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Buddhadharma : Fall 2013
FALL 2 0 1 3 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 53 Taken together, the two cosmologically grounded contemplations of the horrors of sam- sara and the preciousness of human rebirth can inspire a sense of urgency. One way this is used in traditional teaching is as a kind of hellfire sermon that emphasizes the danger of a lower rebirth. Since the only way to guarantee never taking such a birth is to reach the stage of stream-win- ner, one would be well advised to work very seri- ously at vipassana meditation while one has the chance. (A stream-winner, or sotapanna, is one who by penetrating the nature of reality has had a glimpse of the unconditioned. A person at this stage has at most seven lifetimes left and may never be reborn into the lower realms.) One consequence of the human state being in a sense “in the middle” is that from here we can experience to some degree all the other realms. Craving and addiction is the realm of hungry ghosts; lust and violence indicates one has fallen to an animal level of consciousness; being bliss- fully immersed in meditation is to experience what a brahma god knows. Although this way of looking at things is, I believe, both true and useful, I also believe it is a mistake to try and limit the cosmological teachings to just a psy- chological interpretation and nothing more. This trivializes them and robs them of much of their transformative power. So just how are we are to hold this cosmo- logical view with its otherworldly images and concepts? It is natural to ask just how real are they, these gods and nagas, ghosts and demons? Of course it is impossible anymore to believe in the ancient cosmology literally; you won’t find Mount Meru on Google Maps. However, it would also be naive to maintain with certainty that this existence that we see and feel is the only one possible. For what it’s worth, when asked point-blank, “Are there gods?” the Buddha answered, “There are indeed!” (Majjhima Nikaya 100). Furthermore, the question itself is impossible to answer until we can decide just how much and in what sense this realm of the senses is real, something that is not at all easy to answer with anything approaching philosophic rigour. There was something of a crisis of faith in the Buddhist world in the middle of the nineteenth century when Western science began to impact Asian culture. Some scholars attempted a rear- guard action. For example, in Japan, Sato Kaiseki wrote a carefully researched book attempting the impossible task of reconciling the observable facts of astronomy with a Mount Meru-based cosmological system. His Zen teacher took a brief look at it and threw it back at him and said, “You blockhead! Don’t you know the point of the practice is to make an end of the three worlds, not to save them!” (from Dan Lusthaus’ Buddhist Phenomenology). In the end, Buddhist scholars decided that the details of the cosmol- ogy were not essential to the core teachings of suffering and the end of suffering. There is a sense, however, in which a thing can be true but not real, as Joseph Campbell said in describing mythology. To strip Buddhism of its mythology is to impoverish it. It may be fairly asked whether a strictly rationalist Buddhism isn’t too one-dimensional to sustain the prac- tice over the long haul. There is nothing there to engage the heart. In the West, we no longer remember the old myths very much, but there is a huge market for new-coined ones like Star Wars and Harry Potter. There is no doubt that human beings seem to need and crave myths that speak to a deep place within. Could it hurt to immerse our- selves in the same way in a mythological struc- ture informed through and through by dharma principles, one that has gladdened and sustained countless generations of Buddhists? It is impossible anymore to believe in the ancient cosmology literally. However, it would also be naive to maintain with certainty that this existence that we see and feel is the only one possible. (Opposite) Mount Sumeru Tibet, 1800 – 1899 Collection of the Rubin Museum of Art, #C2006.66.558 Learn more about the art in this article and the Buddhist cosmology it represents at thebuddhadharma.com