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Basic Buddhism
A Modern Introduction to the Buddha's Teaching
by Dr Victor A. Gunasekara

Buddhist Cosmology and Nibbâna

The Buddhist scriptures contain a cosmology of the Universe which provide an interesting contrast to the cosmologies of other religions (e.g. that of the Bible) and even the modern scientific cosmology (on which there is no complete agreement). The cosmological claims in the Buddhist scriptures should not be seen as an accurate description of the physical universe, but as establishing the stage on which the great sasâric drama is enacted. While considering this cosmology we may also consider the important concept of Nibbâna which is the state of final release. The latter term is better known in its Sanskrit version as "Nirvana". We shall use the Pali term because the concept of Nirvana is also used in other Indian religions notably Jainism.

We may first consider the planes of existence which form the arenas for samsaric existence. The number of planes recognised depends on the fineness with which they are classified. In the earlier more succinct listing only 3 states of existence are mentioned. These are:

1. The sensuous realm (kâma lôka). This is the physical world as accessible to be person who entirely on the physical stimuli, without subjecting these stimuli to a refined degree of conscious mental processing.

2. The fine-material realm (rpa lôka). This is the same physical world as it is perceived by the active meditator.

3. The immaterial world (ârpa lôka). Is the physical world as it is apprehended by the advanced meditator who realises the "emptiness" of the phenomena that assail the senses of the ordinary person.

The last two realms of existence are meditative stages. In the Buddhist literature there are other ways of classifying meditative states, including some such as those that are induced by vipassanâ (insight) meditation which differ is some details from the ârpa-lôka, but we need not be concerned here; they are dealt with fully in manuals dealing with Buddhist meditation. The two contemplative states of existence are subjective and would not fall into what is considered by cosmology in the modern scientific sense. Some consider the realm of Nibbâna as also falling into the "meditative states", but this is regarded as something completely outside all planes of existence.

The first realm, the kâma-lôka, clearly deals with actual realms of existence, which is the only realm for those not subject to some degree of enlightenment, and even in the case of the latter still provides the physical dimension of existence. It is this realm that could be compared to other cosmologies, whether held by scientists or religionists or ordinary people.

A word may be said about the Buddhist views on the phenomenal worlds which constitute the arenas of sasâric existence, and of the concept of nibbâna [Nirvâna] (the state of final release) which is the antithesis of sasâra. These views contained in early Buddhist writings should not be looked upon as dogmas whose acceptance is expected of Buddhists. Many of them are beyond the capacity of unenlightened people to verify. Some of them are burrowed from the prevailing cosmological views in the India of the Buddha's time, and would have been used by the Buddha as illustrations to clarify his own theories.

In the Pali literature five "planes of existence" characterised in varying degrees of unsatisfactoriness are recognised. These are (in increasing order of "suffering"): (1) the sphere of the plane of the devas ("shining beings" often translated as "gods"); (2) humans; (3) The spirit world; (4) the animal world; (5) the lower world (duggati, niraya) often translated as "hells". According to the law of kamma beings could be born into any of these planes of existence, but the sojourn in any of these destinations is never permanent. There is no necessary "progression" from the lower to the higher levels. The cycle of rebirth in these various states of existence could be terminated only on the achievement of nibbâna (which itself is not included in the sasâric planes). Nibbâna, the final liberation, can only be achieved by beings in the first two planes of existence, but more usually only by humans.

In some of the earliest strata in the Pali Canon only three spheres of existence are recognised. These are: (1) the sensuous world (kâma loka); (2) the fine material world (rűpa loka); and (3) the immaterial world (ârűpa loka). Here the "sensuous world" comprise all the realms of physical existence, and the other two correspond to states of meditation. In the later literature (especially in the Abhidhamma), the "planes of existence" are further subdivided, and some 32 planes of existence are recognised. There are three ways of interpreting these "planes of existence":

(1) They could be actual physical locations somewhere in the physical universe.

(2) They could be forms of psycho-physical existence which could be reached from any given physical location depending on mental disciplines exercised.

(3) Some states belong to the first type, and others to the second type.

The earliest interpretation leans towards the second given above (27), but the 32-fold classification favoured by many modern exponents of Buddhism leans towards the third, which of course implies that some states must correspond to the first. This raises the question of Buddhist cosmology on which something needs to be said.

In terms of physical location the planes of existence could be located anywhere in the Universe. That the Buddhist view of the physical world is not much different from that of modern science is brought out clearly in this quotation:

"As far as these suns and moons revolve shedding their light in space, so far extends the thousand-fold universe. In it there are thousands of suns, thousands of moons, thousands of inhabited worlds of varying sorts. ... This is the thousand-fold minor world system (culanika lokadhâtu). Thousands of times the size of the thousand-fold minor world system is the twice-a-thousand Middling World System (Majjima lokadhâtu). Thousands of times the size of the Middling World System is the thrice-a-thousand Great Cosmos (mahâ lokadhâtu)."

With such a multiplicity of inhabited worlds it is possible to interpret the planes of existence in realistic terms. But the interpretation in terms of psychological and meditation states may be the more appropriate. Heavens and hells are not specific locations with pleasant or unpleasant experiences, but they could be experienced even in the human earthly form. (28)

The claim that "devas" exist should not be taken as a concession to theism. Even though this term is commonly translated as "gods" it does not imply the existence of divine authority. The devas are a category of beings, subject to their own kammas formations and reverting to human or other form after the expiry of their kammas, and quite incapable of granting concessionary prayers addressed to them. In the Buddhist scheme all of the leading deities of the Hindu pantheon, including Mahâ Brahmâ, the "creator" of the universe in the Hindu scheme, are reduced to the status of devas with only a transient existence in the deva-sphere. This treatment of the powerful Gods of the Brahmanical system, to whom the sacrifices and prayers of the system were directed, instead of being a support of theism was a powerful critique of this system.(29)

As against the varied planes of sasâric existence the Buddha postulated the existence of a state called nibbâna [nirvâna] which serves as the summum bnonum of Buddhism. This, the most difficult of Buddhist concepts, cannot really be grasped unless some considerable progress has been made on the Buddhist path. It is usually described in negative terms. It is the "Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed"; it is the complete annihilation of all defilement; it is the complete destruction of the five components of beings; it is a situation where no kammas are being formed or previous kammas fruited; it is the extinction of the three roots of unwholesome action (greed, aversion and delusion); it is the end of rebirth itself. Two misconceptions of nirvâna may be mentioned - one, entertained by the materialist, is that it implies nothingness; the other, entertained by the theist, is that it involves merger with a higher entity. The Buddha answered both questions "Does the arahant exist after death?" and "Does the arahant not exist after death?" (where an arahant is a person who had attained to the status of Nibbâna) in the negative. It is only the limitation of our conceptualisation process that leads us to pose such questions.

Sometimes a distinction is made between "sasâric Buddhism" and "nibbânic Buddhism" (30) . It is claimed that in the former the aim is improvement in sasâra, while in the latter it is the attainment of nibbâna. It is also claimed that the former should be the aim of the lay Buddhist and the latter that of the Buddhist monk. However even in the Buddha's day many monks did not attain nibbâna, while there was never advanced the claim that a lay person could not attain to the nibbânic state. The true position is that each person should proceed along the Buddhist path according to his own capacities and priorities. The lay person is neither at a disadvantage nor at an advantage relative to the monk (Bhikkhu) when it comes to the question of progress along the path. The lay Buddhist and the Bhikkhu, because of their differing life styles, will apply the Dhamma to different areas. In particular the lay person can engage in activity aimed at the social and economic upliftment of suffering humanity to a greater extent than the Bhikkhu, while the latter will concentrate more on personal advancement through the development of meditation and the keeping of the strict moral code expected of the Bhikkhu Sangha.


Updated: 1-2-2001

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