In This Article Cosmology, Astronomy and Astrology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • South and Southeast Asia
  • In the Kālacakratantra
  • Tibet and Mongolia
  • Translations of Primary Texts
  • Visual Representations of the Cosmos
  • Architectural Representations of the Cosmos

Buddhism Cosmology, Astronomy and Astrology
by
Vesna Wallace
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0019

Introduction

Buddhist cosmology forms an integral part of a Buddhist worldview, without which it would be impossible to understand Buddhist teachings on karma, reincarnation, and soteriological theories. It is also closely related to Buddhist metaphysics, phenomenological theories, meditative practices, and, in some cases, even to Buddhist social theories. Other areas of inquiry intimately related to cosmology are Buddhist astro-sciences (namely, astronomy-cum-astrology), which have been integrated in diverse aspects of Buddhist religious and secular life, including religious rituals and meditation practices, medical therapeutics, preparations of medicine, weddings, trade, military campaigns, and so on. Although the fundamental Buddhist cosmological views in various cultures have remained the same, certain variations have emerged, especially in the areas of astronomy and astrology, due to the influence of either indigenous or foreign non-Buddhist systems of thought. Scholarship on Buddhist cosmology and the disciplines of astronomy and astrology varies, including the analysis of Buddhist canonical texts that describe the shape and size of the cosmos, astrological almanacs, astronomical charts, and architecture.

General Overviews

Although discussions on Buddhist cosmology can be found in almost every introductory book on Buddhism, and references to Buddhist astronomy-cum-astrology are made in various writings, there are relatively few independent works dealing exclusively with these topics. The encyclopedia articles listed below offer a general introduction to Buddhist cosmology. “Cosmology” 1979 introduces the reader to the discussions on cosmology given in the early Pali sources, while Sadakata 1997 contains descriptions of Indian pre-Mahayana views of the shape, size, and structure of the cosmos. Sadakata’s treatment of the topic centers primarily on the Indian abhidharmic views of the cosmos, but he also includes brief discussions on the later Japanese Buddhist conception of hell and on contemporary Japanese cosmological views. Gethin 2003 gives an excellent but brief introduction to Indian Buddhist cosmology as presented in Theravada, Sarvāstivāda, and Mahayana sources, whereas Cornu 2001 focuses primarily on the later Indo-Tibetan cosmological perspectives. Mabett 1983 gives a short history and description of the cosmological significance of Mount Meru in India, including its influence on religious architecture across Asia.

  • Cornu, Philippe. “Cosmologie Bouddhique.” In Dictionnaire encyclopédique du Bouddhisme. By Philippe Cornu, 145–150. Paris: Éditions du Seuil. 2001.

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    Drawing from various Indian and Tibetan sources, this article contains the following subentries: the receptacle of the world, the billion-fold world of the great universe, the dimension of the universe, and the creation and destruction of the universe.

  • “Cosmology.” In Encyclopaedia of Buddhism. Vol. 4. Edited by Jotiya Dhirasekera and W. G. Weeraratne, 257–259. Colombo: Government of Sri Lanka, 1979.

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    Contains references to a number of Pali suttas in which the Buddha refutes various cosmological theories of his time and discourages his disciples from engaging in cosmological speculations as irrelevant and unconceivable, and thus futile.

  • Gethin, Rupert. “Cosmology.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Vol. 1. Edited by Robert E. Buswell Jr. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2003.

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    Offers a useful introduction to Indian Buddhist cosmology. Gives a brief description of the abhidharma system’s exposition of the levels of existence, world systems, cycles of time, cosmology and psychology, nirvana and buddhas, and Mahayana’s cosmological perspectives.

  • Mabett, I. W. “The Symbolism of Mount Meru.” History of Religions 23.1 (August 1983): 64–83.

    DOI: 10.1086/462936E-mail Citation »

    Provides a brief history of Mount Meru, its significance as the center of the cosmos and point reference for astronomical lore, its mentions in Buddhist and Hindu sources, its relation to the four great continents, and its architectural representations across Asia.

  • Sadakata, Akira. Buddhist Cosmology: Philosophy and Origins. Tokyo: Kosei, 1997.

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    Consists of two main parts: one on pre-Mahayana cosmology, and one on Mahayana cosmology. The first part deals discusses abhidharmic views of the structure and constituents of the cosmos, transmigration, and time; the latter part deals with the Pure Land, Buddhist deities, changes in the conception of hell, and contemporary Japanese Buddhist views of the cosmos. Contains useful charts and illustrations.

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