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Buddhadharma : Fall 2013
48 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY FALL 2 0 1 3 understanding and even our practice, both on and off the cushion. When reading material from a very different time and place, with radically different cultural assumptions, there is always the danger of impos- ing our own worldview onto the text, and there- fore missing the point. When reading the suttas, or indeed any Buddhist text written before 1900, we should remember that the Buddhist ances- tors speaking to us lived in the world system of Mount Meru, with its multiple realms. The cosmological picture tells us the human world is part of the broader kamavacara, the sense-desire realm, which also includes the lower realms and the six sensual heavens. Beings at this level of existence experience the world through the gateways of the six senses; these sense doors are the sources of pleasure and pain, and they dominate one’s consciousness. But the cosmol- ogy also tells us that it does not have to be like this; there are beings in another state of exis- tence who live lives of sublime bliss without any interest whatsoever in the objects of sense. If we imagine travelling upward through the heaven worlds, what we find is a gradual attenuation of sensuality, an evolution toward more and more subtle and refined forms of it until it easily passes away altogether. The Heaven of the Thirty-Three, Tavatimsa, on the peak of Mount Meru is considered the epitome of the earthly kind of sensualism and includes all the varieties of it that we indulge in here: food, drink, music, and of course sexual- ity. The Pali commentaries are full of exuber- ant descriptions of the pleasures of these gods, even including quite erotic passages describing the loveliness of the dancing girls. But as we ascend through the remaining heavens, every- thing gradually changes to more subtle and less grossly physical forms of sense enjoyment. The clearest example is found in a passage in the Abhidharmakosa, which describes how the gods make love. The Tavatimsa gods do it much were pure mind, without any physicality and therefore could not be located in space, which is a physical property. Alongside this vertical stacking of realms, there was an infinite horizontal extension com- bined with a complex pyramidal structure. (The details that follow are derived from the Abhidharmakosa of Vasubandhu, a Sarvastivada text.) The sixteen brahma worlds can be divided into four tiers, corresponding in human terms to the four jhanas. Below each first-tier brahma level there were one thousand world systems, each complete with its own Mount Meru, seven ranges, seven oceans, four continents, and enclosing wall. This constituted a “thousand-fold world system.” Below each second-tier brahma level, there were one thousand of these thousand- fold world systems, for a total of one million Mount Merus, etc. Below each third-tier brahma realm, there were one thousand of the second order grouping, for a total of one billion Mount Merus, etc. Below each fourth-level brahma world, there were again one thousand of the next-lower level grouping, making for one tril- lion Mount Merus and four trillion continents. (In one possible interpretation of the text, there are an infinite number of the highest-tier brahma worlds. In another equally plausible interpreta- tion, there is only one with an infinite number of third-tier worlds below it. The total of terrestrial world systems is infinite in either case.) In some Buddhist countries, belief in devas and brahmas is still very much alive and well, and in some isolated corners there are those who still believe in the Mount Meru geography as well. But most modern Buddhists, particularly in the West, have largely ignored this cosmology, and some would say for good reason. Why get involved in deciphering this baroque structure when it has no obvious relevance to the here and now? But the fact is, having at least a passing acquaintance with the cosmology that informed ancient Buddhist teachings can greatly enrich our When reading the suttas, or any Buddhist text written before 1900, we should remember that the Buddhist ancestors speaking to us lived in the world system of Mount Meru, with its multiple realms. COURTESYOFTHENATIONALMUSEUMOFJAPANESEHISTORY