20120501-Mt._Meru_and_the_Buddhist_Universe Bhutanese_thanka.jpg
Mt. Meru and the Buddhist
Universe on a Bhutanese thanka
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.

According to the BBC: “The great tragedy of existence, from a Buddhist point of view, is that it is both endless and subject to impermanence, suffering and uncertainty. These three are called the tilakhana or three signs of existence. Existence is endless because individuals are reincarnated over and over again, experiencing suffering throughout many lives. It is impermanent because no state, good or bad, lasts forever. Our mistaken belief that things can last is a chief cause of suffering. It is uncertain because when we examine our experience, no knower can be defined and no enduring essence of experience can be located. Only achieving liberation, or nirvana, can free a being from the cycle of life, death and rebirth. [Source: BBC |::|]

The Theravada Buddhist scholar Bhikkhu Bodhi writes: Buddhism divides the whole of sentient existence into three basic realms: 1) The sense sphere realm; 2) The realm of fine materiality; and 3) The immaterial or formless realm. The Buddha points out that of all the planes of existence, the most fortunate for one seeking liberation is the human world, for it has a good balance between opposing factors of life. On the one hand, human life is not filled with unbearable suffering. It allows enough leisure, ease and comfort for us to reflect on the nature of existence so that we can develop our understanding. On the other hand, the human world is not so intensely pleasant and enjoyable that we become deceived by pleasures and enjoyment. The lifespan is not so long that it deceives us into thinking that our lives are eternal. It is short enough for us to become aware of the truth of impermanence. ***

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion

Buddhist Beliefs About The Universe

Buddhism holds that the physical universe is made up of infinite world systems, spread out infinitely in space, and that these world systems, like the individual person, are also subject to the cycle of birth and rebirth. It was, in many ways, the realization of the drawbacks of the ycyle of rebirth that led to religious movements that gave birth to Buddhism. These movements aimed to come up with a way out of this endless cycle of rebirth. [Source: Jacob Kinnard, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2018, Encyclopedia.com ++]

According to Buddhist beleifs, the whole universe is a single, dynamic web of energy which can exist in three forms — 1) Free Energy, 2) Forces 3) Matter.. These three forms of energy exist in the human body as well as in the universe. Free energy is pure, undifferentiated energy. Therefore, this form cannot be perceived directly or indirectly. Free, undifferentiated energy exists in the human body as consciousness. In Buddhism, consciousness is described as Vinnana. [Source: Dr. Senaka Ranasinghe]

The Buddhist view of the cosmos is predicated on smasara (the cycle of rebirth) and holds that there are both different world systems and different realms that are arranged in a tripartite structure: the "sense-desire" realm at the bottom, the "pure form" realm above that, and the "formless" realm at the top. Within these three divisions are further subrealms into which a being can be reborn: the human realm, the animal realm, the hungry ghost (preta) realm, various hells, and, higher up, deva (divine) realms. Although it is not the highest realm, the human realm is considered the most promising because in this realm are both suffering, which acts as a motivation to advance, and free will, which enables humans to act on this impulse. It is important to note that Buddhism holds that even the divine beings, despite their power, are subject to the laws of samsara. ++

Buddhist Beliefs About Creation

Burmese MoGok Circle
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. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

According to the BBC: “Buddhism has no creator god to explain the origin of the universe. Instead, it teaches that everything depends on everything else: present events are caused by past events and become the cause of future events. Indian religions often see space and time as cyclical, such that world-systems come into being, survive for a time, are destroyed and then are remade. In Buddhism this happens naturally without the intervention of gods. [Source: BBC |::|]

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.

Buddha's Story About Re-Creation

According to the BBC: “One tale told by the Buddha in the Aggan-n-a Sutta describes the process of re-creation on this grand scale. An old world-system has just been destroyed, and its inhabitants are reborn in a new system. To begin with they are spirits, floating happily above the earth, luminescent and without form, name or sex. The world in these early stages is without light or land, only water. Eventually earth appears and the spirits come to taste and enjoy it. Their greed causes their ethereal bodies to become solid and coarse and differentiate into male and female, good-looking and ugly. As they lose their luminescence the sun and moon come into being.

“Gradually the beings fall into further wicked habits, causing themselves - and the earth itself - to become less pleasant. In this way, the Buddha seems to be saying, desire, greed and attachment not only cause suffering for people but also cause the world to be as it is. The physical world as we know it, with all its imperfections and suffering, is the product of what the Buddha called dependent origination.”

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?"

No Creator God in Buddhism

Buddhists do not believe in God as a creator and sustainer of the universe. The Buddha once said that the notion of a single Creator God began as a rumor invented by Brahma, one of the three most important Hindu gods.

Sanskrit scholar R.P. Hayes wrote: “The Buddha pointed out that no God or priest nor any other kind of being has the power to interfere in the working out of someone else's Kamma. Buddhism, therefore, teaches the individual to take full responsibility for themselves. For example, if you want to be wealthy then be trustworthy, diligent and frugal, or if you want to live in a heaven realm then always be kind to others. There is no God to ask favours from, or to put it another way, there is no corruption possible in the workings of Kamma. [Source: R.P. Hayes, Buddhist Society of Western Australia, Buddha Sasana =|=]

“Do Buddhists believe that a Supreme Being created the universe? Buddhists would first ask which universe do you mean? This present universe, from the moment of the 'big bang' up to now, is but one among countless millions in Buddhist cosmology. The Buddha gave an estimate of the age of a single universe-cycle of around 37,000 million years which is quite plausible when compared to modern astrophysics. After one universe- cycle ends another begins, again and again, according to impersonal law. A Creator God is redundant in this scheme. =|=

Mt. Meru

Mt Kaiash

Both Hindus and Buddhists, especially Tibetan 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."

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 Hells

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.

Buddhist Hell
from Dunhuang Caves in China
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.

Buddhist 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.

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.

Realm of Fine Materiality

20120501-trip to heaven Buddha_descending_from_Tavatimsa.jpg
Buddha descending from heaven
Bhikkhu Bodhi writes: The Realm of Fine Materiality “is a realm of subtle matter. These states of existence are much purer than even the heavens of the sense-sphere realm. There the mind becomes bright and luminous. The lifespan is incredibly long, lasting for many aeons. And the gross forms of matter are absent. These realms, however, are also impermanent. Life there eventually comes to an end and the person will be reborn elsewhere as determined by his kamma” [karma]. The Immaterial or Formless Realm related to states of existence that are “entirely mental. The mind subsides without any material base, absorbed in pure peace, pure equanimity, for thousands of aeons. In these spheres too life finally comes to an end and the stream of consciousness takes rebirth elsewhere as determined by kamma. ***

“Now the question might be raised whether a person with an education in science can really believe a cosmology like this, which seems to be ancient, outdated and superstitious. Hence I have to give a personal answer. To me the general form of this cosmology seems quite tenable. If we can see the logic behind the law of kamma, and then consider the different kinds of actions people are capable of performing, it becomes clear that there must be different planes of existence appropriate for the maturation of the different types of kamma. ***

“In the case of such evil kamma as killing thousands of people cruelly and heartlessly, for such kamma to meet its fruits the person performing such kamma has to be born in a realm of intense suffering, the hells. On the other hand, if someone has performed very noble deeds such as giving up his limbs, his life or his wealth for the sake of others, if one has a loving and compassionate mind, there must also be a corresponding realm for such kamma to produce its due results. That is the heavenly realms. Also, when we understand the different meditative attainments, the jhanas and the formless attainments, and see how those higher levels of consciousness, are so vastly different from the usual familiar consciousness, it becomes clear that they correspond to other planes of existence. Thus the whole picture fits together quite logically. “ ***

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except Skillful Means, Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org

Text Sources: East Asia History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu , “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org, Asia for Educators, Columbia University; Asia Society Museum “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg, Virtual Library Sri Lanka; “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: Volume 5 East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1993); BBC, Wikipedia, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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