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Buddhist Cosmology: 31 Planes of Existence

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Buddhist Cosmology: 31 Planes of Existence

The origin of Buddhist cosmology is very ancient, now lost in the mists of time. It is a deep structure of the inner mind projected onto the outside world. There are four continents surrounding the central mountain Sumeru. This forms a basic mandala, a square in a circle.

Each world system is supported by a vast “Circle of Space”, 1.6 million Yojanas thick. On this rests the “Circle of the Waters” 1.12 million yojanas thick, and 1,203,450 yojanas in circumference. The solidified foam of the waters forms a golden circle (kancana mandala), of the same circumference as the circle of waters, and having 120,000 yojanas of thickness. It is shaped like a tortoise, and girded by a double iron wall (Chakravada)

Our home is called Jambudvipa, the ‘Rose Apple Continent’. The Southern continent, it is shaped like India, a blue triangle. To the West is Godiyana, in the form of a red circle. (Perhaps Africa is meant.) To the East is Videha, a white crescent. (Perhaps Indonesia is meant.) To the North is Uttarakuru (Siberia) in the form of a green square. Each continent has two subcontinents of the same shape and color.

There are seven mountain ranges between the continents and the flanks of Sumeru. There are seven lakes separating them, each with a different liquid. Near the top of Sumeru, the planets revolve around the summit . On the four flanks of Sumeru is the heaven of the four guardian kings. They are the protectors, keeping the armies of the asuras from taking heaven by storm. The second heaven, the heaven of the 33, that of Indra, is at the summit. 33 of the old Vedic gods live here

Above that is Tushita, the ‘joyful heaven’.

Above that is the fourth heaven of kamadhatu, the ‘realm of sense desire’. That is the heaven of Yama, the lord of death. The 5th and 6th heavens of kamadhatu have to do with using the mind to create desirable objects. The 6th heaven is the seat of Mara the evil one, the ‘devil king of the 6th heaven’, the personification of ignorance and delusion.

Thus there are 11 planes of existence in kamadhatu: The hell realms, the hungry ghost realm, the animal realm, the asura realm, the human realm and the 6 heaven realms of the desire world.

The next level is the rupadhatu, the ‘realm of form’. In the 16 heavens of this realm, desire is gone: only bliss remains. After that, the four heavens of the arupadhatu, the ‘formless realm’ complete the world system. Each heaven is vaster and of much longer duration than the one preceding it.

1000 of these worlds make up a small chiliocosm.

1000 of those comprise a middle chiliocosm. 1000 of those make a great chiliocosm, a galactic structure of a billion worlds.

The Mandala Offering in Tibetan Buddhism.

We offer up a world system to the Awakened One. Heaps of jewels or rice grains are piled up on a circular plate representing the earth. The first heap is for Mt. Sumeru, the next four represent the continents. The sixth and seventh heaps symbolize the sun and the

moon. This is the 7 point mandala offering. There is also a more complex 37 point mandala offering. A mudra with the ring fingers representing Mt Sumeru and the other fingers interlaced to show the 4 continents is used, as is a standard mantra. As part of the Ngondro, the ‘preliminary practices’, 100,000 mandala offerings are made.

Of the 31 planes of existence, the heavens of the form realm (12-20) are symbolic of the mind states of the 4 dhyanas, the levels of meditative concentration. There is no desire at the dhyana level, only bliss and joy.

The five hinderances are gone:

1. Sense desire no longer hinders ekagrata, the one-pointedness of mind.

2. Ill will (vyapada) no longer obstructs physical rapture, (priti)

3. Sloth and torpor no longer hinder applied thought (vitarka).

4. Restlessness and worry are replaced by sukha, happiness and ease.

5. Doubt and vacillation no longer hinder sustained thought (vichara)

First dhyana (12-14): In the 3 heavens of the Brahma loka, the ‘Retinue of Brahma’, ’Ministers of Brahma’ and ‘Great Brahma’, all 5 of these constituents of dhyana are present.

In the 3 heavens of the second dhyana, (15-17) ‘Limited Radiance’, ‘Unbounded Radiance’ & ‘Ultimate Radiance’, only sukha, priti and ekagrata remain. Applied thought and sustained thought fall away.

In the third dhyana, (18-20) the 3 heavens of ‘Limited Glory’, ‘Unbounded Glory’ and ‘Radiant Glory’, only sukha and ekagrata, ease and equanimity remain.

In the 7 heavens of the fourth dhyana, only ekagrata, one pointedness of mind and equanimity remain:

(21) Brhat Phala, ‘Very Fruitful’

(22) ‘Unconscious Beings’ No perception.

The remainder of the 4th dhyana is the 5 heavens called the ‘Pure Abodes’ for Arhats & Never Returners:

(23) Avriha, ‘Free of Afflictions

(24) Atapa, ‘Without Torment’

(25) Sudrsha, Perfect Form

(26) Sudarshana, ‘Perfect Vision

(27) Akanishta, ‘Highest Heaven

In the 4 heavens of the Formless world, there is not even subtle materiality; only mind and object remain:

(28) Sphere of Infinite Space
(29) Sphere of Infinite Consciousness
(30) Nothing whatever
(31) Neither Perception Nor Non-perception.

There are also said to be nine successive stations (samapatti): the 4 dhyanas of the form world, the 4 dhyanas of the formless world, and the ninth, ‘Cessation of all Perception and Feeling’, or the ‘Attainment of Cessation’ ( nirodha samapatti). This is the equivalent of Nirvana.

Prepared for Nalanda Institute Olympia by Bob Harris