosophical researches and, in my humble opinion, if one hasn´t yet overcome soteriological issues with “personal uncramped conviction” then scientific, exciting abhidharmic descoveries on these fine questions will appear even more tremendous as they already are…).
    Hence, Vaibhasika philosophy “painstakingly” explores highly metaphysical themes where, without shunyata-direct-perception, a following of their academic elaborations, subtle discussions, sophisticated speculations and argumentations seem to be impossible, hence not understandable. Especially their philosophical cognition of temporality in relation to spatial existentiality demands “highest visionary philosophical talents paired with an advanced selfless attitude, courageous broadmindedness and unfaltering patience”, otherwise we probably will “misunderstand” their well elaborated value theory and ethics (in this respect the cognitive healthful buddhist notion of “renouncement” is of capital importance and must/should be “adequately apprehended” with “sunyata-balance”…).

    Unfortunately “a must” of such research is still nearly unexplored, namely the Abhidharma-Mahavibhasa! It seems that there exist three different versions, available only in Chinese language and translated by Xuanzang. There should exist a Tibetan translation effectuated by a Chinese monk named Fazung (20th cent.) who apparently studied in Tibetan monasteries. I read somewhere (don´t remember where), that this noble man also translated other important Buddhist works from Tibetan into Chinese (for example, the philosophical treasure of Dharmakirti, the Pramanavarttika and apparently some Lamrim works of Tsongkhapa). His Tibetan translation of the Mahavibhasa was supposedly deposited in the Potala palace (which clearly testifies the importance of this work!) but seems to be undetectable (if it´s lost that would be a great loss – but sadly and not seldom enthousiastic efforts to spread salutary knowledge in society were/are in vain…).

    There exists a Japanese translation, T1545, effectuated by Kimura T., “Abidombibasharon”, KIK, Bidonbu, vols.7-17, 1929-1934 but most probably nearly inaccessible even for Japanese seekers and no research interest seems to be observable in the western culture (as frustratingly is often the case with difficult appearing works…). sincerely, mikael.

  2. continutation...;

    Also important concerning Vaibhasika-research would be Samghabhadra´s Nyayanusara and his shorter Samayapradipika but sadly again nearly no research interest is observable.
    Again courageous Japanese scholars tried to explore Vaibhasika viewpoints:

    Akunama, C. translated (jap.) the Nyayanusara (T1562), ”Abidatsumajunshoriron”, KIK, Bidonbu, vols.27-30, 1933-34 and

    Hayashi, G. translated (jap.) the Samayapradipika (T1563), ”Abidatsumazokenshuron”, KIK, Bidonbu, vols. 23-24, 1933-35.

    Also, again two Japanese scholars, Sakurabe, H. and Sasaki, G.H. did a lifelong research in Vaibhasika Abhidharma but all in Japanese language (probably most of the occidental researchers/buddhologists, possibly able to follow the Vaibhasika argumentations, don´t master the Japanese language...; as is often the case, language represents the barrier of further inquiry…).

    In English the only serious researches which I know were effectuated by
    Cox Collett (again under kind Japanese guidance and support) and Bhikku Dhammajoti:

    Cox Collett, “Disputed Dharmas: Early Bud.theories on existence, an annot.transl. of the section on factors dissociated from thought, Samghabhadra´s Nyayanusara”, Tokyo, Internat.Inst.f.Bud.Stud.,1995.
    I don´t know if she is still interested in this work for further research with a perhaps complete translation.

    Bhikku Dhammajoti “Sarvastivada Abhidharma”, The university of Hong Kong, Centre of Buddhist Studies, 2009, 2012 (4.ed., rev.). It would be fantastic if Bhikku Dhammajoti could find sufficient time to offer us translations of Samghabhadras works…;

    Also, the formidable and exceptionally talented Louis de La Vallée Poussin (1869-1938) gave us some important excerpt translations of the Mahavibhasa in French.

    So if the attention of Buddhologists could equally be attracted to explore extensively Vaibhasika scriptures in offering us academic translations that would be beneficial for all…; I guess that there are still fine philosophical treasures to recover…;

    By the way, I trust that for example Nagarjuna with his now accessible Mulamadhyamakakarikas had precise reasons for “criticizing” (not refuting!) Abhidharmic conceptual notions. Surely, we should/could also study Abhidharma but with an openminded (“sunyatizied”) cognitive adjustment and probably the Vaibhasika elaborations represent the highest of metaphysical feelings and specultations…; but it´s true, we should take care not to slide in “philosophical obsessions”. I think that Nagarjuna´s MMK were composed with this intention in mind…;

    But on the other side, I suppose, in general, as long as we don´t have “unlimited access” to a broad spectrum of Buddhist philosophical theories we will find us in the more or less uncomfortable situation of “personal incertitude” about the definite intentional meaning of scriptures and doctrines…;
    but surely that´s also we might call a “personal affair” of finding the happy balance (or cognitive bliss) between the “simply letting go-attitude” and the “critically taking-motivation” of whatsoever informations…;
    best wishes, sincerely, mikael.