Jun. 23, 2006

Devas; on Sources




From the mailbag;

I'm relieved to hear that you're mens sana in corpore sano, Bhante.


That's a matter of definition, but thanks for giving me the benefit of the doubt.

With the sudden halt in "blogging", I was rather concerned.

My only comment on this subject is: one thousand years is a very long time, and there is a gap of more than a thousand years between the death of the Buddha and the authorship of sources such as Dhp-A (viz. the commentary to the Dhammapada) or the Jataka as we now have them.

There is, perhaps, no other religion in the world so befuddled as is Buddhism regarding the huge spans of time that separate the various texts called canonical. There are certainly striking differences between "Buddhist cosmology" as it was imagined in 600 B.C. vs. 600 A.D. --and most Buddhists are either unaware of (or doctrinally predisposed to ignore) the stark difference between these textual sources. In Thailand, there is a stark difference again between 600 A.D. and the cosmological texts of the 14th to 18th centuries.

E.M. makes some good points; we should always take the commentaries cum grano salis. (see I can use Latin too)

The only quibble I have is in his use of the word canonical. Neither the Dhammapada stories nor the prose parts of the Jatakas are considered canonical. The material which is considered canonical can pretty much all be dated to the first century after the Buddha. I.e., the time of the second council. (The big exception would be the Kathu Vatthu of the Abhidhamma; although some other material also may be a bit later. I have my doubts about some passages in the Digha, for instance.)

The commentaries as we have them are attributed to Buddhaghosa, the great scholar monk born in North India but working in Sri Lanka c. 400 AD (or 900 years give or take after the Buddha) However, he is not traditionally considered the author but the translator of these. The story is that there were at one time early Pali commentaries which had been lost by Buddhaghosa's time. However, there still remained extant Sinhalese versions which Buddhaghosa back-translated into Pali; a language that, although already "dead" would have been more widely known in the Buddhist world (cf. medieval Latin in Europe)

How much of this material is original, and how much Buddhaghosa's extrapolation or incorporation of later sources is unknown. But I have read that no stories or proper names are found in the commentaries that can be dated later than King Asoka's reign, for what that's worth.

As for the Jataka tales; the canonical bits, reportedly uttered by the Buddha, are entirely in verse and don't make a lot of sense without the explanatory stories (which is usually all you would see in modern "selections") Sometimes the stories appear to be ingenious attempts to weave odd verse fragments into a coherent tale; other times they flow more naturally, fleshing out a story already evident in the verse.

Furthermore, it may very well be that some of the Jatakas are actually pre-Buddhist folk-tales, perhaps very ancient indeed, given a light Buddhist gloss much as Beowulf was lightly Christianized. A small number of Jatakas appear to reproduce the imaginative geography of the Ramayana, where the island of Sri Lanka is a fabulous abode of monsters. That would be quite an anachronism in Buddhaghosa's time.

This is not to say that I'm a skeptic. On the contrary, like the Buddha and Anaximenes, I believe that the world is shaped like the flat lid on a steaming pot, that India is a giant island supported by an ocean, supported in turn by steam, with the latter billowing steam suspended in the void.


Supported by a giant elephant, which stands on a giant turtle. Don't ask what the turtle stands on; it's turtles all the way down.

Seriously though, there is an interpretation of this cosmology that makes sense. See the fascinating book "Hamlet's Mill." which deals with ancient astronomy. Our ancestors were not so stupid as some people like to think. Mt. Meru, the World Mountain, is in this interpretation, a colourful metaphor for the Axis Mundi, which is the imaginary line from the geographic north pole to the pole star; i.e. the rotational axis of the earth. It is not at all certain that any educated people since neolithic times believed literally in a flat earth.

In any case, E.M. ought to be more consistent with his sources. The cosmological geography he cites is commentarial, and not attributed directly to the Buddha.

Jun. 18, 2006

Of Devas

The reason I haven't been blogging lately is because I've been helping teach a retreat at IMS, which is coming to an end so I'll have time and energy to spare for a bit.

One of the things we did this time, was to chant the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta every evening in Pali. Those familiar with this text will know that it includes near the end a list of various deva realms. This naturally got some of the retreatants curious, and some were asking questions about the various realms.

The cosmology of Buddhism is a side-alley of the Dhamma that has always fascinated me. Depending on how you count them there are five or six realms of rebirth, or thirty-three stations of existence, or three planes. The territory of the upper realms is divided between the sensual heavens, the fine-material or Brahma realms and the formless abidings.

Then there are all the fabulous beings which exist in some way on this earthly plane; yakkhas, nagas and bhumma-devas.

There isn't any one good source for a detailed road-map of the heavens; stories and anecdotes are scattered through out the canon, but especially in the Dhammapada commentary and the Jataka tales.

Various questions arise whenever this topic comes up. The first and most obvious question is also the most tedious - are they real? First of all, you tell me, what does the word "real" signify? There is a strong sense in which this mundane earthly world is a pure mental fabrication - at least the one we actually live in and experience. We get signals in the form of sense data from some hypothetical "out there" and our perception parses them and creates the world we actually inhabit.

Buddhism is essentially interested in the interior landscape, which is all we can ever really know. The world "out there" is basically a moot topic, and of little interest. Theravada has pretty much always accepted that there is an exterior world, but not all Buddhist schools have agreed. Yogacara had a mature ontology that is purely mentalist; i.e. only mind exists (hence this school is also called Citta-matra "mind only?)

Given the dubious credentials of the concept "real" to start with, it is clear that the Buddha definitely taught that the deva realms are "real." In fact, the acceptance of "spontaneously born beings" is given as one of the factors of mundane Right View. (Devas do not reproduce sexually but appear spontaneously - the lower sensual heavens do have sex, but just for fun.)

I must admit having little patience for the view that would reduce the devas and brahmas to "psychological archetypes." Assuming one has no direct knowledge of these realms, it follows that they may or may not exist. We have no objective evidence one way or the other (although to one with faith, the word of the Buddha ought to count for something.) Hence belief in these realms becomes almost an aesthetic preference. I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would prefer to believe in a flat-land even if they can't see the third dimension. I hope this isn't too much of a spoiler, but that's essentially the point of Yann Martel's brilliant little novel, "The Life of Pi."

So let's leave that stale chesnut aside, happily assume the devas are real, and ask "where are they then?" Various possibilities present themselves; the deva realms might be present on some kind of other plane not understood by physics. Or they might simply be real three-dimensional worlds displaced from us by the fourth dimension. Or, they might actually be other planets in a different phase of evolution.

This brings up an interesting area of speculation. It is well known that ancient Indian cosmology posited a universe of multiple world-systems. To the modern mind, this correlates easily with our conception of the universe. However, I have never found an ancient text that unequivocally associates the various other worlds with the visible stars. Did they make the connection?

There is one fascinating bit of lore in the Sadhina Jataka (no. 494). In this tale, the righteous king Sadhina is fetched by Matali, the charioteer of the gods, to visit Tavatimsa Heaven. Matali takes the king on a tour of various realms on the way, which prompts Sakka, king of the gods, to declare "Doesn't Matali know that the lives of men are short?" and he sends a message to bring him along quickly. The king spends a year in heaven feasting with the gods and returns to earth, only to be arrested in the palace grounds as a trespasser. It seems that seven hundred years have passed on earth, his great-great-great etc. grandson is ruling on the throne and Sadhina is unrecognized. The really telling detail is that the time-shift seems to have occurred during the journey rather than while in heaven; hence Sakka's concern about the shortness of human life. Does any of this ring a bell?