The editing of the Description of the World Sūtra (DĀ 30) continues, but I’ve released Chapters 1-7 of this large, multi-chapter sūtra that collects Buddhist cosmology and mythology into a single large text. This version that’s found in the Dīrgha Āgama (DĀ) is one of four Chinese translations of this sūtra which are dated between 290-617 CE. This version was translated around 412 CE. In other Buddhist traditions, such as the Sarvāstivāda and Theravāda, similar texts were placed in Abhidharma or paracanonical collections. The fact that the contents of these different collections are very similar suggests that they all represent later versions of an older ancestor that’s lost to the mists of time.
DĀ 30 is essentially a loose collection of different stories and topics collected under twelve headings. At times, the author(s) meander into topics that wouldn’t otherwise be found in a given chapter, and this often happens towards the end of each chapter. This suggests that once the chapter headings were set, new material was appended to the ends of the chapter that seemed most appropriate.
To help readers explore the breadth of topics covered, I’ve written a companion outline below that summarizes and discusses each chapter’s contents.
Introduction: The sūtra is introduced in the same way as the Mahāvadāna Sūtra (DĀ 1). A group of monks get together in a discussion hall and the conversation turns to the subject of the world, the different places sentient beings live, and the cycle of creation and destruction. The Buddha overhears them with his power of clairaudience and joins them to give a teaching on these topics.
The Buddha Realm: Next, the Buddha defines a Buddha realm. This is arrived at by first defining a “triple-thousand great thousand world” (i.e., a Skt. trisāhasra-mahāsāhasra-loka-dhātu). This is arrived at by taking a thousand worlds like our own and cubing it to arrive at a billion worlds. A Buddha realm is all the sentient beings that exist in those worlds.
The World: The Buddha moves on to define the world in physical and geographical terms, all of which are mythical and involve fantastical distances. If we assume a Skt. yojana was equal to about 8 miles (12.9 km), the actual Earth would be about 3,100 yojanas around with a radius of 500 yojanas. The orbit of the Moon around the Earth averages about 30,000 yojanas. In the text, we read that the Earth, which was considered to be an infinitely flat plane, has a depth of 168,000 yojanas (!), the ocean on top of the Earth is 84,000 yojanas deep, and Mount Sumeru rises another 84,000 yojanas above the ocean. The world the author(s) envisioned was much larger than reality.
This section also briefly describes Mount Sumeru and four stairways on it that lead up to four smaller peaks inhabited by the four god kings. These stairways are similar to the terraces that we read about in the Abhidharma Kośa, but the four god kings have their palaces on smaller mounts that jut from the sides of Sumeru in DĀ 30.
The Heavens: From Mount Sumeru, the author(s) take the reader higher, describing the physical distances between each of the heavens to the top of the formless realm. In this depiction, each heaven is 42,000 yojanas higher than the last, beginning with the four god kings whose peaks sit halfway up Mount Sumeru.
We get a full accounting of the heavens according to the Dharmaguptakas in this passage. The main differences between sectarian Buddhist accounts of the heavens are found in how they count the form realm heavens. In DĀ 30, there are ten: Brahmakāyika, Ābhāsvara, Śubhakṛtsnā, Bṛhatphala, Asaṃjñika, Avṛha, Atapa, Sudarśana, Mahāsudarśana, and Akaniṣṭha. This list expanded to 16 or 17 heavens in other traditions (e.g., compare this with the present-day Theravāda list).
The Four Continents: Having soared to the top of the world, the Buddha brings us back down to Earth. The four continents that surround Mount Sumeru are briefly described in terms of direction, size, and shape, and the people who inhabit them have faces shaped like those continents. Also, each side of Mount Sumeru is made of a different treasure (gold, silver, crystal, or beryl) that reflects sunlight onto the continent that it faces, which may have been a way to explain the day-night cycle on a flat Earth.
The Great Trees: Next, the reader is treated to an accounting of the great trees of the world. The names of these trees are fairly well known, though I’m unsure about the Skt. equivalent for the tree of the Asuras.
The Lesser Mountains: The topic now turns to the mountains that circle Mount Sumeru. They are named and described in terms of their size and the distances between the mountain ranges. The mountains in DĀ 30 become progressively smaller and closer together. They are: Khadiraka, Īśādāra, Yugandhara, Sudarśana, Aśvakarṇa, Nimindhara, Vinitaka, and Cakravāḍa. These are the same names we find in the Kośa in a different order, but Cakravāḍa is not the mountain range that rings the entire world. DĀ 30 has a different depiction of the world’s boundary that’s explained at the beginning in Chapter 4.
Beyond the Lesser Mountains: Now, the reader is taken on a tour of the world, leaving the last of the lesser mountain ranges behind and heading south to Jambudvīpa. Some of details in this section are quite obscure, not having parallels in other texts. The names of thirty-five forests, for example, are obscure and can only be translated tentatively beyond the names of different kinds of trees. Beyond the forests, we pass over oceans, lakes, and mountains that are equally obscure. These places must have figured in Buddhist or local lore that was common knowledge at the time DĀ 30 was composed.
Lake Anavatapta: Next, we reach the mythical Lake Anavatapta, the source of the four great rivers including the Gaṅgā. This lake is named after a nāga king. According to DĀ 30, this nāga king lives a charmed life free of the troubles that torment other nāgas, such as being preyed on by garuḍas or being burned by hot sand.
The Elephant King Susaṃsthita: The chapter closes with a story about an elephant king named after a great sal tree called Susaṃsthita (“Well Placed” or “Good Standing”) that he lives under. He leads a herd of 8,000 other elephants who also live under 8,000 such trees. The story describes how this elephant king will summon the herd and go to bathe in a lake named Mandākinī. They are depicted in a humanized way, carrying parasols, singing and dancing as they go. He appears to serve as the king of the animal world, being treated in the standard way that the Asura King Rāhu and the God King Vaiśravaṇa will be in later chapters.
This chapter concerns itself with describing the northern continent of Uttarakuru, and it stays focused on that topic, covering descriptions of the land, important places, and the culture of the people who live there. What quickly becomes clear, however, is that Uttarakuru stands in contrast to Jambudvīpa (which represents ancient India), being almost heavenly in nature. When we see Jambudvīpa transform into a place resembling Uttarakuru under the righteous rule of a noble wheel-turning king in the next chapter, I can’t help but wonder if these stories were an inspiration for Pure Land thought among Mahāyāna Buddhists.
The Land of Uttarakuru: In the opening section, the land itself is described in geographical and ecological terms. The rivers are gentle and pleasant, and lush grass grows on the plains year-round. There’s no harsh weather, and the climate remains temperate during all four seasons. When it rains, it’s just enough to moisten the ground without leaving standing water or mud. The ground itself is spongy, sinking underfoot and returning to its original shape when a foot is lifted, like a foam cushion. There are no annoying features to the land like gullies, brambles, or harmful insects and animals. Uttarakuru has four Lake Anavataptas, one on each side (the continent is square in shape). Uttarakuru’s famous rice is also mentioned, which doesn’t have any husk or chaff and grows in clusters like small white flowers. Uttarakuru has natural kettles with magic gems set in their bottoms where people cook the rice. These kettles seem remarkably similar to modern microwave ovens. The light of the gems goes out when the rice is done.
The Magic Trees: In Uttarakuru, trees bear more than just fruit. There are trees that grow perfume, clothing, ornaments, garlands, vessels, edible fruit, and musical instruments. They grow inside fruits that split open once they are ripe, releasing these things for people to use.
Lake Sudarśana: The author(s) spend some time describing this lake and the Sugati River that flows from it. People go there for recreation, taking their clothes off and bathing or going boating. When they get out, they get new clothes and other items from the magic trees just described. (I.e., they have no concept of personal property.)
Sudarśana Park: There’s a park east of the lake that’s described in the same terms as the land and the lake. It’s another place the people go for recreation along with three other parks located around Lake Sudarśana. A description of how the nāga kings of Uttarakuru create a gentle, nourishing rain at night is attached to the end of this story.
The People of Uttarakuru: The chapter concludes with descriptions of what may have been considered by the author(s) to be a more perfect human culture that’s devoid of personal attachments or bad behavior. We read about how the people reproduce, which seems similar to animals who mate and go their separate ways. The children, too, are abandoned by their mothers on roadsides where passersby feed them. They grow up remarkably fast (in only a week!), however, and join the adults, who segregate themselves between men and women. Funerals are handled in a similar way. Bodies are left on the roads and a kind of bird called Uccaṃgama takes the corpses away. There’s also no need to worry about where to go to the bathroom: The ground opens when the people relieve themselves and then closes back up.
After these cultural observations, the text them describes how the people are born in Uttarakuru because they practiced the ten good deeds in previous lives and then naturally practice them in Uttarakuru without thinking about it. Thus, there is no bad behavior there. Because of this karma, they also live for exactly 1,000 years. Their life spans don’t vary like they do in Jambudvīpa.
Finally, the meaning of uttara is glossed as referring to the superiority of that place (rather than it being to the north), which is because of the virtues and fortunes of those people and the land.
The other two continents are set aside, and a new set of topics begin with a chapter about noble wheel-turning kings. A large part of this chapter is verbatim what’s found in the Mahāsudarśana Sūtra (which is embedded in DĀ 2), but the portion after the seven treasures is replaced with a description of how Jambudvīpa is transformed when a noble king governs it. For brevity, I’ll skip the parts that are well known and cover the sections unique to DĀ 30.
The Way the Noble King Rules: The author(s) begin by describing how the noble king has a deep, parental concern for the welfare of the people, going out on leisurely trips to observe them and let them see him. The relationship is one of mutual concern and admiration, like that ideally between parent and (adult?) children. The people are always attempting to give the king gifts, which he refuses because he has plenty (and so do they).
The Transformation of the Land: Now, the text describes the land of Jambudvīpa under the noble king’s rule to be identical to Uttarakuru. Even the magic trees that provide things like perfume, clothing, and musical instruments are present. The nāga king of Anavatapta produces the same type of night rain as the nāgas of Uttarakuru do, too. As a result, Jambudvīpa becomes wealthy and bountiful.
The End of a Noble Wheel-Turning King’s Life: The handling of the noble king’s death, funeral, and shrine ends the chapter. The noble king lives a long, happy life, and he’s no more discomforted at the end of his life as a someone who ate a little too much and feels a bit queasy. His cremation is described in similar fashion as in DĀ 2, and the shrine that’s built for his remains is described in great detail.
This large chapter can be divided into three sections. The first, which occupies nearly 75% of it, consists of an exhaustive description of eight great hells and sixteen minor hells. The second section then adds some additional material about the mountains where the hells are located and an alternative set of ten hells. The third section collects together material about King Yama, whom Buddhists considered the divine judge of a being’s fate when they die.
The Eight Great Hells: Perhaps one of the more surprising details I encountered translating DĀ 30 is its explanation of where the hells are located. Unlike most traditions in both Buddhism and other religions, hell is not somewhere deep under the Earth. Rather, DĀ 30 places the various hells in a valley of utter darkness between two vajra mountain ranges that define the outer edge of the world. While it doesn’t go to so much detail, one can readily imagine the hells described below as spread evenly in a circle along this outside border of the world.
In DĀ 30, the eight great hells are: Saṃjñā (“Perception”), Kālasūtra (“Black Cord”), Saṃhata (“Struck Together”), Roravaṇa (“Wailing”), Mahāroravaṇa (“Great Wailing”), Tapana (“Roasting Fire”), Mahātapana (“Great Roaring Fire”), and Avīci (“Uninterrupted”). This matches quite well the eight great hells that we find in sources like the Dazhidulun (T1509) and Vasubandhu’s Kośa. However, in half of the cases, the Chinese translation of a Hell’s name suggests a different Skt. equivalent that’s nonetheless close in pronunciation. For example, other sources give Saṃjīva (“Survival”) as the first hell, but here it was clearly Saṃjñā.
This section of the Chapter is largely a lengthy narrative of the horrific travails of a sinner as they pass through a gauntlet of violent punishments at the hands of Hell’s wardens. In the conception of DĀ 30’s compilers, a person who falls to Hell lands first in one of the eight great hells. After passing through that hell, they then pass through sixteen lesser hells. At the end of the last lesser hell, they finally die and are reborn somewhere else.
The Sixteen Lesser Hells: As mentioned above, the sixteen lesser hells are embedded into the description of each of the eight great hells.
In DĀ 30, they are: Black Sand, Boiling Excrement, Iron Nails, Hunger, Thirst, Copper Cauldron, Many Copper Cauldrons, Grinding Stones, Pus and Blood, Measuring Fire, River of Ash, Iron Balls, Axes, Wolves, Sword Trees, and Frozen Ice.
In Vasubandhu’s Kośa, the sixteen are actually only four types of hell that are located on each side of a great hell, making sixteen in number. The Dazhidulun‘s account of the sixteen hells is not much closer to DĀ 30, describing eight hot and eight cold hells. The cold hells have names found among DĀ 30’s ten additional hells below, but they’ve been repurposed with different descriptions. Suffice it to say that Buddhist traditions vary wildly in how they explain these lesser hells compared to how consistent they are in naming of the eight great hells.
The Protection of the Vajra Mountains: Standing as a rare moment of positivity in a chapter of otherwise horrific narratives, this section points out that the two rings of vajra mountains that circle the world protect it from destructive winds. These winds are said to be so powerful that they would blow away the entire world like a man throwing chaff into the air. These winds are also incredibly hot and putrid. Thus, these mountains shelter the world and make it habitable, existing as a karmic result of sentient beings’ conduct.
Another Ten Hells: The author(s) now describe for the reader an alternative set of ten hells, apparently unconnected with the eight great hells that occupied most of their time. They are Abhra, Nirabhra, Ahaha, Why, Sheep Bleating, Sugandhika, Utpala, Kumuda, Puṇḍarīka, and Padma.
I’ve left a couple of these names translated as they were to Chinese, not being sure of the Skt. equivalent. Also, the first two mean Thick Clouds and Cloudless in the Chinese, which matches the meaning of Skt. Abhra and Nirabhra. As it was with the great hells, this would be a variation in pronunciation from the alternate tradition that names them Skt. Arbuda and Nirarbuda.
Both the Kośa and Dazhidulun include a set of eight cold hells that feature the names of flowers, too, which suggests they may have had a common ancestor to this set of ten. However, DĀ 30 doesn’t interpret any of them as cold.
Passage of Time in the Ten Hells: Next, the length of time a sentient being spends in these ten hells is listed out, each being twenty times longer than the last, beginning with a very long period of time. The first time period is described as the number of centuries it would take to empty a sixty-four-bushel bin of sesame seeds by taking one each century. Thus the time spent in the Padma Hell is 209 x that amount of time. That period spent in the Padma Hell is equal to one medium eon, and twenty of those medium eons is a great eon.
The Monk Kokālika: After this exposition about the ten hells, the heretic monk Kokālika is briefly condemned as having fallen to the Padma Hell. The fires there are so hot, a person is burned from a distance of a hundred yojanas, deafened from sixty yojanas away, and blinded from fifty yojanas away from it. This section is summed up by a set of verses spoken by Brahma at the time Kokālika fell to that hell, and which are reiterated by the Buddha.
King Yama: The third section of this chapter concerns itself with King Yama, the deity who judges people after they die. It begins by describing his palace, which is located not in the Yama Heaven but in the vajra mountains south of Jambudvīpa. King Yama is depicted as being accosted by the wardens of hell, who punish him as they do sinners. This is said to occur every three days, but no explanation for it is given. Perhaps he is punished for condemning people to Hell? His ministers receive similar treatment as well.
The Three Heavenly Messengers: Next, King Yama’s interrogation of sinners brought to him for judgement by the wardens of hell is narrated for the reader. This is very similar to the story we find in MN 130, but only three heavenly messengers are mentioned: old age, illness, and death. The same conversation is repeated three times for each messenger, then the Buddha sums up the passage with verses which also appear in MN 130.
King Yama’s Wish for Liberation: This otherwise depressing chapter is concluded with King Yama observing all of this suffering that results from the bad behavior of people and wishes to someday be born human and to attain liberation from it.
This chapter is really two: The first describes the nāgas and garuḍas, and the second discusses the wrong views of non-Buddhists.
Introduction: Nāgas (mythical water serpents) and garuḍas (mythical birds) are defined briefly as being of four kinds: egg-born, womb-born, moisture-born, and spontaneously born. As we will see, this is an order of ascending power.
The Palaces of Nāgas and Garuḍas: The author(s) spend some time describing the palaces where nāgas and garuḍas live, describing them in a by-now familiar way we’ve seen in previous chapters. There’s a particular tree called Kūṭaśālmali around which nāgas and garuḍas of the four birth types make their homes.
The Way Garuḍas Hunt Nāgas: Now, the way in which garuḍas hunt nāgas is described in some detail, mainly in terms of which nāgas can be caught by which garuḍas. When a garuḍa decides to hunt a type of nāga of less or equal power, it alights from the tree Kūṭaśālmali and skims the ocean nearby where the nāgas live. It beats the water with its wings, making the ocean open, and then it snatches a meal, which evokes the image of an eagle snatching a fish from a lake. This is treated in every combination of the four types of garuḍas hunting the four types of nāga.
Wrong Views about Rebirth in Heaven: Here, the second section of this chapter begins with a segue about people being reborn as nāgas or garuḍas if they think and behave like them. When they perfect such karma, they’ll be reborn among them in the next life. This principle is extended to other animals and then to heretical beliefs such as fire sacrifices. People who think any of these practices lead to birth in heaven are considered deluded.
Various Wrong Views: The previous section then leads to a discussion of heretical views in general. The various views listed and discussed in this section are very similar to those found in the Brahmajāla Sūtra (DĀ 21, DN 1) but only sixteen of them are listed. Some commentary is provided for the reasons heretics hold these views.
The Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant: This section on the wrong views that people hold and argue about is summed up with the famous parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant. A king plays a joke on a group of blind men who have never seen an elephant before. They are allowed to touch an elephant for a short while, each man finding only one part of it. When the elephant is taken away, the king asks them what an elephant is like, and they all liken it to things similar to the part of an elephant that they felt. They are soon bitterly arguing and fighting each other about it, which the king finds quite entertaining, knowing that they are all deluded.
This chapter and the next have the same parallel outline, offering descriptions of the asuras and their immediate enemies, the four god kings and their allies. As a result, there isn’t a great deal of content that’s particularly notable aside from some of the mythical locations and the names of the asuras and spirits involved. Like the other tracts on mythical geography, some of the places and details are obscure to us today.
Geography: This section begins by describing the city from which the Asura King Rāhu leads his followers, located on the coast of the ocean north of Mount Sumeru. This great city has a smaller fortress city inside it, which is also described. Next, we read about Rāhu’s Dharma Hall that’s inside the smaller city, and it’s surrounded by the four parks. These parks in turn have lakes between them with fantastically large flowers growing in them (the petals are a yojana wide!). The section concludes with descriptions of other asura palaces and stairways that connect all of these places together.
Asura King Rāhu: This section depicts King Rāhu summoning the other three asura kings (Vemacitrin, Parāhu, and Śambara), the asura ministers, and lesser asuras to go to a park for some recreation. As it was with the elephant king in Chapter 1, he merely thinks of each of them, and they realize that he has this thought and present themselves. When everyone has arrived, they go to the park and enjoy themselves. After this narrative, two other details are added before the chapter closes. Rahu has five asura servants who are always attending to his needs. Their Skt. names are obscure, being translated to Chinese, and I’ve yet to find a parallel source. We are also told that his palace is actually in an ocean that’s held suspended in the sky like a cloud by four winds (which seems to contradict the beginning of the chapter). Even the water 10,000 yojanas from his palace is held aloft and never falls to the Earth.
Geography: This section proceeds in the same way as it did with the Asuras. The cities of the four god kings are described. Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s city to the east is Bhadrottamā, Virūḍhaka’s city to the south is Sudarśana, and Virūpākṣa’s city to the west is Cūḷasudarśana. Vaiśravaṇa, who is the leader of the four god kings, has three cities called Terrible, Heavenly Respect, and Refuge of Many (the Skt. equivalents are unclear). Next, a park north of the city Refuge of Many called Kapīvanta is described, and there’s lake between them called Nalinī. A variety of palace halls are described briefly that belong to the four god kings. There are also stairways that connect these locations together.
God King Vaiśravaṇa: As with the Asura King Rāhu, this section narrates how King Vaiśravaṇa thinks of the other three god kings when he wants to visit a park. They realize he’s thinking of them and present themselves. When everyone has assembled, they go to the park and enjoy themselves. The section ends with a list of five yakṣa spirits who serve as Vaiśravaṇa’s attendants: Pañcāla, Daṇḍala, Haimavata, Dighra, Sūciroma.