Buddhist mythology

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Buddhist mythology operates within the Buddhist belief system. It is a relatively broad mythology, as it was adopted and influenced by several diverse cultures such as Gandhara (Peshawar, Pakistan) which was the capital of Bactria. Later on, it also came to incorporate aspects from countries such as China and Japan.[1] As such, it includes many aspects taken from other mythologies of those cultures. Saraswati is a Hindu Deva from Gandhara and the kami[1] are considered to be local, Japanese bodhisattvas by many Japanese Buddhists).

Wrathful deities[edit]

One notable feature of Tibetan Buddhism and other Vajrayana traditions in particular is the use of Wrathful deities.[2] While the deities have a hideous and ferocious appearance,[3] they are not personifications of evil or demonic forces.[2] The ferocious appearance of these deities is used to instill fear in evil spirits which threaten the Dharma.[3]

Wrathful deities are used in worship and devotion[2] with the practice dating to the 8th century[2] having been instituted by Padmasambhava.[2] The origin of these deities comes from mythology in Hinduism, Bon, or other folk deities.[2]

Yaksha[edit]

The Yaksha are a broad class of nature-spirits, usually benevolent, who are caretakers of the natural treasures hidden in the earth and tree roots.[4] Having been worshiped in India since before the Vedic period,[5] their worship was adopted by both Buddhism and Jainism.[5]

In Buddhism, it is believed that they reside deep within the Earth under the Himalayas[5] where they guard the wealth of the Earth.[5] The Yaksha are ruled over by Kubera, the Lord of wealth.[5]

Yidam[edit]

The Yidam, or Ishta-devata, is a personal meditation deity. The Sanskrit word iṣṭadevatā or iṣṭadevaḥ is defined by V. S. Apte as "a favorite god, one's tutelary deity."[6] Though this term is used in many popular books on Buddhist Tantra, the term işţadevatā has not been attested in any Buddhist tantric text in Sanskrit. The unrelated Tibetan version of the term, possibly of entirely native origin, is yi-dam[7] is said to be a contraction of Tib. yid-kyi-dam-tshig,[8] meaning "samaya of mind"- in other words, the state of being indestructibly bonded with the inherently pure and liberated nature of mind.

The Ishta-devata of Hinduism is an aspect of God for personal worship.[9] In Buddhism, a Yidam is a manifestation of enlightenment[10] and make take the form of Sambhogakāya Buddhas, tantric deities, bodhisattvas, Dharma protectors or other historical figures.[10]

Hells[edit]

Main article:Naraka (Buddhism)

Heavens[edit]

The following four worlds are bounded planes. each 80,000 yojanas square, which float in the air above the top of Mount Sumeru. Although all of the worlds inhabited by devas (that is, all the worlds down to the Cāturmahārājikakāyika world and sometimes including the Asuras) are sometimes called "heavens", in the western sense of the word the term best applies to the four worlds listed below:

  • Parinirmita-vaśavartin or Paranimmita-vasavatti (Tib: gzhan 'phrul dbang byed; Jpn: 他化自在天 Takejizai-ten) – The heaven of devas "with power over (others') creations". These devas do not create pleasing forms that they desire for themselves, but their desires are fulfilled by the acts of other devas who wish for their favor. The ruler of this world is called Vaśavartin (Pāli: Vasavatti), who has longer life, greater beauty, more power and happiness and more delightful sense-objects than the other devas of his world. This world is also the home of the devaputra (being of divine race) called Māra, who endeavors to keep all beings of the Kāmadhātu in the grip of sensual pleasures. Māra is also sometimes called Vaśavartin, but in general these two dwellers in this world are kept distinct. The beings of this world are 4,500 feet (1,400 m) tall and live for 9,216,000,000 years (Sarvāstivāda tradition). The height of this world is 1,280 yojanas above the Earth.
  • Nirmāṇarati or Nimmānaratī (Tib: 'phrul dga' ; Jpn: 化楽天 Keraku-ten)– The world of devas "delighting in their creations". The devas of this world are capable of making any appearance to please themselves. The lord of this world is called Sunirmita (Pāli Sunimmita); his wife is the rebirth of Visākhā, formerly the chief of the upāsikās (female lay devotees) of the Buddha. The beings of this world are 3,750 feet (1,140 m) tall and live for 2,304,000,000 years (Sarvāstivāda tradition). The height of this world is 640 yojanas above the Earth.
  • Tuṣita or Tusita (Tib: dga' ldan; Jpn: 兜率天 Tosotsu-ten) – The world of the "joyful" devas. This world is best known for being the world in which a Bodhisattva lives before being reborn in the world of humans. Until a few thousand years ago, the Bodhisattva of this world was Śvetaketu (Pāli: Setaketu), who was reborn as Siddhārtha, who would become the Buddha Śākyamuni; since then the Bodhisattva has been Nātha (or Nāthadeva) who will be reborn as Ajita and will become the Buddha Maitreya (Pāli Metteyya). While this Bodhisattva is the foremost of the dwellers in Tuṣita, the ruler of this world is another deva called Santuṣita (Pāli: Santusita). The beings of this world are 3,000 feet (910 m) tall and live for 576,000,000 years (Sarvāstivāda tradition). The height of this world is 320 yojanas above the Earth.
  • Yāma (Tib: 'thab bral; Jpn: 夜摩天 Yama-ten) – Sometimes called the "heaven without fighting", because it is the lowest of the heavens to be physically separated from the tumults of the earthly world. These devas live in the air, free of all difficulties. Its ruler is the deva Suyāma; according to some, his wife is the rebirth of Sirimā, a courtesan of Rājagṛha in the Buddha's time who was generous to the monks. The beings of this world are 2,250 feet (690 m) tall and live for 144,000,000 years (Sarvāstivāda tradition). The height of this world is 160 yojanas above the Earth.


  • Trāyastriṃśa or Tāvatiṃsa (Tib: sum cu rtsa gsum pa; Jpn: 忉利天 Tōri-ten) – The world "of the Thirty-three (devas)" is a wide flat space on the top of Mount Sumeru, filled with the gardens and palaces of the devas. Its ruler is Śakra devānām indra, "Śakra, lord of the devas". Besides the eponymous Thirty-three devas, many other devas and supernatural beings dwell here, including the attendants of the devas and many apsarases (nymphs). The beings of this world are 1,500 feet (460 m) tall and live for 36,000,000 years (Sarvāstivāda tradition) or 3/4 of a yojana tall and live for 30,000,000 years (Vibhajyavāda tradition). The height of this world is 80 yojanas above the Earth.
  • Cāturmahārājikakāyika or Cātummahārājika (Tib: rgyal chen bzhi; Jpn: 四大王衆天 Shidaiōshu-ten) – The world "of the Four Great Kings" is found on the lower slopes of Mount Sumeru, though some of its inhabitants live in the air around the mountain. Its rulers are the four Great Kings of the name, Virūḍhaka, Dhṛtarāṣṭra, Virūpākṣa, and their leader Vaiśravaṇa. The devas who guide the Sun and Moon are also considered part of this world, as are the retinues of the four kings, composed of Kumbhāṇḍas (dwarfs), Gandharvas (fairies), Nāgas (dragons) and Yakṣas (goblins). The beings of this world are 750 feet (230 m) tall and live for 9,000,000 years (Sarvāstivāda tradition) or 90,000 years (Vibhajyavāda tradition). The height of this world is from sea level up to 40 yojanas above the Earth.
  • Asura (Tib: lha ma yin; Jpn: 阿修羅 Ashura) – The world of the Asuras is the space at the foot of Mount Sumeru, much of which is a deep ocean. It is not the Asuras' original home, but the place they found themselves after they were hurled, drunken, from Trāyastriṃśa where they had formerly lived. The Asuras are always fighting to regain their lost kingdom on the top of Mount Sumeru, but are unable to break the guard of the Four Great Kings. The Asuras are divided into many groups, and have no single ruler, but among their leaders are Vemacitrin (Pāli: Vepacitti) and Rāhu.

Earthly realms[edit]

  • Manuṣyaloka (Tib: mi; Jpn: 人 nin) – This is the world of humans and human-like beings who live on the surface of the earth. The mountain-rings that engird Sumeru are surrounded by a vast ocean, which fills most of the world. The ocean is in turn surrounded by a circular mountain wall called Cakravāḍa (Pāli: Cakkavāḷa) which marks the horizontal limit of the world. In this ocean there are four continents which are, relatively speaking, small islands in it. Because of the immenseness of the ocean, they cannot be reached from each other by ordinary sailing vessels, although in the past, when the cakravartin kings ruled, communication between the continents was possible by means of the treasure called the cakraratna (Pāli cakkaratana), which a cakravartin and his retinue could use to fly through the air between the continents. The four continents are:
    • Jambudvīpa or Jambudīpa (Jpn: 閻浮提 Enbudai) is located in the south and is the dwelling of ordinary human beings. It is said to be shaped "like a cart", or rather a blunt-nosed triangle with the point facing south. (This description probably echoes the shape of the coastline of southern India.) It is 10,000 yojanas in extent (Vibhajyavāda tradition) or has a perimeter of 6,000 yojanas (Sarvāstivāda tradition) to which can be added the southern coast of only 3 12 yojanas' length. The continent takes its name from a giant Jambu tree (Syzygium cumini), 100 yojanas tall, which grows in the middle of the continent. Every continent has one of these giant trees. All Buddhas appear in Jambudvīpa. The people here are five to six feet tall and their length of life varies between 80,000 and 10 years.
    • Pūrvavideha or Pubbavideha is located in the east, and is shaped like a semicircle with the flat side pointing westward (i.e., towards Sumeru). It is 7,000 yojanas in extent (Vibhajyavāda tradition) or has a perimeter of 6,350 yojanas of which the flat side is 2,000 yojanas long (Sarvāstivāda tradition). Its tree is the acacia. The people here are about 12 feet (3.7 m) tall and they live for 250 years.
    • Aparagodānīya or Aparagoyāna is located in the west, and is shaped like a circle with a circumference of about 7,500 yojanas (Sarvāstivāda tradition). The tree of this continent is a giant Kadamba tree. The human inhabitants of this continent do not live in houses but sleep on the ground. They are about 24 feet (7.3 m) tall and they live for 500 years.
    • Uttarakuru is located in the north, and is shaped like a square. It has a perimter of 8,000 yojanas, being 2,000 yojanas on each side. This continent's tree is called a kalpavṛkṣa (Pāli: kapparukkha) or kalpa-tree, because it lasts for the entire kalpa. The inhabitants of Uttarakuru are said to be extraordinarily wealthy. They do not need to labor for a living, as their food grows by itself, and they have no private property. They have cities built in the air. They are about 48 feet (15 m) tall and live for 1,000 years, and they are under the protection of Vaiśravaṇa.
  • Tiryagyoni-loka or Tiracchāna-yoni (Tib: dud 'gro; Jpn: 畜生 chikushō) – This world comprises all members of the animal kingdom that are capable of feeling suffering, regardless of size.
  • Pretaloka or Petaloka (Tib: yi dwags) – The pretas, or "hungry ghosts", are mostly dwellers on earth, though due to their mental state they perceive it very differently from humans. They live for the most part in desert and waste places.


See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Buddhism and Mythology
  2. ^ a b c d e f Wrathful Deities
  3. ^ a b Wrathful Guardians of Buddhism - Aesthetics and Mythology
  4. ^ "yaksha". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2007-07-15. 
  5. ^ a b c d e Yakshas Hindu Gods of Wealth
  6. ^ V. S. Apte, A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary, p. 250.
  7. ^ ""The function of the Yidam is one of the profound mysteries of the Vajrayana... Especially during the first years of practice the Yidam is of immense importance. Yidam is the Tibetan rendering of the Sanskrit word Istadeva-the indwelling deity; but, where the Hindus take the Istadeva for an actual deity who has been invited to dwell in the devotee's heart, the Yidams of Tantric Buddhism are in fact the emanations of the adepts own mind. "The Tantric Mysticism of Tibet: A Practical Guide to the Theory, Purpose, and Techniques of Tantric Meditation by John Blofeld. Penguin:1992
  8. ^ Harding, Sarah. "The Dharma Dictionary." Buddhadharma Magazine, Spring 2005.Dharma Dictionary: Yidam
  9. ^ Ishta Devata or Personal God
  10. ^ a b Yidam

Further reading[edit]