There is no single system of Buddhist cosmology
There is no single system of Buddhist cosmology. Virtually every theological tendency within the Buddhist tradition addressed the cosmological sciences from its special perspective—seeing the universe as the stage for a drama of salvation cast in terms of its own particular philosophical and theological predilections. Buddhist systems are related not only to other Indian systems, for example, Hindu, Jain, Ājīvika, and so forth, but to Hellenistic speculations as well.
The single-world system that is particularly prominent in the oldest Buddhist texts pictures the cosmos as a flat disk with heavens and meditation realms above and hells below. Although the oldest tradition apparently limited its interest to a single-world system, a grandiose cosmic structure developed on the perimeter of this single universe. Traces of themes associated with multiple-world systems appear in texts of the Pali canon. A ten-thousand-world system is mentioned in the Jātakas, though with little elaboration, and in a more systematic way in Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga (sec. 414ff.). These and other similar cosmologies are variants of the sāhasra cosmology, or "cosmology of thousands." They focus on themes of cosmic time and belong to the Hīnayāna schools of Buddhism.
The cosmology of the Mahāyāna, characterized by innumerable world systems distributed throughout the ten regions of space, can be characterized as an asaṃkhyeya cosmology, or "cosmology of innumerables." Although certain of these world systems lack the presence of a Buddha, most are buddha fields (buddhakṣetras) where a fully and perfectly enlightened Tathāgata resides and teaches the law for the benefit of countless beings. Generally speaking, there are three types of buddhakṣetras: "pure" (viśuddha), "impure" (aviśuddha), and "mixed" (miśraka). Sukhāvatī is the best known among the Pure Lands, although in some texts it is clearly subordinated to others. Sahā is the most important of the Impure Lands—although from another perspective, Sahā may be considered a "mixed" land, alternately ornamented (pure) and unornamented (impure). Located in the region of the south, Sahā is our universe and is the field of the Buddha Śākyamuni.
At the core of each of these cosmologies is a drama of salvation. It is this drama of salvation, implicit in all the Buddhist cosmologies, that allows for the integration of the scientific and theological bases of these cosmologies, represented in images of motion and light. More specifically, these cosmologies transform the astronomical themes of motion and light into the mytho-philosophic themes of journey and soul. The seemingly fantastic numbers characteristic of these cosmologies are grounded in the power of mathematics that allows the astronomers to measure the motions of the heavens and enables the faithful to comprehend the theological and mystical implications of these measurements.
The basic outlines of the single-world system are generally agreed upon throughout a broad spectrum of Buddhism and are a prominent feature of the Pali texts as well as the Buddhist Sanskrit literature. Buddhist text designate it as the cakravāla, after the mountain of iron that surrounds it. Single, circular world systems are prominent in the Puranic and Jain cosmologies as well and have a wide dispersion throughout the classical world in general. This article ignores variations of detail in the Buddhist texts and is restricted to the extensive and systematic testimony of Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośa (hereafter Kośa), a Sautrāntika work composed in the fourth or fifth century of the common era.
The cakravāla is represented as a disk ringed with a series of seven circular, golden mountain ranges, arranged concentrically with Mount Meru at the center and the cakravāla wall of iron at the perimeter. Proceeding outward from the center, the mountains are known as Meru, Yugandhara, Īṣadhāra, Khadirika, Sudarśana, Aśvakarṇa, Vinataka, Nimindhara, and Cakravāla. Mount Meru has a height of eighty thousand yojanas and penetrates the waters in equal measure; each of the mountain ranges is half the height and depth of the preceding range. The waters of various seas (sītā) fill the regions between the mountain ranges.
The landmasses are situated in the great ocean (mahāsamudra) that flows within the area bounded by Nimindhara and Cakravāla. The four landmasses, located at the points of the compass, are spoken of as "islands" (dvīpa) and are named Pūrvavideha (in the east), Jambudvīpa (in the south—named after the Jambu tree that is found there), Aparagodānīya (in the west), and Uttarakuru (in the north). The names of these islands are suggestive of theological directions as well: for example, Videha is the name of disembodied deities and suggests the goal of yoga, which is to liberate the soul from its bondage to the body; the Jambu tree is suggestive of the fruits of the path of Buddhism, Godānīya of Kṛṣṇa's heaven, the Goloka, and Uttarakuru of the Kurukṣetra, the "field of the Kurus," on which was fought the great battle of the Mahābhārata. All of these entities rest on a layer of golden earth (kāñcanamayībhūmi), and all of the mountains except the cakravāla are composed of excrescences of this golden earth. While the islands are not similarly composed, the vajrāsana ("diamond throne") situated in the middle of Jambudvīpa is said to rest on the golden earth. The golden earth of the cakravāla rests on a circle of water (ābmaṇḍala); a layer of wind (vāyumaṇḍala) supports the water and in turn rests on empty space (ākāśa).
The four islands of the cakravāla are distinguished from each other in a number of ways, particularly with regard to their size and shape and the life span of their inhabitants. Uttarakuru is square, measuring 2,000 yojanas on a side, and life there has a duration of 1,000 years. (A yojana has been defined variously as the equivalent of 2.5, 4, 5, or 9 English miles, although its etymological link to yoga and yuga suggests a metaphysical significance as well.) Godānīya is shaped like a full moon measuring 7,500 yojanas around with a diameter of 2,500 yojanas, and life there lasts 500 years. Pūrvavideha has the shape of a half moon with three sides said to be 2,000 yojanas in length and a fourth that is 350 yojanas in length. Duration of life there is equal to 250 years. Jambudvīpa, too, measures 2,000 yojanas on three sides, but its fourth side is only 3.5 yojanas long. It is said to be shaped like a chariot. (In addition to the four main islands, the Kośa recognizes eight intermediate islands, two of which are similar in shape to each of the four main islands, although they are only one-tenth the size. The shape of the faces of the inhabitants of each of the islands is said to resemble the shape of the island.)
Jambudvīpa provides an important exception to the superhuman and unchanging durations of life found in the other islands. The length of human life in Jambudvīpa varies; at the beginning of the kalpa it is incalculable, but eventually it diminishes to only ten years and continues to fluctuate throughout the kalpa. Because of these irregular life expectancies, the inhabitants of Jambudvīpa are particularly aware of the workings of karman. Moreover, it is only in Jambudvīpa during a time of declining life spans that a Buddha will appear. Another distinguishing feature of Jambudvīpa is that all the hells are situated beneath this island. The Kośa distinguishes eight hot hells and eight cold hells, although other systems are attested.
A series of heavens is arrayed above the cakravāla in three great divisions: (1) those heavens in the "realm of desire" (kāmadhātu) corresponding to the six classes of the "gods of desire" (kāmadeva); (2) the seventeen heavens belonging to the "realm of form" (rūpadhātu), grouped into four classes of "meditation realms" (dhyāna); and (3) the four "infinities" of the "realm of nonform" (ārūpyadhātu). The significance of these divisions is uncertain except for the fact that they form a schematic representation of Buddhist philosophy and doctrine related to meditation. Nevertheless, several of the heavens have characteristics worth noting. The ruler of the Trāyastriṃśa is Indra, or Śakra, whose abode rests atop Mount Meru. The Tuṣita is distinguished by the fact that it is here that the bodhisattva is born immediately prior to being born as a Buddha in Jambudvīpa. The duration of life in the Tuṣita corresponds to the ages in which a Buddha appears. The uppermost heaven is the Akaniṣṭha; the fourth infinity is designated bhavāgra ("pinnacle of being").
In its simplest form, the drama of the single-world system depends on the fact that the universe is limited and continuous. The monk travels through all the realms of the universe in the course of his meditations, eventually getting beyond it—detaching himself from it—to take possession of an individual nirvāṇa and achieve the state of arhat. For the most part, neither the presence of a buddha nor the divisions of cosmic time are central to this drama.
Cosmology of Thousands
There exist countless variations within this general heading, but the combination of thousands of worlds and the superimposition of one cosmic level upon another is a fundamental characteristic of the sāhasra cosmology. A second characteristic is the ultimate unity of these various combinations of worlds in the realm of a single buddha, a single buddhakṣetra (buddha field), or another similarly unifying entity.
The Majjhima Nikāya (3.101) describes a division of the brahmaloka into multiples of thousands of worlds, making a distinction between a sahasso-brahmā governing a sahassīi lokadhatu, and equivalent realms governed by a dvisahasso-brahmā, a trisahasso-brahmā, a catussahasso-brahmā, a pancassahasso-brahmā, and a satasahassobrah-mā, gods that rule over worlds numbering between 1,000 and 1,000100.
Another example from the Pali texts is found at Aṇguttara Nikāya 1.227, which describes (1) a system of one thousand universes, sahassīi chūḷanikā lokadhātu ("small chiliocosm"); (2) a system of one million universes, dvisahassī majjhimikā lokadhātu ("middle chiliocosm"), embracing one thousand "small chiliocosms"; and (3) a system of one billion universes, tisahassī mahāsahassi lokadhātu ("great chiliocosm"), embracing one thousand "middle chiliocosms." The Kośa (vol. 3, pp. 138–141) describes the trisāhasramahāsāhasralokadhātu in virtually identical terms.
From this description it appears that a trisāhasrama-hāsāhasralokadhātu (tisahassī mahāsahassī lokadhātu) consists of one billion universes like the one in which we live, each consisting of four islands, a cakravāla wall, seven concentric ring mountains, a sun, a moon, and a Mount Meru. This arrangement of thousands of worlds is the most representative expression of the sāhasra cosmology and emerges as the formulaic expression of a buddhakṣetra. Even Mahāyāna texts that recognize the existence of innumerable buddhakṣetras acknowledge the fact that each is a trisāhasramahā-sāhasralokadhātu.
Interpretation of the meaning of the trisāhasrama-hāsāhasralokadhātu remains problematic. However, it is closely associated with speculations on the great division of cosmic time. Because of this association, it is reasonable to assume a connection between the thousands of the sāhasra cosmology and the manner in which astronomers measured the movements of the planets, multiplying the fractional measurements of their observations by thousands of years to determine the beginning and end of the world, that is, that time when all planets were (will be) in a straight line. Based on these associations, we may regard the universe as "ever-measuring," constantly productive of the divisions of time grounded in the powers of discrimination.
This association with measurements of time is strengthened by the parallels between the sāhasra cosmology and the cosmologies of the Hindu Purāṇas, since the "thousands of worlds" (i.e., one billion) of the sāhasra cosmology exactly equal the divisions of time of the Puranic cosmos—if one leaves out references to days and nights and counts only years. The Puranic yugas consist of ten divine years, each equal to one thousand human years, for a total of ten thousand years in a māhayuga. One thousand māhayugas are the equivalent of a kalpa, which is also a "day of Brahmā," and one hundred years of such days equal the life of Brahmā or a mahākalpa. (The full reckoning is: 10 × 1000 × 1000 × 100 = 1,000,000,000.) The trisāhasramahāsāhasralokadhātu apparently spatializes the temporal divisions of Hindu cosmology.
In contrast to the drama of the single-world system, the manner whereby salvation occurs within the structures of the sāhasra cosmology is inextricably related to the divisions of cosmic time and the appearance of a buddha.
The largest division of time, corresponding to the duration of the universe, is a mahākalpa. A mahākalpa in turn consists of four "moments" (kalpas), each of which contains twenty antarakalpas. Thus, the mahākalpa consists of (1) a kalpa of creation (vivartakalpa), which extends from the birth of the primordial wind to the production of the first being that inhabits the hells; (2) a kalpa that consists of the duration of the creation (vivartasthāyikalpa), which begins with the appearance of the first being in the hells; (3) a kalpa of dissolution (saṃvartakalpa), commencing with the moment when beings cease to be reborn in the hells and ending with the moment when the "receptacle world" (i.e., the world inhabited by sentient beings) is destroyed; and (4) a kalpa during which the world remains dissolved (saṃvartasthāyikalpa) and during which nothing remains but space (ākāśa) where the world was. Each of the four kalpas are sometimes designated asaṃkhyeya ("incalculable") kalpas.
The twenty small or "intermediate" kalpas (antarakalpas) are characterized as follows: In a period of creation, the receptacle world (bhājanaloka) is created during the first antarakalpa; beings appear during the remaining nineteen. A reverse process occurs during a period of destruction. At the end of a period of creation, humankind has a life that is infinite in duration. During the first antarakalpa of the creation, it diminishes (apakarṣa) to ten years. Each of the next eighteen antarakalpas consists of an augmentation (utkarṣa) of life span from ten years up to eighty thousand years and a subsequent diminution back down to ten years again. The twentieth antarakalpa consists solely of augmentation up to eighty thousand years.
While not specifically mentioned in the Kośa, it should be noted that messianic traditions within Buddhism focus on the figure of Maitreya, the future and last Buddha of our age, who will provide a new dharma ("teaching") to replace the degenerated teaching of Śākyamuni. This will occur when the duration of life has reached eighty thousand years.
When all beings have disappeared from the inferior realms and are reunited in a meditation realm, presumably through the power of meditation and possibly the attainment of nirvāṇa, the "destructions" (saṃvartānis) take place. The agents of the destructions are the "great elements" and are of three kinds: those by fire, those by water, and those by wind. The second meditation realm (dhyāna) is the limit (sīmā) of the destruction by fire; everything lower is burned and scorched. The third dhyāna is the limit of the destruction by water; everything lower is decomposed or dissolved. The fourth dhyāna is the limit of the destruction by wind; everything below it is scattered. There is no destruction by earth because the receptacle world consists of earth. The destructions succeed one another in the following sequence: Seven destructions by fire are followed by a destruction by water; this cycle of eight destructions is repeated a total of seven times. Then follow seven more destructions by fire and a final destruction by wind. Thus there are seven times eight, or fifty-six destructions by fire, seven by water, and a final (sixty-fourth) destruction by wind.
While the soteriological drama associated with this cosmology is framed by the speculations on cosmic time, the drama proper divides itself into four discrete "moments." The first is that of the progress of the śrāvaka, or one who has undertaken the religious vocation toward becoming an arhat. Second is the exercise of miraculous powers. Third is the career of the bodhisattva, who makes a vow in the presence of a buddha to pursue buddhahood rather than pass into the extinction of nirvāṇa. The fourth moment in the drama is the appearance of a Buddha.
The progress of the śrāvaka toward the state of arhat consists of a series of practices, teachings, and meditations designated in a general way as "the path." Briefly stated, the śrāvaka on the way to arhatship masters a path that consists of sixteen "moments" of the four Holy Truths (abhisamaya) and 182 moments of the stages of meditation (bhāvanā-mārga) including taking possession of the "four fruits" of the path: srotāpanna ("stream winner"), sakṛdāgāmin ("once-returner"), anāgāmin ("nonreturner"), and arhat.
Following the exercise of certain miraculous powers obtained as a result of meditation, and having made a vow to become a buddha, the bodhisattva then perfects the various virtues (pāramitās) during three asaṃkhyeya s of mahākalpas. After countless rebirths among the excellent destinies, the bodhisattva is born in the Tuṣita Heaven, during which time he develops the acts that are productive of the thirty-two marks of a great and almost certainly cosmic person (mahāpuruṣa). During the course of one hundred supplementary cosmic ages (kalpaśate śese), he exhibits in Jambudvīpa the marks of a mahāpuruṣa. This he does only in the presence of a buddha.
The final stage in the drama involves the appearance of a buddha. While there is considerable doctrinal disagreement on many points relating to this subject, it is generally agreed that a buddha only appears during a period when the length of human life is declining and when it is between eighty thousand and one hundred (sometimes, eighty) years. Lifespans greater than this are too long to afford beings awareness of the impermanent nature of things; less than this and life is too brief and the five corruptions (kaṣāyas) too powerful for the teaching to be mastered. Since the buddha is clearly of a different order from the arhat, and since both are necessarily in possession of nirvāṇa, we must conclude that the nirvāṇa of the buddha is of a different order from that of the arhat.
Since it is more important to provide a general means of interpreting these systems than to provide ever greater detail, I suggest the following. The single-world system in isolation serves as an aid to monastic meditation in much the same way as Sāṃkhya philosophy serves as a cosmological framework for the practice of yoga. Time (motion) and the cosmos are essentially contained within the body of the individual in its unliberated mode. Time and space are the products of the movements of the primordial matter (prakṛi) agitated by the presence of a soul.
As a corollary, there is little need for the great divisions of time—kalpas, yugas, mahākalpas, and so forth. Where these appear, time (and the cosmos) have been incorporated into the body of the deity. While arhatship or the attainment of the individual nirvāṇa is the essential drama of the single-world system in the Pali texts, the Sarvāstivādin texts establish a drama involving the relationship between the individual nirvāṇa (arhat) and the nirvāṇa of the Buddha as a cosmic figure whose body contains the elements of time. This suggestion is supported in part by the fact that the Pali Abhidhamma recognizes a single unconditioned dharma and a single nirvāṇa, whereas the Sarvāstivādin literature recognizes three unconditioned dharmas, including space and two types of nirvāṇa.
Along with three classes of saints—arhat, bodhisattva, and buddha—the Kośa recognizes a fourth class of saint known as the pratyekabuddha, or person who achieves enlightenment in isolation. The grouping of four is noteworthy for its transformation in the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra (Lotus Sūtra).
The Lotus Sūtra describes a "path" to salvation known as the ekayāna, or "single path." By means of "devices" (upāya), the cosmic Buddha projects three paths—those pursued by the arhat, the pratyekabuddha and the bodhisattva—to suit the differing spiritual capacities of creatures. While these three goals are pursued independently by beings according to their sensibilities, it is after having achieved these various provisional nirvāṇas that the true nirvāṇa is bestowed upon them by the Buddha.
There are additional continuities between this drama and that found in the Pure Land traditions. There the faithful are admonished to think at the moment of death of the Buddha Amitābha ("infinite light"), whose field, Sukhāvatī (the Land of Bliss), lies in the west. In so doing, they will be reborn there in what will be their last birth; to live lives without interruption and to hear the dharma preached perfectly and thence to obtain final nirvāṇa. I shall simply note that Sukhāvatī is the realm of sukha ("bliss"), set over against this world of duḥkha ("suffering"). The fundamental tenet of the Hīnayāna, of course, is that all existence is suffering (duḥkha). The sukha world is therefore the visionary representation of all duality and of all striving. It is thus an accommodation to the sensibilities of all creatures and in some ways a provisional nirvāṇa. From Sukhāvatī the second stage of the drama unfolds, which is the ekayāna, or the nirvāṇa granted as a result of the nirvāṇa of the Buddha.
With the same thought in mind, but using the stick rather than the carrot, the Japanese monk Genshin (942–1017) compiled extensive and horrible descriptions of the hells associated with the single-world system in order to turn people's minds toward rebirth in Sukhāvatī lest they remain in the realm of duḥkha and become subject to its worst torments.
The Tiantai school of Chinese Buddhism utilizes the trisāhasramahāsāhasralokadhātu in another way, basing its interpretation on the second chapter of the Lotus Sūtra. Here we are told that it represents the three thousand worlds used as a model for the interpenetrating nature of all reality. These three thousand worlds are also known as dharmas and are organized in the following manner. There are ten realms of existence—those of the buddhas, bodhisattvas, pratyekabuddhas, direct disciples of the Buddha (śrāvakas), heavenly beings, spirits, human beings, departed beings, beasts, and depraved men. Each of these shares the characteristics of the others, thus making one hundred realms. Each of these in turn is characterized by ten "thusnesses" or "such-likenesses" through which the true state is manifested in phenomena. This makes one thousand realms of existence. Each realm is further constituted by the three divisions of living beings, space, and the (five) aggregates (skandhas) that constitute dharmas, thus making a total of three thousand realms of existence or aspects of reality. Because the interpenetration of these three thousand realms (trisāhasramahāsāhas-ralokadhātu) is immanent in a single instant of thought, all beings have the buddha-nature in them and can thus be saved. While comparison of these variations in drama with that of the sāhasra cosmology is useful, they are better understood in the context of another set of general cosmological structures known as the asaṃkhyeya cosmology.
Cosmology of Innumerables
The asaṃkhyeya cosmology belongs to the Mahāyāna and is characterized by the "innumerable" (asaṃkhyeya) buddhas and buddhaksetras filling the ten regions of space in place of the single buddhakṣetra of the Hīnayāna.
Images of space
While the sāhasra cosmology was dominated by the temporal categories of the kalpa, the asaṃkhyeya cosmology is dominated by spatial categories and images. The emphasis on spatial imagery is carried to the point where the Mahāyāna can argue that time does not exist. Just as the appearance of the Buddhas in the sāhasra cosmology was linked to the passage of time, the Buddhas are now associated with the directions or points of space and are referred to as the "Buddhas of the ten regions" (daśadigbuddha). As a result, the appearance of a buddha in this cosmology is not a rare event. Instead, it is repeatedly stated that the Buddhas are "as numerous as the sands of the Ganges."
A new drama is expressed in a mytheme that finds wide currency in Mahāyāna texts. It revolves around the "great concentrations" of the buddha Śākyamuni in his cosmic form and the manner in which the concentrations result in the exercise of miraculous powers, most notably the issuance of rays of light from the body of the Buddha. While the mytheme varies from text to text, it is analyzed with scholastic thoroughness in the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Śāstra (chaps. 14–15), a text traditionally attributed to Nāgārjuna. The essential tenets of this drama may be summarized as follows.
The Buddha enters into a concentration in which are contained all the concentrations. Departing therefrom he practices a variety of magical powers, the most notable of which is the issuance of rays of light from his body. Touched by these rays of light, all beings become intent upon enlightenment and are prepared to hear the great sermon of the cosmic Buddha; the world is transformed into a Pure Land, and beings are either able to see and hear the dharma being preached in other buddha fields or are transported to one of those fields where they can hear the dharma without obstacle, distraction, or interruption. The Buddha utilizes the magical powers gained through concentration for the welfare of all beings. The power of the rays of light is so great that it is likened to the destruction of the universe by fire at the end of a kalpa. As a result of his extinction in concentratione Buddha exercises miraculous powers that benefit all beings in accordance with their sensibilities. Just as the Hindu cosmologies explore the multivalence of the term pralaya (death/destruction of the universe/liberation) the Buddhist cosmologies explore the multiple meanings of nirvāṇa.
In the last analysis, it is the nirvāṇa of the cosmic Buddha that alone results in salvation, not the nirvāṇas of individuals. According to the Lotus Sūtra, "he does not teach a particular Nirvāṇa for each being; he causes all beings to reach complete Nirvāṇa by means of the complete Nirvāṇa of the Tathāgata" (Kern, 1965, p. 81).
The drama of the sāhasra cosmology and that of the asaṃkhyeya cosmology can be contrasted on many points. The journey of the sāhasra cosmology is one that moves arduously and laboriously through each of the abodes of the cosmography and extends indefinitely in time. The journey of the asaṃkhyeya cosmology on the other hand occurs in an instant, transporting the individual to one of the many worlds separated from each other by the void of infinite space. In the former, Buddhas are rare and quiescent, in the latter, numerous and active. Just as the Hindu cosmologies play with a juxtaposition of the term puruṣa in its two meanings of multiple individual souls on the one hand and a single, all-encompassing soul on the other, the Buddhist cosmologies are concerned with individual and cosmic nirvāṇas.
It may be argued that all of Buddhist cosmological speculation falls into one of these two traditions. Those that accept time as the fundamental cosmological reality belong to the Hīnayāna. Those that embrace metaphors of space belong to the Mahāyāna. It is also likely that the cakravāla cosmology and the Pure Land cosmologies actually constitute shorthands or simplifications of these two great traditions, the one for the benefit of the monastic vocation, and the other for the benefit of the devotional traditions of the Mahāyāna.
Texts and Translations
Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra, translated by Hendrik Kern as Saddharma-Puṇḍarīka; or the Lotus of the True Law (1884; reprint, Delhi, 1965). The Chinese version of this text was translated by Leon Hurvitz as Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma (Lotus Sutra) (New York, 1976).