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The Magic Mountain

From Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia
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Man has always thought of his gods as dwelling on the heights. “Lift up thine eyes unto thehills, whence cometh thine aid,” sang the Old Testament psalmist; and in ancient times the holyplaces, the fanes and altars of sacrifice where the priests went to make their offerings and takecounsel with the tribal deities were nearly always on some lofty eminence. In Buddhistcountries, too, the stupa or pagoda is given a commanding situation, from whence it dominatesthe surrounding countryside and can be seen many miles away, the first object to be lit by therays of dawn and the last to reflect the gold of the setting sun.

It is in the high places that the gods have their abode. Towering, inaccessible peaks seemalways to have exercised an awesome fascination over the minds of men. It is little wonder,then, that the holy mountain has been an archetypal feature of mythology from the earliesttimes: it expresses man’s wonder and fear in the presence of unknown powers veiled in cloudand swirling snow-invisible powers that presided over the storm, hurling the shatteringthunderbolt down into the trembling valley, or else calmly, silently contemplating the punyaffairs of mankind from century to century in a timeless, brooding eternity.

The cosmography of ancient India had its sacred mountain, Meru, sometimes called Sineru,Sumeru, Hemameru or Mahāmeru. It was thought to be situated in the exact centre of theCakkavāḷa, or world-system, and so north of the southern continent, Jambudīpa. The fact thatMeru was located in the north of the system suggests an identification with the Himalayas, andthe name Hemameru gives support to this possibility.


There can be little doubt that in early times the idea that an immense peak lay beyond the tall, mysterious boundaries of theHimalayan range, which cut off the horizon from the plain-dwellers below, took hold of theimagination, and it was in those high, remote solitudes that the gods of the storm and blizzard—the first nature gods—were believed to have their home. A memory of it may have beenpreserved by the branch of the Aryan race which travelled westward, giving rise to theOlympus of the Greeks, the abode of Zeus, wielder of the thunderbolt, and all his divinehierarchy.

For Hindus, Mount Kailasa, a real Himalayan peak, has been a holy place revered forcenturies as the seat of Siva and his consort Parvati. Even today it is the resort of sanyasisfollowing the tradition of the rishis of old who were said to practise their austerities on the lowerslopes of Mount Meru. It was with the rise of the Saivite cult that Kailasa gradually came to takea more important place in legend than the Mount Meru of Vedic times.

With the advent ofTantra later on, Meru was taken into the yogic systems as a symbol of the spinal column, and anelaborate connection was built up between it and the various chakras to exemplify the principleof macrocosm and microcosm. The mystic formula of ”As above, so below,” familiar to Westernoccultism through the Kabbala was equally well known to the Tāntrikas, who saw the humanbody as the universe in miniature and made Meru its vital core. The principle is seen to be reallylogical when we consider that the atom is a universe on the microcosmic level.


The Buddha was not concerned with teaching geography, and the early Buddhists didnothing to change the ideas prevalent in Vedic India with regard to the conformation of theearth. The existence of Mount Meru was taken literally and a precise description of it was giventogether with other details of cakkavāḷa. According to this cosmology there is an infinite numberof cakkavāḷas, and each is a closed system having the general features of all the rest. Eachcakkavāḷa has a Mount Meru as its centre, surrounded by four great continents. With thescrupulous attention to statistics which distinguished the early Buddhists, exact dimensions aregiven. Mount Meru has its base 84,000 yojanas below sea-level and rises above it to the sameheight—again the principle of ”As above, so below.” On its summit is situated the Tavatimsa18 From The Maha Bodhi, vo. 75, No. 7; 1967.

deva-loka, the heaven of the Thirty-three (Gods) under the rulership of Sakka, the Buddhistequivalent of Indra. This is the lowest one of the Kāma-loka heavens. At the base of themountain lies the Asurabhāvanā, home of the Asuras or Titans, who are perpetually at war withthe gods. The Asuras are the ”Fallen Angels“ of Indian mythology. Just as Yahweh in Judaictradition is supposed to have cast the archangel Lucifer and his rebellious cohorts out of heaven,after which they became powers of evil, so Indra is said to have thrown the Asuras down fromTāvatiṃsa when they tried to usurp his authority.

The two myths are so similar that it isdifficult to believe that they had not a common origin or that one was not derived from theother, particularly in view of the fact that both have a parallel in the Greek myth of Zeus castingPrometheus, leader of the Titans, out of heaven for an offence of the same kind. This wouldseem to be another of the archetypal myths that have been preserved from prehistoric times. Itmay have originated in an attempt to explain what man, having a confused recollection offormer happiness in a higher state of being, a deva or Brahmā-loka, felt forced to regard as hispresent fallen state, of which the Genesis legend of the Fall offers another example. On the otherhand, the widespread legends of a war in heaven may have had their origin, in an actualphysical event, a cosmic disturbance such as that described by Immanuel Velikovsky in ”Worldsin Collision.“


To complete the geographical description of the earth as it appeared to Vedic Brahmanismand early Buddhism, Meru is surrounded by seven circular and concentric mountain ranges,between which lie the great oceans. Four great. islands (mahādīpa) of continental size lie at thefour cardinal points and midway between the base and summit of Mount Meru and scatteredbetween them are two thousand smaller islands. The outermost ring of mountains is theboundary of the cakkavāḷa and the entire system is said to be supported by water (āpo) andultimately by air (vayo).

Later Hindu myths introduced the idea that the earth was upheld byeither a tortoise or an elephant, but it seems clear that before the time of the Purāṇas it was notconsidered necessary that the earth should have any substantial support. The Purāṇas representa decline of thought into pseudo-realism; they tried to give an account of the situation basedupon common observation.

Precise measurements are given for all details of the world-system: the areas of thecontinents, the extent of the oceans and the respective heights of the encircling mountains are allset down with assurance. The cakkavāḷa itself is represented as being flat and constructed on theprinciple of a layer-cake, with successive strata of soil, rock, iron etc., one above the other. Onthe underside is a layer of the nutritive essence (oja) which was the first food of material beingswhen the universe was reconstructed at the beginning of the world-cycle.19


Each cakkavāḷa is a complete and self-contained unit, furnished with its own heavens andsubhuman spheres of existence. It has its own devas and Brahmās, and they even bear the samenames as those of our own world, the names being not so much personal appellatives as thetitles belonging to offices and functions. It follows therefore that each world-system also has itsown Buddhas. More is made of this point in the Mahāyāna Sutras than in Theravada.

Referencesto the infinity of worlds and of Buddhas are very frequent in the literature of SanskritBuddhism, and by the same token it contains more allusions to Mount Meru than are to befound in the Pāli Tipiṭaka. The composers of the Mahāyāna Sutras, some five or six centuriesafter the Parinibbāna of the Buddha, delighted in aggrandising their descriptions by theintroduction of innumerable world-systems.


From the isolated condition of each distinct world-system it would seem that beings do nottransmigrate from one to another in the course of rebirth. I have not found any text to support19 Referred to in the Vinaya, where Maha Moggallāna Thera is said to have offered to turn the cakkavāḷaupside down so that the bhikkhus could obtain nourishment during a severe famine.

the idea that transmigration occurs between one cakkavāḷa and another. When a world-system isdestroyed by natural forces at the end of an aeon (kappa), all that remains of it is the formlessBrahmaloka, and it is there that all beings are obliged to be reborn until a new cycle of thedevelopment of the universe (saṃvatti) takes place.20 It appears that beings revolving in saṃsāraare inseparably connected with one particular cakkavāḷa, the history of which is like that of anindividual being: that is to say, it is the history of a causal continuum, not of an abiding entity.


Just as the individual dies, leaving nothing behind but the potential of his kamma, which in thesequence of cause and effect produces another psycho-physical organism to carry on hisidentical world-line of conditioned phenomena, so a universe also comes to an end, but in duecourse another one comes into existence in the same line of cause and effect, through the kammaof the totality of beings belonging to it. Thus every being is in some sense identified with hisworld-system, and his world-system with him, until such time as he puts an end to theassociation by attaining Nibbāna.

The cosmography of which Mount Meru is the centre is a very detailed construction, and it isrepeated in space and time to infinity. The pattern is unvarying and is known down to itsminutest particular. Where and how all this information was obtained must always remain amatter for conjecture. It is disturbing to the modern mind to find the imaginative creations ofthe past taken for sober truth; but ancient thinkers were not committed to factual accounts.


Experience, for them, was something almost entirely subjective, and it is on the subjective andsubliminal level that we have to seek out the meaning of this strange geography.

Its most characteristic and striking feature is that uniformity which I have stressed. It bearsthe marks of an attempt to achieve orderliness within the diversity of experience, to reduce to acomprehensible pattern the contradictions and irrelevancies that confront us and to draw aninferential picture of the laws that govern them.

The same kind of striving for geometrical design shows itself in the stylized art of ancient Egypt, in the rigid formalism of the Japanese Noplay to assert the continuity and harmony of life from its lowest to its highest aspects, to disclosean order of reality that is not apparent in the surface phenomena of nature.

The need to reveal astructure, or where it seems to be absent to impose it upon the world of experience, is auniversal one. Man is not secure in a chaotic world; he demands of the universe that it shouldmake sense. At different times this deep unconscious need has expressed itself in art,mythology, philosophy and science, and often in all of them simultaneously. The MagicMountain is a symbol, and we are entitled to ask of a symbol nothing more than that it shouldsuggest something which cannot be expressed directly.

Man is the image of all that is; he is himself the cakkavāḷa, his body made up of the four great elements, his arterial blood the greatoceans that course between his vital organs and the encircling bones. And just as Mount Merustretches from the depths up to heaven, the bridge that makes it possible for every human beingto strive towards the highest, so the vital core of man’s structure, the great column throughwhich the nerve-impulses flow, unites his being, from the lowest organs up to the seat ofconsciousness, in one integrated whole.

Indeed this fathom-long body contains the world, itsorigin and its cessation: not in any figurative sense but in literal truth. When the yogin sits inpadmāsana, his spinal column straight ”like coins piled upon one another,” his form is that of thecosmos, supported and united by Mount Meru. And when man first adopted the uprightposture which distinguishes him from all other animals, it was the outward sign of his power todiscriminate and command his life. Mount Meru was set up between heaven and earth, and allthings, good and bad, fell into place.

The universe as we know it today has no ”up” or ”down.” Nadir and Zenith have becomerelative and interchangeable terms, and man has suffered a vertical disorientation. Yet the20 Brahmajala Sutta etc.

symbolism of Mount Meru has not lost its validity, if we choose to accept the Values it standsfor. And it is well that we should do so, for they are abiding values, with their justification inour own being, irrespective of the view we take of the external world. It does not matter thatheaven is beneath as well as above us; the heaven of our own experience is situated outside ofspace and time and there is no direction where it is or is not.

It does not matter that no modernMoses goes up into Mount Sinai to commune with his God, nor that no Zeus hurls histhunderbolts from the summit of Olympus nor Indra from his citadel above the snowline ofHemavant; Mount Meru, the Magic Mountain of legend, is always with us, the eternal challengeto seek, to toil upwards—the call to stand erect and forge our destiny out of the materials andwith the tools within our reach,

Each of us has at the centre of his cosmos a mountain that he must eventually climb. The pathis steep and rugged, and there is only one—conquest of the self. But when he reaches thesummit he can take the final leap that will separate him forever from the world of sense-desiresand of suffering. It is only from the loftiest height of human attainment that we can at last seeNibbāna face to face.