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Conundrums of Buddhist Cosmology and Psychology

In: Numen
Author: Mikel Burley1
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  • 1 University of Leeds, School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science
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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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