Buddhist Cosmology Questions

by Shaun Terry

As I understand it, in Abrahamic religions, God created the universe. That same God judges “good” and “bad,” leading to people’s ascent into Heaven, in which they experience eternal joy, or their descent into Hell, in which they experience eternal suffering (it seems reasonable to avoid discussion of Purgatory for the time being). Importantly, in at least some Abrahamic religions, it seems that people are conceived of as having been born essentially “bad,” and they require redemption through their deeds but also through the assistance of God (in God’s varied forms). People can reach Heaven by engaging in behaviors prescribed by God and by avoiding those that God says to avoid. This all seems fairly different from the cosmology and metaphysics described in this week’s materials.

As the lecture and Lopez describe, there is no beginning or creation of the universe, so there is no creative God. To better understand the infinitude of the universe, Lopez points out that all beings are constantly reborn, but there is no beginning to this process (p. 19). On the same page, he later points out that there are “four periods” in a cycle that is repeated through eternity. Those four periods are “creation, abiding, destruction, and nothingness.” (Lopez p. 19)

Instead of an Earth, a Heaven, and a Hell (again, setting aside Purgatory), Buddhism conceives of six realms. The six realms are those of “gods, demigods, humans, animals, ghosts, and hell beings.” (ibid. p. 19) The lecture seemed to me to suggest that the Hells were separate realms and that the “hungry ghosts” existed in the same realm as Earthly beings, so I wonder if I misread Lopez or Leve (or is the conception of the six realms one that is contested?), i.e. are there two Hell realms or is there one Hell realm and one ghostly realm? The Heavens consist of Gods who “live very long lives,” but “are not immortal.” (ibid. p. 21) In the Earthly realm is Jambudvīpa, which faces “the lapis side of Mount Meru.” (ibid. p. 21) Further, the realms are delineated (and “created,” according to Lopez, although that seems like a term that may be worth further discussion, judging by the non-created nature of everything in Buddhism) by nothing more than beings’ actions that led to each being’s placement in the realm in which they reside, through their rebirths, or samsāra (samsāra also seems to signify the universe as a whole) (Lopez pp. 19, 22). Harvey points out that the process of samsāra is that of “innumerable” rebirths (pp. 32-3). Below the Earthly realm are the realms of Preta Loka (that of the “hungry ghosts”), the eight hot Hells, and the eight cold Hells (Lopez pp. 22-4). These six realms are all connected to one another and anyone can be reborn into any realm at any time, dependent on what their actions have determined. The lecture spoke to the importance of state-of-mind. I found myself wondering if actions alter our states-of-mind such that our states-of-mind at the times of our deaths are what determine our subsequent rebirths. On p. 42, Harvey speaks to the importance of states-of-mind in figuring karma, but on p. 44, he also claims “[A] person can only generate ‘merit’ by their own deeds.” The relationships between meritorious deeds, states-of-mind, karma, reincarnation, and enlightenment are not fully clear to me.

“Good” and “bad” (or kusala and akusala) could describe karmic realities by which “good” actions lead to preferable outcomes and “bad” actions lead to unpreferable outcomes (Harvey p. 41). Harvey describes it like this: “[B]eings are reborn according to the nature and quality of their past actions.” (p. 39) My understanding of these preferable and unpreferable outcomes relates to Duhkha, or “suffering,” such that better outcomes might be those of decreased suffering and worse outcomes would be those of increased suffering. According to Lopez, karma is the law by which “virtuous actions create pleasure in the future and nonvirtuous actions create pain.” (Lopez p. 19) Later on that same page, he goes on to say that karma “accounts for all the happiness and suffering in the world.”

This seems somewhat complicated by how time comes into the picture. Past actions produce future events, so according to Lopez, there may be ways of “counteracting” those consequences through actions taken in the present. This is interesting because it suggests to me that the effects of different actions may be subject to asymmetrical latencies. Does Lopez mean that outcomes can be prevented? Generally, my conception of “counteraction” makes me think of prevention, but maybe he means something else. Might it be that present actions could, without fully preventing negative outcomes, have a way of correcting for the negative outcomes that correspond with previous actions? That is, instead of preventing negative outcomes, could it be that actions in the present only can produce outcomes such that negative outcomes are experienced for some time but are later corrected for? In other words, could these mitigating actions only have the effect of preventing the prolongation of negative outcomes?

Another question I had came up when Lopez says that the universe is “the product of the individual and collective actions of the inhabitants of the universe.” (p. 19) It seems to me difficult to think of “the actions of the inhabitants of the universe” as ever being truly those of individuals or truly those of the collective. I feel that all individual actions might be influenced by collective influences and all collective actions might also be the composites of individual actions. Maybe I feel it safer to say that there are no truly individual or collective actions, but that we are all connected to one another, that we all affect one another, and that any action is that of the whole of the universe. In saying that, any action is maybe the concentrated product of that which happens around it (geographically? spiritually? metaphysically?). The action might be more greatly affected by that which happens near it than by that which happens farther away. Similarly, any action of the universe might cause greater effects more proximate to its locus. Maybe we could think of all actions as having been effected by the universe, but that the action is determined by a continuously more concentrated efficacy surrounding the locality of the action. Maybe a metaphor like that of ripples on the surface of a body of water could help to conceive of this. All actions come into being as the products of the ripples around them, and each ripple also affects ripples further afield, but this might occur along a kind of gradient. The ripples closest to one another have the strongest influences on one another, while the ripples farthest apart from one another have the least mutual effects on one another. This all is further dependent on the effects of all the ripples as they move through space and time. I wonder what Buddhism might have to say about all of this.


Lopez, Donald. The Story of Buddhism: A Concise Guide to Its History and Teachings. pp. 19-36.

Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practice. pp. 37-45.