Friday, January 29, 2010

"Angels" in Buddhism

Wisdom Quarterly Wikipedia edit

Are there deities -- beings superior in status to humans -- in Buddhism? Yes. Devas (Sanskrit, Pāli) in Buddhism are one of many different types of non-human entities who share the characteristics of being more powerful, longer-lived, and in general living more contentedly than the average human being.

Other words used in Buddhist texts to refer to these angelic beings are devatā (deity) and devaputra (son of god), which simply indicates that one is reborn as a deva. Synonyms for devas in other languages include Chinese tiān, Japanese ten, Tibetan lha, Mongolian tenger, Khmer tep or preah, Korean cheon, Vietnamese thiên... The concept of devas was readily adopted in Japan partly because of its similarity to the indigenous Shinto concept of kami.

Powers of the Devas
From a human perspective, devas share the characteristic of generally being invisible to the physical human eye. But the presence of a deva can be detected by those who have opened the "divine eye" (Sanskrit, divyacakṣus; Pāli, dibbacakkhu), an extrasensory power by which one can see beings on other planes. Their voices can also be heard by those who have cultivated a similar power of the ear. Most devas are also capable of constructing illusory forms so as to manifest themselves to beings in worlds lower than their own. Higher and lower devas must also do this between each other.

Devas do not require the same food or sustenance as humans, although the lower kinds do eat and drink. Higher devas shine with their own intrinsic luminosity. Indeed, the word deva means "shining one." They are capable of quickly moving great distances, flying, although the lower devas sometimes accomplish this through flying vehicles (viman, or spacecraft). Bhumi or earthbound devas are sprites and elementals, whereas akasha or spacebound devas would seem to be extraterrestrial aliens (celestial travelers, "gods" from the heavens) who provided a great deal of useful information and technology but also caused war here.

Types of Devas (Buddhist cosmology)
The term deva does not refer to a natural class of beings. It is defined anthropocentrically to include all beings more powerful and more blissful than humans. It includes very different types of beings, who can be ranked hierarchically. The lowest classes are closer in nature to human beings than to higher classes of devas. For all their variety, they fall into three main classifications depending on which of the three realms (dhātus) of a world-system they are born.

  • Ārūpa-dhātu: no physical form or location, dwelling instead in meditation on formless subjects. They achieve this by attaining advanced meditative levels in previous lives. They do not interact with the rest of the universe.
  • Rūpa-dhātu have fine-material or subtle physical forms transcending gender (sexless), and they are passionless. They live in a large number of celestial worlds or "heavens." These deva-worlds rise, layer on layer, above the Earth and can be divided into five main groups:
    1. Śuddhāvāsa (Pure Abode) devas (anāgāmis such as Brahma Sahampati); the highest of these worlds is called Akaniṣṭha.
    2. Bṛhatphala devas born as a result of attaining the fourth jhāna
    3. Śubhakṛtsna devas resting in the bliss of the third jhāna
    4. Ābhāsvara devas enjoying the delights of the second jhānaBrahmā devas (or simply Brahmās), participating in the more active joys of the first jhāna, are more interested in and involved with the world below, so they sometimes intervene or intercede with advice and counsel.
    5. On the one hand, all of these deva-worlds contain different grades of inhabitants, and those within a single group are able to interact and communicate with each other. On the other hand, lower groups have no direct knowledge of the existence of higher types of deva. For this reason some of the brahmās (divinities) have become proud: They imagine themselves as creators of their own worlds and of all the worlds below them. It is said that this delusion comes about because these beings came into existence, due to their previous karma in preceding world-cycles, before those worlds came into existence. (It is a beginningless universe with evolutionary cycles of staggering duration and equally long periods of dissolution).
  • Kāma-dhātu: the sensual realm or sense sphere, extending from celestial worlds to grades of beings only slightly less dense than the human plane, with sexual differentiation and many passions:
  • The devas of the sensual realm have physical forms similar to, but larger than, humans. They lead the same sort of lives as humans but are generally longer-lived and much more contented. They are often absorbed in play, pleasures, and other diversions. Māra (lit. "killer," Cupid, Eros, a kind of devil or tempter figure in Buddhism) exercises the greatest influence over this sphere.

    The higher devas of the sensual sphere live in four celestial worlds leaving them free from contact with the strife of the lower world. They are:

    1. Parinirmita-vaśavartin devas, luxurious angels to whom Māra belongs
    2. Nirmāṇarati devas
    3. Tuṣita devas, among whom the future Budda Maitreya lives
    4. Yāma devas

    Lower devas live on different parts of the axis-mundi, the mythical mountain or pole at the center of this world-system, Mt. Sumeru. These devas are even more passionate -- as conceived of in Indian, Greek, and Roman pantheons -- than higher devas. In addition to sporting themselves and engaging in all kinds of diversions, they are also engaged in strife, petty jealousies, treachery, and fighting.

    • Heaven of the Thirty-three (Tāvastiṃśa) devas, who live on the summit of Mt. Sumeru like Olympian gods, ruled by Śakra (Indra, Zeus, Sakka "king of the gods")
    • Heaven of the Four Great Kings of the cardinal directions (Cāturmahārājikakāyika) devas, who include the rulers who guard the four directions of the sky above the Earth. Chief among them is Vaiśravaṇa. They all answer to Śakra. This group is very interesting because it also includes four types of earthbound nature-spirits: Kumbhāṇḍas, Gandharvas, Nāgas, and Yakṣas, and possibly Garuḍas (Suparnas).

    The Buddha suggested that rather than worshipping, supplicating, or asking boons from these unseen beings, one should instead "recollect the devas: 'There are the devas of the Four Great Kings, the devas of the Thirty-three..." [Ref] [196. Dh.]. The reason for this is that one is capable of becoming a deva through skillful karma. "Feeders of joy we shall be like the radiant gods (devas)."

    Sometimes included among the devas, but often placed in a separate category, are the Asuras. They are opponents of the preceding two groups of devas. As odd as it may seem for beings superior to humans, they are said to be continually engaged in war. The "war in heaven" mentioned in many religions and mythologies is therefore not entirely metaphorical.

    Interestingly, as this may all sound too amazing to believe, humans are said to have originally had many of the powers of the devas:

    • being longer-lived
    • not requiring food
    • able to fly
    • shining by their own light (which science confirms)
    • communicating by mind...

    But over time as humans began to eat solid foods, their bodies became coarser and their powers diminished.

    Devas vs. gods
    Although the word deva is generally translated "god" (or even angel) in English, the Buddhist conception of devas differs from the gods, God, or angels of Western religions past and present.

    • Devas are long-lived but not immortal; when they pass away, they are reborn according to their karma, which means they could end up anywhere else: another kind of deva, human, or worse.
    • They do not create, shape, or bring about the dissolution of the world. Like everyone else they come into existence based on their past deeds and are subject to the natural law (or regularity) of cause and effect.
    • They are not incarnations nor mere symbols of a few archetypal deities or manifestations of an all-embracing pantheistic One. Like humans they are considered distinct individuals with their own personalities and paths in life.
    • They are not omniscient. Their knowledge is inferior to a Buddha, and even some humans, especially lacking awareness of beings in worlds higher than their own.
    • They are far from omnipotent. Their powers tend to be limited to their own worlds, and they rarely intervene in human affairs. When they do, it is generally by way of quiet advice rather than by physical intercession.
    • They are not morally perfect. Even devas of the subtle form worlds, who lack human passions and desires, are capable of ignorance, prided, and arrogance. Lower devas of the sensual realm experience the same kind of passions as humans, including (in the lowest of these worlds), lust, jealousy, anger, and all manner of foolishness. Indeed, their imperfections have caused them to be reborn in these worlds.
    • They are not guides the way the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are regarded. While some individual devas may commnad great moral authority and prestige and thus be deserving of a high degree of respect, no deva can show the way of escape from Saṃsāra or control one's rebirth. Therefore, devas are frequently recorded as coming to Earth for this guidance. More>>

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