This section of the Sutta describes the effect of the teaching on various celestial realms. In painting these pictures of the various devaloka, I have taken considerable artistic license. The text is very non-committal; it simply states that these various devas hear this, and then having done so, they proclaim it to the beings in the next realm. However, many people nowadays would dismiss the realm of the devata as a quaint feature of Buddhist cosmology, a hangover from Vedic tradition or the folklore of the time. The section of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta which describes the rejoicing of the devata that the Dhamma has been taught would then seem to serve no useful purpose, and even detract from the practical importance of the teaching by introducing elements of whimsical mythology. Are they there as signs of a textual aberration or as embellishments on the main body of the Sutta for conventional purposes? Do they add any meaning to the Sutta?
We can appreciate the significance of the heavenly realms by reflecting on the structures and themes of Buddhist cosmology. For a start, Buddhist cosmology puts the thinking mind in its place by making it clear that the universe of innumerable worlds is too vast for the human mind to reckon with. Our ability to conceive in rational terms is impressive, but finally inadequate for such a purpose. With the cultivation of the Path, we have to bring forth a different kind of “knowing”—one that is not abstract but related to the mind that can recognize dukkha. That kind of “knowing” is the insightful knowing that recognizes the changing and insubstantial nature of the sensory experience of reality. It is in touch with the quality of volition and kamma. As you come to understand dukkha, you recognize the voice of ignorance that persuasively denies any state of being other than that which is based upon a cursory attention to sensory experience. Through meditation, you can know the clinging that supports rational sense perceptions and denies irrational or mythical perceptions. The mind endowed with insight abides in the knowing that is free from such views. To the Awakened, things neither exist nor do they not exist; they have a relative existence, they arise and cease dependent on conditions.
The rational mind has not found satisfactory answers to the questions of the origin, the extent, the structure or the workings of the universe in purely material terms. A Buddhist, understanding the co-dependency of motivation and perception, might very well ask, “Why do you want to know?” Why you want to know, and your view of what you and the real world actually are, will affect how you attempt to find out the answer to this question. If your idea of reality is of being a separate entity in an objectively existing universe, you probably want to know it in order to eventually control and exploit it—the right that self-view grants to humans. So you try to understand the universe by looking at what is far away, not at your mind. (After all, that’s not supposed to be part of the universe.) If you want to see the universe through a telescope, fine, but that will only show you a telescope’s opinion of the universe, conditioned by the ways of telescopes, and interpreted by the brain. Do you believe in curved space? Or black holes where time slows down and stops? Or distances so vast that it would take millions of years traveling at the speed of light to cover a tiny portion of the Cosmos? Or that the stars are flecks of fire set in the vault of heaven? Or that God created human beings out of mud, having created the rest of the universe in five days?
Personally, I like all those ideas for what effects and reflections they can set off in my mind. But Buddhist cosmology is very closely tailored to fit the Path to the real experience of Nibbana. In this system, the “world” that we dwell in is the realm of conscious experience in which the ingrained volitional tendencies and perceptions of consciousness play an essential part.
Apart from the activity of the self as subject in sensory reaction, memory and association, imagination, judgment and inference, there can be no world of objects. A thing in itself which is not a thing to some consciousness is an entirely unreliable, because contradictory, conception. (J.H. Muirhead: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1944 edition)
No intended actions are without effect in the world of the agent. With this understanding, Buddhist cosmology works, in line with every other form of the teaching: as a guide for conscious experience; to bring the mind out of the realms of attachment to the conscious experience of Nibbana—Amaravati, the Deathless Realm. It offers a reflection on how we are integrated with the universe; it qualifies the teachings on the laws of kamma and birth in vivid terms. Without those laws, our whole sense of purpose and guidance is lost and we exist in a confused purgatory. (The hell realms are the conscious experience of existence without any understanding of morality.) Cosmology also emphasizes the significance of the human realm: it is in the human state alone that good kamma can be created. Beings in lower realms are generally unaware of the laws of kamma and have to remain there until the effects of bad kamma have worn out. On the other hand, the realms of the devata are happy, but dependent upon past good kamma which can only be accrued by participating in and aligning the mind with the skillful acts of human beings.
In a characteristically Buddhist way, the highest opportunities do not come to those who have the most comfort and pleasure, nor to those who have the most suffering, but to those of the middling painful and pleasant human realm. The human birth is the most fortunate, having the possibility of immediate realization of Nibbana and of creating good kamma. It is, then, part of the practice of this human realm to share the fruits of their good kamma with all beings throughout the world system who are able to share in it. Most Buddhist traditions have spiritual exercises that, as in Christian prayer, project the energy of consciousness that has been enriched by meditation, generosity, sense restraint, and so on, towards all beings. In Buddhist practice, this is called “the sharing of merit” (puñña). Hence, rather than condemning those who are evil or worshipping (or feeling jealous of) the fortunate, we cultivate sharing the goodness of our practice with all beings wherever they are on the Great Wheel of Becoming. Cultivation of the mind along these lines broadens the vision of the practice and transforms the self-oriented thinking and actions that prevent consciousness from flowing towards liberation.
Rather than dismissing cosmology or seeing it as something very abstract, I would encourage a reflective interpretation with a breadth of vision and scope that is missing in meditation techniques. Even with meditation practice, people’s basic viewpoint comes from the belief in themselves as ultimately separate beings.
Human beings are born on one of the grosser material planes, and are deluded by it. We tend to get locked into a few limited responses in our dealings with the material world. Rather than bringing forth the subtle beauties that the mind is capable of—such as gratitude, wisdom and empathy with the world of form—much of the response is based upon greed, aversion and ignorance. Although the human mind can experience a profound range of consciousness, from insensitive stupor to ecstatic bliss (simulacra of what is mapped out in cosmology), we also base our attitudes on the assumption (coupled with the denial) that we are incarcerated in a skin bag for a lifetime and then annihilated. With that view, the mind is bound to generate “get it while you can” impulses. True enough, that view has a certain reality to it too: it holds up under the dim light of semi-conscious experience. But acting on that assumption certainly heightens the possibility for birth in one of those lower realms of delusion.
As we have seen, there are many worlds in Buddhist cosmology: among these are the realms of celestial beings called devata or devas. Such beings make a fairly common appearance in the scriptures of all the Buddhist schools; in fact, the Buddha is known as the teacher of celestial as well as human beings. They are born in the celestial realm, in accordance with the laws of kamma, through having lived human lives full of such virtues as kindness, honesty, harmlessness and generosity. According to scriptural accounts, devata are less constrained by material form, having more diaphanous bodies and a consciousness which is intelligent and refined. The subtlety and the skill of the Buddha’s teachings appeal to them; and they have a high regard for morality. The Buddha apparently taught the Abhidhamma, the metaphysical construction of the Dhamma, for their benefit and many gained understanding through that.
However, the devata find the direct understanding of Dhamma through contemplating impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and not-self even more difficult than humans do. Life on that ethereal plane seems very long so it is difficult for the devas to notice impermanence. The almost constant refined happiness (some devas feel a little under par for a week before they pass away) does not motivate them to have a great urge to practice. Consequently, they are unable to provide a transcendent teaching for others. However, they are sensitive to purity and gentleness. Whenever these qualities manifest, they experience great joy. They all celebrate the proclamation of the Dhamma but few gain the Dhamma eye. It is from the suggestion in the Sutta that they are rejoicing but not sharing Kondañña’s insight that this series of paintings evolved.
What relevance has the plight of the devata to the struggling human aspirant? Quite a lot when we recognize that the universe, including the heaven realms, is as much a part of us as we are of it. In Buddhist cosmology, heavens and hells are equivalent to states of mind that we can experience within this life-span. As these result from the degrees of refinement of the mind’s attachments, the heavenly realms embody the positions that consciousness can adopt in the search for Truth. They provide a perfect model of how the mind can grasp pleasant and inspiring states, and be unable to reflect upon them as changing and insubstantial. It is useful to know about the biases of the high-minded, peace-loving celestial realms when it comes to working with our own well-intentioned inclinations. We have to remember that it is only through non-attachment and insight that we can realize the liberation that is for the ultimate welfare of all beings.
The first group of devata, the Bhumma or Earth devas, (pronounced as “boomer” not “bummer”) do not have a realm of their own; they abide on the earth, probably under the supervision of the Four Great Kings (who appear in the next painting). Folklore of most countries mention encounters with these beings.
We can see them as representative of the states of mind that find happiness in the beauty of the earth. When one walks around in beautiful countryside on a sunny day and the birds are singing, the grass is green and the sky is blue, one feels an inner happiness. But if one is looking for powerful excitement, or if one has just had a fight, then it is difficult to appreciate the beauty of Nature. It depends on the kamma-vipaka in the mind of the individual. An appreciation of Nature requires a somewhat refined state of consciousness which is natural in a calm or gentle mind. This is where the earth devas live.
The devas really appreciate the presence of the Buddha, but with their unreflective minds, they portray him based upon their limited deva experience. So he appears as one of them—a very sunny, radiant being—and the Wheel of the Law becomes just a decorative frame for him. We see them here paying little attention to the Dhamma—the teachings on impermanence, cessation of becoming and the realization of Nibbana. They are enjoying themselves: one of them is riding on a fish, one is sitting on a flower, one of them is riding on a bird and everything is fine in the world. “We’ll think about Nibbana some other time; this existence is good enough.” This is the devaloka of refined physical pleasure. The next one is somewhat different.