The meaning of deities/planes in Buddhism

An open and inclusive investigation into Buddhism and spiritual cultivation

The meaning of deities/planes in Buddhism

Postby Joep » Sat Jan 18, 2014 10:30 am

Dear all,

I've been wandering through these forums for quite some time and now I feel the time has come to start asking some questions.

My only real 'experience' with Dhamma was during a 10-day meditation retreat (as taught by S.N. Goenka). I've not been practicing this technique on a daily basis, although I feel that the Buddha's teachings have caused my view on reality to shift drastically. The aspect of Buddhism that attracts me the most, is that it is (almost) fully based on personal experience.
Throughout the years I have started to explore philosophies that somehow relate to the things that I have been taught during the meditation retreat.

About a year ago I read the Bardo Thodol or 'Tibetan Book of the Dead'. Apart from the Bhagavad Gita, this was my first reading of a spiritual text from the Asian continent.
Needless to say, I did not really grasp the full intention of these teachings, I'll even say that they left me quite confused after reading them.

Given my limited knowledge of Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies , I had always thought that Buddhism was primarily a non-theistic religion. For that reason I found it quite confusing that the Bardo Thodol is full of deities, arising in all types of possible 'planes of existence'. I did not give it much thought at first, but as I am now more serious about exploring the topic of Buddhism, I wanted to ask your view on this issue.

Some time ago I also read something of the Buddha talking about several 'planes of existence/experience (whatever you want to call them)'. Up to the part where you only contemplate what you personally experience, I feel fairly comfortable with the teachings. However, the 'belief/dogma (I mean no harm to anyone, perhaps I just don't understand this yet)' in all these deities and planes make me put a question mark behind the 'non-theistic' aspects of Buddhism.

Could someone please share their view/knowledge on this subject?

Thanks in advance,

Joep

p.s.: I am aware that there are many schools of Buddhism, and the intent of this post is not to discuss the limitless differences between all these schools. At this moment I am interested in the very core of the Buddha's teachings, and what these deities/planes of existence have to do with it.
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Re: The meaning of deities/planes in Buddhism

Postby mikenz66 » Sat Jan 18, 2014 10:59 am

Welcome Joep,

Here is a summary of the 32 planes of existence from a Theravada point of view: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dham ... /loka.html

The Bardo is a Tibetan Buddhism concept, and you would get better answers on that over at our sister site, which covers Mahayana Buddhism: http://dharmawheel.net/

:anjali:
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Re: The meaning of deities/planes in Buddhism

Postby Mkoll » Sat Jan 18, 2014 12:17 pm

Hi Joep,

Faith (saddha in Pali) is definitely a part of Buddhist practice. I would also call it "conviction" or "confidence" or "trust" to shy away from such loaded words as "belief" and "faith". The first of the five spiritual faculties/powers is saddha. Going for refuge in the Triple Gem is an act of saddha.

Faith isn't one's own blind faith or a coercive faith imposed upon one by others. Rather, it is a faith that begins with "trust" in sincerely trying out and putting into living practice the teachings of the Buddha. This trust becomes more solid and confidence grows as one sees the positive results of the Dhamma in one's own living experience. At that point, faith has become intrinsic in one's character; one knows that it is good and conducive to happiness. At least that's my experience of it.

I've always had the inclination to doubt and to question things so faith did not come naturally. At all. My prideful intellect resisted my cultivating it but I knew in my gut that this was worth trying so I persevered. And it turns out it most certainly was. I should say that my faith is faith in the Triple Gem and my suggestion regarding faith starts and ends simply there: begin with faith in the Buddha's supreme enlightenment because that concept is the crux of the matter.

Open for them are the doors to the Deathless,
Let those with ears now show their faith.
MN 26

There is the case where the disciple of the noble ones has conviction, is convinced of the Tathagata's Awakening: 'Indeed, the Blessed One is worthy and rightly self-awakened, consummate in clear-knowing & conduct, well-gone, an expert with regard to the world, unexcelled as a trainer for those people fit to be tamed, the Teacher of divine & human beings, awakened, blessed.'
MN 53

:anjali:
Peace,
James
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Re: The meaning of deities/planes in Buddhism

Postby culaavuso » Sat Jan 18, 2014 8:22 pm

Joep wrote:Some time ago I also read something of the Buddha talking about several 'planes of existence/experience (whatever you want to call them)'. Up to the part where you only contemplate what you personally experience, I feel fairly comfortable with the teachings. However, the 'belief/dogma (I mean no harm to anyone, perhaps I just don't understand this yet)' in all these deities and planes make me put a question mark behind the 'non-theistic' aspects of Buddhism.

Could someone please share their view/knowledge on this subject?


There is the experience of thoughts and concepts, there is the experience of what those thoughts and concepts represent. Thoughts and concepts are to be used as tools. Take the example of going on a flight to a distant place that you've never before visited. You have the thought from your own past experience that it would be good to bring along some clothing, because your experience has shown you that difficulties arise trying to go about without it. However, you have to make a further decision about what kind of clothing to bring, and you have no personal experience to guide that decision. Should you pack for warm weather or cold? In your direct experience, though, someone you know has told you that they have experience with weather in many places. In the past, this person's advice has always matched your own experience when you have had the opportunity to verify it. Thus, you have faith based on past encounters that what they have to say about this particular trip is useful, and as such you take their advice on whether to pack warm or cold clothing. You won't know from your own experience that it's correct until you get there, but based on your past experiences you have developed faith that this is the most likely action to result in a positive outcome.

Similarly, there are results of our actions and experiences that have not yet been experienced. From the parts of the Buddha's teachings that you can verify for yourself through direct experience, you can see that the teachings work and that they are true. Through the continuing agreement between your own direct experience and the teachings of the Buddha, it becomes reasonable to adopt other teachings as a working model until you can have direct experiences about these things for yourself. If something has nothing to do with your current experience or any choices to be made, then it can simply be set aside as irrelevant. This doesn't mean it's true or that it's false, it just means it has nothing to do with you at this time either way. Samsara is not escaped through belief, but through intention and action. Belief is itself an action that is useful to the extent that it can shape intention and action in a skillful way.
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Re: The meaning of deities/planes in Buddhism

Postby manas » Sat Jan 18, 2014 8:48 pm

Hi joep, all,

I hope you don't mind if I ask a related question here, that occurred to me just the other day (rather than begin a new topic). There are trillions of stars and planets observable currently. They are all in our 'dimension' of being, in the sense that, with the right technology, we could build space ships and go there. In other words, if there are planets out there inhabited by other beings, there is another way, other than via death and rebirth, to visit those planets.

So I do not see how these physical planets made up of gross matter could be what is being referred to when the 'heavens' are referred to (in the suttas). Most of the planets, when investigated scientifically, show no signs of life, carbon based or otherwise. The "heavens" must refer to something else, something akin to another dimension, accessible not by any physical means, but only by being reborn there via (good) kamma, or by psychic power.

What I am leading to here, is that if universes are manifested due to the desires of living beings to be, become and enjoy, why are there so, so, so many planets that are clearly unliveable, or at least yet to be proven otherwise? What a tremendous expenditure of energy to no good cause. Furthermore, why is this fact, of most planets being lifeless wastelands, not mentioned in the suttas? The impression I get from reading the suttas (not to mention Vedic / Brahminical texts) is that the Universe is abundant with life, not that it's actually mostly empty space, punctuated by stars, many of which also have lifeless balls of rock, liquid or gas spinning around them, that serve no useful purpose other then simply existing.

I am wondering if maybe scientists are right about something: that maybe, most of the Universe is lifeless, and that planets such as ours are basically a wonderful fluke, a one-in-a-million chance, that they somehow develop to sustain life (of which the Earth is a prime example). I must admit, given a choice between direct observation and ancient books, I will lean towards preferencing direct observation (the only issue being that essentially, the 'direct observation' is done by astronomers, and others such as ourselves, must simply trust that they are telling us the truth about what is out there).

kind regards
manas
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Re: The meaning of deities/planes in Buddhism

Postby culaavuso » Sat Jan 18, 2014 9:04 pm

manas wrote:What a tremendous expenditure of energy to no good cause.


This sounds like a good description of Samsara to me.

manas wrote:basically a wonderful fluke, a one-in-a-million chance, that they somehow develop to sustain life


SN56.48
SN56.48: Chiggala Sutta wrote:It's likewise a sheer coincidence that one obtains the human state.
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Re: The meaning of deities/planes in Buddhism

Postby Joep » Mon Jan 20, 2014 4:44 pm

Thank you for all your thoughtful comments.

So basically I just keep on following the path, and (experiential) knowledge (as opposed to theoretical knowledge) will join me during my journey.

I find Manas' discussion on whether lifeless planets are 'useless' pretty interesting. I for one do not necessarily feel that a planet where human life is not possible, should be considered a useless expense of energy. Perhaps the physical matter present in these planets is just as well 'existing', but in a way human beings can not relate to.

This is perhaps another interesting question: what is the Buddha's view on non-living (in our scientific sense of the word) matter? E.g. what is the purpose of a rock? I mean, if everything is the result of some previous action, something must have caused the rock to exist. And in a very distant future, the rock might also disappear. (I was not trained as a biologist, so my limited scientific knowledge might just cause me to talk bogus...)

:reading:
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Re: The meaning of deities/planes in Buddhism

Postby Babadhari » Mon Jan 20, 2014 7:06 pm

Joep wrote:Thank you for all your thoughtful comments.

So basically I just keep on following the path, and (experiential) knowledge (as opposed to theoretical knowledge) will join me during my journey.

I find Manas' discussion on whether lifeless planets are 'useless' pretty interesting. I for one do not necessarily feel that a planet where human life is not possible, should be considered a useless expense of energy. Perhaps the physical matter present in these planets is just as well 'existing', but in a way human beings can not relate to.

This is perhaps another interesting question: what is the Buddha's view on non-living (in our scientific sense of the word) matter? E.g. what is the purpose of a rock? I mean, if everything is the result of some previous action, something must have caused the rock to exist. And in a very distant future, the rock might also disappear. (I was not trained as a biologist, so my limited scientific knowledge might just cause me to talk bogus...)

:reading:

.
indeed it will.

All compounded things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness!"

This was the last word of the Tathagata.
Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion.
Aflame, with birth, aging & death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs ......

Seeing thus, the disciple of the Noble One grows disenchanted. SN 35.28
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