The Buddhist Kosmos

The Buddhist worldview is essentially divided into two realms, the realm of non-differentiation (nirvana) consisting of four dimensions: space, consciousness, no-thingness, and neither-perception-nor non-perception; and differentiation (samsara), divided into two worlds (lokas): form (Rupa-loka) and sense-desires (Kama-loka). The World of Form has sixteen dimensions, and the World of Sense-Desires has eleven – the latter the same as string theory. These worlds proliferate infinitely throughout the multiverse, so this description refers to the architecture underlying our universe and all multiverses causally connected to it. Other universes with other descriptions are perhaps possible.

The World of Form consists of patterns or structures but without the sensations of touch, taste, or smell. In other words, mind only (this is the philosophy of patternism, which underlies the work of R. Buckminster Fuller, Ray Kurzweil, and probably Michio Kaku, amongst others). This World is accessible through meditation and the inhabitants of the sixteen dimensions of the World of Form are described by such epithets as ‘peerless,’ ‘clear-sighted,’ ‘beautiful,’ ‘untroubled,’ etc., and are god-like beings but not actual gods, as the Buddha himself made clear. These are advanced spiritual beings (devas) with greater power, wisdom, and bliss than most humans but continuous with us – albeit in the same sense as we are continuous with the primal slime. They are not perfect however and they are mortal, albeit long-lived. Not all are Buddhists. The dimensions immediately adjacent to the World of Sense-Desires are the three dimensions called the Great Brahmas, Ministers of Brahma, and Retinue of Brahma. The brahmas are god-beings similar to the Olympian pantheon of classical Greece. It is an universe of demiurges.

There are also god-like beings in the World of Sense-Desires, including Devas Wielding Power Over Other’s Creations and Devas Delighting in Creation. Human beings inhabit an intermediate dimension above the animal world, world of ghosts, antigods, and hells, on the one hand, and six higher dimensions of deva-beings on the other. The two dimensions next above us are the Devas of the Four Great Kings and the Thirty-Three Gods.

The realm of the Four Great Kings is a tempestuous mix of supernatural beings and spirits, not all of them benevolent.The realm of the Thirty-Three Gods, the polar centre of the physical universe, used to be inhabited by the antigods (asuras) who now stand midway between the hells and ghosts, but the latter were expelled in prehistory due to their competitive and desirous nature (this story is also found in the Middle Eastern legends). There is no actual list of thirty-three gods, making one wonder whether the significance of 33 may be numerological. Thirty-three appears in a number of religious traditions, and the number of vertebrae in the human spine. According to Al-Ghazali it is the age of the dwellers in heaven. The chief of this realm is Sakra, a Buddhist variation of Indra, the Hindu chieftain god, who it was who cast the antigods out. Nevertheless it is considered a beneficent dimension. The inhabitants of this realm are also involved in human affairs. The realm of the Thirty-Three Gods is similar to heaven in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, with the realm of the antigods corresponding quite closely to hell.

Next above the realm of the Thirty-Three are the Yama devas, the realm of the blissful dead; contented devas, which includes the realm where Bodhisattas reside before their last birth, and also some once-returners; the devas delighting in creation, the inhabitants of which are shape-shifters (like Udo in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine); and devas wielding power over others’ creations, which lord it over those who create the objects they delight in. The chief of all of it is Mara. The last-named curious group of beings is the highest beings in the World of Sense-Desires.

The foregoing description of the Buddhist cosmos is also a description of the mind, the different abodes, worlds, spheres,  dimensions, and planes, corresponding to the dimensions of consciousness itself, and therefore specific categories of spiritual experience and spiritual practice. In principle all of samsara is accessible to the mind that is sufficiently purified. It is not surprising therefore that we find analogies with other religions and in particular religions that emphasize spiritual experience, e.g. African, Aboriginal, Caribbean, and some Indian and Asian traditions, including Tantra, as well the literature of the psychedelic experience.

The Formless World (Arupa-loka) consists of four dimensions: space, consciousness, no-thingness, neither perception nor non-perception, corresponding to non-locality (nirvana).

Beyond the Three Worlds, beyond the polarity of samsara and nirvana, is the Supramundane (lokuttara), the abode of the Tathagatas themselves, abiding in perfect and perpetual self-absorption, for the Buddha states that nirvana is the gate to the deathless and that the Buddhas are all immortal. The Supramundane is reality itself. Rebirth in the Supramundane – which, technically, is not a rebirth but a passing out of rebirth – is only possible from the human dimension, for in no other state of existence is enlightenment possible due to the unique intermediate position of humanity between suffering and bliss.