Flat Earth, Skepticism, and Religion.

The Buddhists of early-modern to modern times, in Japan and Thailand, had difficulty accepting that the world was round. They were astonished at the Western claims of a round Earth, because it contradicted their interpretation of scripture. One Buddhist in Japan built an elaborate 3D model of a Small-World system to “prove” to the Westerners that a Flat Earth was true, and that the Devas of Trayamstrimsa lived on the Sun.

Ironically, a Buddhist in Tibet in the 1930’s argued that it was foolish to believed that the Earth was flat just because the Buddha seemed to have said so, he argued that because global scholarship accepted that the Earth was round, Tibetans should do so as well.

The Indians of the Buddha’s time had models of a spherical Earth (though one where the Earth was at the centre of the Universe— a geocentric model), however this contradicts the Buddha’s own cosmological model, which instead lay out the Universe in flat tiers of realities, which also organized them into systems great and small. In this schema, the Earth, and the human realm in general, is a small part of a larger cosmic system, not the centre of anything.

Did the Buddha believed in a flat earth though? Why would the Buddha not have been aware of the spherical Earth theory, when the Indians at the time already knew this?

But none of the Dharmic religions (Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism) ever explained a spherical Earth even though it should have been obvious to their astronomers and mathematicians that the Earth was round.Because religion is not specifically about the sciences (though in many time periods, they were the same), and it is not necessarily explaining phenomena in a context we would consider scientific today.

If religion was about science, why bother having religion? If the Buddha wanted to teach science, why did he become a monk, he could have a full time tenure Nalanda University instead (incidentally, he did teach a term there).

Even if the Buddha was aware the world was round, and bothered teaching about a round earth, who would have listened? No doubt to the masses of the Indian sub-continent, almost everyone believed in a flat Earth— it is intuitive to believe so after all. It would have been a meaningless distraction to the main thrust of his philosophy.

That’s a big if, of course. It’s entirely possible that the Buddha was himself a flat-earther. This would be no fault of his really, since the vast population of the world all believed fervently that the Earth was flat (it’s funny though, the model of the Universe today is usually portrayed as a flat shape, so if one were to believe that there was no true division between Earth and the cosmos, a flat world model isn’t even entirely unreasonable, even though the planet Earth is certainly spherical in the context of the sciences).

My point is, scripture is not about objective reality, and it is foolish to waste time conflating scientific disciplines with religion and vice versa. They are different kinds of philosophical schemas, dealing with different kinds of problems.

However, historical and scientific claims that are related to religion need to be historically and scientifically accurate. This is not a matter of faith, but of extraordinary claims.

We know that Noah was a mythological figure, even if there was a possibility that his story was inspired by one or more ancient Iranian whose farm animals was saved on a coracle, and later adopted by the Israelites in exile in Babylon.

We know that Moses was a legendary figure, and was likely a Levite Chieftain from Egypt. We know that creationism is obviously untrue for myriad reasons. This is true enough from critical studies of the Bible.

We know that there was no Dragons who gave Nargajuna sutras, we know that Maitreya likely never revealed anything to Asanga— since we know all of their philosophies developed over time and was contextualized to the Buddhist philosophical development of the day.

Development and evolution of doctrines and stories are not attributes of divine revelation; if it was truly divinely revealed out of nowhere, then it would be a completed whole, and wouldn’t have such obvious human elements and histories in the text. Related to this is of course my view that the Qur’an could have been divinely inspired, but limited by Muhammad’s personal scope of knowledge (which are limited to the languages and religions he could have known only in the vicinity of Arabia).

Popular stories and claims are about spiritual matters (and sometimes political or folkloric matters, in the events where religious stories are tied to founding mythologies of certain countries and peoples and their customs), but the moment a believer claim these are objectively true events, we must deny them and use the proper tools to analyze this claim.

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Justin C. Hsu

Designer, Artist, and Consumer of Pop Culture.

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