Editor’s note: This is the 10th part of an 11-part series on Buddhism.
It is sometimes said that Buddhism is devoid of anything supernatural, including a divinity. Such a claim is, perhaps, overly simple. As is so often the case in speaking of any religion, differences among sub-groups must be considered.
Theravada, the only remaining Hinayana sect, is perhaps the least supernaturalistic Buddhist group. This is part of its appeal to Westerners of a more secular bent. For Theravadins, as we have seen, the Buddha is merely a human, and there are no gods. Both non-Buddhists and other Buddhists alike, however, regard Theravada as too nihilistic.
For Mahayana and Vajrayana, the story is different. The doctrine of The Three Bodies (Trikaya) of the Buddha understands the Buddha as having not only an earthly body (nirmanakaya) but also a heavenly body (sambhogakaya). Finally, the dharmakaya is the Buddha as the essence of the universe. The Pure Land sects, as we have seen, speak of numberless heavens, all of them populated by Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, and Vajrayana provides the heavenly Buddhas with heavenly spouses.
A popular hierarchy of being includes six cosmic levels. Level 6, the lowest, consists of hells, which are characterized by extreme heat and cold, along with other torments that rival Dante's Inferno. Hell, however, is understood as a remedial training program from which one may graduate rather than a final, never-ending destination.
Next, is the realm of Hungry Ghosts, beings who roam the earth and wordlessly beg for food. They are invisible to most people. Images of such ghosts are frequently located at the entrance to Buddhist temples as a site for making donations.
The realm of Animals, the fourth level, is reserved for those who have mistreated animals. Occupants suffer in all the ways animals have been made to suffer. Mythical beasts, birds and serpents also reside in this realm.
Humans are located at the third level. Only from this level can one's karma be altered and spiritual progress made. Higher levels are temporary rewards and lower levels are temporary punishment for actions taken by humans.
The occupants of the second level are devas and asuras, which are nature spirits, demigods and minor deities carried over from Hinduism. These beings are arranged in a hierarchy within the level.
The first or highest level is the Brahma world, which consists of 20 heavens. The first four of these heavens contain the great Gods of Hinduism such as Indra and Brahma. The remaining 16 heavens in this level are said to be formless. They correspond to meditative states.
Among the most important of the celestial Buddhas and bodhisattvas are Amitabha Buddha (Amida in Japan), the principal figure of Pure Land Buddhism, and Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (known as Kuan-Yin in China and Kannon in Japan), whose great compassion makes him or her extraordinarily sensitive to the needs of other beings and who is possessed of a thousand arms and infinite skills for responding to such needs. Manjusri, Maitreya, Samantabhadra, Vairocana, Akshobya, and Tara are others.
Although such advanced beings are said to be eternal, omnipotent, and omniscient, such claims mean, for Buddhists, that no limits on knowledge or power or time have been experienced. They are not, like Western claims, absolute.
While all of this appears to be supernaturalism gone wild, such an assessment is misleading. Remember that for Mahayana's philosophical schools (Yogacara and Madhyamika), these realms and their occupants are mere projections of the mind, or empty of inherent existence, or skillful means (upaya) to encourage people to continue practicing.
Moreover, none of Buddhism's Buddhas or Bodhisattvas created the universe, none is eternal, and none is unchanging. All Buddhas and Bodhisattvas were once humans, even animals. In other words, Buddhist nonduality rejects the sharp dualities of the West, including the duality of supernatural vs. natural. As in so many other matters, Buddhism adopts a middle way.
Milton Scarborough is emeritus professor of philosophy and religion at Centre College.