In these two realms, Nimmanarati and Paranimmitavasavatti, we find the devas of creation and the devas who delight in the creations of other devas. As you can imagine, these are even more refined and long-lived than the Tusita devas. The Nimmanarati devas abide at almost magical levels of consciousness where the mind is so light and unburdened with temporality or form that it can create and sustain images according to its wishes. The Paranimmitavasavatti devas are one step further on from having to make the effort to create images of existence; they merely abide in the enjoyment of what has been created. They never question the purpose or result of these creations, but appreciate them for their own sake. The mortal earth realm has been left far behind and with it such considerations as impermanence, purpose, cause and effect. They rejoice to hear that the Dhamma has been taught, but it is probably because they perceived the flash of light and heard the rejoicing from below. This is a happiness that could easily lead to indolence and decadence, and, fittingly enough, one of the two monarchs who rule over the Paranimmitavasavatti realm is Mara—the lord of delusion, whom we have met many times before. The other monarch is in another quarter of the realm and doesn’t even know of Mara’s existence. It seems to me that there’s a very clear message here about this kind of bliss.
Creation is a magical act. It is the ability to produce simulacra of living or non-living entities, and even images of principles and thought. Creation ranges from physical procreation to everyday speech (whereby whole realms of experience are reproduced in the mind of another) to literature and the fine arts. The arts can use mundane objects but, through metaphor and other forms of craft, evoke higher meanings and implications in the mind of the reader/viewer. These meanings may be reflections on the significance or purpose of life or the relationship of the human to the universal. Creation should, therefore, be seen as a sacred act. In mythology and ancient civilization, it was sacred; creative acts were presided over by deities and attended by or prepared for with rites, ceremonies and priests who were there to move the minds of the participants away from the instincts of self. Art was a magical act, originated perhaps to evoke and commune with the spirits of the creatures that were painted—as with the cave paintings of creatures of the hunt at Lascaux. Poetry and literature established the values, the inspiration and the aspiration of the society. What an ecstasy of stillness for those creators, and what awe and rapture for those who reviewed and were enriched with their creations!
This creative impulse can also be traced in the development of Buddhist art. The Buddha himself taught in different styles. One style that was used employed high lyrical verse as a form called gathas. The Arahant disciples also left traces of their enlightenment in poetic form, collected as the Theragatha and Therigatha. These different forms of expression should be borne in mind so that we don’t expect everything attributed to the Buddha to fit into a prosaic, rational view. Although the Buddha did not encourage artistic representations of himself, tradition has it that he agreed to the representation of the Six Realms as a teaching device. After the Buddha’s passing away, the wish to establish sacred images as icons of the qualities of the Buddha or as visual metaphors for the furtherance of the Dhamma, naturally led to a swelling stream of poetry and visual arts. These forms of expression were very important for the largely non-literate and polylingual civilization of the Buddhist empires. The story of how they evolved and their importance is quite long, but I’ll cut it short to fit this painting.
After about 1,000 years in India, Buddhism had developed its literature and commentaries. During that time, many lineages of practice and theory arose and passed away. The more established vital centers of Buddhist theory were in Nalanda, near Bodh-Gaya, where an enormous university housed up to 20,000 students, in nearby Odantapura, and in Vikramashila in West Bengal. In these places, many of the Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings were established. By the eighth and ninth centuries of the Christian Era, they were still flourishing, while all the lands to the west came under the influence of Islam. That meant a later form of Buddhism, the Vajrayana, could only be transmitted due north, into Nepal and Tibet, or across the sea to Indonesia rather than along the now inaccessible routes from Afghanistan into China.
One feature of Buddhism as it appears in Mahayana and Vajrayana forms, is the development of the Buddha from a solitary sage to a principle of enlightenment. This principle is embodied and manifests in many places and over a large span of time. It’s a nice thing to think about: one Buddha is good, therefore two are twice as good, and so on. The historical Buddha, Gotama, is reported to have made reference to a whole lineage of 27 preceding Awakened Ones. Some may doubt this, but for the purposes of mythological and poetic truth, there is no reason why one shouldn’t have Buddhas everywhere. If their presence encourages the quality of awe and selfless attention to the present moment, if it develops the faculty of faith, if it helps to counterbalance the materialistic concerns of life, it has a purpose. As a historical account, it is not of much use anyway. In the Vajrayana, five Buddha forms have crystallized to convey this universality of Buddha-nature; the number five signifies the four cardinal directions and the center. These are called the five Dhyani Buddhas—that is, they are for the purpose of meditation (called dhyana in Sanskrit); one can learn to visualize them, practice devotion to them or reflect upon their qualities.
The central one is Vairocana whose name means “radiant.” He is generally white and is depicted with his hands in the Dhammacakkappavattana mudra. This is the Buddha that proclaims the Dhamma—the Four Noble Truths and Dependent Origination. His position is central; here I repeat the mudra throughout the painting recognizing that this (teaching the Dhamma) is still the fundamental significance of a Sammasambuddha—one who is completely self-enlightened.
Beginning on the right and proceeding counter-clockwise, the next Buddha is Akshobya, the Buddha of the East. His color is blue, his epithet—“imperturbable.” This is the Buddha at the moment of enlightenment, knowing how it actually is and repelling all delusion. His hand is in the earth-touching mudra. This is the “mindfulness mudra” much used in Southeast Asia as the epitome of Dhamma practice.
In the South is Ratnasambhava, traditionally painted yellow. Ratna is a jewel, so this is an emblem of the precious gifts of the Buddha mind. The hand mudra is that of generosity. Nowadays, this image is generally found in Tibet (and Nepal) where Vajrayana practitioners revere the boundless Dhamma gifts of the Buddha.
The Buddha of the West is called Amitabha. Like Akshobya, this image was established before the Islamic conquest of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and thence, traveled to China and Japan where it became very popular. In fact, a whole school arose based upon devotion to this one Buddha called the Pure Land School.
Herein, Amitabha (also known as Amida) is the Buddha of the Western Paradise. He promises that all who sincerely put their faith in him will be reborn in a Western Paradise, and work out their way to Nirvana from there. Of course, the catch is in what you take “sincerely” to mean. I would think it implies a lot more than a few recitations and prayers. Faith is made sincere by effort, mindfulness, concentration and discernment—then it certainly will get you to a pure state of mind. The fact that Amitabha is the Buddha portrayed in the posture of meditation seems to indicate that purity is not attained by paying lip service to the teaching alone. Actually, if used insightfully, Amitabha is a fine transcending teacher. His purpose is to cut, with a mind of faith and insight, the root perception that one is not enlightened and that one has to do something to become enlightened. As we have seen, this self-view, this identification with the habit-bound mind, can never be transcended by any actions proceeding from the sense of self. So in the Pure Land practice, the meditator abandons that view and proceeds from the basis of being one with the Buddha of bliss. You can’t do that by thinking about it—only through faith born of a powerful commitment.
The last of the Dhyani Buddhas is Amoghasiddhi, the Buddha of the North. His color is green and his hand is in the abhaya mudra, the sign of fearlessness. This Buddha’s characteristic is the All-Accomplishing Wisdom which is attained by means of the dispassionate, selfless activity of an Awakened One. Such activity is all-accomplishing because when there is no personal bias, and yet a full commitment to the welfare of others, love and insight operate in an unfaltering way. Amoghasiddhi never demands that people live up to any expectations, can never be disappointed, and hence never gives up on compassionate activity. Content to hold up the Dhamma in the fearlessness mudra, he acts as an unconditioned Refuge with no discrimination and no thought of result. Amoghasiddhi is a symbol of the equanimity that is regarded as the highest form of love.
Essentially, these Dhyani Buddhas are meant to be objects of contemplation to remind us of the practice and of the mind which gives rise to Awakening. All of these Dhyani Buddhas are believed to be offshoots of a supreme Adhi Buddha, a cosmic over-Buddha who never actually manifests in any form at all. He remains a potential for Awakening in the universe. All the Dhyani Buddhas are manifestations of that one single potential.
Upon these five Buddha-modes, I have evolved twenty-eight figures corresponding to the lineage of the 28 Buddhas described in a Theravada sutta, the Atanatiya Sutta (Digha Nikaya: 32), and also in an apocryphal book of verses, the Buddhavamsa. There are a few references made in the Pali Canon to previous Buddhas suggesting that Gotama Buddha was not the only one and that he rediscovered rather than created the Dhamma teachings. These references also indicate a continuum of spiritual purity that continues to manifest in the world. Although the lineage of the 28 Buddhas predates the manifestation of the Dhyani Buddhas, both serve as a reflection to encourage faith.
These forms and others like them became popular because one can retain them more clearly in the mind. If you are not steeped in contemplative ways of thought, say you are a farmer planting paddy fields behind a water buffalo, the relativity and ultimate emptiness of conditioned phenomena means much less than the idea that Buddha has compassion for you and will help you if you do good. Even for a contemplative, these images give the mind something more tangible to focus upon. And this is their sacredness.
But a creation can also become a hindrance. In order for it to be sacred, we should not be drawn into the creation or into its creator. The highest aim of Creation is to indicate the Uncreated. Poetry that succeeds in this endeavor reminds us of silence and the cessation of thought as the true source of fullness; visual arts remind us of the ephemeral nature of form and its dance with space. However, creations get profaned by self-view and become obsessive and narcissistic. Words and speech are profaned because they are used to heighten the ego sense or to project the ego’s wishes onto the universe. Sexuality is profaned into self-gratification and power fantasies. The same is true of religious forms and conventions—we can use them as objects to blindly worship and project our desires onto, or to throw at each other. So, the creation of Buddhas can lead to asking favors of images and making offerings to them for good luck; or to sectarian strife.
All the additions to a religious form can have great vitality in them, but if clung to blindly, they can obscure spiritual goals with cultural and metaphysical incrustations. The development of styles, lineages and conventions is a natural thing like the growth of a plant. While a tree grows, the systems that transport nutrition remain quite delicate. Its life-giving sap is carried through a fine ring of wood between the bark and the heartwood. The heartwood, which is there just to support the mass of the tree, becomes more and more massive, but it’s not where the life really is. Of course, the tree needs the support to hold the mass of leaves up, so the heartwood is not useless. But if you want maple syrup, you know where to look.
What we have to consciously aim for, and what we often neglect in the bliss of creation is the Way of transcendence, the Uncreated—that which is beyond form. It is to this that the Wheel of the Dhamma, the Four Noble Truths point. There may be other ways, but this Path is the shortcut. It does not attract energies that entangle and delude. And in this painting, as in many of the cultural and metaphysical accumulations around the Buddha’s words, the Wheel of the Dhamma has faded in significance. Here, it is just a few spokes of light emanating from Vairocana’s mudra. In the realm above, the light is even fainter.
Paranimmitavasavattinam devanam saddam sutva …
When they heard the cry of the Paranimmitavasavatti devas …