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Buddhist creation theory

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by Jeffrey Hays

Hindus and Buddhists believe that there was no single Creation but rather the universe—without the help of a Creator God—is created and destroyed by fire, wind and water in a series of endless cycles. Buddhist believe these periods of transformation are divided into "Great Periods" (cycles with Buddhas) and "voids" (cycles without Buddhas). Each cycle of creation begins when the primordial waters recede and the dry land of the world emerges to reveal a sacred bodhi tree, whose lotus flowers indicate the number of Buddhas that are appear in that particular Great Period.

"Is the universe eternal or not eternal, or both?" and "Is the universe infinite in space or not infinite, or both or neither?" were two of the fourteen questions Buddha refused to answer. Buddha also labeled speculations about the creation as “low conversation” in the same category as fairy tales, talk about women and heroes, street corner gossip, and ghosts stories. He encouraged his followers not to waste their time and energy discussing such trifling matters.

When asked about the creation of the universe The Buddha answered with a question: "Have I ever said to you, come, be my disciple and I will reveal to you the beginning of things?"... "Sir, you have not," his disciple replied..."Or, have you ever said to me I will become your pupil if you will reveal to me the beginning of things?"..."Sir, I have not," he replied. Buddha said his sole objective was "the thorough destruction of ill for the doer thereof...If then it matters not to that object whether the beginning of things be revealed...what use would it be to have the beginnings of things revealed?"

Hindus and Buddhist have no end of the world scenarios because they see life and creation as cyclical. Jews, Christians and Muslims, on the other hand, all have end of the world scenarios foretold by natural disasters and other calamities and feature the accession to heaven by the faithful.

Websites and Resources: Buddha Net ; Victoria and Albert Museum ; Religious Tolerance Page ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive ; Introduction to Buddhism ;


Books: Buddhism by Christmas Humphrey (Pelican); Buddhism Explained by Phra Khantipalo; Buddhist Dictionary by Mahathera Nyanatiloka; Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. Also recommended are books by the Dalai Lamat Thurman, a respected Buddhist scholar and former Tibetan Buddhist monk; and Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk from Vietnam who has been involved with various anti-war activities. Film: Little Buddha

Websites and Resources on Buddhist Art: ; Buddhist Images ; Religion Facts Images ; Buddhist Symbols ; Buddhist Artwork ; Buddhism Images ; Wikipedia article on Buddhist Art Wikipedia ; Buddha Images ; Buddhist Art ; Huntington Archives Buddhist Art ; Buddhist Art Resources

Buddhist Cosmology and Mt. Meru

In Buddhist cosmology, at the top of the universe are four realms of purely mental rebirth. Below them are realms of pure form where the gods dwell. The lowest level is the ream of desire. It consists of the heavens where the 33 Vedic gods of Hinduism, including Indra, known as Sakka, the protector of Buddhism, live. There are also levels for humans, animals, asuras (jealous gods). Below these are the realms of hungry ghosts ( pretas ) and the hells.

Both Hindus and Buddhists believe that Mt. Meru—the great "mountain above the mountains"— lies at the center of the universe and is the home of the gods. Located on the vertical axis of the egg shaped cosmos, it is surrounded by seven concentric mountain rings, around which revolve the sun, moon, the planets and the continents of the earth. The earth itself is a huge disk with four continents , supported by a vast circular ocean, which is supported by “gold earth,” which in turn is supported by a layer of air which rest in space. Within the universe are many such worlds.

Buddhists believe "that Meru lies between four worlds in the four cardinal directions; that it is square at the bottom and round at the top; that its has a length of 80,000 yojana [about 84,000 miles], one half of which rises into heaven, whilst the other half goes down into the earth. That side which is next to our world consist of blue sapphires, which is the reason why heaven appears to us blue; the other sides are of rubies, yellow and white gems.” At the base Mt. Meru are golden mountains and continents, including Jambubudvida, "the everyday human realm."

Four Continents.jpg

Every statue of Buddha has an imaginary vertical line running through it that represents the central axis of Mt. Meru. When Buddhist walk clockwise three times around statues of Buddha they are symbolically circling Mt. Meru.

Mt. Kailas—a 22,028-foot-high (6,714-meter-high) pyramid of ice and rock in south-central Tibet north of main Himalayan range—is an important pilgrimage site for both Buddhists and Hindus who regard it as an earthly image of Mt. Meru. Many Hindus believed it to be the source for three sacred rivers—the Indus, the Brahmaputra and Sutleh—and the paradise home of Shiva, one of their most important Hindu gods. Tibetan Buddhists believe the 11th-century poet and mystic Milarepa was carried to the peak on the rays of the morning sun.

Buddhist Heaven

Buddha descending from heaven Heaven has traditionally been viewed as a stop on the way to enlightenment not an end to itself. Beings in heaven have not yet achieved enlightenment and are subject to rebirth. In the view of some they are anxious to get out. One 6th century Chinese monk wrote they “dwell in seven jeweled places, and have fine objects, smells, tastes and sensations, yet they do not regard this as pleasure...[and] seek only to leave that place."

Buddhists have different views about heaven. Some Buddhists believe that there are an infinite number of world's, each with it own Buddha and its own Mt. Meru and it own multiple heavens and hells. Other say each person who achieves enlightenment does so in their own heaven. Tibetan Buddhists believe that above Mt. Meru are 16 heavens. Members of one Buddhist sect believe in an underground paradise called Agharta that was reportedly founded by a holy man who escaped from a disaster by digging a hole in the earth and who now rules from the underground capital of Shamballah.


The Wheel of Life defines six different realms a person can person can be reborn into. See the Wheel of Life.

Followers of Pure Land Buddhism believe in a primal heaven or Western Paradise called Sukhavati, presided over by a Buddha named Amitabha, where the inhabitants “desire cloaks of different colors and many hundred thousand colors, the with these very best cloaks the whole Buddha country shines." It was also described as place with no disease, no beasts, no ghosts and no women.

Buddhist Hells

from Dunhuang Caves in China In accordance with the Wheel of Life model, hell is one of six possible destinations after rebirth and, like heaven, it is a stop on the way to enlightenment. The residents of hell can escape if they move towards enlightenment. Hell itself is composed multiple hells (usually eight), located below the earth. Each hell is lower than the previous one and and is regarded as a worse place to be than the one before it. In addition to hell there are realms of hungry ghosts and beasts (See Wheel of Life), which are not pleasant places to be but are not as bad as the eight hells.

Hell is viewed as a place for sinners and evildoers and the hell one ends up in fits their sins. Buddhists believe it is possible to be banished to hell for thousands even millions of years, based on their karma, before being released. They also believe it is possible to be reborn into hell again if one doesn’t get his or her act together. Some Buddhists see these hells as real places. Others view them as symbolic.

According to one view the eight hells are (from least worst to worst): 1) The Hell of Constantly Reviving, where people who took the lives of creatures are killed in the same way they killed; 2) the Black Lines Hell, where thieves are soaked in Black ink and cut into pieces with burning saws; 3) the Squeezing Hell, where people accused of sexual misbehavior are repeatedly squeezed, burned up, crushed and cut into pieces; 4) the Screaming Hell, where people who misused drugs and intoxicants have boiling liquids poured down their throats.

The four worst hells are: 5) the Great Screaming Hell, where liars have their insides eaten out by snakes; 6) the Hell of Burning Heat, where heretics are repeatedly burned; 7) the Hell of Great Burning Heat, where perpetrators of religious sexual crimes such as raping a nun are dragged over continents with iron hook as worms eat their body and pop out their heads; and 8) Hell Without Cease, where the perpetrators of heinous crimes such as killing one’s mother suffer a torment more than 1,000 times worse than those of the other hells.

Many Buddhists believe that hell is guarded by a 12-armed demon called Yama and believe that adulterers are impaled on thorn trees and eaten by dogs and eagles in hell. Tibetan Buddhists believe there are eight hot hells and eight hot hells as well as “frontier” hells for those guilty of lesser sins. The cold hells include one where naked sinners are repeatedly submerged in waters chilled with glacier ice and another where it is so cold one’s flesh falls off like lotus pedals and is gnawed by iron-beaked birds.


Buddhism and Superstition

Many Buddhists are very superstitious. They believe in astrology and consult monks as fortunetellers. Magic has traditionally been an element of Mahayana Buddhism.

Traditionally, it was thought the faith in the Dharma and good moral conduct was enough to keep evil spirits at bay but as interest in orthodox dharma began to fade interest in magic rose. Beginning around A.D. 300, spell-like mantras became common. By around A.D. 500 rituals contained many magical elements that were embraced by elite and ordinary people alike. Later magic was widely evoked to do things like producing bountiful harvests and bringing good health to children.

Buddhism has its share of miracles. Buddha wowed people by rising into the air, dividing his body into pieces and then rejoining them Holy men and saints have traveled to other worlds, assumed the form of gods and goddesses, walked through walls.

Some believed that rubbing Buddha’s belly brings good luck.

Eight Auspicious Symbols

The Eight Auspicious Symbols are associated with gifts made to Buddha upon his enlightenment. The first four are: 1) the Precious Parasol (symbolizing protective powers of the Buddhist doctrine, it is usually placed over Buddha images to protect them from evil spirits); 2) the White Conch Shell (symbolizing the propagation of the Buddhist doctrine, blown to signal prayer time and celebrate the Buddha’s enlightenment and the potential of all humans for enlightenment); 3) the Golden Fishes (representing abundance, felicity and liberation from the Wheel of Life); and 4) the Lotus Flower (symbolizing purity and compassion of Buddha because it is a beautiful thing that rises from muddy waters).

The other Eight Auspicious Symbols are: 5) the Banner of Victory (marking the victory of Buddhist wisdom over ignorance and the expulsion of all worries); 6) the Knot of Eternity (representing the eternal, intertwined passage of time, harmony, love and unity); 7) the Vase of Great Treasures (containing the jewels of enlightenment, the water of eternity and votive offerings to the deities); and 8) the Wheel of Law (representing the Eightfold Path to salvation and the movement of Buddhist laws). Also known as the Wheel of Dharma, the Wheel of Law turns 12 times, three times for each of the Four Noble Truths.

Hell WQ.jpg

Buddha Footprints

Carved footprints called buddhapada are among the oldest-known works of Buddhist art and faith, with the oldest examples from the A.D. 1st century Gandhara in Pakistan. One such piece carved in grey stone has a pair of truth wheels on each meter-long foot. Smaller ones have been carved on lapis lazuli seals less then two centimeters in length.

Footprints of The Buddha are important objects of veneration, both in terms of purported footprints left behind by the historical Buddha and representations of his footprints. Because they seem to convey his presence without him actually being there footprints have came to represent transcendental power.

Footprints are both representations of the Buddha’s presence and absence, and loss and recovery. They are images that are easy to identify with. In ancient times, footprints and hand prints were regarded as the physical touch of Buddha and other major religious figures. The Buddha himself said, “Creatures without feet have love, / And likewise those that have two feet / And those that have four feet I love, / And those, too, that have many feet.”

A footprint was chosen as representative of The Buddha because it expressed humility and addressed the fear that his image might be worshiped. On footprints, The Buddha is reported to have said: “In the future, intelligent being will see the scriptures and understand. Those of less intelligence will wonder whether The Buddha appeared in the world. In order to remove the doubts. I have set my footprints in stone.”

Carved footprints was supposed to be imprinted with 108 auspicious symbols. The hand or palm of The Buddha is an important symbol. In Tibet, footprints and to a lesser degree handprints of revered lamas appear on thangkas. They are often placed next to the subject’s patron deity or an image of the lama himself. The handprints often look like handprints in prehistoric caves or the ones at Grauman’s Chinese Theater.


Buddhist Wheel of Life

The walls or entrances of Buddhist monasteries and pagodas are often decorated with "Wheels of Life," paintings representing principals of Buddhism. They are complex, image-filled paintings that aim to show viewers how desire imprisons us in a world of suffering and rebirth and that the mind is only a delusion.

The three cardinal sins—passion and delusion (represented by a cock), hatred (a snake), and greed and stupidity (a pig)—are often situated at the center of the wheel. The wheel is turned by Yama, the Lord of Death, who represents the limitations of existence. At the bottom of the wheel are hot and cold hells and a scale used to measure good and bad karma one has accumulated in one’s lifetime.

In the ring outside the center are the 8 or 12 karma formations, which contain the victims of bad karma (black background) on the left and the beneficiaries of good karma (white background) on the right. In the next ring are the six spheres of existence; then the twelve links in the chain of causation, culminating in the search for truth; and finally in the outer most ring are symbols depicting impermanence or death.

The six spheres of existence are; 1) the realm of the gods, a transitory place where happiness rises above suffering; 2) the realm of the asuras (jealous gods), where creatures of all sorts fight over fruit on the wishing tree and have to be reminded by Buddha to stay on the path; 3) the realm of the pretas (the hungry ghosts), the home of grotesque figures who have given into greed and can’t eat because their throats are too narrow; 4) the hells, where creatures with cold hearts and anger live in misery; 5) the realm of the animals, a place of ignorance, lethargy and apathy; and 6) the realm of the humans, characterized by birth, old age, disease, sickness and death.

The twelve links in the chain of causation features: 1) a blind woman (symbolizing ignorance); 2) a potter (unconscious of will); 3) a monkey (consciousness); 4) men in a boat (self-consciousness); 5) house (the five senses); 6) lovers (attachment); 7) a man with an arrow in his eye (feeling); 9) people drinking (desire); 10) a figure grasping fruit from a tree (greed); 11) pregnancy (birth); and 12) a man with a corpse (death).

The wheel of law or the wheel of Dharma represents Dharma, the cosmos and the concept of karma. The central wheel is symbolic of Buddha’s teachings which set the wheel of dharma in motion.


The swastika is one of the holiest symbols in Hinduism. It represents the seat of God, the sun and is regarded as good luck. Arms bent in a clockwise direction have traditionally meant health and life and the movement of the sun. The Nazis used a swastika with arms bent in a counter-clockwise direction. The word swastika comes from two Sanskrit words su , meaning “good,” and asti , meaning “to exist,” and together they mean “let good prevail.”

The swastika is one of the oldest known symbols, even older than the ancient Egyptian Ankh. It has been found pottery and coins from ancient Troy show that date to 1000 B.C. and found on coins from ancient China and very old blankets made by American Indians. Some say it has been associated with Hinduism for 5,000 years. According to legend Buddha left behind swastikas instead of foot prints. A 10,000-year-old swastika was found painted on the wall of a cave.

A majolica seal bearing a swastika was found at an Indus civilization state, dated to 2000 to 2500 B.C. Erica Wagner wrote in the Washington Post: “After the om, the swastika is still the second most important symbol in Hindu mythology -- and Hindus understandably protested the proposed ban. The word itself is derived from two Sanskrit words, su (good) and asati (to exist); together they are taken to mean "may good prevail." In Hindu thought, the 20-sided polygon can represent the eternal nature of the Brahman, or supreme spirit of the universe, because it points in all directions. Rudyard Kipling, who was strongly influenced by Indian culture, had a swastika on the dust jackets of all his books until the rise of Nazism made this inappropriate; Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, used the symbol, too, until the 1930s. It is found in Native American cultures, particularly among the Navajo and the Hopi. A swastika is laid in the floor of Amiens Cathedral in France. [Source: Erica Wagner, Washington Post, March 13, 2005]

Modern Hindus and Buddhist use swastikas to decorate temples, doorways and jewelry as a way to attract good fortune. Many Hindus wear them as a symbol of their faith like Christians wearing crosses. In 2005, there was a campaign among Hindus to “redeem” the swastika. The efforts was made after officials in Europe suggested the symbol be banned—after Britain’s Prince Harry wore a Nazi uniform to a party—because of the association of the symbol with death and hate and anti-Semitism.

Nazis and Swastika

The arms of the traditional Hindu and Buddhist swastika go in the opposite direction of the Nazi swastika. The original swastika adopted by the Nazi party in 1920 had arms that went in the same direction. It is believed that Allied wartime propaganda was responsible for the false belief that Hitler later reversed the swastika to the left-armed version because of its association with death.

Erica Wagner wrote in the Washington Post: “Hitler adopted it because of its links to Indian Aryan culture; the Nazis considered the early Aryans of India to be a prototypical "master race." The Nazi party formally adopted the swastika -- what they called the Hakenkreuz, or hooked cross -- in 1920. In "Mein Kampf," Adolf Hitler, who well understood the power of the visual over the power of the mere word, reflected in his writing the care put into its redesign: "I myself, meanwhile, after innumerable attempts, had laid down a final form; a flag with a red background, a white disk, and a black swastika in the middle. After long trials I also found a definite proportion between the size of the flag and the size of the white disk, as well as the shape and thickness of the swastika." [Source: Erica Wagner, Washington Post, March 13, 2005]

The atrocities of the Nazi regime and its program of directed genocide have rendered that symbol almost entirely out of bounds. In Germany and Austria, use of the swastika has been banned outside academic and educational contexts since 1949; recently, copies of Philip Roth's new novel, "The Plot Against America," which imagines an alternative America sympathetic to the Nazis during World War II -- were kept out of Germany because the cover features an American postage stamp adorned with a swastika. The publishers produced a separate edition for Germany and Austria (the "Hapsburg edition," it was dubbed), which replaced the swastika with a black X.

It was a royal gaffe -- when Prince Harry went to a fancy dress party clothed as a Nazi officer just days before the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz -- that prompted the call for the swastika to be banned throughout the European Union. "E.U. action is urgent," Franco Fratini, the European commissioner for justice, said, "and has to forbid very clearly the Nazi symbols in the European Union."

Other Buddhist Symbols

The elephant has traditionally been a symbol of The Buddha. Elephants hold a special place in Buddhism because Buddha's mother conceived The Buddha after having a dream about a white elephant entering her body.

The lotus symbolizes self-development, enlightenment and purity because it rooted in the mud, grows from through dirty water and without getting dirty and emerges as a thing of beauty. It represents enlightened beings such as Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and has come to symbolize the Buddha. See Asian Animals.

Bodhi tree represents enlightenment because the Buddha was seated under one when he received the enlightenment. Bodhi is a kind of fig.

ources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); The Creators by Daniel Boorstin National Geographic articles. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.