Cosmology of World in Buddhism: Samsara

The core idea of Buddhism cosmology is rebirth. Since rebirth is the unavoidable fate of all creatures, people want to find a way to save them from suffering, and Buddhism is the solution they found. Buddhist theories have a very clear statement about the attribution of all creatures, and what is the final solution for ending this cycle, samsara. The relationship between samsara, karma and nirvana was built in these theories. Karma, as a key factor, determines which layer of the world you will enter for samsara, like Gethin said in his book: 

“What determines in which realm a being is born? The short answer is karma…In fact Buddhist cosmology is at once a map of different realms of existence and a description of all possible experiences.” (Gethin 1998).

 Also, he claimed a way called nirvana to escape from samsara: “ … Buddhist practice that aims directly at the attainment of nirvana (Pali nibbana ) and release from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that is samsara.” (Gethin 1998). Generally speaking, Buddhists’ cosmology included the description of the world for samsara, the criteria of allocating creatures called karma, and the final solution for ending samsara named nirvana. People have a very strong motivation to practice Buddhism because of the cosmology and make Buddhism a successful religion in wide areas across Asia.

       Firstly, samsara is the root of  all suffering, and the suffering is partly caused by the process or rebirth in the heavens and hells. However, they are existing as a part of nature instead of a creature of Budda. In Buddhism, there are thirty-one realms with detailed explanations, but this paper will only talk about the lower eleven one since they are accessible for all people. The Buddha firstly constructed the structure of the world for us, as Gethin says: 

“ There is the world of the five senses (kama-dhatu, -loka ), which comprises eleven realms ranging from the realms of hell and ‘the hungry ghosts’, through the realms of animals, jealous gods, and human beings, to the six realms of the lower gods; the common characteristic of beings in all these realms is that they are all endowed with consciousness and five physical senses” (Gethin 1998).  

When these realms are depicted by the Buddha, he showed us what he saw and what it was like.  He has several interesting statements about it: “Buddha is said to have declared that samsara’s beginning was inconceivable and that its starting point could not be indicated…We have, it seems, been wandering in samsara for aeons.” (Gethin 1998).   He cannot determine the start point, but he can let you know what is happening under his observation. That is from his “awakening”, which means he can clearly see the true nature of world. The cosmology of Buddha is formed by his observation, and with its complicated and various description about world , it built a very persuasive and self-consistent world view for its believers. For lower levels of universe, there are also descriptions of the world: “At the center of a cakar-vada is the great world mountain, Meru of Sineru. This is surrounded by mountains and seas…”(Gethin 1998). Those vivid introductions give us a background of Buddha’s world view, and then when the Buddha talks about hells and heavens, the cruel description will frighten a lot of people. As he says: “In the hell, there are uncountable ways to torture a guilty person for almost infinity.” (Bodiford 2019.10.14). Gethin also mentioned: “…dominated by hatred one enters one of the hell realms where one suffers terrible pain;” …”(Gethin 1998) With those images and descriptions, the frightful hell and the desirable heaven are proposed, so what can be done to make us to be reborn in a better place?

       Secondly, Karma is the key factor determines your destiny after your death. Gethin answers this question with a precise definition:

“In general, though with some qualification, rebirth in the lower realms is considered to be the result of relatively unwholesome (akusala/akusala ), or bad. (papa ) karma, while rebirth in the higher realms the result of relatively wholesome (kusala/kusala ), or good (punya/puñña ) karma.” (Gethin 1998). 

With the desire of entering the high level, people try to do good things to increase their karma, and the moral status of people’s behaviors in their lives is exactly the grader of our rebirth: 

“…dominated by greed one becomes a hungry ghost, a class of beings ever discontent and anguished because of being unable to satisfy their greed; dominated by hatred one enters one of the hell realms where one suffers terrible pain; dominated by ignorance one becomes an animal ruled by the instincts of food and reproduction.” (Gethin 1998)

Karma is very specific, and it provides people a guideline for what they should do and what they shouldn’t do. These rules are very close to our natural moral value and the religious disciplines of Buddhism. The fear of heavens and hells gives people a reason to do everything Buddha teaches to make themselves a better future. Professor Bodiford also mentioned the joy in the heaven: “ The gods living in heaven only feels good feelings, eat tasty food, and do happy things. There is nothing bad in their life, and their happiness of living in the heaven cannot be imagined by human.” (Bodiford 2019.10.14). With all these things, Buddhism provides people the first way to reduce suffering: accumulating Karma. However, this is not the final solution since there is still a question: how to get out from samsara?

       Finally, practicing Buddhism and achieving nirvana is the only way to get out of the cycle. Even though human can enter higher levels, they are still wandering in the cycle. Even the highest resident god will die: 

“They will live for a long, happy life. It is long enough to make they feel that they are immortal. One day, they woke up, and they smell themselves stink. At this time, their death is not far, and the process of this is so painful and suffering, making them feel the pain they never experienced in their life.” (Bodiford 2019.10.14).

After all, when people are still in the samsara, they are still suffering. All human beings can’t escape this merely by doing good, since the highest realm is not nirvana: “One should note, however, that this hierarchy does not constitute a simple ladder which one, as it were, climbs, passing out at the top into nirvana.” (Gethin 1998). Actually, practicing Buddhism is the only way to escape from this, like Buddha did a long time ago. Like the definition given by Gethin: “The cessation of craving is, then, the goal of the Buddhist path, and equivalent to the cessation of suffering, the highest happiness, nirvana.” (Gethin 1998). He also claimed that everyone can attain nirvana: “In fact, nirvana may be obtained from any of the realms from the human to the highest of the Pure Abodes and the four formless realms, but not from the four lowest realms.” (Gethin 1998). This means that nirvana is an achievement anyone can reach if they practice Buddhism, and is the only way to end samsara and have ultimate happiness. By here, the strong logic chain of religious theory in Buddhism was formed, and it provides the people the incentive to practice Buddhism.

       To sum up, the idea of heavens and hells was contrasted perfectly with Buddhist cosmology. The cosmology was firstly created by the words of Buddha, where the importance of nirvana was mentioned, the world view was constructed, and the way to nirvana was introduced. With generations upon generations of studying and developing Buddhism, the  cosmology became more and more self-consistent, making the theories of Buddhism more and more persuasive. The relationship between samsara, karma and nirvana is very clear, and it builds a strong theoretical background to give people a reason to believe in and practice Buddhism. The exquisite cosmology allows Buddhism to survive in competition with other religions and flourish in the world.

Work Cited

Bodiford, William M. 2019.10.15. Classroom Lecture. Asian m60w, “Introduction to Buddhism.” University of California, Los Angeles.
Gethin, Rupert. 1998. The Foundations of Buddhism. New York: Oxford University Press.