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Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera
Can the First Cause be Known?
According to the Buddha, it is inconceivable to find a first cause for life or anything else. For in common experience, the cause becomes the effect and the effect becomes the cause. In the circle of cause and effect, a first cause is incomprehensible. With regard to the origin of life, the Buddha declares, 'Without cognizable end is this recurrent wandering in Samsara(cycle of birth and death). Beings are obstructed by ignorance and fettered by craving. A first beginning of these beings is not to be perceived. (Anamatagga Samyutta in Samyutta Nikaya). This life-steam flows on ad infinitum, as long as it is fed by the muddy waters of ignorance and craving. When these two are cut off, only then does the life-steam cease to flow, only then does rebirth come to an end.
It is difficult to conceive an end of space. It is difficult to conceive an eternal duration of what we call time. But it is more difficult for us to understand how this world came into existence with a first cause. And it is more difficult to understand how that first cause came into existence at the beginning. For if the first cause can exist though uncreated, there is no reason why the other phenomena of the universe must not exist without having also been created.
As to the question how all beings came into existence without a first cause, the Buddhist's reply is that there is no answer because the question itself is merely a product of man's limited comprehension. If we can understand the nature of time and relativity, we must see that there could not have been any beginning. It can only be pointed out that all the usual answers to the question are fundamentally defective. If it is assumed that for a thing to exist, it must have had a creator who existed before it, it follows logically that the creator himself must have had a creator, and so on back to infinity. On the other hand, if the creator could exist without a prior cause in the form of another creator, the whole argument falls to the ground. The theory of a creator does not solve any problems, it only complicates the existing ones.
Thus Buddhism does not pay much attention to theories and beliefs about the origin of the world. Whether the world was created by a god or it came into existence by itself makes little difference to Buddhist. Whether the world is finite or infinite also makes little difference to Buddhists. Instead of following this line of theoretical speculations, the Buddha advises people to work hard to find their own salvation.
Scientists have discovered many causes which are responsible for the existence of life, plants, planets, elements and other energies. But it is impossible for anyone to find out any particular first cause for their existence. If they go on searching for the first cause of any existing life or thing, they point certain causes as the main cause but that never becomes the first cause. In the process of searching for the first cause one after the other, they will come back to the place where they were. This is because, cause becomes the effect and the next moment that effect becomes the cause to produce another effect. That is what the Buddha say, 'It is incomprehensible and the universe is beginningless.'
Source: Buddhist Study and Practice Group, http://www.sinc.sunysb.edu/Clubs/buddhism/
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