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?


The Loquacious Booty said...

If you were a hotdog, would you eat yourself?

Anonymous said...

The idea of mind only is not really incorrect. Yes, people do ask where these realms exist, the answer is simple, they are all in the mind. However, they are not in the usual human concept of mind.

To say that all realms are in the mind, or that everything is mind, often makes people think of their own interpretation of mind, particularly the scholarly or academic view of the mind which exists in our human realm.

The problem is that human understanding is somewhat primitive, compartmentalized, and it finds it difficult to get hold of the realities of nature.

Many people have already experienced these other realms, i.e. if they inhaled, or actually swallowed that little piece of blotting paper or disgusting slimy mushroom. If so, they may also remember that they knew many things instinctively, without thinking (and if they do remember then they will now understand what I mean by compartmentalized).

Usual human intelligence appears to be limited to knowing something because of something, i.e. because Dr.Sweidenweizer said it, because it makes sense, etc., there is little, if any, just knowing, because humans are not in touch with their mind, they just have a concept of it, which isn't even close (they take the unreal world as real, and their real mind is unreal to them).

Mind is the karmic energy of which we are composed. This energy has a shape, and different locations on that shape are concerned with different realms. Much of the entry into these different realms is instant, and of course time is somewhat different.

If you want to experience the Brahman realms just develop first jhana, then you will find the Brahman realm within your own mind because you will have shifted the focus of your perception there, just by following the breath and becoming one-pointed.

If you actually want to see your own mind, and other minds, in their energy form, then you will have to develop fourth jhana and then the iddhi associated with this knowledge.

Ajarns of the Thai Sangha have told me that 3 of these 4 iddhi are based on your own will, your own volition. For example you can focus on people talking a whole block away and hear everything they say, and you can also create forms, etc.

They also told me that the remaining knowledge, the view of the Yama realm, a Deva realm (the energy realm), cannot be entered by your own will, but Devas in that realm will make it possible for you, and will not only let you see other energy forms they will even show you your own by giving you their view.

So not only are there other realms, there are also beings in those realms. Most of the questions people might ask about these realms are usually irrelevant, because the reality of the human realm is limited to here, and its just nonsense anywhere else.

When you bring some of the knowledge from these other realms and do it here, then it is magic, miraculous (for dumb humans anyway). For the Devas, walking on water is like picking your nose.

Anonymous said...

Dear Ajhan Punnadhammo,

I wonder what is the traditional Theavadian Budhism opinion regarding the eight jhanas.

Could you please write something about it?


Anonymous said...

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

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.

P.S., my website was finally updated and corrected.

P.P.S., I met one of your former colleagues from the Chah lineage, now living as a layperson and scholar in Laos.


Anonymous said...

About the cryptic reference to Yann Martel's Life of Pi...

I would really like the Life of Pi reference unpacked a little more. I was at Trent University doing a Canadian Literature class when it was announced that Yann Martel (a Trent alumni) had won the Booker. There was some hasty deletions from the syllabus to fit in Life of Pi.

The professor had no established criticism on the book to offer us and TAs and students were floating some pretty wild and original theories on what the ending meant. I actually piped up during a lecture that I thought, since Martel was a Westerner living in India at the time of writing, he *had to* have been influenced by Indian culture, Hinduism, Buddhism, something... but I couldn't find anything in the story to point in that direction.

Of course, belief in other realms is not just a Buddhist cosmology thing, so your having commented on it is not proof that I was onto something, but since I haven't found any priests or rabbis bringing up Life of Pi, I'd love to hear more on the connection between Pi and belief in things unseen with the caveat that, yes, I did read the book - I know the ending, I can kind of see what you mean but I want to hear more!

Here is the bit of your post I'm refering to specifically:

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."

jen in japan

Anonymous said...

If the life of a man is short, why does the king keep Sadhina in heaven for a year?


Does there have to have been a time shift? Is there enough in this quote to understand what bell should be ringing or do I need to consult an expert (off to Wiki!) to get some history/depth on this?