Despite the Buddha’s renowned aversion to metaphysical-cum-cosmological speculation, ostensibly cosmological systems have proliferated in Buddhist traditions. Debates persist over how to interpret these systems, a central puzzle being the relation between apparently cosmological and psychological aspects. This article critically analyzes three main interpretive orientations, namely psychologization, literalism, and the one-reality view. After examining a tendency in the third of these to equivocate between talk of two co-referential vocabularies and talk of two corresponding orders, I discuss at length the debate between literalist and psychologizing approaches. The latter emphasize how accounts of “realms of existence” are most cogently read as figurative descriptions of mental states, whereas literalists argue that at least some of the accounts should be understood cosmologically, as descriptions of spatiotemporal regions. Notwithstanding weaknesses in some literalist arguments, the importance to Buddhist soteriology of a conception of rebirth beyond one’s present life counts against psychologizing approaches that either ignore or downplay this importance. Returning to the one-reality view, I develop the idea that it is the existential state being described that constitutes the common factor between “cosmological” and “psychological” passages. Treating the texts in an overly literal-minded manner, I suggest, risks missing these descriptions’ affective and conative significance.
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See, e.g., Sadakata1997, chapter 2, whose account is based primarily on the third chapter of the Abhidharmakośa and its bhāṣya (hereafter “AKBh”), which is in turn based on earlier sources (as noted by La Vallée Poussin 1911: 130-131).
See Monier-Williams1899: 529, 553; Rhys Davids and Stede 1993: 347, 369-370. The term naraka, for instance, occurs twice in Saṃyutta Nikāya 1.209 (Feer 1884), where Bhikkhu Bodhi renders it as “an inferno” (2000: 309).
Cf. Nagapriya2004: 99: “Hell beings . . . live in a very isolated world dominated by nightmares, horror, fear, and desperation. Conditions such as paranoid schizophrenia exemplify this kind of experience all too graphically.”
See especially McMahan2008, chapter 4; Lopez 2008, 2012; Cho 2012.
For the Pāli text, see Steinthal1885: 9. I have used the term “condition,” which I take to be relatively ontologically neutral, because the text specifies neither a physical location nor a state of mind; it reads simply “Wherein [yattha] . . . therein [tattha] . . .” (cf. Masefield 1994: 11).
For the Pāli text, see Steinthal1885: 80; but see also the correction in Woodward 1935: 97 n. 3. Āyatana is translated by Woodward 1935: 97 as “condition” in its first occurrence in this passage and as “sphere” thereafter. It is consistently rendered as “base” in Masefield 1994: 165 and Ireland 1997: 96, “sphere” in Masefield 1983: 82, “state” in Strong 1902: 111, and “dimension” in Ṭhānissaro 2012: 112.
See also Heesterman1985: 38-39; Doniger 2010: 174; Kinnard 2011: 10. For further discussion and references, see Collins 1982: 61, 214-215.
Cf. Dumont1960: 50: “[W]ithout transmigration the liberation or extinction (nirvāṇa) which he [i.e., the Buddha] recommends would lose all meaning . . .”
See also Bodhi2010: “The aim of the Buddhist path is liberation from suffering, and the Buddha makes it abundantly clear that the suffering from which liberation is needed is the suffering of bondage to samsara, the round of repeated birth and death.”