July Update: Remainder of DĀ 30 Released

This month, I released the initial translations of DĀ 30’s chapters 8-12. This would also complete the Dīrgha Āgama except for DĀ 19, which will be delayed another month before it’s ready for release. With the completion of the rest of DĀ, I’ll be taking two or three months to work on polishing existing translations, researching thorny textual issues, and writing essays on translation topics that could use more explanation. I’ll also take some time to think about ways to improve the Dharma Pearls website, this blog, and other tasks that go neglected during a translation project because they require more than a couple days of concentration.

That said, I will likely not be able to restrain myself from releasing a few new translations, given that I still have drafts that are sitting unedited. I’ll also take some time to work on requests from readers, so feel free to let me know if there’s a particular sūtra you’d like me to translate in the near future.

To help readers explore the wealth of topics that DĀ 30 covers, I’ve written a second installment of the summary started last month of this large collection of ancient Buddhist cosmology and mythology. If you want to support this ongoing project, please consider supporting Dharma Pearls at Patreon or by making a PayPal donation. Thanks to everyone who has made this project possible over the past two years!

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Chapter 8: The Trāyastriṃśa Gods

This chapter continues an arc of topics that begins with Chapter 6, but it’s been greatly expanded with tangential topics. As a result, it’s the longest chapter in the collection. We could divide this chapter into three parts:

  • The Trāyastriṃśa gods are described in the fashion of the asuras and four god kings
  • A wide-ranging discussion of the relationship between the heavens and the human world
  • A couple topics about the spirits that inhabit the human world

Geography: The physical geography of the Trāyastriṃśa heaven is discussed in terms we’ve become familiar with in previous chapters. A great city is located on the summit of Mount Sumeru that’s an astounding 80,000 yojanas across. It has a smaller city inside of it as well as the nāga Airāvaṇa’s palace and Lord Śakra’s Sudharma Hall. Four parks that are arrayed around these places (the text seems to confuse the Sudharma Hall with the city Sudarsana at this point), and four lakes are between those parks. All of these are described in some detail. There are also palaces belonging to the lesser gods of this heaven in the vicinity of the city, and there are stairways connecting these various points of interest.

Śakra the Lord of Gods: The name “Trāyastriṃśa” literally means thirty-three and refers to a group of thirty-three Vedic-inspired deities led by Lord Śakra (who is more well-known to us as Indra outside of Buddhism). Indra in the Vedic tradition was akin to Zeus in the Greek tradition, ruling from the summit of a great mountain at the center of the world. Buddhists reduced him in importance, placing many other heavens above Mount Sumeru.

In this section of Chapter 8, Lord Śakra is depicted in a same fashion as the Asura King Rāhu and God King Vaiśravaṇa. First, we learn the procedure followed when Lord Sakra decides to visit the nearby parks around his city. However, the story continues after they arrive at their destination, describing how only gods with the proper level of past merits can go to these parks and enjoy them, much less approach close enough to see them. After this, the author(s) gloss the meaning of the names of the four parks and other points of interest. The section wraps up with a list of Lord Śakra’s ten attendants, which doubles the lists given for the asura king and King Vaiśravaṇa.

Things the World and Heaven Have in Common: The Trāyastriṃśa Heaven as a topic has ended, but the chapter launches into a new section with a wide-ranging discussion of the world and the heavens. We learn about the flowers that are prized in these different worlds, the abilities of the gods, skin colors of gods and humans, and the relative brightness of various sources of light ranging from fireflies to the Buddha. The section is summed up by reminding reader that the four noble truths are the greatest source of light in the world.

The Bodies and Clothing of People and Gods: Next, the measurements of human and heavenly bodies and the clothes they wear (down to the weight of the clothing!) is described.

The Life Spans of Sentient Beings: The life spans of sentient beings from hungry ghosts up to the formless heavens are listed out. The life spans of beings in Hell are conspicuously missing, though the topic was taken up in one part of Chapter 4.

The Four Foods of Sentient Beings: The four foods that sustain sentient beings are taken up next. The explanation is far less philosophical than other sources: Beings with physical bodies like humans eat physical food, and clothing and bathes are what’s meant by fine foods. The food of thought refers to the gods of the form realm who subsist on pleasure and joy of samādhi. The food of consciousness refers to the gods of the formless realm who subsist on only bare awareness rather than conceptions or feelings.

Commerce and Procreation among Sentient Beings: The author(s) now veer into economic and reproductive topics, detailing the ways humans in different regions make a living and procreate. The topic of procreation continues, explaining how the act of mating becomes more and more subtle until the male and female sexes disappear in the form realm.

The Process of Becoming a God: This section gives a basic outline of how to become a good, which is to gradually purify one’s moral actions and climb the ladder of rebirth. When one’s physical, verbal, and mental deeds are all good, then one is born among humans, and from there into the lower desire heavens.

Children in the Desire Realm Heavens: This section details what it’s like in practical terms to be born as a god. One appears suddenly as a child on a god’s knee, and the god adopts the child as its offspring. The age of the child when it appears is older the higher the heaven where it is born. That is, a newborn god among the four god kings is like a one- or two-year-old human, but a newborn resembles a six- or seven-year-old in the Paranirmitavaśavartin Heaven. There’s a somewhat detailed description of childhood as a god that ranges from practical matters like how they are fed to spiritual matters like becoming beguiled by heaven’s pleasures.

The Three Fasting Days: The second section of Chapter 8 ends with the story of the three fasting days, which is also found in P. at AN 3.37-8 and in C. at EĀ 24.6 and SĀ 19.15. It tells the story of the four god kings keeping tabbing on the moral state of the human race three times a month when they ought to be observing the eight fasting day precepts. In this telling, there are three fasting days in the first half of each lunar month: The eighth, fourteenth, and fifteenth. On the first day, the four god kings send servants to go down to earth and check on the morality of the people there. They are either disappointed or celebrate depending on what’s reported. On the second day, the four god kings send their princes to check on the morality of people in the world. On the third day, the four god kings go personally to inspect the morality of the world. They report directly to Lord Śakra their findings. When Śakra hears good news, he celebrates with a verse extolling those who keep the precepts. The Buddha, however, doesn’t approve of what he says because such people are like arhats rather than gods.

Yakṣa Spirits that Inhabit the Earth: This section tells us that yakṣa spirits they live throughout the human world: In cities, homes, streets, graveyards, as well as in trees, mountains, and rivers. Humans have guardian yakṣa spirits who protect them and guide their spirits when they die. However, it’s also explained that moral people have many guardian spirits as opposed to immoral people, which is why bad people fall prey to malevolent yakṣa spirits more easily.

Comparing Various Places to Jambudvīpa: This section presents lists of advantages that exist in various places in the world. It begins with the four continents and then continues with the other realms of rebirth. Jambudvīpa’s advantages are considered better than all the rest because they lead to people being liberated from suffering.

The Thirty-Eight Kinds of Beings: This section is perhaps the most obvious evidence of material being inserted into DĀ 30 over time. A list of thirty-eight places of birth is given, which is larger than the list found elsewhere in Dharmaguptaka sources. The difference lies in the number of form realm heavens: There are twenty-two form heavens in this list instead of the ten heavens that we find elsewhere in DĀ. What has happened is that each of the four dhyāna heavens has been divided into a group of four heavens, which adds twelve heavens to the list. This is similar to what we find in later Buddhist traditions including the present-day Theravāda version.

The Spirits of the Four Gross Elements: Chapter 8 closes with a story about four spirits of the gross elements of earth, water, wind, and fire. They each form a wrong view that the other elements aren’t found in themselves. The Buddha teaches the earth spirit the Dharma, and she takes refuge as a laywoman (upāsikā). The other three spirits are taught the Dharma by the earth spirit, and they all become upāsikās. The earth spirit seems to be the spirit who defends the Buddha against Māra’s accusations in the story of the Buddha’s awakening at the bodhi tree. That spirit is female, too.

Chapter 9: The Three Catastrophes

This chapter tells the tale of the world’s demise, or rather its triple demise, as it’s destroyed and reforms three times. These three catastrophes are by fire, water, and wind, and each time the world beneath the second, third, and fourth dhyāna heaven is obliterated and reformed. Each time, all the sentient beings in the lower realms learn to practice dhyāna and are reborn in the dhyāna heaven that marks the limit of the catastrophe that’s next to take place. I.e., prior to the catastrophe of the seven suns, they all first attain the second dhyāna and are reborn in the Ābhāsvara Heaven. Thus, no sentient beings are harmed when the world and the lower heavens are destroyed.

There are interesting details about the Buddhist concept of the world’s creation and destruction that’s embedded in the descriptions of these three cycles. For instance, when the world is created, there is first nothing at all but empty space. After a very long time, a deluge fills the lower realms with water. A wind blows on the surface of this ocean, whipping up a froth of foam that’s blow into the air. There, the foam solidifies into the heavenly palaces and eventually Mount Sumeru and the four continents. A wind gouges out a deep depression in the newly formed earth, and another deluge fills it with water. And so forth. The merits of the sentient beings in the form heavens eventually expire, and they fall to the newly formed lower realms. Thus, the creation and destruction of the world is really a cycle of sentient beings migrating to the higher realms and then falling back into the lower ones. The physical environment is responding to their changing merits.

Embedded in this lengthy description of three cycles of destruction and creation, we are told the reasons that the oceans are salty. One is that the deluges of rain over heaven and earth wash various impurities into the ocean that make it taste salty and bitter when they all combine. A second reason is that an ancient sage cast a curse on the ocean to prevent people from drinking from it. And a third reason is the waste and body fluids that mix into the ocean water from the enormous beings that live there.

Chapter 10: War

This chapter’s subject is warfare, specifically the periodic wars fought between the asuras and the gods. It collects together six stories that very much resemble stories in other Buddhist avadāna collections. A couple of these are purvayoga stories in which the Buddha was Lord Śakra taming the warlike asuras with the principles of non-violence, tolerance, and compassion. The longest story at the end is an illustration of desire being the root of warfare, which is why war is a feature of life throughout the desire realm.

Chapter 11: Three Interim Eons

This chapter collects together other set of three catastrophes, but these are disasters among human beings in the world rather than the world being completely destroyed.

The Eon of Warfare: This section tells the story that’s found in DN 26 and DĀ 6, where it’s called the “sword interim eon” (P. satthantarakappa). In this tale, the human world slowly degenerates, both in moral and physical terms. Human life spans begin at 40,000 years and are slowly reduced to only ten years. Delicious things in the world and fine cloth also disappear. Valuable treasures like gold and silver dwindle away, replaced with brambles and rocks. Humans respect and give offerings to evil people who follow the ten bad deeds instead of the good ones. All of this culminates in a time when most people want to kill each other like hunters looking at prey. An explosion of violence takes place that lasts seven days. A few sane people run and hide during this time and emerge afterward to re-establish civilization again. Everyone is born in hell afterwards, however, because they had habituated to hate.

The Eon of Famine: This eon is one in which there is widespread starvation. Again, this happens because of the moral destitution of humans. Sources of sustenance disappear, and people scrounge for what little remains or make soups from bones and flowers. Everyone falls to the realm of hungry ghosts afterward because they had habituated to greed during this time.

The Eon of Plague: The next eon breaks with the previous two in that people are moral and have right view. They suffer from a spiritual incursion by a powerful yakṣa spirit from another world who runs amok like barbarian raiders. When it attacks them spiritually, it makes people sick and kills them. This idea that plagues were caused by unseen demonic forces was not uncommon in the ancient world before micro-organisms were discovered. In this case, the people are born in heaven afterward because they habituated to compassionate caring for each other.

Chapter 12: The Origins of the World

The final chapter of DĀ 30 picks up where Chapter 10 left off after the catastrophe of fire, telling the story of how gods from the form realm are born into a newly formed world and devolve into human beings. It veers into lengthy digressions about the sun and moon and other features of the world in the process.

The Repopulation of the World: The chapter opens with the birth of the first Brahma gods when the merits of some gods in the Ābhāsvara Heaven expire. The first god to be born in the empty Brahma heaven thinks it’s wonderful and wishes there were others present. When more gods fall from the Ābhāsvara Heaven to this new Brahma Heaven, the first Brahma god imagines himself as their creator, and the other Brahma gods assume this must be true. This introduction is the same as one that we find in the Brahmajāla Sutta (DN 1 and DĀ 21).

These form realm gods are eventually born in the human world, too. Here, the author(s) have segued to the story that we find in the Aggañña Sutta (DN 27 and DĀ 5), and it’s this story that occupies about half of the chapter. The beings who first populate what will become the human world resemble fallen form realm gods at first. They glow, can fly, and they don’t have male or female sexes. They all look the same and don’t have different names yet. Rather, they are all called “host born” because they were all born at once in a large host of beings. This, by the way, is the literal meaning of the C. 眾生. We usually assume translates S. sattva, but apparently it did have another Indic equivalent that it translated.

From here, the story follows the one found in DN 27 and DĀ 5. Several kinds of food spontaneously arise that these fallen gods eat. Some of them become addicted to eating these foods, and they devolve physically as this causes them to become spiritually corrupted by desire. One of the first manifestations of this devolution is that their bodies stop glowing, plunging the world into darkness, for the sun and moon have yet to exist.

The Sun: At this point, the story pauses for a lengthy description of the sun palace, the sun god, and sunlight. First, the creation of the sun palace by a pair of whirlwinds is recounted, as well as the initial confusion of sentient beings when the sun first revolves around Mount Sumeru. Next, the physical features of the sun palace are described in similar terms as other palaces. We learn that the sun palace is suspended by five winds. We then learn some details about the sun god, how the light of the sun is emitted by this god, which shines on the palace and then on the rest of the world. There’s also a lengthy discussion of how he possesses 1,000 rays of light as a reward of his past merits.

Two more sections about the relationship between sunlight and weather follows. We’re given ten reasons why sunlight makes the world hot and thirteen reasons why it’s cold in the winter despite there being sunlight. In the first case, it’s because the light is heated by the mountains that circle Mount Sumeru. In the second case, it’s because the lakes between those mountains have a cooling effect.

The Moon: The author(s) next describe the moon in similar terms. The moon palace is a little smaller and made of different materials, but otherwise is nearly identical to the sun palace. The moon god also possesses 1,000 rays of light that are a reward for his past merits, and so forth.

After the moon palace and moon god have been described, we’re then given explanations for why the moon waxes and wanes. The author(s) explain this in terms of the moon being a square palace inhabited by a moon god. The waxing and waning of the moon is described as the effect created when a cube turns a flat face or edgewise towards a viewer on Earth. It’s also explained as the light from the sun not being reflected from different portions of it, or as the ministers of the moon god putting on and taking off blue robes during the month.

Other Features of the World: Before returning to the story of devolving beings, a number of other topics are taken up. We’re informed about the origins of the great rivers and seeds in the world. The different times of day and relative directions in the four continents are also described. We then are told how the Jambu tree’s fruit is eaten from five places by different beings, including the gods of the stellar constellations. The section closes with a list of seven black mountains and the sage priests who live on them.

The Devolution of Sentient Beings: Finally, we return to the story at hand. Eating the increasingly crude food causes the appearances of the fallen gods to diverge, some becoming uglier than others depending on how much of the food they eat. They begin to treat each other badly, the better-looking beings becoming arrogant.

Families and Homes Arise: As the physical devolution of these beings continues, male and female sexes arise, and they begin having sexual relations with each other. The other beings try to stop this, insulting and attacking the first men. The women feel badly for them and begin bringing food to them, causing the advent of husbands and wives. These couples build houses for privacy.

Cities Are Built and Property Is Invented: With the advent of families and houses, the first cities are built. The principal food becomes spontaneous rice, the same that’s said to grow in Uttarakuru. People gather this rice for their meal each day. Growing tired of this, some people gather more than a day’s worth to avoid the chore of gathering it. This is the invention of property, and people begin competing with each other to see who can stockpile more rice at a time. Because of this, spontaneous rice becomes ordinary rice that has husks and doesn’t grow back immediately after it’s harvested. At this point, the people realize their mistakes have led to this situation, but there’s nothing that can be done about it. They decide to assign ownership of land to individual people for them to grow their own rice.

Law and Crime Are Invented: The institution of property leads to theft and the advent of crime and punishment. Chiefs are elected who perform the duties of judging disputes, rewarding people who are good, and punishing those who are evil. Thus, government arises to control the problems of crime and conflict.

The Lineages of Kings: The chiefs from the previous section become hereditary kings. This section gives us a lengthy lineage of kings descended from the first chief. This lineage splits into ten tribal lineages, each consisting of varying number of noble wheel-turning kings. At the end, we arrive at King Śuddhodana and his son, who is curiously named “Bodhisattva” rather than Gautama. The lineage ends with Bodhisattva’s son Rāhula. Similar lineages are found in the C. Dharmaguptaka Vinaya and the C./S. Saghabhedavastu. Similar lists of tribes are found in the S. Mahāvastu and P. Sumaṅgalavilāsinī.

The Origins of the Four Castes: This section continues the story from the Aggañña Sutta after the election of a king. The first priests arise who leave home to meditate in secluded places. Some of them, however, weren’t able to meditate and returned to the villages and do immoral things described as “poisonous,” though no other details are given. People who pursued occupations to make their living became the householder caste, and those that practiced arts and crafts became the worker caste. The ascetics are said to arise initially from the Śākya tribe, but people from the warriors, priests, householders, and workers also become ascetics.

The Arising of Arhats in the World: The story concludes by describing how arhats arise in the world (which also concludes DN 27 and DĀ 5), and it’s similar to the description of how beings become gods in Chapter 8. It begins with establishing moral behavior, then adds renunciation, the factors of awakening, faith, and the religious life. This leads to the realization of liberation from rebirth. The section is concluded with a verse of praise from Brahmā, which is approved by the Buddha and reiterated.

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