World Cycles and Cosmic Systems

A discussion on all aspects of Theravāda Buddhism

World Cycles and Cosmic Systems

Postby son of dhamma » Wed Jan 05, 2011 3:16 am

In response to a limited number of requests, and also the absence of a basic discussion of world-cycles and cosmic systems according to the Buddhadhamma, I've been urged to create this post to incline a general discussion on these matters.



A single world-system is constituted by a grouping of beings who populate the planes between the first and lowest plane to the third plane of the first jhana; that is, the four miserable planes (Niraya, Tiraccana, Pettivisaya, Asurayoni), Manussa (Human plane), the six sensual-heaven planes, and then the Brahma Assembly plane, Brahma Ministers plane, and Mahabrahma (first three planes of the Form realm). This system is known as a world, with its own sun and moon, men and devas. There exists an innumerable number of such world-systems.

World-systems undergo a natural cycle of death and rebirth called a mahakappa (great aeon). This is the period of time between the complete dissolution of the world until it is again completely dissolved; this is the destruction by fire. World-systems appear and disappear due to an influx of higher beings and a corresponding expurgation of lower beings again into the higher cosmic systems (more detail later). The mahakappa is divided into four phases called asankheyyakappas (incalculable aeons) which can't be calculated by conventional means, and they are by no means equal periods. The first is the dissolution phase, in which the world-system is in a state of decline. The second is the dissolved phase, in which the world-system is in dissolved stasis. The third is the evolution phase, in which the world-system has begun to reform once again. Finally the evolved phase takes place, in which the formative processes of the world-system have brought about the evolved stasis of a living, organically functioning planet.


- During the first asankheyyakappa, the dissolution phase, the sustaining processes of the world begin to break down and the system continues to deteriorate for an incalculable period. During this break-down, the beings of the lower planes pass away and ascend into higher planes en mass. This ascension from lower-to-higher states takes place consecutively, and as a result the planes are emptied and destroyed from the "bottom" up. This kammic expurgation of beings eventually results in a complete dissolution of the world-system, in which the planet and solar structure has been immolated, following into the second asankheyyakappa.

- During the second asankheyyakappa, the dissolved phase, beings have mostly be born as Gods of Streaming Radiance (17th plane, Form realm), and so they remain for a very long time. (The lifespan of this plane is 8 mahakappas.) During the entirety of this phase, there persists to be no world-system. Near the end of the asankheyyakappa, a new solar-system begins to be reborn.

- During the third asankheyyakappa, the evolution phase, a being passes away from a higher plane into Mahabrahma. He arises in this world of fine-matter to find himself utterly alone, as the world-system begins to reform, and remains there for a very long time. Eventually he begins to feel isolated, and at that point several other beings pass away into this plane. Then the perception arises in him that he is their creator, and they too have this perception. Then there ensues a continual process of dissension as beings pass away and the depletion of their kammic merit gradually brings them to rebirths in lower states. Eventually, some of these beings pass away into the human plane, on "earth", composed of subtle matter, floating about, self-luminous. At this time the sun and the moon have not yet appeared in the gloom, and there has not developed sexuality or any discrimination between beings (beings being reckoned only as beings), and this continues for a very long time. At last, a savory nutriment--like the foam that forms on rice as its cooking, colored like fine ghee--appears on the surface of the great ocean. Some of the beings who have become of a greedy nature (as a result of kamma) partake in this nutriment, and eventually in consequence lose their self-luminance. Now the light of the sun penetrates through the gloom, and the moon and the stars and sky become visible. As beings continue to consume the nutriment, their composition becomes less subtle and they continue to degenerate into gross material beings. Moreover, they begin to develop physical distinctions and some of them even disposition toward other groups. At the beginning of this degeneration, the savory earth-nutriment disappears and is replaced by fungi-like organisms, of which the beings also partake. This is the beginning of a long process of devolution, in which the beings develop sex-organs and differentiate into other classes and continue to degenerate in an increasing number of various branches, according to increasing immorality (due to kamma). Whilst this occurs, the primary source of nutriment for human beings is replaced several times; from fungi, to bamboo-like "creepers", and then to hardy rice-like plants. Finally this process of devolution bottoms out to the most rudimentary forms of sentient creatures, which are the first to become beings of completely gross composition. The forms of non-sentient life, such as plants and the productive organisms, have also been duly evolved.

- During the fourth asankheyyakappa, the evolved phase, a stable world-system has formed, populated with subtle beings and also gross forms of life (mostly animals & humans). The five orders of law (Seasonal, Biological, Kammic, Phenomenological, Psychological) have come to establish a rapidly convulsing system of sensual planes, due to the kammic devolution of beings from the higher cosmic systems (planes 15-31).

Furthermore, these asankheyyakappas are divided into somewhat of 20 antarakappas (included aeons), in which the human lifespan is said to fluctuate completely from 10 years to 100,000 years according to moral integrity. Keep in mind that much of these "included aeons" elapse during times in which human beings are not completely gross, as we are now in the continued evolution phase (evolved phase).
Yet another periodical term is an asankheyya, which simply means an incalculable period of time in itself, as opposed to an incalculable aeon.


REMOVED EXTRANEOUS MAHAYANA REFERENCES, for convenience.


I hope that this is enough basic material to spurge the discussion formerly requested.
with metta
Last edited by son of dhamma on Wed Jan 05, 2011 10:56 pm, edited 2 times in total.
Sometimes no Buddhas arise in the world. Sometimes they do. When it happens, it is for the welfare and happiness of men, out of compassion for all creatures. For a long, long time he has been working to become a Buddha. He met other Buddhas along the way. And after his long striving he attains his final life, yet not without showing everyone else how to get there.
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Re: World Cycles and Cosmic Systems

Postby Individual » Wed Jan 05, 2011 3:19 am

Fix the paragraph breaks or it is hard to read.
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Re: World Cycles and Cosmic Systems

Postby tiltbillings » Wed Jan 05, 2011 8:44 am

I hope that this is enough basic material to spurge the discussion formerly requested.


Spurge: Image

Can't quite figure out why we should spurge a discussion.
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
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Re: World Cycles and Cosmic Systems

Postby PeterB » Wed Jan 05, 2011 9:00 am

Or why such a discussion should show the origins of dukkha and what to do about it.
I am more concerned with spin cycles and my digestive system.
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Re: World Cycles and Cosmic Systems

Postby clw_uk » Wed Jan 05, 2011 10:08 am

What is the fruit of discussing it?
“ Your mind is likewise blocked. But the right road awaits you still. Cast out your doubts, your fears and your desires, let go of grief and of hope as well, for where these rule , then the mind is their subject." Boetius
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Re: World Cycles and Cosmic Systems

Postby tiltbillings » Wed Jan 05, 2011 10:13 am

clw_uk wrote:What is the fruit of discussing it?
It is part of the tradition. There might be some value in looking at it in those terms.
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
SN I, 38.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine.
People live in one another’s shelter.

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Re: World Cycles and Cosmic Systems

Postby PeterB » Wed Jan 05, 2011 10:34 am

There might Tilt..... :coffee:
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Re: World Cycles and Cosmic Systems

Postby tiltbillings » Wed Jan 05, 2011 10:37 am

PeterB wrote:There might Tilt..... :coffee:
, but it is not a necessity for awakening.
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
SN I, 38.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine.
People live in one another’s shelter.

"We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts." -- Jack Johnson
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Re: World Cycles and Cosmic Systems

Postby pt1 » Wed Jan 05, 2011 12:26 pm

tiltbillings wrote:
PeterB wrote:There might Tilt..... :coffee:
, but it is not a necessity for awakening.

Hm, unless perhaps one gets to awakening through three knowledges - recollection of former abodes, seeing the arising and passing away of beings, and destruction of cankers. I think the second knowledge of seeing the arising and passing away of beings would have something to do with what son of dhamma is talking about. But, not having any sort of experiences in that direction, I don't really know.

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Re: World Cycles and Cosmic Systems

Postby pt1 » Wed Jan 05, 2011 12:31 pm

son of dhamma wrote:In response to a limited number of requests, and also the absence of a basic discussion of world-cycles and cosmic systems according to the Buddhadhamma, I've been urged to create this post to incline a general discussion on these matters.

Hi son of dhamma (dhammaputto?),

Interesting. Don't know much on the topic, so could you please give a few references where you draw your info from? In particular- on what basis do you conclude that the whole thing has a "branch-structure"? I.e. that thousand world-systems are contained within a chiliocosm, and then a thousand of these in a dichiliocosm, etc.

Also:
son of dhamma wrote:Therefore, the sentient beings of the Formless realm exist above all the infinite world-systems, on the highest cosmic level, where they persist for such long durations and see so many beings passing away with such frequency that they misconceive of their own immortality and eternal existence.

I'm not quite sure in what way beings in formless realms get to "see" other beings pass away, not having any of the 5 senses. I'm asking this not to find fault with your statement, but because I'm actually wondering how can they experience the other beings in other realms without the senses... Actually, that might happen through all that divine-eye and divine-ear business, though I'm not sure if formless beings can actually have these either, if they don't have the normal sense-bases in the first place?

Also:
- how does mount-Meru figure in all this?
- how does a buddhafield figure in all this?

Of course, references welcome. Thanks.

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Re: World Cycles and Cosmic Systems

Postby unspoken » Wed Jan 05, 2011 1:38 pm

Thanks for the post, appreciate it.

It may not bring some value over enlightenment for some people. But it's helpful to reflect that for so many Aeons of life we've been through, we haven't been enlightened.
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Re: World Cycles and Cosmic Systems

Postby Individual » Wed Jan 05, 2011 1:50 pm

tiltbillings wrote:
I hope that this is enough basic material to spurge the discussion formerly requested.


Spurge: Image

Can't quite figure out why we should spurge a discussion.

Perhaps you should post a flower which symbolizes a profound truth beyond words, which can only be understood through mindfulness -- and doesn't belong to Theravada, Mahayana, or Tiltbillings.

Or not, because others would just miss it and keep on spurging.

I like that word... Spurging. :)
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Re: World Cycles and Cosmic Systems

Postby son of dhamma » Wed Jan 05, 2011 10:54 pm

pt1 wrote:
son of dhamma wrote:In response to a limited number of requests, and also the absence of a basic discussion of world-cycles and cosmic systems according to the Buddhadhamma, I've been urged to create this post to incline a general discussion on these matters.

Hi son of dhamma (dhammaputto?),

Interesting. Don't know much on the topic, so could you please give a few references where you draw your info from? In particular- on what basis do you conclude that the whole thing has a "branch-structure"? I.e. that thousand world-systems are contained within a chiliocosm, and then a thousand of these in a dichiliocosm, etc.

Also:
son of dhamma wrote:Therefore, the sentient beings of the Formless realm exist above all the infinite world-systems, on the highest cosmic level, where they persist for such long durations and see so many beings passing away with such frequency that they misconceive of their own immortality and eternal existence.

I'm not quite sure in what way beings in formless realms get to "see" other beings pass away, not having any of the 5 senses. I'm asking this not to find fault with your statement, but because I'm actually wondering how can they experience the other beings in other realms without the senses... Actually, that might happen through all that divine-eye and divine-ear business, though I'm not sure if formless beings can actually have these either, if they don't have the normal sense-bases in the first place?

Also:
- how does mount-Meru figure in all this?
- how does a buddhafield figure in all this?

Of course, references welcome. Thanks.

Best wishes



Actually, the Buddha did not describe the horizontal "dimensional-width" of the cosmos. The chiliocosms were explained in later doctrinal formation of the Mahayana, specifically the Diamond Sutra. So, chiliocosms and and greater world-systems should not be considered Theravada or traditional Buddhist cosmology. I was inclined to think that this would be evident to the Buddhists here, but I should not have been careless.
The Buddha explained the 31 planes, and the temporal cosmology as well, in various suttas and in books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka. But greater world-systems were never mentioned by him, and are simply inventions of the traditions which later formed. I consider these ideas to be notable and so I noted them. So in answer to your question, there is no branch system in Buddhist cosmology whatsoever--it is a Mahayana imposition. Buddha-fields are also Mahayana impositions, which surely don't seem to relate to the original Dhammic cosmology, at least not in the notable way that the included horizontal scheme of the Mahayana does. Apologies to having confused anyone regarding chiliocosms. Temporal and vertical cosmology is in fact accurate.

For the sake of convenience, I removed the extraneous Mahayana content.
with metta
Last edited by son of dhamma on Wed Jan 05, 2011 11:11 pm, edited 1 time in total.
Sometimes no Buddhas arise in the world. Sometimes they do. When it happens, it is for the welfare and happiness of men, out of compassion for all creatures. For a long, long time he has been working to become a Buddha. He met other Buddhas along the way. And after his long striving he attains his final life, yet not without showing everyone else how to get there.
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Re: World Cycles and Cosmic Systems

Postby son of dhamma » Wed Jan 05, 2011 11:03 pm

pt1 wrote:I'm not quite sure in what way beings in formless realms get to "see" other beings pass away, not having any of the 5 senses. I'm asking this not to find fault with your statement, but because I'm actually wondering how can they experience the other beings in other realms without the senses... Actually, that might happen through all that divine-eye and divine-ear business, though I'm not sure if formless beings can actually have these either, if they don't have the normal sense-bases in the first place?




Formless beings certainly do perceive other beings and the beings of planes below them, which includes all beings that exist who populate innumerable world-systems, endlessly arising. They have no corporeality, but they are composed of mind and have mental perception. The lifespans of these planes are as follows:
Base of Infinite Space, 20,000 mahakappas
Base of Infinite Consciousness, 40,000 mahakappas
Base of Nothingness, 60,000 mahakappas
Base of neither Perception nor Non-perception, 84,000 mahakappas

It is in the plane of Non-percipient Gods, of the fourth jhanic planes in the Form realm, that beings do not perceive, and only in this plane do beings exist in such a state (unconscious, as it is said).
with metta
Sometimes no Buddhas arise in the world. Sometimes they do. When it happens, it is for the welfare and happiness of men, out of compassion for all creatures. For a long, long time he has been working to become a Buddha. He met other Buddhas along the way. And after his long striving he attains his final life, yet not without showing everyone else how to get there.
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Re: World Cycles and Cosmic Systems

Postby tiltbillings » Wed Jan 05, 2011 11:17 pm

pt1 wrote:
tiltbillings wrote:
PeterB wrote:There might Tilt..... :coffee:
, but it is not a necessity for awakening.

Hm, unless perhaps one gets to awakening through three knowledges - recollection of former abodes, seeing the arising and passing away of beings, and destruction of cankers. I think the second knowledge of seeing the arising and passing away of beings would have something to do with what son of dhamma is talking about. But, not having any sort of experiences in that direction, I don't really know.

Best wishes
Actually, the three knowledges are quite bare boned. There is very little of what is worked in detail in the OP in the three knowledges, and that stuff really is not needed for awakening.
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
SN I, 38.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine.
People live in one another’s shelter.

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Re: World Cycles and Cosmic Systems

Postby son of dhamma » Wed Jan 05, 2011 11:33 pm

tiltbillings wrote:Actually, the three knowledges are quite bare boned. There is very little of what is worked in detail in the OP in the three knowledges, and that stuff really is not needed for awakening.


No, it isn't needed for awakening at all. An Arahant doesn't necessarily understand the structure of the cosmos.
with metta
Sometimes no Buddhas arise in the world. Sometimes they do. When it happens, it is for the welfare and happiness of men, out of compassion for all creatures. For a long, long time he has been working to become a Buddha. He met other Buddhas along the way. And after his long striving he attains his final life, yet not without showing everyone else how to get there.
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Re: World Cycles and Cosmic Systems

Postby pt1 » Thu Jan 06, 2011 7:20 am

son of dhamma wrote:So in answer to your question, there is no branch system in Buddhist cosmology whatsoever--it is a Mahayana imposition.

Ok thanks. How about Mount-Meru though?

son of dhamma wrote:Buddha-fields are also Mahayana impositions

Hm, I could swear I saw the term "buddhafield" somewhere in Visuddhimagga, though it’s likely the term is used in a different sense than in Mahayana.

son of dhamma wrote:Formless beings certainly do perceive other beings and the beings of planes below them, which includes all beings that exist who populate innumerable world-systems, endlessly arising. They have no corporeality, but they are composed of mind and have mental perception.

Hm, I remember an explanation where it’s said that rebirth in formless realms should not be aimed for because one cannot get in touch with the dhamma teachings there. This is apparently because beings in formless realms have no senses with which to get in touch with the teachings – can’t hear it, can’t see it, etc. But, you’re saying that they can perceive other beings, so then I wonder why can’t they also perceive dhamma teachings, e.g. when some of those beings is giving a dhamma lesson? Anyway, I’m just basically hoping for a reference regarding what you said above about formless beings perceiving other beings. But if you can’t remember where you read/heard it, that’s ok, I can’ remember where I heard what I said above either.

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Re: World Cycles and Cosmic Systems

Postby pt1 » Thu Jan 06, 2011 7:44 am

tiltbillings wrote:
pt1 wrote:Hm, unless perhaps one gets to awakening through three knowledges - recollection of former abodes, seeing the arising and passing away of beings, and destruction of cankers. I think the second knowledge of seeing the arising and passing away of beings would have something to do with what son of dhamma is talking about. But, not having any sort of experiences in that direction, I don't really know.

Best wishes
Actually, the three knowledges are quite bare boned. There is very little of what is worked in detail in the OP in the three knowledges, and that stuff really is not needed for awakening.

I guess I disagree to an extent on practical grounds. I remember an explanation that the problem one can run into with the first two knowledges is if the vision is limited and you don't really know how to use the two to understand kamma, conditionality, etc. E.g. you get to see only up to a certain plane/heaven, so you assume that this is the best there is, that this is nibbana, etc. Theistic religions in a way seem to suffer from this problem – since the two knowledges are not restricted to Buddhism - someone gets to see a certain glorious deva on a certain plance, and so he assumes that union with that god, or rebirth in that plane/heaven, etc, is the goal of the holy life.

So, that’s why I feel it’s important to have this cosmology business explained - if someone runs into the same problem, at least the map is already there, and then a step can be taken towards what’s really important - the third knowledge - by knowing that the point of the first two knowledges is to directly verify the workings of kamma and conditionality, what should then naturally lead to the third knowledge.

Though, you do have a point to an extent. I mean the three knowledges seemed to be a common way of attainment in the Buddha’s time, but not nowadays. Moreover, these days the experiences with the first two knowledges are often frowned upon as delusions, etc. So perhaps this stuff isn’t that relevant nowadays, but I guess there still must be some who really experience this sort of stuff, so they are therefore liable to get lost without proper directions. So, perhaps the OP stuff might seem superfluous to most nowadays, but it still might be needed by some to avoid getting lost.

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Re: World Cycles and Cosmic Systems

Postby tiltbillings » Thu Jan 06, 2011 7:55 am

pt1 wrote:So, that’s why I feel it’s important to have this cosmology business explained -
I can only shrug my shoulders. I don't agree, but this is hardly life or death here. What is needed, as I understand it, is to simply pay attention to the rise and fall of what one experiences, be it one's breath or the vision of one's past lives, which should be seen in terms of paticcasamuppada. Without paticcasamuppada the danger is great of getting lost. Nothing else is needed.
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
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Re: World Cycles and Cosmic Systems

Postby Paññāsikhara » Thu Jan 06, 2011 8:08 am

son of dhamma wrote: Actually, the Buddha did not describe the horizontal "dimensional-width" of the cosmos. The chiliocosms were explained in later doctrinal formation of the Mahayana, specifically the Diamond Sutra. So, chiliocosms and and greater world-systems should not be considered Theravada or traditional Buddhist cosmology. I was inclined to think that this would be evident to the Buddhists here, but I should not have been careless.
The Buddha explained the 31 planes, and the temporal cosmology as well, in various suttas and in books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka. But greater world-systems were never mentioned by him, and are simply inventions of the traditions which later formed. I consider these ideas to be notable and so I noted them. So in answer to your question, there is no branch system in Buddhist cosmology whatsoever--it is a Mahayana imposition. Buddha-fields are also Mahayana impositions, which surely don't seem to relate to the original Dhammic cosmology, at least not in the notable way that the included horizontal scheme of the Mahayana does. Apologies to having confused anyone regarding chiliocosms. Temporal and vertical cosmology is in fact accurate.

For the sake of convenience, I removed the extraneous Mahayana content.
with metta


Hello Son of Dhamma,

I am not sure what "extraneous Mahayaan content" you may have removed, but I would like to make a comment here on your post. I have made bold above the claim that I would like to discuss.

The notion of various types of cosmology, such as the small-thousand-fold, medium-million-fold, and great-billion-fold world system, is well attested in Sarvastivada literature, such as the Prajnapti Sastra and Mahavibhasa. The former is almost certainly pre-Mahayana, probably by a few centuries; and the latter is contemporary with the early strata of Mahayana, though because it does not even seem to know of the existence of anything Mahayana, I am unaware of any scholar who thinks that Mahayana ideas influenced this work in any way. It also appears in the Lokaprajnapti Sastra, too, another early non-Mahayana commentarial work.

Thus, it is quite incorrect to claim that "it is a Mahayana imposition", for it most certainly is not. And in fact, by so claiming, you have further confused the issue.

Moreover, the so-called Diamond sutra merely mentions these systems, but does not "explain" them at all. It does not have to. The reason being, that those followers of such a large school of the Sarvastivada, which was perhaps the most dominant school in mainland India at the time, already very clearly had a notion of such world systems.

On a broader note, I hope that posters here will refrain from what is a common tendency, that of inaccurate and baseless assumptions that whatever is not in early Theravada but appears later in Buddhism must of necessity be a Mahayana creation (or "imposition"). A kind of baseless "let's blame it all on the Mahayana" type of approach.

It would be nice to see a broader study of the Buddhist tradition as a whole, which soon shows that the Theravada was just one of a large number of early Nikayan schools, and that these others schools had a host of different ideas about a number of topics. And often, these different views were not creations of the Mahayana, but rather, the Mahayana picked up these views from other mainstream Nikayan schools, views which were quite the norm in parts of mainland Indian Buddhism, but possibly not the Theravada.
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