The Great Gathering
Digha Nikaya 20
The Buddha is in the Great Forest of Kapilavasthu (Pali Kapilavatthu), his home town. The Buddha had promised his father, Suddhodana, to return to Kapilavasthu after he achieved enlightenment. I believe the Buddha returned to Kapilavasthu four years later too, so this sutta may describe the occasion of his initial or subsequent return. I’ve also mentioned in other talks that the Pali Canon refers to devas – literally ‘shining’ or ‘luminous’ beings that inhabit higher dimensions or planes of existence – who also inhabit or visit the earth plane. Here again we find this motif. The sutta says that devas from the ten world systems “frequently” visited the Buddha and the sangha at Kapilavastu. Walshe, the translator, provides no explanation except to note that Rhys Davids’s translation of “10,000 world systems” is wrong (the reference to 10,000 world systems refers to the “horizontal” extension of samsara, whereas the present context is “vertical”; nevertheless, the repetition of the number ten is not accidental. The ten world systems suggest, for example, the ten sephiroth of the Cabala.).
We have discussed the 31 planes of existence in other talks, but how they may be divided into ten is speculative. We know from other texts that there is communication between humans and the devas in the realms above the earth plane, including the Four Great Kings up to the Brahma realms. The devas of the Formless realm have no business with human beings, and have no physical shape or location. This leaves four major realms of the Rupaloka, which, together with the six realms of the Kamaloka, make ten “world-systems.”
|Realms (lokas)||Sephiroth||Meaning of Sephiroth|
|1.||Five Pure Abodes (home of arhants)||Keter||Crown|
|2.||The Glorious Devas||Chokhmah||Wisdom|
|3.||Radiant Devas (original home of humanity)||Binah||Understanding|
|4.||Brahma Devas (goal of the brahmans)||Chesed||Loving Kindness|
|5.||Devas Who Appropriate the Work of Others||Geburah||Judgment|
|6.||Devas Who Delight in Made Shapes||Tiferet||Adornment|
|7.||Satisfied Devas (Tusita) (home of Bodhisattvas)||Netzach||Victory|
|8.||The 33 Gods (original home of asuras)||Hod||Splendour|
|10.||The Four Great Kings||Malkuth||Kingdom|
Table 1. Comparison of the Deva Realms and the Sephiroth of the Cabalistic Tree of Life
The worlds of manifestation are also divided into six classes of being.
The Pali mentions four devas of the Pure Abodes – the place where non-returners are reborn before they attain nirvana – that resolve to visit the Buddha. The Sanskrit version of this sutta mentions four female devas from the Brahma world. These devas appear instantaneously before the Buddha, and praise the sangha in verse. The sangha is referred to as “the unconquered brotherhood” and “spotless seers, like well-trained elephants,” referring to their “concentrated minds.” They use the interesting metaphor, “Bars and barriers broken, the threshold stone of lust torn up,” referring to the stone that constitutes the sill of a doorway or, perhaps, the wall of a house. The doctrine is expressed that those who take refuge in the Buddha (note: not referring to the dharma or the sangha in the familiar triple formula) will not be reborn in a lower world but will be reborn as a deva.
The Buddha declares that he will teach the monks concerning the devas of the ten world systems. It seems to be an oft-repeated question whether devas can attain nirvana. We know of course that the devas of the Five Pure Abodes do in fact attain nirvana from the deva realms so, as with women, we know that it is possible, but the suttas also state that it is a rare and difficult thing for them to do because of their great happiness and ease. Nevertheless we know that the devas rejoice when a Buddha to be is born and that there are devas who convert to the dharma.
The sutta describes a collective vision of numbers of devas, ranging from hundreds or thousands to innumerable, “all around.” Shared visionary perceptions of luminous phenenona are of course part of the UFO phenomenology. The sutta also implies that experiences of this type are only available to advanced individuals like the Buddha and his monastics, and that the experience varies according to the quality of consciousness of the percipient. To cite a well-researched example, in the vision of Fatima (1917) some saw nothing, but others saw a great deal more in varying degrees. The cameras, of course, picked up nothing. Superhuman vision must be activated by striving. Reality is constructed by consciously directed intention. The quality of the seer is thus described:
Those who dwell composed and resolute
Like lions in mountain-caves, have overcome
Hair-raising fear and dread, their minds
White and pure, unstained and calm.
The Buddha conquered fear in the forest during his six years of asceticism, and prescribed going into the forest to meditate for this purpose. The Buddha prescribed mantras for these renunciates, one of the proofs in the Pali Canon that the Buddha believed in the efficacy of mantras and used them.
The Buddha proceeds to describe the deva hosts as they appear before the sangha. Walshe compares the list to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The act of naming has an archaic archetypal mythological significance. The description begins with numbers of yakshas, earthbound devas who also inhabit the realm of the Four Great Kings. We encountered the yaksha Janavasabhava in sutta 18. As I mentioned then, there are two sorts of yaksha. One type is an inoffensive, even beneficent, nature fairy, associated with woods and mountains. The other type appears as a ghost or ogre that haunts the wilderness and attacks and devours travellers. These yakshas originate in Kapilavastu, the Himalayas, and Mount Sata. These also appear to be followers of Kapila, the founder of Kapilvastu. Another group from Rajagaha are said to be followers to the rishi Vessamitta. A third group, also from Rajagaha, follow Kumbhira. Kumbhira is the chief of the kumbhandas, dwarfish, misshapen spirits, traditionally represented with big stomachs (or testicles). They are a sub-type of yaksha and inhabit the southern part of the realm of the Four Great Kings, under Virulhaka, the guardian of that direction. Here again we see the Buddhist notion that some devas are living invisibly amongst us on the earth to which I have alluded from time to time.
The Buddha proceeds to describe the realm of the Four Great Kings, next above the earth-plane, including the names of the Four Great Kings themselves, who guard the four directions, and the names of their vassals, described, interestingly, as “skilled deceivers.” These include beings like Matali, the devas’ charioteer. Other beings of many different sorts appear, including nagas, the great snake spirits; fierce garuda birds with intelligence and social organization, which, like the Brahmans, are referred to as “twice-born”; and even the asuras, the anti-gods who were cast out of the realm of the 33 Gods by Indra, described as “ocean dwellers now, in magic skilled.” The Buddha refers to devas of the elements, water, earth, fire, and wind; Soma, the god of the primordial psychedelic sacrament of the rishis that inspired the Veda; devas of the moon and the sun; constellation gods, clearly referring to the astrological signs of the zodiac; “sprites of clouds”; “beings manlike and more than manlike”; Pajunna the Thunderer, who causes rain; and gods of flame (asavas). Some of the names are recognizable as referring to the lower realms of what we know as the 31 planes of existence: the Brahmas, including Harita, the ancestor of the Brahman lineage, and Sanatkumara, who appeared to the assembly of the 33 gods; “those who delight in shapes they’ve made,” “those who seize on others’ work,” the Tusita realm, Yama the lord of the yama realm, Sakka the lord of the realm of the 33 gods, and of course the asura realm in the one world ocean. The overall impression is one of the universal profligacy of life at all different stages and degrees of conscious development, as well as the universal tendency to labelling and organization that seems to be the essential nature of life itself.
So the devas, the Buddhas, and the monastics are all arrayed in perfect splendour, when Mara comes, called here “the Black one,” with his army. Mara shouts:
Come on, seize and bind them all! With lust
We’ll catch them all! Surround them all about,
Let none escape, whoever he may be!
This situation makes it clear that Mara’s teleology is to enslave humanity to samsara through desirous attachment. He is, one might say, the personification of desirous attachment. The military metaphor is also clear. The field of desire is conflicted. “Competitive,” a social Darwinian might say. But Mara falls back, “enraged but powerless,” for there is no basis for lust in this assembly.
And Mara’s hosts drew back from those on whom
Neither lust nor fear could gain a hold.
Victorious, transcending fear, they’ve won:
His followers rejoice with all the worlds.
The reference to fear is interesting. Mara is usually associated with lust, but here he is also associated with fear, hence the significance of the meditation on fear mentioned above. Overcoming fear and overcoming lust are related, so we may also say that fear, apparently the converse of desirous attachment, is really its corollary and complement and, perhaps, even its essence. If we overcome the fear of loss then we can overcome the desire to control and possess.
This sutta has the same numinous character as sutta 19, which we called a spirit communication, and appears to be another example of a similar type of sutta. It seems that such phenomena appeared early on in the development of the Buddhist cult.
Summary of Doctrines
- That the devas visit the Buddha and that he learns from them.
- That deva travel is instantaneous.
- That those who take refuge in the Buddha will not experience a lower rebirth.
- That devas manifest as luminous aerial phenomena.
- That devas are only visible to those of refined mindfulness.
- That the meditation that destroys fear is part of the Buddhist path of dispassion.
- That some devas live invisibly amongst men on earth.
- That the asuras are skilled in the practice of magic (perhaps shamans?)
- That desirous attachment, fear, and warfare are interrelated.