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The self-consistent Buddhist cosmology which is presented in commentaries and works of Abhidharma in both Theravāda and Mahāyāna traditions, is the end-product of an analysis and reconciliation of cosmological comments found in the Buddhist sūtra and vinaya traditions. No single sūtra sets out the entire structure of the universe. However, in several sūtras the Buddha describes other worlds and states of being, and other sūtras describe the origin and destruction of the universe. The synthesis of these data into a single comprehensive system must have taken place early in the history of Buddhism, as the system described in the Pāli Vibhajyavāda tradition (represented by today's Theravādins) agrees, despite some trivial inconsistencies of nomenclature, with the Sarvāstivāda tradition which is preserved by Mahāyāna Buddhists.
The picture of the world presented in Buddhist cosmological descriptions cannot be taken as a literal description of the shape of the universe. It is inconsistent, and cannot be made consistent, with astronomical data that were already known in ancient India. However, it is not intended to be a description of how ordinary humans perceive their world; rather, it is the universe as seen through the divyacakṣus (Pāli: dibbacakkhu), the "divine eye" by which a Buddha or an arhat who has cultivated this faculty can perceive all of the other worlds and the beings arising (being born) and passing away (dying) within them, and can tell from what state they have been reborn and into what state they will be reborn. The cosmology has also been interpreted in a symbolical or allegorical sense (see Ten spiritual realms).
Buddhist cosmology can be divided into two related kinds: spatial cosmology, which describes the arrangement of the various worlds within the universe, and temporal cosmology, which describes how those worlds come into existence, and how they pass away.
Spatial cosmology can also be divided into two branches. The vertical (or cakravāḍa) cosmology describes the arrangement of worlds in a vertical pattern, some being higher and some lower. By contrast, the horizontal (sahasra) cosmology describes the grouping of these vertical worlds into sets of thousands, millions or billions.
In the vertical cosmology, the universe exists of many worlds (lokāḥ) – one might say "planes" – stacked one upon the next in layers. Each world corresponds to a mental state or a state of being. A world is not, however, a location so much as it is the beings which compose it; it is sustained by their karma and if the beings in a world all die or disappear, the world disappears too. Likewise, a world comes into existence when the first being is born into it. The physical separation is not so important as the difference in mental state; humans and animals, though they partially share the same physical environments, still belong to different worlds because their minds perceive and react to those environments differently.
The vertical cosmology is divided into thirty-one planes of existence and the planes into three realms, or dhātus, each corresponding to a different type of mentality. These three (Tridhātu) are the Ārūpyadhātu, the Rūpadhātu, and the Kāmadhātu. The latter comprises the "five or six realms". In some instances all of the beings born in the Ārūpyadhātu and the Rūpadhātu are informally classified as "gods" or "deities" (devāḥ), along with the gods of the Kāmadhātu, notwithstanding the fact that the deities of the Kāmadhātu differ more from those of the Ārūpyadhātu than they do from humans. It is to be understood that deva is an imprecise term referring to any being living in a longer-lived and generally more blissful state than humans. Most of them are not "gods" in the common sense of the term, having little or no concern with the human world and rarely if ever interacting with it; only the lowest deities of the Kāmadhātu correspond to the gods described in many polytheistic religions.
The term "brahmā" is used both as a name and as a generic term for one of the higher devas. In its broadest sense, it can refer to any of the inhabitants of the Ārūpyadhātu and the Rūpadhātu. In more restricted senses, it can refer to an inhabitant of one of the nine lower worlds of the Rūpadhātu, or in its narrowest sense, to the three lowest worlds of the Rūpadhātu. A large number of devas use the name "Brahmā", e.g. Brahmā Sahampati, Brahmā Sanatkumāra, Baka Brahmā, etc. It is not always clear which world they belong to, although it must always be one of the worlds of the Rūpadhātu below the Śuddhāvāsa worlds.
The Ārūpyadhātu (Sanskrit) or Arūpaloka (Pāli) (Tib: gzugs med pa'i khams) or "Formless realm" would have no place in a purely physical cosmology, as none of the beings inhabiting it has either shape or location; and correspondingly, the realm has no location either. This realm belongs to those devas who attained and remained in the Four Formless Absorptions (catuḥ-samāpatti) of the arūpadhyānas in a previous life, and now enjoys the fruits (vipāka) of the good karma of that accomplishment. Bodhisattvas, however, are never born in the Ārūpyadhātu even when they have attained the arūpadhyānas.
There are four types of Ārūpyadhātu devas, corresponding to the four types of arūpadhyānas:
The Rūpadhātu (Pāli: Rūpaloka; Tib: gzugs kyi khams) or "Form realm" is, as the name implies, the first of the physical realms; its inhabitants all have a location and bodies of a sort, though those bodies are composed of a subtle substance which is of itself invisible to the inhabitants of the Kāmadhātu. According to the Janavasabha Sutta, when a brahma (a being from the Brahma-world of the Rūpadhātu) wishes to visit a deva of the Trāyastriṃśa heaven (in the Kāmadhātu), he has to assume a "grosser form" in order to be visible to them. There are 17-22 Rūpadhātu in Buddhism texts, the most common saying is 18.
The beings of the Form realm are not subject to the extremes of pleasure and pain, or governed by desires for things pleasing to the senses, as the beings of the Kāmadhātu are. The bodies of Form realm beings do not have sexual distinctions.
Like the beings of the Ārūpyadhātu, the dwellers in the Rūpadhātu have minds corresponding to the dhyānas (Pāli: jhānas). In their case it is the four lower dhyānas or rūpadhyānas. However, although the beings of the Rūpadhātu can be divided into four broad grades corresponding to these four dhyānas, each of them is subdivided into further grades, three for each of the four dhyānas and five for the Śuddhāvāsa devas, for a total of seventeen grades (the Theravāda tradition counts one less grade in the highest dhyāna for a total of sixteen).
Physically, the Rūpadhātu consists of a series of planes stacked on top of each other, each one in a series of steps half the size of the previous one as one descends. In part, this reflects the fact that the devas are also thought of as physically larger on the higher planes. The highest planes are also broader in extent than the ones lower down, as discussed in the section on Sahasra cosmology. The height of these planes is expressed in yojanas, a measurement of very uncertain length, but sometimes taken to be about 4,000 times the height of a man, and so approximately 4.54 miles (7.31 km) or 7.32 kilometers.
The Śuddhāvāsa (Pāli: Suddhāvāsa; Tib: gnas gtsang ma) worlds, or "Pure Abodes", are distinct from the other worlds of the Rūpadhātu in that they do not house beings who have been born there through ordinary merit or meditative attainments, but only those Anāgāmins ("Non-returners") who are already on the path to Arhat-hood and who will attain enlightenment directly from the Śuddhāvāsa worlds without being reborn in a lower plane (Anāgāmins can also be born on lower planes). Every Śuddhāvāsa deva is therefore a protector of Buddhism. (Brahma Sahampati, who appealed to the newly enlightened Buddha to teach, was an Anagami from a previous Buddha). Because a Śuddhāvāsa deva will never be reborn outside the Śuddhāvāsa worlds, no Bodhisattva is ever born in these worlds, as a Bodhisattva must ultimately be reborn as a human being.
Since these devas rise from lower planes only due to the teaching of a Buddha, they can remain empty for very long periods if no Buddha arises. However, unlike the lower worlds, the Śuddhāvāsa worlds are never destroyed by natural catastrophe. The Śuddhāvāsa devas predict the coming of a Buddha and, taking the guise of Brahmins, reveal to human beings the signs by which a Buddha can be recognized. They also ensure that a Bodhisattva in his last life will see the four signs that will lead to his renunciation.
The five Śuddhāvāsa worlds are:
The mental state of the devas of the Bṛhatphala worlds corresponds to the fourth dhyāna, and is characterized by equanimity (upekṣā). The Bṛhatphala worlds form the upper limit to the destruction of the universe by wind at the end of a mahākalpa (see Temporal cosmology below), that is, they are spared such destruction.
The mental state of the devas of the Śubhakṛtsna worlds corresponds to the third dhyāna, and is characterized by a quiet joy (sukha). These devas have bodies that radiate a steady light. The Śubhakṛtsna worlds form the upper limit to the destruction of the universe by water at the end of a mahākalpa (see Temporal cosmology below), that is, the flood of water does not rise high enough to reach them.
The mental state of the devas of the Ābhāsvara worlds corresponds to the second dhyāna, and is characterized by delight (prīti) as well as joy (sukha); the Ābhāsvara devas are said to shout aloud in their joy, crying aho sukham! ("Oh joy!"). These devas have bodies that emit flashing rays of light like lightning. They are said to have similar bodies (to each other) but diverse perceptions.
The Ābhāsvara worlds form the upper limit to the destruction of the universe by fire at the end of a mahākalpa (see Temporal cosmology below), that is, the column of fire does not rise high enough to reach them. After the destruction of the world, at the beginning of the vivartakalpa, the worlds are first populated by beings reborn from the Ābhāsvara worlds.
The mental state of the devas of the Brahmā worlds corresponds to the first dhyāna, and is characterized by observation (vitarka) and reflection (vicāra) as well as delight (prīti) and joy (sukha). The Brahmā worlds, together with the other lower worlds of the universe, are destroyed by fire at the end of a mahākalpa (see Temporal cosmology below).
The beings born in the Kāmadhātu (Pāli: Kāmaloka; Tib: 'dod pa'i khams) differ in degree of happiness, but they are all, other than arhats and Buddhas, under the domination of Māra and are bound by sensual desire, which causes them suffering.
The following four worlds are bounded planes. each 80,000 yojanas square, which float in the air above the top of Mount Sumeru. Although all of the worlds inhabited by devas (that is, all the worlds down to the Cāturmahārājikakāyika world and sometimes including the Asuras) are sometimes called "heavens", in the western sense of the word the term best applies to the four worlds listed below:
The world-mountain of Sumeru is an immense, strangely shaped peak which arises in the center of the world, and around which the Sun and Moon revolve. Its base rests in a vast ocean, and it is surrounded by several rings of lesser mountain ranges and oceans. The three worlds listed below are all located on or around Sumeru: the Trāyastriṃśa devas live on its peak, the Cāturmahārājikakāyika devas live on its slopes, and the Asuras live in the ocean at its base. Sumeru and its surrounding oceans and mountains are the home not just of these deities, but also vast assemblies of beings of popular mythology who only rarely intrude on the human world.
Naraka or Niraya (Tib: dmyal ba) is the name given to one of the worlds of greatest suffering, usually translated into English as "hell" or "purgatory". As with the other realms, a being is born into one of these worlds as a result of his karma, and resides there for a finite length of time until his karma has achieved its full result, after which he will be reborn in one of the higher worlds as the result of an earlier karma that had not yet ripened. The mentality of a being in the hells corresponds to states of extreme fear and helpless anguish in humans.
Physically, Naraka is thought of as a series of layers extending below Jambudvīpa into the earth. There are several schemes for counting these Narakas and enumerating their torments. One of the more common is that of the Eight Cold Narakas and Eight Hot Narakas.
Each lifetime in these Narakas is twenty times the length of the one before it.
All of the structures of the earth, Sumeru and the rest, extend downward to a depth of 80,000 yojanas below sea level – the same as the height of Sumeru above sea level. Below this is a layer of "golden earth", a substance compact and firm enough to support the weight of Sumeru. It is 320,000 yojanas in depth and so extends to 400,000 yojanas below sea level. The layer of golden earth in turn rests upon a layer of water, which is 8,000,000 yojanas in depth, going down to 8,400,000 yojanas below sea level. Below the layer of water is a "circle of wind", which is 16,000,000 yojanas in depth and also much broader in extent, supporting 1,000 different worlds upon it.
While the vertical cosmology describes the arrangement of the worlds vertically, the sahasra (Sanskrit: "thousand") cosmology describes how they are grouped horizontally. The four heavens of the Kāmadhātu, as mentioned, occupy a limited space no bigger than the top of Mount Sumeru. The three Brahmā-worlds, however, stretch out as far as the mountain-wall of Cakravāḍa, filling the entire sky. This whole group of worlds, from Mahābrahmā down to the foundations of water, constitutes a single world-system. It corresponds to the extent of the universe that is destroyed by fire at the end of one mahākalpa.
Above Mahābrahmā are the Ābhāsvara worlds. These are not only higher but also wider in extent; they cover 1,000 separate world-systems, each with its own Sumeru, Cakravāḍa, Sun, Moon, and four continents. This system of 1,000 worlds is called a sāhasra-cūḍika-lokadhātu, or "small chiliocosm". It corresponds to the extent of the universe that is destroyed by water at the end of 8 mahākalpas.
Above the Ābhāsvara worlds are the Śubhakṛtsna worlds, which cover 1,000 chiliocosms, or 1,000,000 world-systems. This larger system is called a dvisāhasra-madhyama-lokadhātu, or "medium dichiliocosm". It corresponds to the extent of the universe that is destroyed by wind at the end of 64 mahākalpas.
Likewise, above the Śubhakṛtsna worlds, the Śuddhāvāsa and Bṛhatphala worlds cover 1,000 dichiliocosms, or 1,000,000,000 world-systems. This largest grouping is called a trisāhasra-mahāsāhasra-lokadhātu or "great trichiliocosm".
Buddhist temporal cosmology describes how the universe comes into being and is dissolved. Like other Indian cosmologies, it assumes an infinite span of time and is cyclical. This does not mean that the same events occur in identical form with each cycle, but merely that, as with the cycles of day and night or summer and winter, certain natural events occur over and over to give some structure to time.
The basic unit of time measurement is the mahākalpa or "Great Eon". The exact length of this time in human years is never defined exactly, but it is meant to be very long, to be measured in billions of years if not longer.
A mahākalpa is divided into four kalpas or "eons", each distinguished from the others by the stage of evolution of the universe during that kalpa. The four kalpas are:
Each one of these kalpas is divided into twenty antarakalpas (Pāli antarakappa, "inside eons") each of about the same length. For the Saṃvartasthāyikalpa this division is merely nominal, as nothing changes from one antarakalpa to the next; but for the other three kalpas it marks an interior cycle within the kalpa.
The Vivartakalpa begins with the arising of the primordial wind, which begins the process of building up the structures of the universe that had been destroyed at the end of the last mahākalpa. As the extent of the destruction can vary, the nature of this evolution can vary as well, but it always takes the form of beings from a higher world being born into a lower world. The example of a Mahābrahmā being the rebirth of a deceased Ābhāsvara deva is just one instance of this, which continues throughout the Vivartakalpa until all the worlds are filled from the Brahmaloka down to Naraka. During the Vivartakalpa the first humans appear; they are not like present-day humans, but are beings shining in their own light, capable of moving through the air without mechanical aid, living for a very long time, and not requiring sustenance; they are more like a type of lower deity than present-day humans are.
Over time, they acquire a taste for physical nutriment, and as they consume it, their bodies become heavier and more like human bodies; they lose their ability to shine, and begin to acquire differences in their appearance, and their length of life decreases. They differentiate into two sexes and begin to become sexually active. Then greed, theft and violence arise among them, and they establish social distinctions and government and elect a king to rule them, called Mahāsammata, "the great appointed one". Some of them begin to hunt and eat the flesh of animals, which have by now come into existence.
The Vivartasthāyikalpa begins when the first being is born into Naraka, thus filling the entire universe with beings. During the first antarakalpa of this eon, human lives are declining from a vast but unspecified number of years (but at least several tens of thousands of years) toward the modern lifespan of less than 100 years. At the beginning of the antarakalpa, people are still generally happy. They live under the rule of a universal monarch or "wheel-turning king" (cakravartin), who conquer. The Mahāsudassana-sutta (DN.17) tells of the life of a cakravartin king, Mahāsudassana (Sanskrit: Mahāsudarśana) who lived for 336,000 years. The Cakkavatti-sīhanāda-sutta (DN.26) tells of a later dynasty of cakravartins, Daḷhanemi (Sanskrit: Dṛḍhanemi) and five of his descendants, who had a lifespan of over 80,000 years. The seventh of this line of cakravartins broke with the traditions of his forefathers, refusing to abdicate his position at a certain age, pass the throne on to his son, and enter the life of a śramaṇa. As a result of his subsequent misrule, poverty increased; as a result of poverty, theft began; as a result of theft, capital punishment was instituted; and as a result of this contempt for life, murders and other crimes became rampant.
The human lifespan now quickly decreased from 80,000 to 100 years, apparently decreasing by about half with each generation (this is perhaps not to be taken literally), while with each generation other crimes and evils increased: lying, greed, hatred, sexual misconduct, disrespect for elders. During this period, according to the Mahāpadāna-sutta (DN.14) three of the four Buddhas of this antarakalpa lived: Krakucchanda Buddha (Pāli: Kakusandha), at the time when the lifespan was 40,000 years; Kanakamuni Buddha (Pāli: Konāgamana) when the lifespan was 30,000 years; and Kāśyapa Buddha (Pāli: Kassapa) when the lifespan was 20,000 years.
Our present time is taken to be toward the end of the first antarakalpa of this Vivartasthāyikalpa, when the lifespan is less than 100 years, after the life of Śākyamuni Buddha (Pāli: Sakyamuni), who lived to the age of 80.
The remainder of the antarakalpa is prophesied to be miserable: lifespans will continue to decrease, and all the evil tendencies of the past will reach their ultimate in destructiveness. People will live no longer than ten years, and will marry at five; foods will be poor and tasteless; no form of morality will be acknowledged. The most contemptuous and hateful people will become the rulers. Incest will be rampant. Hatred between people, even members of the same family, will grow until people think of each other as hunters do of their prey.
Eventually a great war will ensue, in which the most hostile and aggressive will arm themselves and go out to kill each other. The less aggressive will hide in forests and other secret places while the war rages. This war marks the end of the first antarakalpa.
At the end of the war, the survivors will emerge from their hiding places and repent their evil habits. As they begin to do good, their lifespan increases, and the health and welfare of the human race will also increase with it. After a long time, the descendants of those with a 10-year lifespan will live for 80,000 years, and at that time there will be a cakravartin king named Saṅkha. During his reign, the current bodhisattva in the Tuṣita heaven will descend and be reborn under the name of Ajita. He will enter the life of a śramaṇa and will gain perfect enlightenment as a Buddha; and he will then be known by the name of Maitreya (Pāli: Metteyya).
After Maitreya's time, the world will again worsen, and the lifespan will gradually decrease from 80,000 years to 10 years again, each antarakalpa being separated from the next by devastating war, with peaks of high civilization and morality in the middle. After the 19th antarakalpa, the lifespan will increase to 80,000 and then not decrease, because the Vivartasthāyikalpa will have come to an end.
The Saṃvartakalpa begins when beings cease to be born in Naraka. This cessation of birth then proceeds in reverse order up the vertical cosmology, i.e., pretas then cease to be born, then animals, then humans, and so on up to the realms of the deities.
When these worlds as far as the Brahmaloka are devoid of inhabitants, a great fire consumes the entire physical structure of the world. It burns all the worlds below the Ābhāsvara worlds. When they are destroyed, the Saṃvartasthāyikalpa begins.
There is nothing to say about the Saṃvartasthāyikalpa, since nothing happens in it below the Ābhāsvara worlds. It ends when the primordial wind begins to blow and build the structure of the worlds up again.
The destruction by fire is the normal type of destruction that occurs at the end of the Saṃvartakalpa. But every eighth mahākalpa, after seven destructions by fire, there is a destruction by water. This is more devastating, as it eliminates not just the Brahma worlds but also the Ābhāsvara worlds.
Every sixty-fourth mahākalpa, after 56 destructions by fire and 7 destructions by water, there is a destruction by wind. This is the most devastating of all, as it also destroys the Śubhakṛtsna worlds. The higher worlds are never destroyed.
Mahayana Buddhism accepted the cosmology as above. But they believe there are pure land worlds where buddhas and bodhisattvas teach sentient beings in human forms. A cosmology with some difference is further explained in the Worlds, chapter 5 of Avatamsaka Sutra.