For an arahant, what is a star? “It is that name given by people to that phenomenon which emits light in the night sky.” Precisely and exactly what is experienced, what is perceived in experience, nothing more, nothing less! For everything in the universe is made up of the six elements, only the six elements, the same six elements! Nothing is going to be surprising or impressive, then! The arahant is not moved by the discovery that the sun, too, is a star only too close to us!
My inclination is to believe that none of the cosmological physics mentioned in the suttas has even been ever uttered by Buddha himself! Rather I see him avoiding this kind of wondrous talk about unobservable, distant, non-experienceable phenomena – I see him even discouraging those around him from exercising the mind in search after non-evident phenomena and possible realities! As rare and strange as these suttas which involve talking about the physical cosmos; as many and clear as those in which the Buddha emphasises the importance of retracting the mind from speculative conceptualisation and directing it to the observation and discernment of evident mental experiences, here and now.
But there is no founder of any spiritual, transcendental doctrine, that has not been presented by his followers as possessed of some kind of omniscience or another, including those, like the Buddha, who openly stated (as recorded in the same text) that they have no such capacity, and declared that there are such questions to which they haven’t answers. And is the Pali Canon, like the texts of other ancient doctrines, rife with mythological depictions of the physical universe? The answer is certainly “yes”! Or at least not “no”! And in relation to such passages in the text I myself tend to negate their relevance, rather than emphasise them, or again like in similar cases of other doctrines, make efforts to patch together from the scattered sentences across the ancient text a fabric of some miraculous foresight of present scientific findings, which ends up only embarrassing as these contemporary findings themselves eventually lose currency given the emergence of new, observable, empirical data.
This is precisely the case with regard to the Big Crunch, a theory once envisaged by scientists as a possible if not likely scenario for the evolution of the cosmos, to the pride of Indian cosmology in which the theory would perfectly fit. But it was for a rational reason that scientists once believed in it, that which has to do with our present understanding of gravity, and how the sum of mass in the universe should logically pull matter closer together ad infinitum or to a point of singularity or something like this. But now, is there really any such Big Crunch? No, not any more! Because as recently as 1998, it was discovered that the universe is actually expanding continuously, and at an accelerating rate, and that despite of its unimaginably colossal mass, all matter in the universe is growing more distant from one another rather than getting closer together! Will there be a crunch one day? Maybe, who knows?! But certainly we’re not going to develop “faith” in something like that simply because some text says that the Buddha (and ancient Indian cosmology in general) speaks of such cycles. And if we did, we cannot possibly claim that this pertains in any way to science. Rather the opposite, this would be a belief that is contradictory with present scientific evidence, not dissimilar to beliefs in biblical narratives about the age of human on earth and the shape of the planet!
A shrewd and careful observer will not be inspired by the Buddha’s cosmological prowess (in the physical sense), and will notice the absence of any cohesive and robust physical understanding in what is purported in the text to be the Buddha’s speech. And judging by what’s in the text, it will seem rather that the Buddha, just as other ancient great religious figures, didn’t have a clue about what was going on in the heavens above them!! But then, having confounded one domain with another, transcending the heart with transcending matter, the enlightenment of Buddha becomes questionable in the eyes of those who are not yet established in Dhamma. And already, some people ask me: “Do you really believe that someone who didn’t know that the Earth is round can be enlightened?” To which I answer: “Yes! Even today anyone who doesn’t know that the Earth is round can be enlightened!” Because the enlightenment of the Buddha had nothing to do with transcending matter, but only transcending the heart, and its hopeless, agonising seeking and longing and yearning! And while “we” know that physical concerns have nothing to do with Dhamma, many people don’t, or even disagree and insist that him who we may call “Sammasambuddha” must necessarily be omniscient (ergo Gotama is either omniscient or isn’t samma)!
The point is that the Buddha’s limitations in the area of physics does not make him in the slightest “less” sammasambuddha; rather the opposite! I mean to say that depictions of the Buddha as cosmologically omniscient only reinforce the already widespread delusion that he was extra-human! It reinforces the perception that the Dhamma to which he awakened and the Path which he followed to realising it is not something that we, too, can accomplish; or that we can accomplish only with great difficulty that borders with the impossible. While in truth, to me, the only reason the Buddha is sammasambuddha is that he was utterly human, and that the Dhamma and the Path are not personal properties of anyone, and that they are realisable by anyone, anywhere, and always – this is the whole point.
My attitude regarding these matters is this: The Buddha, Gotama the great arahant and teacher, is most probably innocent of all this speculative confusion! His worth and his accomplishment must be judged based on the task to which he applied himself and no other: The discovery of the existential root of all dukkha, and the experiential transcendence of it before death! And it is this, it occurs to me, that is the biggest of all crunches: Death, and the exhaustion of human life before escape from further conditioned existence is guaranteed!