- Basic Buddhism
- A Modern Introduction to the
- by Dr Victor A. Gunasekara
- CHAPTER 10
- Buddhist Cosmology and
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
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
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
(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.