The World Is Round or Spherical | An Excerpt from Gendun Chopel
Gendun Chopel contributed both poetry and essays to Melong (“Mirror”), the Tibetan-language newspaper published in Kalimpong by the Tibetan Christian from Khunnu, Dorje Tharchin, also known as Tharchin Babu. Its full title in Tibetan was Mirror of the News from Various Regions. In the June 28, 1938, issue, Gendun Chopel published an essay entitled “The World Is Round or Spherical” under the pseudonym Honest Dharma (Drangpo Dharma). Above the essay was a map of the world drawn by Gendun Chopel, showing latitude and longitude, with the names of the continents written in Tibetan cursive script. There are two circles, with North America and South America in one, and Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia in the other. Below is a single globe, perhaps meant to show that the earth is not two globes but one. Above the maps one reads in Tibetan “Map of the Round World.”
The World Is Round or Spherical
In the past, in the lands of the continent of Europe it was only said that this world is flat, just as it appears to the non-analytical mind; there was not a single person who said that it was round. All the ancient religions in the various lands said only that the world is flat; there was not one that said that it was round. Thus, when some intelligent people first said that it is round, the only method to keep it from spreading was to order that they be burned alive. However, in the end, unable to withstand the light of true knowledge, everyone came to believe that it is round. Today, not only has the fact that it is round been determined, but also the size of all the islands in the world just four or five yojanas long have been measured down to spans and cubits. Therefore, in the great lands there is not a single scholar who has even a doubt.
Among all of the Buddhists in Siṅghala, Burma, Ceylon [presumably Siam], Japan, and so forth, there is not one who says that it is not true that it is round. Yet we in Tibet still hold stubbornly to the position that it is not. Some say mindless foolish things, like the foreigners’ sending ships into the ocean is a deception. I have also seen some intelligent persons who understand [that it is round] but, fearing slander by others, remain unable to say so. When even the most obstinate European scholars who do not believe in anything without seeing the reason directly were not able to maintain the position that it is not round and accepted it completely, then there is no need to talk about this stubbornness of ours coming to an end.
[Saying that the world is not round] because the Buddha stated that it is flat is not accepted as authoritative in other [non-Buddhist] schools and thus does not do a pinprick of damage [to their assertion that it is round]. Even with regard to the scriptures of our own [Buddhist] school, which does accept [the Buddha’s statement] as authoritative, because the majority of the sūtras were set forth by the Buddha in accordance with the thoughts of sentient beings, even in this case, we do not know what is provisional and what is definitive. If he set forth even matters of great importance such as emptiness and the stages of the path to liberation in various types of provisional meaning in accordance with the thoughts of sentient beings, what need is there to discuss these presentations of environments and their inhabitants? During the lifetime of the Buddha, when it occasionally happened that the way that the monks ate their food did not accord with [the customs] of the time and place, causing slight concern among the laity, he would make a rule that it was unsuitable. At that time, throughout all the world, the words “[the world] is flat” were as famous as the wind. Thus, even if the Buddha had said, “It is round,” whose ear would it have entered? Even if he had said so emphatically, it would have had no purpose, even if he had demonstrated it with his miraculous powers. Nowadays, at a time when [the fact that the world is round] has become evident to billions of beings, there are still those of us who say, “This is your deception.” In the same way, I am certain that they would not have believed it, saying, “This is the magic trick of Gautama.” If all of us would believe in this world that we see with our eyes rather than that world that we see through letters, it would be good.
At that time, throughout all the world, the words “[the world] is flat” were as famous as the wind. Thus, even if the Buddha had said, “It is round,” whose ear would it have entered? Even if he had said so emphatically, it would have had no purpose, even if he had demonstrated it with his miraculous powers.
Donald S. Lopez Jr. is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies and Chair of the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan. See more about him here.