Based on the Buddhist sutra and vinaya traditions and works of Abhidharma in the Theravāda and Mahāyāna traditions a comprehensive cosmological system was developed. The two fundamental core is physical and mental. Surrounding the universe was a vast expanse of water, and surrounding the water was a vast expanse of wind.
This universe was made of thirty-one planes of existence, stacked in layers, and three realms, or dhatus. The three realms were:
Ārūpyadhātu (the formless realm);
Rūpadhātu (the realm of form); and
Kāmadhātu (the realm of sensual desire).
Each of these was further divided into multiple worlds that were the homes of many sorts of beings. This cosmos was thought to be one of a succession of universes coming into and going out of existence through infinite time. There are three substances of realms or dimensions to the cosmos: dhatus.
The Tridhātu are:
Ārūpyadhātu, the formless realm;
Rūpadhātu, the realm of form; and
Kāmadhātu, the realm of desire.
In a sense these three realms coexist and interpenetrate each other in various combinations.Ārūpyadhātu consists of four worlds: ”Sphere of neither perception nor non-perception”, “Sphere of Nothingness” (“lacking anything”), “Sphere of Infinite Consciousness”, ”Sphere of Infinite Space”.
Rūpadhātu is the first of the physical world. Yet the beings have bodies that are made up of subtle matter that they cannot be seen by others. But the devas (gods) in this realm can sometimes put on gross physical forms when they want to go down to the physical worlds to interact with them. Because their senses are different and limited, 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.
Also, there are four levels of dhyānas, each of them subdivided into further planes, three for each of the four dhyānas and five for the Śuddhāvāsa devas, for a total of seventeen planes. The four levels are:
1. Śuddhāvāsa with five worlds:
- Akaniṣṭha: world of devas “equal in rank” (literally: having no one as the youngest).
- Sudarśana: the “clear-seeing” devas
- Sudṛśa: the world of the “beautiful” devas
- Atapa: the world of the “untroubled” devas
- Avṛha: the world of the “not falling” devas
2. Bṛhatphala worlds with four parts:
- Asaññasatta (Vibhajyavāda tradition only): “unconscious beings”, devas who have attained a high dhyāna (similar to that of the Formless Realm), and, wishing to avoid the perils of perception, have achieved a state of non-perception in which they endure for a time. After a while, however, perception arises again and they fall into a lower state.
- Bṛhatphala Devas: “having great fruit”.
- Puṇyaprasava (Sarvāstivāda tradition only): the world of the devas who are the “offspring of merit”.
- Anabhraka (Sarvāstivāda tradition only): the world of the “cloudless” devas.
3. Śubhakṛtsna worlds with three parts:
- Śubhakṛtsna: The world of devas of “total beauty”.
- Apramāṇaśubha: The world of devas of “limitless beauty”.
- Parīttaśubha: The world of devas of “limited beauty”.
4. Ābhāsvara worlds with three parts:
- Ābhāsvara: the world of devas “possessing splendor”.
- Apramāṇābha: the world of devas of “limitless light”,
- Parīttābha: the world of devas of “limited light”.
- Mahābrahmā: the world of “Great Brahmā”, believed by many to be the creator of the world, and having as his titles “Brahmā, Great Brahmā, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-Seeing, All-Powerful, the Lord, the Maker and Creator, the Ruler, Appointer and Orderer, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be.”
- Brahmapurohita: the “Ministers of Brahmā” are beings, also originally from the Ābhāsvara worlds, that are born as companions to Mahābrahmā after he has spent some time alone. Since they arise subsequent to his thought of a desire for companions, he believes himself to be their creator, and they likewise believe him to be their creator and lord.
- Brahmapāriṣadya: the “Councilors of Brahmā” or the devas “belonging to the assembly of Brahmā”. They are also called Brahmakāyika, but this name can be used for any of the inhabitants of the Brahmā 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.
The heavens float in the air above the top of Mount Sumeru. Although all of the worlds inhabited by devas (that is, all the worlds down including the asuras)
Parinirmita-vaśavartin: the heaven of devas “with power over (others’) creations”.
These devas do not create pleasing forms that they desire for themselves, but their desires are fulfilled by the acts of other devas who wish for their favor. The ruler of this world is called Vaśavartin, who has longer life, greater beauty, more power and happiness and more delightful sense-objects than the other devas of his world. This world is also the home of the devaputra (being of divine race) called Māra, who endeavors to keep all beings of the Kāmadhātu in the grip of sensual pleasures. Māra is also sometimes called Vaśavartin, but in general these two dwellers in this world are kept distinct
Nirmāṇarati: the world of devas “delighting in their creations”. The devas of this world are capable of making any appearance to please themselves. The lord of this world is called Sunirmita.
Tuṣita: the world of the “joyful” devas. This world is best known for being the world in which a Bodhisattvalives before being reborn in the world of humans.
Yāma: “heaven without fighting” It is the lowest of the heavens to be physically separated from the tumults of the earthly world. These devas live in the air, free of all difficulties.
Worlds of Sumeru
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:
Trāyastriṃśa: the world “of the Thirty-three (devas)” is a wide flat space on the top of Mount Sumeru, filled with the gardens and palaces of the devas. Its ruler is Śakra Devānām Indra, “lord of the devas”. Besides the eponymous Thirty-three devas, many other devas and supernatural beings dwell here, including the attendants of the devas and many apsarases (celestial beings/nymphs).
Cāturmahārājikakāyika: the world “of the Four Great Kings” is found on the lower slopes of Mount Sumeru, though some of its inhabitants live in the air around the mountain.
The devas who guide the Sun and Moon are also considered part of this world, as are the retinues of the four kings, composed of Kumbhāṇḍas (dwarfs), Gandharvas (fairies), Nāgas (serpents) and Yakṣas (goblins).
Asura: the world of the asuras is the space at the foot of Mount Sumeru, much of which is a deep ocean. It is not the asuras’ original home, but the place they found themselves after they were hurled, drunken, fromTrāyastriṃśa where they had formerly lived. The asuras are always fighting to regain their lost kingdom on the top of Mount Sumeru, but are unable to break the guard of the Four Great Kings. The asuras are divided into many groups, and have no single ruler, but among their leaders are Vemacitrin and Rāhu.
- Manuṣyaloka: this is the world of humans and human-like beings who live on the surface of the earth. In the ocean all around are four continents. The four continents are:
Jambudvīpa, which is located in the south and is the dwelling of ordinary human beings. It is said to be shaped “like a cart”, or rather a blunt-nosed triangle with the point facing south. (This description probably echoes the shape of the coastline of southern India).
Pūrvavideha, which is located in the east, and is shaped like a semicircle with the flat side pointing westward (i.e., towards Sumeru).
Aparagodānīya, which is located in the west, and is shaped like a circle.
Uttarakuru, which is located in the north, and is shaped like a square.
- Tiryagyoniloka: this world comprises all members of the animal kingdom that are capable of feeling suffering, from the smallest insect to the elephant.
- Pretaloka: the pretas, or “hungry ghosts”, are mostly dwellers on earth, though due to their mental state they perceive it very differently from humans. They live for the most part in desert and waste places.
Naraka is the name given to one of the worlds of greatest suffering. 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:
- Utpala: the “blue lotus” Naraka
- Padma: the “lotus” Naraka
- Mahāpadma: the “great lotus” Naraka
Each lifetime in these Narakas is twenty times the length of the one before it.
- Sañjīva: the “reviving” Naraka. Life in this Naraka is 162*1010 years long.
- Kālasūtra: the “black thread” Naraka. Life in this Naraka is 1296*1010 years long.
- Saṃghāta: the “crushing” Naraka. Life in this Naraka is 10,368*1010 years long.
- Raurava: the “weaping” Naraka. Life in this Naraka is 82,944*1010 years long.
- Mahāraurava: the “great weaping” Naraka. Life in this Naraka is 663,552*1010 years long.
- Tapana: the “heating” Naraka. Life in this Naraka is 5,308,416*1010 years long.
- Pratāpana: the “great heating” Naraka. Life in this Naraka is 42,467,328*1010 years long.
- Avīci: the “uninterrupted” Naraka. Life in this Naraka is 339,738,624*1010 years long.