In light of modern knowledge, traditional Buddhist cosmology may seem irrelevant or quaint at best. But as Ajahn Punnadhammo explains, the world system it describes contains important insights for practicing the Buddhist teachings.
Before the middle of the nineteenth century, all Buddhists of all schools lived in the same conceptual universe. There were further levels of complexity added by the Mahayana, but it was still based on the foundation of the Theravada model described here. At the center of the world lay Mount Meru, 84,000 yojanas high (a yojana is an ancient unit of measure; its exact equivalent is not known, but estimates range from three to seventeen and a half miles). Halfway up its slope lay the Heaven of the Four Great Kings and at its peak was the Heaven of the Thirty-Three Gods presided over by Sakka, their king and the overlord of the terrestrial realm.
Surrounding Mount Meru were seven circular ranges of mountains, each one half the height of the preceding one, separated by circular seas. The whole area was surrounded by the world ocean and finally by a steep range of iron cliffs that formed the wall of the world. In the outermost ocean were the four great continents, too far apart from each other for any conceivable human navigation. The southern continent was called Jambudipa, the Rose-Apple Land, and it was the whole known world, the place where all the drama, tragedy, and comedy of human existence was carried out.
When the whole world system is drawn to scale on a page like this one, Mount Meru would completely dominate the picture and Jambudipa would be a barely visible speck. Below Jambudipa lay the great hells, the niraya realms, where beings with evil karma suffered long torment as a result of their deeds. This whole mandala-like structure constituted a cakkavala, or world system.
In space, a further 80,000 yojanas above the peak of Mount Meru lay an even more refined sensual heaven, the realm of the Yama devas. There were six sensual heavens in all, the two on Mount Meru and four above it in space. Each of the upper heavens was twice as far as the preceding one. Even higher were the realms of the brahma gods, beings who lived an immensely long time, watching whole world systems come and go below them. The brahma gods were very different than the devas, the sensual gods; they had no interest in the world of the senses at all but lived feeding on meditative bliss. The brahma gods had sixteen realms, each more subtle and refined than the one below it, stretching very far into space as, once again, the distances between them doubled with each step up.
Considered to be even “higher,” but not in a spatial sense, were the four realms of the formless beings. Almost inconceivable to us, these beings were pure mind, without any physicality and therefore could not be located in space, which is a physical property.
Alongside this vertical stacking of realms, there was an infinite horizontal extension combined with a complex pyramidal structure. (The details that follow are derived from the Abhidharmakosa of Vasubandhu, a Sarvastivada text.) The sixteen brahma worlds can be divided into four tiers, corresponding in human terms to the four jhanas. Below each first-tier brahma level there were one thousand world systems, each complete with its own Mount Meru, seven ranges, seven oceans, four continents, and enclosing wall. This constituted a “thousand-fold world system.” Below each second-tier brahma level, there were one thousand of these thousandfold world systems, for a total of one million Mount Merus, etc. Below each third-tier brahma realm, there were one thousand of the second order grouping, for a total of one billion Mount Merus, etc. Below each fourth-level brahma world, there were again one thousand of the next-lower level grouping, making for one trillion Mount Merus and four trillion continents. (In one possible interpretation of the text, there are an infinite number of the highest-tier brahma worlds. In another equally plausible interpretation, there is only one with an infinite number of third-tier worlds below it. The total of terrestrial world systems is infinite in either case.)
In some Buddhist countries, belief in devas and brahmas is still very much alive and well, and in some isolated corners there are those who still believe in the Mount Meru geography as well. But most modern Buddhists, particularly in the West, have largely ignored this cosmology, and some would say for good reason. Why get involved in deciphering this baroque structure when it has no obvious relevance to the here and now? But the fact is, having at least a passing acquaintance with the cosmology that informed ancient Buddhist teachings can greatly enrich our understanding and even our practice, both on and off the cushion.
When reading material from a very different time and place, with radically different cultural assumptions, there is always the danger of imposing our own worldview onto the text, and therefore missing the point. When reading the suttas, or indeed any Buddhist text written before 1900, we should remember that the Buddhist ancestors speaking to us lived in the world system of Mount Meru, with its multiple realms.
The cosmological picture tells us the human world is part of the broader kamavacara, the sense-desire realm, which also includes the lower realms and the six sensual heavens. Beings at this level of existence experience the world through the gateways of the six senses; these sense doors are the sources of pleasure and pain, and they dominate one’s consciousness. But the cosmology also tells us that it does not have to be like this; there are beings in another state of existence who live lives of sublime bliss without any interest whatsoever in the objects of sense. If we imagine travelling upward through the heaven worlds, what we find is a gradual attenuation of sensuality, an evolution toward more and more subtle and refined forms of it until it easily passes away altogether.
The Heaven of the Thirty-Three, Tavatimsa, on the peak of Mount Meru is considered the epitome of the earthly kind of sensualism and includes all the varieties of it that we indulge in here: food, drink, music, and of course sexuality. The Pali commentaries are full of exuberant descriptions of the pleasures of these gods, even including quite erotic passages describing the loveliness of the dancing girls. But as we ascend through the remaining heavens, everything gradually changes to more subtle and less grossly physical forms of sense enjoyment. The clearest example is found in a passage in the Abhidharmakosa, which describes how the gods make love. The Tavatimsa gods do it much like humans, except that males do not emit semen. The Yama gods, in the realm above, embrace but there is no penetration. The gods of Tusita merely hold hands. The gods of the Nimmanarati heaven do not touch at all but find sexual pleasure simply by smiling at one another. The highest sensual-realm gods don’t even go that far, but only gaze into each other’s eyes.
In this way, ascending one more level, from the highest sensual realm into the brahma world and beyond sensuality altogether, is not so great a leap. Moreover, for a being in any of these realms, there would be no desire whatsoever for the forms of pleasure experienced by the beings in a realm below them. They would surely regard such pleasures as coarse and gross. The abandonment of sensuality is therefore not seen as a painful sacrifice but rather as a joyful transcendence upon finding something more sublime.
For human meditators, this corresponds to the deep states of absorption known as jhana (Sanskrit dhyana). The Abhidhamma makes an explicit parallel between the four jhanas and what I have termed the four tiers of the brahma world. When a meditator experiences jhana, she has for the time being left the sense-desire realm, at least subjectively. Her state of inner being now belongs to the rupavacara, the realm of form, where the brahma gods live in the outer cosmos. This is why the mind in jhana is said to be removed from the sense bases.
The progression through the jhanas is most commonly described in terms of their factors. First jhana has five factors: applied and sustained thought, rapture, bliss, and one-pointedness. Second jhana has three, applied and sustained thought having fallen away. Third jhana has only bliss and one-pointedness, and fourth jhana replaces bliss with equanimity. So we have a progression from the coarse to the subtle, with those being relative values; what is subtle in one stage becomes coarse when viewed from a higher perspective. Thus, before entering jhana, a person naturally regards the experiences of the senses as desirable, pleasurable, and subtle. However, they are only a coarse distraction to the jhanic mind; sound is said to be “a thorn” to first jhana. By the time the meditator is in second jhana, the physical senses are too far removed to be a problem, but now thought becomes the “thorn” just outside the gate. Rapture, piti, is the dominant factor here but that begins to seem coarse compared to bliss, sukha, as the mind moves into third jhana. Fourth jhana is such a refined state that even bliss seems too gross, and the mind rests in the purified peace of equanimity.
The progression through the jhanas is from the coarse to the subtle but also from the complex to the simple. Factors are abandoned, not added. With the removal of the coarse, the subtle is no longer masked but rather manifests naturally. This progression is precisely mirrored in the cosmological vision. In this way, the outer world becomes a powerful metaphor that helps us understand the inner world.
In the cosmology of Mount Meru, all the complexity and drama occurs in the kamavacara, the realm of sense desire. This realm is vast and vastly differentiated, from the torments of niraya (hell) and the miseries of the petas (hungry ghosts), to the colorful world of animals and humans, through the six levels of sensual heaven. The world of the senses encompasses all of it: pain, pleasure, compassion, and conflict. It is so vivid and overwhelming within that realm that it is hard to imagine any other mode of being.
If, however, we were situated in the lowest level of the brahma worlds, all this would seem very far away. From the perspective of the brahmas, a panorama of one thousand world systems lies at a vast distance below. How much more subtle, more simple and purified, is their existence now! They cannot even imagine wanting to enter into the turmoil and suffering below them. It is the same for the jhanic mind in regard to the experience of the senses. As one ascends through the brahma levels, the view becomes ever more expansive, encompassing one trillion world systems.
Buddhist cosmology, viewed as a metaphor, can help us understand the development of deep meditation. For example, there is, in my opinion, a problem with the translation of samadhi as “concentration.” Meditators think they need to narrow the mind onto the object, and this is exactly the wrong way to go. The mind with strong samadhi is an expansive one; the mind of a brahma encompasses a trillion worlds! Samadhi is explained in the old texts as “nonwavering,” which has a different feel altogether. The world of the brahma gods is calm and peaceful but it is certainly not constricted. Instead of “placing awareness on the object,” we could think in terms of opening the mind to the object, nonwavering in a great vastness.
There are other ways that the study of the brahma realms can help us understand the nuances of the teachings about jhana. For example, it might help clarify the distinction between piti (rapture) and sukha (bliss) to contemplate part of a list in the Anguttara that describes “the best of” in various categories. The best sound in the universe is the cry of the Abhasara brahmas, the highest of the second tier, the level of jhana where piti predominates. These gods continually cry out, Aho Sukho! “Oh, the happiness!” However, the best joy in the universe is experienced by the Subhakinna brahmas of the third tier, corresponding to the jhana marked by sukha. These gods “rejoice in silence.”
The cosmology of the Mount Meru world system can also help us understand what might be called the psychological teachings. Consider the nature of perception, sanna. It is hard to shake the naive realist assumption that when we look at a forest, we are seeing trees. But we are not. All we are “seeing” with the physical eye is color and shape. It is perception, a mental factor, that imagines the trees. We essentially dream the world into being. The difference between daytime and nighttime dreaming is that when we are awake, our dreams are constrained by data received through the senses, which perception uses as its raw material. In the nonhuman realms, this constraint is lessened. The devas of the fifth sensual heaven, the “Gods who Delight in Creation,” simply imagine whatever they like and it manifests.
Another example of how this works is found in the Bhuridatta Jataka, which tells the story about the naga king Bhuridatta. The nagas are powerful and magical serpent beings who live in wonderful palaces below the sea. On a few occasions they have invited righteous humans to visit them and there enjoy all the “five strands of sense pleasure.” In this particular story, there is a thieving rascal who manages to fool the naga king into thinking him a saintly person. He goes to the naga world and is installed in a palace but after a year is unable to enjoy it. As a result of the “poverty of his merit,” his perception changes. He now sees the naga maidens as fearsome she-yakkhas (ogres) and the crystal palace as a dreaded prison-house. This anticipates by many centuries a statement by the great Zen master Dogen:
Some beings see water as wondrous blossoms, but they do not use blossoms as water. Hungry ghosts see water as raging fire or pus and blood. Dragons see water as a palace or a pavilion. Some beings see water as a forest or a wall. Some see it as the dharma nature of pure liberation, the true human body, or as the form of body and the essence of mind. Human beings see water as water. Water is seen as dead or alive depending on causes and conditions.
—from Dogen’s Mountains and Water Sutra, translated by Arnold Kotler and Kazuaki Tanahashi
There are a pair of contemplations that are often used as preliminary practice in Tibetan Buddhism: the horror of samsara and the preciousness of human rebirth. (While these are not found as a pair in the Theravada texts, they can both be found separately.) These contemplations are skillful means for establishing the right attitude to practice dharma. Both are firmly grounded in the cosmological vision. The horror of samsara in the first instance refers to the continual suffering found here. The Buddha says that the tears we have shed over the loss of loved ones in our beginningless wandering makes the great ocean look like a puddle. He also says that it’s as difficult for a being who has fallen into the lower realms to find his way back as it is for a blind tortoise who surfaces once in a hundred years to put his neck through a yoke floating on the surface of the sea.
But on a deeper level, the horror of samsara rests in its ultimate futility. A being can experience the sensual bliss of Tavatimsa but then be reborn as a dog. For those in the midst of samsara, it all seems so real and vital, but it is ultimately meaningless and leads only to more of the same. The brahma looking down on the thousand worlds below may understand this about the world of sensuality, but a higher brahma sees his whole universe reduced to just one in a thousand as well! In the Vimanavatthu the laywoman Uttara says, “The circle of the world is too narrow, the realm of brahma is too low,” and this statement is approved by the Buddha: “Sadhu! Sadhu!”
This statement takes on an added dimension of power when we understand just how vast samsara was thought to be, as well as how high the world of brahma was envisioned. But in the end, it is all just conditioned phenomena; hell-beings, humans, devas, and brahmas are all alike in their suffering and their impermanent, empty natures. The whole cosmos, from top to bottom, must be abandoned to realize the unconditioned, the true goal of Buddhist practice.
In the midst of this multilayered and teeming cosmos, there is the possibility of human rebirth. This is considered a rare and precious thing, the result of previously having made good karma. The human state is considered precious because it is the best station from which to achieve liberation and put an end to the whole merry-goround. It is here that the Buddhas arise. (Indeed in the classic Theravada view, all Buddhas arise in the Middle Country of north-central India, on the continent of Jambudipa and nowhere else.)
It is as a human that the balance of pleasure and pain is ideal; in the lower realms beings are overwhelmed by misery, and in the upper realms they are intoxicated by pleasure. The wisest among the devas long for a human rebirth. Without a conception of the broader cosmology, it is hard to understand the full implications of the preciousness of human rebirth.
Taken together, the two cosmologically grounded contemplations of the horrors of samsara and the preciousness of human rebirth can inspire a sense of urgency. One way this is used in traditional teaching is as a kind of hellfire sermon that emphasizes the danger of a lower rebirth. Since the only way to guarantee never taking such a birth is to reach the stage of stream-winner, one would be well advised to work very seriously at vipassana meditation while one has the chance. (A stream-winner, or sotapanna, is one who by penetrating the nature of reality has had a glimpse of the unconditioned. A person at this stage has at most seven lifetimes left and may never be reborn into the lower realms.)
One consequence of the human state being in a sense “in the middle” is that from here we can experience to some degree all the other realms. Craving and addiction is the realm of hungry ghosts; lust and violence indicates one has fallen to an animal level of consciousness; being blissfully immersed in meditation is to experience what a brahma god knows. Although this way of looking at things is, I believe, both true and useful, I also believe it is a mistake to try and limit the cosmological teachings to just a psychological interpretation and nothing more. This trivializes them and robs them of much of their transformative power.
So just how are we are to hold this cosmological view with its otherworldly images and concepts? It is natural to ask just how real are they, these gods and nagas, ghosts and demons? Of course it is impossible anymore to believe in the ancient cosmology literally; you won’t find Mount Meru on Google Maps. However, it would also be naive to maintain with certainty that this existence that we see and feel is the only one possible. For what it’s worth, when asked point-blank, “Are there gods?” the Buddha answered, “There are indeed!” (Majjhima Nikaya 100). Furthermore, the question itself is impossible to answer until we can decide just how much and in what sense this realm of the senses is real, something that is not at all easy to answer with anything approaching philosophic rigour.
There was something of a crisis of faith in the Buddhist world in the middle of the nineteenth century when Western science began to impact Asian culture. Some scholars attempted a rear-guard action. For example, in Japan, Sato Kaiseki wrote a carefully researched book attempting the impossible task of reconciling the observable facts of astronomy with a Mount Meru-based cosmological system. His Zen teacher took a brief look at it and threw it back at him and said, “You blockhead! Don’t you know the point of the practice is to make an end of the three worlds, not to save them!” (from Dan Lusthaus’ Buddhist Phenomenology). In the end, Buddhist scholars decided that the details of the cosmology were not essential to the core teachings of suffering and the end of suffering.
There is a sense, however, in which a thing can be true but not real, as Joseph Campbell said in describing mythology. To strip Buddhism of its mythology is to impoverish it. It may be fairly asked whether a strictly rationalist Buddhism isn’t too one-dimensional to sustain the practice over the long haul. There is nothing there to engage the heart.
In the West, we no longer remember the old myths very much, but there is a huge market for new-coined ones like Star Wars and Harry Potter. There is no doubt that human beings seem to need and crave myths that speak to a deep place within. Could it hurt to immerse ourselves in the same way in a mythological structure informed through and through by dharma principles, one that has gladdened and sustained countless generations of Buddhists?