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 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.
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.
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:
(21) Brhat Phala, ‘Very Fruitful’
(24) Atapa, ‘Without Torment’
(25) Sudrsha, Perfect Form’
(30) Nothing whatever
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