As I’ve been doing research and writing my new (free!) e-book, I have had lots of intriguing details popping up that remind me more and more about my path in Buddhism. Even though I was raised Buddhist, there were aspects of the religion that I didn’t learn about until I was a bit older (i.e. college age). This is because, much like the different denominations of Christianity, there are different sects of Buddhism. Now, also like the different types of Christianity, it’s all based on the same basic core beliefs, but there are a few details that end up being different in practice and additional beliefs. There are also multiple sub-sects, but I will try to focus on the most commonly known ones. I’m not going to go into great detail in this post, but a quick summary of the differences of the main types are:
Theravada, which is considered closer to the original indian Buddhism taught by Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. This is more common in countries such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, and other parts of Southeast Asia. Their worship language is Pali, thus they study the Pali canon (I’ll come back to this). Their main focus is on liberation and nirvana, with the idea that once a Boddhisattva (enlightened being) reaches nirvana, they can then at that point help those stuck in samsara (the cycle of perpetual suffering and existence). This would be seen as more of a personal version of Buddhism with a strong emphasis placed on your own personal experiences and knowledge to achieve nirvana with the help of scripture and monks.
Mahayana is the Buddhism I was raised with, while it still places a high importance on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, there are a few key differences. This type of Buddhism is studied in places such as China, Taiwan, Mongolia, and some parts of Southeast Asia. What makes this sect different is that it took on more local customs as it spread, such as ancestor worship, which was taken from Taoism. The language of worship is Sanskrit, and the sutras, which I can tell you from personal experience is interesting to read and beautiful to hear even when it is just written phonetically. The other huge difference from Theravada is that Mahayana focuses more on Boddhisattvas, and the idea that they can (and in some instances should) delay nirvana the transcendance to help others trapped in samsara to escape. This is why there is a large appreciation of Quan Yin for some followers of Mahayana Buddhists. Thus, it’s easy to imagine that the emphasis with regards to enlightenment, is to not just seek it for oneself, but instead for all beings.
Tibetan or Vajrayana, is practiced in Tibet (shocking…I know!). It could be seen as a sub-sect of Mahayana, since they are VERY close in practice. The main differences being that they focus on the tantras, and a MUCH heavier focus on chanting when meditating. While Mahayana DOES rely on chanting as well (Theravada is a more silent-mind meditation), it is not nearly to the degree of Tibetan. While many have heard the iconic throat singing of Tibetan monks, to hear it in person is a very impressive and unique experience. Their canon also includes the Kanjur (“Translation of the Word of Buddha”) and the Tenjur, which is considered only semi-canonical, since it contains works attributed to other individuals in addition to the Buddha.
Zen Buddhism is another sub-sect of Mahayana Buddhism which actually started in China as it incorporates some principles of Taoism. While it is practiced mainly in Japan and Korea, it spread to into Western culture in the last 100 years. Zen Buddhists do NOT follow a sacred text, but instead has the potential for direct realization. It is used by many western Christians to have a more mystical understanding of their own faith. The main focus is on Zen itself, which is a meditative practice of quieting the mind fully and bringing it under control. This is seen as a step in achieving enlightenment.
Now before I go much farther, I do want to point out that all of these forms of Buddhism are considered religion, BUT they are also sometimes considered solely philosophies. What I mean by that, is that you can be a totally different religion, but still subscribe to one of the philosophies. An individual can be Christian, but still follow Mahayana Buddhism, and believe in mercy and helping others here in this world to assist them in getting to heaven. What I listed above are the basics of Buddhism, but really as a religion, it’s not exactly full of hard and fast rules. Yes, there are some people that are more orthodox, or strict in their belief and adherence. However, the truth is, if you talk to a monk, or even the Dalai Lama, they will tell you it’s not about being perfect. It’s more about the path to attaining perfection, rather than the perfection itself. Even with something as simple and well known as vegetarianism…they will tell you the importance is the fact that you TRY. For example, someone who considers themselves to be Buddhist is only able to commit to being a vegetarian for 10 days a month, that is considered valuable enough on your path. As long as you are constantly trying, you are never criticized or considered “Not good enough”.
Now, back to the Cosmology of Buddhism…there are actually different sets of cosmology, depending on which sect you fall under. Back when I was in college and learning more about the technical parts of Buddhism, and the sects, I was really interested in these different schemas of cosmology. I wanted to start diving into these to share with you all, since I find them so interesting. People do not typically realize that there are different realms in Buddhism. Just as there is a heaven and hell in Christianity, Buddhism has different places you can reincarnate into that reflects your vibration level, karma, and by which help you to escape samsara through the lessons learned in that realm.
Since this is my first post on Eastern religion and philosophy, we might as well start at the beginning with the earliest cosmology of Buddhism! The Pali Canon, which you may remember is the main text studied by Theravada Buddhists. Considered by the strictest adherents of Theravada to be teachings actually spoken by Buddha during his time sharing his teachings here on earth. It is a text of threefold, and is composed of what is known as the “Three Baskets”.
The first “basket” being Vinaya Pitaka, which is the Basket of Discipline, and is itself comprised of 3 parts. The first part of the Vinaya Pitaka is the Sutravibhanga, a compilation of rules for the behavior of Monks and nuns, directing what is appropriate or not for those who dedicate themselves to that extent of the religion with different rules for each of the two groups. Skandhaka, the second part of the Vinaya Pitaka, focuses on rules for the smooth and proper running of the Buddhist Community as a religious institution. The final piece being the appendices of miscellaneous information. The second “Basket” of the Pali text is Sutra Pitaka, also known as the basket of discourses. Comprised of 4 groups of sermons given by Buddha, which are considered to be canonical. The Dirgha Agama, is the first, and is made up of a series of longer discourses delivered by Buddha. The second set is the Madhyama Agama, which are more mid-length sermons and lessons provided from the word of Buddha. The Samyukta Agama is the grouping of “linked” lessons, that were provided by Buddha. Finally, the fourth agama is the Ekottarika Agama, which is a series of additional clarifications provided by Buddha, sometimes referred to as “increased-by-one”. Abhidhamma Pitaka or the basket of higher teachings is the third and final piece of the Pali test. Comprised of philosophical and psychological ideas of early Buddhism, it would be the most mystical, or the “meat” of traditional Buddhism.
Now, the Pali text divides the universe into 3 realms. The first realm that a being trapped within Samsara would reincarnate into is Kamadhatu, also known as the “Realm of Desire”. This realm can be further broken down into six levels, or domains, each with a set of beings and characteristics that need to be addressed and cleared from them.
Naraka, which is comprised of Hell Beings, and is based on strong feelings of hate. Which means, that in a previous life, these beings dwelled on a hatred of others, and thus were incarnated into this hell realm. The good news is that you aren’t stuck forever! As you learn and grow in your lifetime, using up the bad karma, you gain the ability to escape the hell domain, and incarnate into a higher level.
Preta is the second level, which is the dominion of the hungry ghosts. This is the domain of those who have cultivated a strong possessiveness and desire in a previous life. Their desires are never satiated, and they are doomed to be tormented by the desires endlessly until that karma is is used up. Again, I want to reiterate that they are not eternally trapped, but rather working through that karma until they are able to incarnate to a higher level.
The Tiryagyoni level is comprised of non-human animals. Because this realm is so close to ours, we are able to see it. This is also why Buddhism practices mercy towards all animals (including practicing vegetarianism), because we are so close to the animals…you do not know if you or your loved ones were animals before or could be animals in the future (though the hope is not). It is taught, that a bird for example could be your mother from a past or future life, so you would want to be kind to the bird. This level is for those who had strong amounts of prejudice in a prior life, which they need to work off of their karma.
Where we dwell is known as Manusya, the domain of men. It is said we are here because we have a large amount of karma built up on passion, desire, doubt, and pride. What makes it the most interesting of the different levels is that it is the only level from which you can direct obtain enlightenment. I know it seems strange, but really if you are in the first 3 levels of Naraka, Preta, or Tiryagyoni, you are apparently heavily focused on avoiding your suffering, that it is hard to really focus on enlightenment and nirvana. From my understanding, Buddha himself actually jumped from Naraka to Manusya himself, which was considered a huge accomplishment. However he suffered so much that he could only make it here, before he was able to jump to Bodhi or enlightenment. The human level of existence is seen as having juuuuuust enough suffering to make us aware and want to move on without totally ruining everything. It’s laughable to a degree to think about, but I can kind of see them feeling it’s a form of motivation. Which is why the 2 higher levels, I am about to discuss to not have the ability to achieve enlightenment. It seems that they are enjoying themselves too much to feel the need to move to the next realm.
Asura or the anti-gods/demi-gods are trapped by jealousy. Why are they considered above humans? Well, it’s because in certain instances they had good intentions, but may have committed actions that harmed others. In some instances, they CAN be malevolent, however, and are considered by some to be demons. The main source of their envy, is the Devas, which is the final level of the desire realm. Because they are closely associated, just like animals and humans, the Asura struggle with envy since they can see and interact with the Devas, but are still below them.
Finally, in this realm are the Devas, or really what would be known as gods since they are so powerful (though they are not immortal or omnipotent). This is the most “blissful” state of desire. The inhabitants are so comfortable with their existence that they do not seek to move past it, thus continue to be trapped in samsara. There is a caveat, just as bad karma is used up and you are able to move up in the levels, you can also use up good karma, especially here at this level, and end up being reborn into a lower level. In Christian terms, it could be seen as a temporary heaven that you must eventually leave, because you get used to the “good life”. Really this reflects the Buddhist philosophy that I alluded to earlier about how until you achieve Bodhi, you are constantly on a journey working towards that enlightenment.
The second realm is the “Realm of Forms” or the Rupadhatu. To attempt to simplify it, it is 17 heavens, the first 12 are made up of 4 dhyanas, or meditative concentrations. The first dhyana is broken down into conception, discernment, joy, physical wellbeing and samadhi (which is the tri fold of right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration). Once one has mastered these meditative concentrations and relinquished conception and discernment, you then move into the second dhyanas, which is more peaceful and the focus remains on joy, physical wellbeing, and samadhi. The third dhyana is apparently peaceful even further, joy is relinquished and replaced by mindfulness, watchful awareness, physical wellbeing, and samadhi. The ultimate most peaceful of the dhyanas is the fourth and final dhyana, which the physical wellbeing is abandoned, and there is only mindfulness, equanimity, and samadhi left as the meditative concentrations. The final 5 heavens of the Realm of Forms are the 5 pure heavens. These are reserved for only the most “noble” of beings. Once you have complete the 4 dhyanas, you are able to access these 5 heavens. These are also hierarchical however, first is “The Slightest”, then “The Painless”, “The Marvelous”, “The Great Vision”, and finally the “Unexcelled”.
The third and final realm of the Pali Canon, is the Arupyadhatu, or “Formless Realms”. It is reserved for those who have attained the four stages of formlessness. These beings live billions and billions of years (4.32 billion years x 20,000 to 84,000), and are thus pretty much immortal. At this point, time no longer matters and you are very much infinite. The beings in these realms have no shape or location at all, therefore, the realm itself has no location. The first of these is the “Sphere of Infinite Space”, when the emphasis is on space and how it exists everywhere, and meditating on how to remove it from the equation. The second is the “Sphere of Infinite Consciousness”, where the focus on your own consciousness and how to move past that consciousness to allow your being to continue to ascend. The third is the “Sphere of Nothingness”, and really the emphasis is on how there is no thing….nothing exists…and is therefore something, because even as nothing it exists. Finally, there is the “Sphere of No Perception nor Non-Perception”, it is here that they not only have no perception, but rather take it step further where they do not engage in perception at all. This is an interesting concept to focus on for a moment. It’s not perception and non-perception, for those are 2 sides to the same coin. In order to “not” perceive, you would have to acknowledge that perception itself exists, and you are no longer experiencing it. In this final “sphere”, you are doing neither, here perception does not even exist, so you cannot even “not” perceive, because how can you perform a concept (or the opposite of a concept), if the concept doesn’t even exist? Some believe that this in itself is enlightenment. You are no longer bogged down by anything, but rather do nothing but simply exist.
Buddhist cosmology is obviously deep and complex. In fact, short of scholars and monks, I can honestly say I know few people who are aware of all of this past the first realm. Why? Because we are still trapped in this first realm, so for the most part, what is the point of worrying about these next parts if you are probably not going to go to them? Also, remember, it is built into the belief that you can skip all of these and go straight to enlightenment from here, you are under no obligation to go through all of these steps to reach the end goal of release from Samsara. According to Buddhism, we are fortunate in that we have the ability to go straight from humanity to enlightenment, that is why the emphasis in this reality is to achieve that, not try to achieve these other steps.
Hopefully I was able to break this down a little bit, and increase your understanding of Buddhism and it’s deep cosmology. I plan to explore more aspects of Buddhism and other eastern knowledge…so keep and eye here for more!