Near Earth Realms, Fallen Angels and Human Beings in Buddhist Cosmology

Paper presented to the members of the Buddha Center, New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2013.

Buddhist cosmology is nowhere explained in the Buddhist sutras in its totality as a system. Yet its essential architecture appears in all schools, both Hinayana and Mahayana, with only minor differences, based on a systematic analysis and synthesis of scattered references found throughout the Pali Canon. Thus, it must have been a topic of intense scrutiny, having arisen during the pre-sectarian period that is closest to the original teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. Consequently, this discussion cannot be assigned to any particular sect. It underlies and unifies the whole Buddhist worldview, even the Theravada, which commonly claims that the Buddha did not present an ontology. In this talk, I will present a synthetic overview of Buddhist cosmology and ontology in the context of contemporary post-Newtonian science and explore its implications for the spiritual path. One is struck by the degree to which the Buddhist worldview anticipates contemporary scientific discoveries, once one overcomes the misosophy of “scientism” and “philosophical materialism,” which true science transcended long ago. That this is not generally recognized or accepted testifies to the ignorance that masquerades as enlightenment today. Nor is ontology irrelevant to the topic of spiritual development, as some might assert, based on a selective reading of the texts. Rather, in the light of the Buddhist revelations concerning the fundamental and ultimate nature of reality, Buddhist beliefs concerning spiritual practice acquire a clarity that only enhances the prevalent psychological interpretation, which also suffers from the accusation of subjectivity. Unfortunately, what Evans-Wentz referred to as the “long dark age of the West” still blinds us to the insights that might be derived from realizing that scientism, as distinct from science, does not only not present a comprehensive picture of reality; it actually blinds us to it, in the service of a contemporary ethos that increasingly threatens to destroy the world of nature and humanity in the relentless pursuit of competition, property, and mindless consumption that stands opposed to the three primary facts of existence: non-self-identity, impermanence, and suffering as taught by the Buddha.

Buddhist cosmology divides experience both vertically and horizontally. Horizontally, the Buddhist sutras describe worlds or world systems separated by vast regions of empty space. These worlds appeared in great spheres that emerged out of a state of potentiality, expanded, contracted, and disappeared over long periods ranging from millions to trillions of years. In the largest sense, this fourfold process of origination, evolution, devolution, and potentiality have no beginning and no end – they are infinite and eternal in extent and duration. The spherical universe is itself organized into (more or less) spherical stars and galaxies that themselves move in (more or less) spherical orbits, and even larger collections of galaxies. The latter fact that has only been recently substantiated by science. The Buddha also describes the destruction of solar systems by supernovas, which proceed in seven stages or phases (the so-called “seven suns”), characterized by the cessation of rain and the consequent disappearance of vegetation over a period of hundreds of thousands of years, followed by the drying up of the rivers and oceans and finally the incineration of the earth itself. String theorists also posit that universes themselves coexist as holographic diffraction patterns in a two-dimensional plane that appear in our universe as black holes. While not specifically indicated by Buddhist cosmology, such a view is certainly consistent with it.

This quaternary dynamic structure of origination, evolution, devolution, and potentiality also describes the very small. In fact, it is the fundamental process structure of becoming itself (samsara). Phenomenal reality is nothing other than process, cycles occurring within cycles within cycles, driven by the law of karma (causality). What we call “matter” is not a “stuff,” but rather a particular kind of process or system of processes. This description largely accords with the modern scientific conception of the physical nature of reality since the downfall of philosophical materialism. The mathematician Alfred North Whitehead in his book, Process and Reality (1929), describes it, for example. Similarly, Buckminster Fuller believed that the world is geometry.

The Buddha also describes a vertical dimension, ranging from a high-energy, abstract polarity to a low-energy, “material” polarity that also accords very well with the world view of modern physics. Buddhist cosmology divides this vertical continuum in various ways, starting with a twofold division into formless and form “realms” (lokas or dhatus) and ending with a division into 31 fundamental planes of “vibration” or existence.

According to Buddhist cosmology, human beings inhabit the fifth realm, counting from the bottom, or the 27th realm, counting form the top, of these 31 planes of existence. The human realm is also the lowest (seventh) realm of the so-called “happy destinations,” represented as a flattened inverted triangular island-continent that floats in the ocean to the south of Mount Sumeru, the shape of which suggests the Indian subcontinent.  This represents the earthly realm (manusyaloka) consisting of four continents.[1] SumeruSumeru (lit. “excellent” or “wondrous mountain”) is the Buddhist representation of the universal archetype of a central world axis, usually represented as a mountain, tree, or pole. Commonly identified with Mount Kailash or Kangrinpoque in the Tibetan Himalayas, this identification is clearly symbolic. In fact, geographically, and here I am primarily interested in physical facts, Sumeru clearly represents the rotational and magnetic axes of the earth. The four continents represent the continents of the earth. The shape of the southern continent, where human beings live, clearly corresponds to the Indian subcontinent. Thus, the western continent would correspond to the African-South American landmass, which we now know were originally joined; the northern continent to North America and Greenland; and the eastern continent to Eurasia. It is now known that several supercontinents have formed and separated throughout the earth’s history. The Buddhist description appears to allude to a specific moment in the earth’s geologic history when the continents had just this formation. According to at least one animation I have seen, this was the situation about 120 million years ago. In this interpretation, then, the “peak” of Mount Sumeru would correspond to the North Polar Axis of the earth, the magnetic pole of which, like Shambhala, “wanders.” The ocean around its base corresponds to the “one world ocean” in which the continents drift. The “one world ocean” is clearly shown in the Dymaxion map invented by R. Buckminster Fuller.

One world ocean

Mount Sumeru includes the realm of the asuras, who inhabit its base; the realm of the Four Great Kings, who occupy its four slopes;[2] and the realm of the Thirty-Three gods, Vedic and post-Vedic demigods who occupy its truncated apex. Thus, Mount Sumeru is represented as a truncated four-sided pyramid. This architecture resembles that of Mount Kailash as well as the ziggurats, built in the ancient Mesopotamian valley and western Iranian plateau, and similar structures, called step pyramids, also found in Egypt, Europe, Mesoamerica, South America, North America, and Indonesia. Floating in the air above Mount Sumeru are the realms of time (the yama devas), joy or contentment (the tusita devas), two realms associated with creativity, and three God-realms (the Brahma devas). Below the realm of the humans and the asuras are the realms of ghosts, animals, and hell-beings, the latter divided into eight hot and eight cold hells.

It is fashionable to interpret the realms of Buddhist cosmology psychologically, as representative of various types, stages, or degrees of consciousness or conscious realization. This point of view is certainly valid, but this does not mean that the 31 planes of existence are merely psychological symbols in the modern sense. According to the Buddhist worldview, psychological and ontological states are opposite sides of the same coin. Reality itself is ultimately resolvable into mental states, matter itself being merely a delusion of consciousness. In this discussion, I intend to focus on the neglected ontological aspect of the Buddhist cosmic conception. In particular, I will focus on the realms that we perceive and/or that interact or communicate with our own, “earthly” realm. I am well aware that this description finds correspondences with certain modern speculative theories associated with various Theosophical, National Socialist, UFO, and conspiracy theories. Dr. Jacques Vallée is one of the most reasonable individuals currently exploring this area.[3] However, while these correspondences may be interesting, it is not my intention here to argue for or against these theories or to endorse any particular point of view, but simply to present the primordial Buddhist cosmology from an historical and scientific perspective.

According to the sutras, all of the 31 planes of existence, corresponding as they do to “levels” of conscious realization, are inhabited by sentient beings. This must be true because, as in quantum physics, it is the act of observation that gives rise to phenomenal reality. This is also true of the horizontal dimension of samsara. The difference is that the sentient beings that inhabit the realms above the human realm are far more intelligent, knowledgeable, beautiful, powerful, faster, and long-lived than we are, by many orders of magnitude. They are not, however, necessarily more spiritual than humans. Many are decisively less spiritual. Because of their great gifts, inherited from past karma, many of these beings are relatively complacent, and simply enjoy their lives, which can last millions, billions, or even trillions of human years. MahabrahmaHowever, at the lower end of the scale, the inhabitants of the Brahma worlds (mahabrahmas) may and do take an interest in human affairs. These beings occupy the highest realm that actually interacts with humans. The Brahma world is the lowest world in the system of 31 planes that is not subject to periodic destruction, whereas all of the planes below the Brahma realm are subject to the fourfold process of origination, evolution, devolution, and potentiality already discussed. Beings within these realms are, however, still subject to this process. Otherwise, their merit would not be exhausted and they would not be reborn. Thus, the Brahma world is the highest and subtlest plane of phenomenal existence. They live approximately one trillion years. The best-known inhabitant of this world is Mahabrahma Himself, aka “God,” who erroneously believes Himself to be the Creator of the Universe, because He is the first being to be reborn after the destruction and reappearance of the universe. Clearly, this contradicts the alternative view that the Brahma world is not destroyed. I need to research this apparent contradiction more thoroughly, since it seems that both views cannot be true. In Gnosticism, He is called the Demiurge (demiourgos, “creator”). The Mahabrahma Sahampati convinced the Buddha to preach following his Enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. Thus, although ignorant and deluded in some ways, mahabrahmas are not actually malicious. The Buddha encouraged his disciples to be reborn there, as an intermediate step towards enlightenment, and provided the well-known metta meditation to achieve this goal.

The so-called “divine race” (devaputra) inhabit the next lower world associated with creativity (parnimirmita-masavartin). These are the original capitalists, divine beings (devas) who delight in desire and enjoy the offerings given by others. These correspond to the anthropomorphic gods of the pagan polytheistic pantheons, which in many traditions (e.g., Vodun) are literally nourished and sustained by the offerings they receive. These beings live for about nine billion human years. Mara, the tempter of the Buddha, is often said to reside in this realm, although he is also associated with the demonic asuras. I will be speaking more about this later.

Buddha AeonNext are the bodhisattvas, who are reborn in the human world as Buddhas. Each Buddha initiates an eon, era, epoch, or dispensation of dharma, which does not end until his dharma is forgotten. Thus, we are now in the Buddha-dispensation (sasana) of Shakyamuni Gautama, which will last for only about five thousand years. We are, therefore, now at the midpoint of the Shakyamuni-dispensation. The bodhisattvas inhabit the Tusita (“joyful”) realm, the second realm above the human. These beings live for 576 million years.

The realm of the Four Great Kings is the closest realm next above our own. The nature spirits, dwarfs, fairies, dragons, goblins, trolls, and similar beings of all traditions, of varying degrees of ethical purity, inhabit it. These beings live for nine million years (other sources say 90,000 years).

Finally, we find the asuras and four human types. The latter range in longevity from ten to a thousand years. Our own human species, which is merely one of many, lives to the south of the base of Mount Sumeru. Currently we live about 120 years, although originally we were much longer-lived than this. During the age of the chakravartins (lit. “rulers of the universe”) human beings of the different continents were able to travel between the continents, using a flying machine called a cakraratna.

Whereas human beings inhabit four great continents in the one world ocean that surrounds the base of Mount Sumeru, the asuras inhabit the ocean itself immediately surrounding the base. The word “a-sura” was interpreted to mean “non-sura,” i.e., not a sura, a synonym for deva (literally, a “shining being” or energy being of light). Deva can also be translated “celestial dweller” or “star.”

Asura is often translated Titan, demigod, anti-god, or demon. The asuras are described as addicted to the passions of wrath, pride, envy, insincerity, falseness, boasting, and bellicosity. They are dominated by ego, force, and violence. At least some asuras are actually malevolent. As with all of the six classes of sentient beings, asuras may be reborn as human beings, and human beings may be reborn as asuras. Because humans and asuras occupy essentially the same plane, i.e., the one world ocean surrounding the base of Mount Sumeru, there is considerable interaction between them. Asuras enjoy a much more pleasurable life than humans do, but they are plagued by envy for the devas.

Asuras and human beings are alike in that we both have shared a similar fate. Both human beings and the asuras originally occupied a much higher realm in the Buddhist hierarchy. Asuras originally lived in the realm of the Thirty-Three Gods on the peak of Mount Sumeru, but they were cast down to the foot of the mountain due to their drunkenness. Thus the asuras and the devas of the Thirty-Three Gods engage in constant conflict, in which human beings also become embroiled.

AsuraThe asuras were not always regarded as evil beings. In the Rig Veda (1500-1000 BCE), asuras were a type of deva, such as Asura Varuna, the god of the celestial ocean, the underwater world, and law and order, moral and societal affairs, and nature. Asuras (lit. “lord”) were originally a term associated with individual devas, not a class of beings in their own right. Asuras become a distinct class of being during the late Vedic period (1000 BCE-500 BCE). Originally the asuras were the older and stronger siblings of the devas, powerful and beneficent. The later Vedic texts begin to document a conflict between the asuras and the devas, in which the asuras were invariably victorious. According to the Bhagavad Gita, the asuras are described as vicious, proud, arrogant, conceited, angry, harsh, and ignorant. This reflects a growing conflict between the older, dominant cult of asura worship and a newer but rising cult of deva worship. Originally, the asuras were non-anthropomorphic and formless gods, in contradistinction to the more anthropomorphic devas. The asuras were the guardians of the natural and moral laws of rita, the great principle of cosmic order that regulates and coordinates the operation of the universe, comparable to dharma and karma. The deva worshippers, on the other hand, were concerned with power, might, fear, submission, and the status quo. Interestingly, it was also during the late Vedic period that women were stripped of their traditional rights and privileges and demoted to the status of property, something the Buddha opposed but which was reinstated immediately after his death (parinirvana) about 400 BCE by the arhats of the First Buddhist Council. Thus, the division between the asura and deva worshippers appears to correspond to a social schism that occurred during the late Vedic period and culminated in the samana counterculture of the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. In Buddhism, the asuras are seen as inferior deities who are never satisfied and who always strive to improve themselves. This is paradoxical, because the Buddha opposed the Brahmanic establishment based on caste, supported by the deva worshippers, as a degenerate remnant of the primordial tradition that the Buddha sought to restore. This schism reflects a conflict between the adherents of the old gods that continues today, in which the worshippers of the old gods seek to restore their worship to a position of primacy, against the more recent gods of oppression. One finds a similar conflict in Egyptian mythology, in which the old gods, like Set, now associated with evil, were originally not regarded as evil at all. This principle of cosmic conflict became entrenched in later religions, such as Zoroastrianism and Christianity, as well. In the Iranian tradition, the asuras, especially Asura (Ahura) Mazda, the personification of Wisdom, retained their privileged status and it was the devas who were demonized and cast down.

Similarly, human beings originally occupied the radiant or splendid realm (abhasvara), next above the Brahma world.  Here we dwelled as beings of light or pure energy, characterized by delight and joy, with lifespans of approximately ten trillion years. The original transhumans or deva-humans were psychologically individual but physically alike. Plato describes them as celestial bisexual spheres of pure energy. When a universe re-emerges from a state of potentiality (the so-called vivartakalpa), it is immediately populated by humans from the Abhasvara realm. According to modern scientific reckoning, this occurred about 14 billion years ago. The first humans were not like modern humans. They shone in their own light, moved through the air without mechanical aid, lived for a very long time, and did not require physical nourishment. They were more like a type of inferior deity than contemporary human beings.  This was the age of the chakravartins (lit. “universal rulers”). However, gradually we developed a taste for physical food and sensation. Our bodies became heavier and more material. We lost our intrinsic luminosity. Our bodies became more differentiated. Our lifespan decreased. We divided into two genders and began to reproduce sexually. We began to hunt and eat the flesh of animals. Territoriality, property, greed, theft, violence, and criminality gradually overtook us. Social distinctions and government arose. The critical transition to humanity appears to have begun during the hunter-gatherer stage of human civilization. This arose about two million years ago according to the archaeological record, corresponding to Homo erectus, who is also credited with the discovery of fire. It culminates in the Neolithic Revolution, which occurred about 10,000 years ago. This appears to be the period when the deva-humans began to enter into the physical primate evolution through the process of rebirth or transmigration. This was perhaps facilitated by the ingestion of psychedelic plants by early primates, as suggested by Aldous Huxley, Terrence McKenna, Graham Hancock, and others, thus opening a “door” to the higher realms.

Asuras perceive devas in the same way that animals perceive humans. Humans perceive animals consistently, unless they are very small, but devas and asuras only rarely. Asuras are often confused with hell beings. The objection to devas that we do not see them disappears entirely when one realizes that one is comparing orders of sentient beings potentially comparable to the difference between an ant and a man.[4] A deva is no more visible to a man, than a man is to an ant, even though the latter may be crawling across his hand. The argument works the other way too. When was the last time you communicated with an ant? Yet ants and human beings inhabit the same terrestrial space. Thus, it is not necessarily true that the planes of samsara are ontologically separate, any more than the higher dimensions of strings are separated from space and time in string theory. All of the dimensions may co-exist and yet be invisible to each other. Similarly, we have millions of radio and television programs and cell phone conversations passing through our bodies right now, but we do not perceive them. Perhaps this is the reason why we have yet to “discover” extraterrestrial civilizations, some of which must be millions or even billions of years older than Homo sapiens. Perhaps they are right here, right now, but we simply cannot see them.

In order to appreciate a higher-energy being, one must adjust one’s own energy-vibration-frequency to their level. This is possible in theory by concentrating consciousness, increasing its “vibration.” Mind itself is the universal substrate of reality. Thus, all of reality is, in principle, accessible to it. This can be achieved through meditation or a variety of mind-altering techniques, both physical and psychological, including the ingestion of psychedelic substances, but one’s perceptions will be limited by one’s cognitive capacity, which is largely a matter of karma, since all human beings are capable of enlightenment in principle. This capability is the tathagatagarbha, the Buddha-potentiality. On the other hand, a Buddha has transcended samsara completely. Therefore, he is able to travel in a “mental body” to any part of samsara and communicate with the beings that inhabit other realms without limitation or distortion. Thus, he has a perfect understanding and knowledge of reality.

Vertical Phenomenology of Samsara

Realm Sub-realm Sanskrit Name Location Inhabitants Lifespan Meditative State
(14 additional planes do not communicate with the earth-plane)
Radiant devas Human beings (before they fell) 2nd jhana
  Streaming radiance Abhasvara 409,600 miles above the earth[5] 8 e.[6]
  Unbounded radiance Apramanabha 204,800 miles above the earth 4 e.
  Limited radiance Parittabha 102,400 miles above the earth 2 e.
Brahma devas Brahma gods 1st jhana
  Great Brahmas Mahabrahma 51,200 miles above the earth 1.5 e.
  Ministers of Brahma Brahmapurohita 25,600 miles above the earth 1 e.
  Retinue of Brahma Brahmaparisadya 12,800 miles above the earth 0.5 e.[7]
Happy Destinations (apaya)
Creative devas
  Devas wielding power over others’ creations Parinirmita-vasavartin 6,400 miles above the earth 9.2 b.y.
  Devas delighting in creation Nirmanarati 3,200 miles above the earth 2.3 b.y.
Contented devas Tusita 1,600 miles above the earth Bodhisattvas 576 m.y.
Temporal devas Yama 800 miles above the earth 44 m.y.
33 devas Trayastrimsa Peak of Mount Sumeru, elevation 400 miles[8] Asuras (before they fell) 36 m.y.
Four Great Kings Caturmaharajikakayika Slopes of Mount Sumeru, max. elevation 200 miles Nature spirits, trolls, goblins, fairies, etc. 9 m.y.
Humans Manusyaloka Islands in the ocean surrounding Mount Sumeru
  Jambudvipa Southern continent 10-120 y.
  Purvavideha Eastern continent 250 y.
  Aparagodaniya Western continent 500 y.
  Uttarakuru Northern continent 1,000 y.
Unhappy Destinations (sugati)
Asuras Asura Base of Mount Sumeru
Animals Tiryayoni-loka
Ghosts Pretaloka
Hell beings (divided into eight hot and cold hells) Naraka

Ascetic BuddhaWhen we consider spiritual development in this way, from the perspective of Buddhist cosmology, we see that we must “ascend” the “great chain of being” from the realm that we inhabit, the so-called earth realm, step by step. The life of the Bodhisattva Gautama is the paradigm of this process in the current eon. Even Gautama experienced two false starts before attaining enlightenment, after renouncing the world at the age of 29. First, he endeavoured to achieve transcendence by refining his consciousness to the ultimate degree. Although he experienced the highest possible meditative state, the fourth formless meditation, in which he realized the highest plane of samsara, the sphere of neither perception nor non-perception, he rejected it as unsatisfactory. Subsequently he plunged into a multi-year experiment in extreme asceticism (tapas), including self-mortification, living and sleeping in charnel grounds, mind control, breath control, and extreme fasting. Despite all this effort, all he achieved was bringing himself to the verge of dying. It was only after rejecting all of these practices as intrinsically worthless that he approached the periphery of enlightenment. He simply sat beneath a tree, and practised mindfulness of the breath and the body with intent mental concentration, insight, and detachment. Then he experienced his final challenge – his famous encounter with Asura Mara.

The character of Mara appears to have two different aspects which may be related to the conflict between the asuras and the devas. In one aspect he is a deva, a resident of the plane of the devas that wield power over others’ creations, the highest realm of the kama loka. Mara is commonly understood to be the chief of this realm; in another aspect, he is a demon or asura. It appears to be in the latter aspect that the Buddha encountered him on the cusp of his enlightenment. This story is well known and need not be repeated here. My main point is that Mara was intensely opposed to the Buddha’s enlightenment, for by becoming enlightened Gautama would not only escape Mara’s domination; Mara knew that he would lead countless others to do so too. Here we see the envy and hatred of the devas for which the asuras are famous. Yet in order to become enlightened Gautama also had to conquer Mara, as the chief of the asuras who block the way to the higher planes. From this we may infer that the asuras, in their war against the devas, are also opposed to human spiritual progress. Psychologically we would say that the asuras are the personification of the blind forces of desirous attachment, the instinctual complexes that bind humanity to samsara and the animal state. Mara must be encountered and overcome in order for the spiritual quest to be successful. This is, of course, the central axiom of Tantra. All the spiritual traditions of humanity attest to this “dark night of the soul,” the experience of agitation, confusion, and suffering without which the spiritual quest is fruitless. Nevertheless, as I have already mentioned, this Western psychological interpretation is only one side of the coin; the other side is the objective ontological existence of the asuras themselves. Thus, contemporary humanity is situated at a great crux. On the one hand, we can remain in the state of samsaric attachment, which is where the asuras want us to be, in the same state as the asuras themselves – ignorant, lustful, violent, and self-destructive. On the other hand, we can dare to encounter, challenge, and overcome the asuras themselves, and through an act of will, master them. This cannot be achieved by repression, however, or by reliance upon some fatuous vicarious atonement, for the asuras stand guard as sentinels at the base of Mount Sumeru, challenging and obstructing all those who endeavour to ascend to its peaks. They cannot be evaded or avoided. They arise out of the watery depths of the collective unconscious, and strive with all their power and might to possess and overwhelm all those who dare challenge them, dragging us down into the very chaos in which they exist themselves. This is the lesson par excellence of the enlightenment of the Buddha.

One is struck by the profound correspondence between Buddhist cosmology and the post-Newtonian scientific understanding of the nature of reality. This is all the more remarkable when one compares the Aryan cosmo-conception with the Semitic worldview, with its limited notions of a six-thousand-year-old universe, creation biology, flood geology, the unique spiritual status of the human species, racialism (“the chosen race”), geocentricity, etc., which led to the blood feud between the new science and the Church that in turn has led to the virtual abandonment of any notion of a vertical (spiritual) axis of existence in the West. This has led to the disasters of scientism, philosophical materialism, “scientific” socialism, social Darwinism, and fascism, the results of which not only threaten human civilization, but the very survival of the planet itself. I have documented some of these remarkable correspondences in this talk, including:

  • The reality of astronomical distances and vast cycles of time, including other stars, worlds, and sentient beings throughout the universe and beyond;
  • Interstellar space;
  • The big bang and the expansion, contraction, and ultimate destruction of, not just this universe, but many universes besides our own;
  • The extent of the solar system;
  • That reality has no origin and no creator;
  • The ubiquity of the law of causality;
  • The complete interdependence of phenomena, which was only proved in the 1960s by Bell’s Theorem;
  • Periodic destruction of planets by supernovas;
  • The reality of higher dimensions, characterized by different frequencies or vibrations of energy, all real but many of which are invisible and intangible to each other;
  • Time dilation;
  • The non-reality of matter; virtuality;
  • The non-uniqueness of human sentience;
  • Multiple human species;
  • The primacy of the mind (the quantum act of observation);
  • Process philosophy;
  • Continental drift;
  • Vast cycles of terrestrial, historical time, characterized by periodic world cataclysms;
  • One world ocean; 
  • The universality of sentience and thus the complete interconnectedness of all living beings, with no essential difference between them;
  • The genetically programmed longevity of Homo sapiens of 120 years;
  • The reality of air and space travel; and 
  • Finally, the reality of psychic abilities, which are just beginning to be classified and studied by science.

I hope the foregoing will convince even the most sceptical that the belief, prevalent in some schools of religious Buddhism, and based on an over-reliance on two texts, that the Buddha did not teach a theory of the nature of reality, is factually false. Thus, we may open our minds up to the realization that we do not pursue meditation in a vacuum. Spiritual development is not a purely mental or subjective activity. Rather, it expresses a profoundly real universal teleology through which one may discover, not merely abstract metaphysical or psychological insights, but profound realizations concerning the fundamental nature of what we choose to call “physical” reality.

Thank you very much.


PretasAt the request of a student I have added the following account of the preta world, i.e., the world of the spirits of the dead, commonly but mistakenly referred to as “hungry ghosts,” from the Chinese èguǐ. The pretas inhabit the paraloka or “other world,” and are characterized by insatiable hunger and thirst as well as being subject to immoderate heat and cold. This is one of the six classes of rebirth, one of the “unhappy destinations” below the human but above hell beings. Mostly they dwell on the earth, in desert and waste places, and thus may be counted as a “near-earth” realm, though they are normally invisible to humans, except when one is in a certain mood or mental state. When they do appear, they may appear during the day or the night, and may be recognized by their relatives. We, however, are visible to them. Generally human in appearance, the pretas are rather cadaverous, much like the traditional image of the zombie, although they can also appear as smoke or fire. The character of the smoke monster in the tv series Lost, which incorporates many Buddhist motifs, has the appearance of a preta. They have huge appetites but are unable to satisfy themselves, and feed on revolting and disgusting substances such as corpses and feces. Some pretas prey on human blood, like the vampire. Rebirth as a preta is the result of karma, like all rebirths, especially falseness, corruption, compulsiveness, deceit, jealousy, greed, and addiction. Mostly they are pitiable creatures, and people often leave food offerings to them in the temples and elsewhere. However, an offering directly given cannot benefit a preta – the merit of the offering must be transferred also. This is an interesting detail that shows that the concept of dedicating merit (puṇyapariṇāmanā) was established by the time that the Petavatthu (“Stories of the Departed”) in the Minor Anthologies (Khuddaka Nikaya) of the Pali Canon, was composed, perhaps 150 years or so after the death (parinirvana) of the Buddha (Law, History of Pali Literature, p. 36), although others place it as recently as the second century BCE (Obeyesekere 2002, 139). Thus, the view, held by some early scholars, that the practice of transferring merit is (a) a Mahayana practice exclusively, and (b) late (5th to 7th centuries CE) is definitely disproved.


1. These are Jambudvipa (“land of the Indian blackberry tree”), Purvavideha (“land of the thorntree”), Aparagodiyana (“land of the kadam tree”), and Uttarakuru (“land of the kalpa tree”), located in the south, east, west, and north respectively. Uttarakuru is the abode of the most advanced humans, who live for a thousand years and are, interestingly, communists. Our own species of human lives on Jambudvipa, characterized by the shortest lifespan of the four types.

2. These are Vaisravana, “he who hears everything”; Virudhaka, “he who causes to grow”; Dhrtarastra, “he who upholds the realm”; Virupaksa, “he who sees all,” associated with the colours yellow, blue, white, and red; the north, south, east, west; and various symbols, including the umbrella, mongoose, stupa, sword. pipa (lute), serpent, stupa, and pearl. The function of the Four Great Kings is to report to Sakra, the chief of the realm of the 33 gods, on the moral state of humanity.

3. Dr. J. Allen Hynek (1910-1986), noted astronomer and professor, was one of the most respected figures in the scientific study of the UFO phenomenon. Prophetically, in 1980 he declared at the Proceedings of the First International UFO Congress, “I hold it entirely possible that a technology exists, which encompasses both the physical and the psychic, the material and the mental. There are stars that are millions of years older than the sun. There may be a civilization that is millions of years more advanced than man’s. We have gone from Kitty Hawk to the moon in some seventy years, but it’s possible that a million-year-old civilization may know something that we don’t … I hypothesize an ‘M&M’ technology encompassing the mental and material realms. The psychic realms, so mysterious to us today, may be an ordinary part of an advanced technology.”

4. Ants appeared in the evolutionary record about 100 million years ago. Homo appeared about 2.5 million years ago. Consequently, the difference between ants and men is only about 97.5 million years, far less than the trillion year life span of devas, so it is clear that the difference between devas and men is of an order of magnitude of at least 10,000 times greater than that between ants and men.

5. The original sources of course do not indicate miles. To arrive at miles I have used an equivalence of 1 yojana = 5 miles (8.0467 km). The distance from the Radiant Devas to Mt. Sumeru is comparable to the distance between the earth and the moon.

6. According to one interpretation, an eon (mahakalpa) equals 1.28 trillion years, so the Abhasvara devas live about ten trillion years. (“Trillion” here is defined as one thousand billion, or ten followed by eleven zeroes.) In another interpretation it is 10 to the power of 140 (i.e., ten followed by 140 zeroes) – a much larger number.

7. The previous three figures are as given in the Sarvastivada tradition. The Vibhajyavada tradition has 1, 0.5, and 0.3 eons respectively.

8. This figure corresponds very closely to the outer limit of the earth’s atmosphere, the exobase (approx. 434 miles). The realm of the glorious devas approximates the distance of the earth from the sun; the Pure Abodes, Venus and Mars; and the Formless world, Saturn and Uranus. Thus, the maximum extent of the 31 planes of existence – somewhat over one billion miles – approximates a solar system.

Further Study

Jacques Vallee Discusses UFO Control System

Where Science and Buddhism Meet: Part 1

Where Science and Buddhism Meet: Part 2

Creativity, Cosmology and Communion: A Buddhist View of Psychedelics

The Planes of Existence

Buddhism and Metaphysics: Understanding the Nature of Reality