> Preliminary Notes > Essays
This page collects a series of essays on Buddhist cosmology - a topic which warrants more attention than it usually receives. The Buddha's teaching rests on a cosmological framework which presents a complex multiverse filled with heavens, hells, gods, and devils. All beings exist in a cycle of birth and death across these realms of existence. The goal of the Buddhist path is to bring an end to that cycle.
The first essay lays the groundwork by establishing the Buddhist conception of space & time. Each essay afterwards focuses on a more granular aspect of the Buddhist cosmos, beginning with the lowest realm of hell and progressing upwards through the various destinations of rebirth.
The information I present here is based on the Pāli suttas. Any mention of ideas established in the commentaries, the Abhidhamma traditions, and narrative texts such as the Jātakas will only be in the context of explaining how they contradict the suttas. I will be completely ignoring Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna developments, such as the idea of Pure Lands.
The drawbacks of this approach are significant—this information will not reflect the full extent of Buddhist cosmology as taught by any living tradition. Furthermore, the presentation of cosmology in the suttas is often vague, and sometimes inconsistent. The Buddha never taught cosmology systematically - instead, he only discussed it when it was relevant to practical Buddhist doctrines. Relying solely on the suttas may leave some wanting for the rigid, consistent structures introduced by later traditions.
The benefit of this approach is that it leaves us with a perfectly serviceable, yet much less complicated version of the Buddhist cosmos. It likely leaves us with something more authentic to the Buddha’s original teaching. Punnadhammo Mahāthero has pointed out that “the greater part of Buddhist cosmology can be found in the suttas,” including the basic structure of the universe and the general descriptions of the various types of beings which live throughout. He notes that the commentaries add a significant degree of orderliness, but do so by sometimes “taking liberties with the plain meaning of the original texts.” I would argue that this is usually the case (not just sometimes). Bhikku Bodhi has stated that the commentaries “are often defensive and contrived, apologetic against the works of the original texts.” Richard Gombrich has pointed out that the commentaries “stretch across a period of [at least] 800 years, and we must acknowledge that over this time, things were certainly added, subtracted, or otherwise changed in the commentarial tradition.” He critiques them for homogenizing and systematizing the Buddha’s teachings in a way which he never presented, and for often putting forward “an excessively literal reading of the original texts, or [ascribing] too much meaning and technical significance to relatively unimportant or innocent expressions.”
Since restricting ourselves to the suttas leaves us with a cosmological system which is still functional (in that it establishes a framework for the doctrines taught by the Buddha), I believe nothing of significant value is lost by this approach, and we preserve a simplicity which was abandoned in later systems. The only price we pay is a small one: the acceptance of blurred lines and vague details.
Before exploring this cosmology, one should be aware that the Buddha advised against overthinking the topic. He declared that doing so leads only to frustration or can even drive someone to insanity (AN 4.77). Often, the Buddha refused to answer questions about the cosmos if he felt the answers wouldn’t help one work towards enlightenment. When one monk threatened to leave the order over the Buddha’s refusal to answer these sorts of questions, the Buddha explained his folly by likening him to a man who had been shot by a poison arrow, but refused to be helped until getting the answers to a series of trivial questions. Dying all the while, this man stopped his would-be savior, insisting, “Wait, who shot this arrow? From what clan does he hail? How tall is he, and what is the color of his skin? What is the name of his hometown? What sort of bow did he use? What sort of feather was used for the arrow? What shape is this arrowhead stuck in my flesh?” (MN 63)
This strengthens the benefit of a “suttas-only” approach to Buddhist cosmology. There’s no need for us to “get into the weeds” in order to nail down fine points and build thorough theories, when we should simply focus on establishing a framework in which to situate the Buddha’s instructions on escaping suffering.
I want to make this final point emphatically: Buddhist cosmology is not science, and it is not metaphor. Many people with something to sell you, or those they have fooled, may tell you that Buddhism is entirely consistent with scientific consensus, or that the unscientific parts are mere poetry meant to illustrate the nature of our minds and emotions. This is nonsense.
Buddhism puts forward the idea that there are literally gods, speaking serpents, and ghosts. There are heavens, hells, and a wide range of realms in between. Any honest reading of the suttas must acknowledge that this is not symbolic. The Buddha said he recollected innumerable past lives throughout cosmic ages. He described witnessing other beings across the cosmos dying and being reborn, and spoke about gods plainly and as a matter of fact (MN 100).
Some people argue that the various realms are merely metaphors for different stages of mental development. They cite the fact that the Buddha described some realms as parallels to corresponding states of meditation. However, the Buddha explicitly said that these meditative states are not to be mistaken for the corresponding cosmic realms (MN 79).
Likewise, rebirth is sometimes warped into an imaginative way to chart the fluctuations of our states of mind. Feeling angry? That’s hell! Feeling happy? That’s heaven! This is not what the Buddha taught. Rebirth occurs “when the body breaks up, after death” (AN 3.36). The Buddha sometimes spoke of those who had recently passed, revealing where in the cosmos they had gone and what sort of living being they had become (DN 18).
For the Buddhist, we live in a vast cosmos filled with otherworldly beings, and it is governed by principles for which science does not account.