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.

2019 Article: A Hard Transformation toward Inclusive System: China

Deng Xiaoping is one of the greatest reformers in Chinese History. With more than two decades of planned economy and some mistakes in the political and economic policy, the economy of China nearly collapsed. In 1977, Deng decided to reform the economic system of China. From then on, the GDP and HDI of China skyrocketed for almost 40 years. Within this process, we gladly say that the system of China’s economy is moving towards inclusive, but there are some obstacles in this way and a lot of reasons shaped China’s system today. I want to express these from three aspects: good signs, bad signs, and comparison toward other countries.

Firstly, that’s talk about the better part. For the last 40 years, China made a lot of effort in transforming its political and economic system. For economic part, the idea of private property was introduced to China to replace communism, and the guarantee of private property is more and more reliable. The reform actually started with the reform in the countryside, where the peasants got their own land. The property right for city residents was also making progress. For example, the government can easily take residents’ land or houses with little compensation back to the 1990s, and the protest often ended up with casualty.  Now, the standard of compensation has been lifted up to a price higher than the market price, and no action will be performed unless officials have the consent of the owner of the property. The monopoly of the government industries was weakened: the department of oil, electricity, rail and postal service was abolished and replaced with several corporations. The stock of those corporations can be traded in the stock market, and there is some competition between those companies. Generally speaking, with the development of private economy and the open of different fields of economy towards western countries, China’s economic system made huge progress in the last 40 years, mainly in the protection of private property and the contracts. In the political system, there are also some improvements. Firstly, the government’s right was limited, and for the first time, people have the right to know about the government decision and express their own ideas. For example, in 2015, by protesting and strong opposing toward government, the citizen of Xiamen forced the government to change the location of a chemistry factory. The independent anti-corruption has a positive impact on the bureaucracy system. Compared to the economic system, the political system did change, but it is far from enough.

There are always problems with reform. The impact of the pre-socialism country is still inflecting China now. In fact, there are still a lot of relics of the extractive system in China now. Economically, the domination of government-funded corporations is still unshakeable. Almost all financial institution is public banks, and key industries, including transportation, mining, insurance, real estate, energy, and tobacco, are all controlled or partly controlled by the government. Also, in the developing area, the contract, especially those with governments, are not well protected. The competition system is still not reformed. Also, the most serious problem is that some of these public corporations still serve those upper classes with privilege, maybe political or economical, acting as their tool to extract people. Some of the officials gained millions of dollars from the public he was supposed to be responsible for, and all those people can only accept the fact. The development of private corporations is still managed by the government, and the restrictions sometimes prevent innovation from happening. Also, the transformation of the political system not very smooth. After the Tiananmen Protest in 1989, the CCP slowed down its political system reform, focusing on the economy. Until today, China is still an authoritarianism country with limited freedom of speech and democratic election. The whole political system, in its innermost, is still serving the elites. To sum up, we can say that China is in the balance right now.  The momentum of moving forward , by the unstoppable change from extractive economic system to inclusive system because of the wake up of the people, is balanced by the power from an extractive political system controlled by the elites in the government. Gladly we saw that the power of the extractive system is decaying, but it is still extremely powerful. In the process of moving toward an inclusive system, China had a hard time, and the future is still covered by dark. If China can make a smooth transformation towards inclusive political and economic systems, the Chinese economic miracle may continue.

Finally, since there is an axis about the location of China’s system in the world, I would like to explain the reason I put it there. China must have a relatively inclusive economic system to get the second-largest economy in the world, and the highly developed industries proved that. The technology development of China lead by innovation is rapid, and the open field of the Chinese economy is wider. For example, Tesla signed a contract with the Shanghai government to build one of its largest factories in Shanghai. Actually, China’s economic system is ranked pretty high. However, the political system is not that inclusive, which slows down China a lot. Consider both of these aspects, since China is moving toward the inclusive system, we can put China above South America, Africa, most of Asia, and behind the EU, Japan, the US, Canada, and other western counties. I think somewhere between Russia and South Korea will be a suitable place. China, like my hometown, is facing a great challenge right now. It has done a lot, but that’s not enough. In today’s China, the key to moving forward is determined by whether it can move forward to the inclusive system. 

本篇内容写于2019年,是于UCLA研究Development economics中的一点发现。个人习作,不代表任何观点。