Monday, March 12, 2012

Feeding on Joy in a Heaven (video)

Wisdom Quarterly edit of Abhassara, Dictionary of Pali Proper Names (
() Watch the full film Bhutan: The Height of Happiness.

Long thought of as a secluded paradise -- the last Himalayan Buddhist kingdom -- hidden in the clouds, shrouded in myth, and renowned for its pursuit of happiness over economic prosperity, Bhutan now struggles to accommodate the invasion of tourists, new media, and Western materialism in the 21st century. As Buddhist monks play with condoms, clowns offer advice on AIDS, and farmers feed cannabis to pigs (because the seeds are super nutritious), we hear the thoughts of government officials, Buddhist monks, tourists, and ordinary Bhutanese themselves, who are facing up to the challenge. The underlying spiritualism of this mystical mountainous country, racist in its treatment of its Nepalese minority, is being buffeted by rapidly changing circumstances as its identity is being warped by an Internet-shrinking world. Of course, the real "heavens" are not on Earth but high in space. More
The stained glass heavens (sagga) in Buddhist cosmology, a part of the world-system above Earth (Stewie1980/

ABHASSARA, Heaven - There is a celestial brahma-world inhabited by radiant devas ("shining ones") whose bodies emit rays of light. They feed on joy (piti).

It is one of the 31 Planes of Existence, which are divided into three spheres (the sensual, fine-material, and immaterial). This light world belongs to the fine-material (rūpaloka) corresponding to the second absorption (jhāna, Abhs. v.3; Compendium 138, n.4).

That the devas living there subsist on joy (pītibhakkha) is recorded by the Buddha and verifiable by anyone who masters the second meditative absorption and emerges in consciousness on that plane (S.i.114.; DhA.iii.258;

The average lifespan there is two aeons (kalpas). Of course, as with all planes of existence -- excluding the Pure Abodes inhabited by noble individuals in various stages of enlightenment short of full liberation -- there is no guarantee that one reborn there will not later fall from it when the profitable karma (merit) sustaining one is exhausted. Then one may well be reborn in a lesser world, the human plane, or an unfortunate destination (A.ii.127; but see Abhs. v.6, where the lifespan is given as eight aeons).

From time to time these devas utter shouts of joy saying, "Aho sukham, aho sukham!" This sound is the best of sounds. And these devas are said to be completely enveloped in ease (sukhena abhisaññā parisaññā), a rare condition in the Sensual Sphere (A.iii.202; D. iii.219).

Their world forms the third station of consciousness (viññānatthiti), and they are of uniform bodily appearance, but their perceptions are diverse (A.iv.40, 401; D.ii.69; D.iii.253). [Earth, by contrast, one of the human worlds, is diverse in appearance with diverse perceptions.]

During the periods of the expansion of a world-system, many beings are born in the ābhassara world. They are then called the highest of devas, yet even they change their condition (A.v.60).

In lists of devas (e.g., M.i.289) they are ranked above the Appamānābhā ("devas of unbounded radiance") and below the subhā ("devas of limited glory"). (See chart at left).

Buddhas-to-be are sometimes born in the ābhassara world (AA.i.73; J.i.406, 473; M.i.329; MA.i.553; SA.i.162), but they are never born in Immaterial (arūpa) Sphere worlds even when they have developed the corresponding formless attainments (arūpa-jhānas).

Baka Brahmā was born in ābhassara after having passed through vehapphala ("very fruitful devas") and subhakinna ("devas of radiant glory"), and it was then that he conceived the belief or pernicious of being "eternal." (The Buddha, perceiving this misconception, traveled out of compassion to correct. The Buddha visited Baka and dissuaded the brahma from the error of this belief (J.iii.359). Baka is featured in the Baka Brahma Sutra and the Brahmanimantanika Sutra).

It is said that when the universe dissolves -- after the lapse of a great aeon and before it again evolves after a long period of chaos -- beings are mostly reborn in the ābhassara world.

When the world begins to re-evolve (vivattati), the Brahma-vimāna (the supreme's vehicle, mansion, platform, or spacecraft) appears by force of previous karma. But it is empty. Then some being or other, either because it has finished its life there or because its merit is exhausted, leaves the ābhassara world and is reborn in that Brahma-vimāna.

Others follow this example, and it is then that the first to be reborn in the Brahma-world generally comes under a pernicious wrong-view such as, "I AM THAT I AM" or "I am [eternal] Brahmā, Great Brahmā, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-Seeing, All-Powerful, the Lord, the Maker and Creator, the Ruler, Appointer and Orderer, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be." (See D.iii.29).

When inhabitants of the ābhassara world are reborn as humans, their existence continues to be like the one they fell from in the brahma-world. As time goes on, however, they lose their qualities and develop the characteristics, both physical and mental, of human beings. (For details see D.iii.84ff., PsA.253).

The great Buddhist commentator Buddhaghosa (DA.iii.865) states that their birth on Earth is by spontaneous regeneration (opapātika), that is, not mediated by parents; they are mind-born (manomaya). These seemingly miraculous events, while very rare, are neither unique nor supernatural.

When the world is destroyed by fire [tejo-dhatu, the temperature element], that fire spreads up to the ābhassara world; when by water [apo-dhatu, the fluid element], the water rises to the subhakinna world; when by wind [vayo-dhatu], the wind reaches to the vehapphala (CypA.9).

According to Buddhaghosa (MA.i.29; VibhA.520; cp. DA.ii.510), the ābhassara devas get their name from the radiance that spreads from their bodies in all directions, like flames from a torch.

According to the scholiast of the Candābha Jātaka, beings who meditate on the Sun and Moon are born in this world. The Moon appears at the wish of the ābhassara brahmās. (See Candimā). This would seem to mean that the Earth was terraformed and the Moon, its main satellite, was placed just so to make the seasons, the tides, the tilt (procession), and the marking of time, much as Judeo-Christian lore vaguely records with great misunderstanding.

  • There is no ultimate creator-god. That is, brahmas do not really "create" the world, the galaxy, or the universe. But they may well contribute to them in significant ways that can be loosely termed a kind of "creation." Religious lore, dismissed as fanciful mythology, is rooted in a common understanding of Vedic and Sumerian information from otherworldly visitors.

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