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Buddhadharma : Fall 2013
FALL 2 0 1 3 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 47 Before the middle of the nineteenth century, all Buddhists of all schools lived in the same conceptual universe. There were further levels of complexity added by the Mahayana, but it was still based on the foundation of the Theravada model described here. At the center of the world lay Mount Meru, 84,000 yojanas high (a yojana is an ancient unit of measure; its exact equivalent is not known, but estimates range from three to seventeen and a half miles). Halfway up its slope lay the Heaven of the Four Great Kings and at its peak was the Heaven of the Thirty-Three Gods presided over by Sakka, their king and the overlord of the terrestrial realm. Surrounding Mount Meru were seven circular ranges of mountains, each one half the height of the preceding one, separated by circular seas. The whole area was surrounded by the world ocean and finally by a steep range of iron cliffs that formed the wall of the world. In the outer- most ocean were the four great continents, too far apart from each other for any conceivable human navigation. The southern continent was called Jambudipa, the Rose-Apple Land, and it was the whole known world, the place where all the drama, tragedy, and comedy of human existence was carried out. When the whole world system is drawn to scale on a page like this one, Mount Meru would completely dominate the picture and Jambudipa would be a barely visible speck. Below Jambudipa lay the great hells, the niraya realms, where beings with evil karma suffered long torment as a result of their deeds. This whole mandala-like structure constituted a cakkavala, or world system. In space, a further 80,000 yojanas above the peak of Mount Meru lay an even more refined sensual heaven, the realm of the Yama devas. There were six sensual heavens in all, the two on Mount Meru and four above it in space. Each of the upper heavens was twice as far as the pre- ceding one. Even higher were the realms of the brahma gods, beings who lived an immensely long time, watching whole world systems come and go below them. The brahma gods were very different than the devas, the sensual gods; they had no interest in the world of the senses at all but lived feeding on meditative bliss. The brahma gods had sixteen realms, each more subtle and refined than the one below it, stretching very far into space as, once again, the distances between them doubled with each step up. Considered to be even “higher,” but not in a spatial sense, were the four realms of the formless beings. Almost inconceivable to us, these beings AJAHN PUNNADHAMMO is the founder and resident bhikkhu of Arrow River Forest Hermitage near Thunder Bay, Ontario. In 1991 he was ordained in Thailand in the Thai forest tradition of Ajahn Chah. He is currently working on a book about Buddhist cosmology. The View from Mount Meru In light of modern knowledge, traditional Buddhist cosmology may seem irrelevant or quaint at best. But as Ajahn Punnadhammo explains, the world system it describes contains important insights for practicing the Buddhist teachings. (Opposite) The cosmic pillar rising from Mount Meru, Burma, late 19th century