The skepticism about creator god in Indian religions was even carried to further extremes in Buddhism. The gods, and there are many in Buddhism, are subject to death and rebirth, thus making them incapable of creating anything, especially the cosmos.
In Buddhism this is emphatically emphasized, although there are some stories concerning Buddha, a kindly and well-disposed deity, who deceived himself into thinking he might be the cosmic creator (Digha Nikaya 1. 18); but, some hold, such stories were told to illustrate that the gods need just as much enlightenment as everyone else.
Buddhism inherited the cosmography that envisions a series of levels, all of which are open to the process of reappearance: at the summit are the four realms of purely mental rebirth (arupa-avacara); below them are the realms of pure form (pupa-avacara) where the gods dwell in sixteen heavens, five of which are known as pure abodes (suddhavasa), the remaining eleven arise out of the jhanas (meditational states).
Lower still are the sense-desire heavens, including those of the Tavatimsa gods (the thirty-three Vedic gods, the chief of whom, Indra, known as Sakka, has become a protector of Buddhism) and of the Tusita gods (where bodhisattvas spend their penultimate birth, and in which Maitteya now dwells).
In the sense-desire realms are the levels on which live the asuras, humans, and animals. Below these are pretaloka and the hells of torment (niraya/naraka). All worlds are composed of transient and impermanent moments, and are therefore the product, neither of a creator, nor even of some eternal process, as in the interaction between Purusa and Prakrti in Samkhya.
The world is simply a process, passing through cycles (kappa) of immense length. In the Mahayana, beyond the three domains, karma, rupa, and arupa, there is an additional dimension of Buddha-ksetras (Buddha-fields).
Buddhism Cosmology definition and meanings
Buddhism’s view of the cosmos and its skepticism about a creator god represents a significant divergence from theistic traditions. Here’s an overview of these concepts in Buddhism:
- Skepticism About a Creator God: Buddhism is unique among major religions in its skepticism about a creator god. In Buddhist cosmology, the universe is not seen as the creation of a divine being. Instead, it is viewed as a vast, ever-changing process without a single, eternal, omniscient creator.
- Nature of Gods in Buddhism: While Buddhism acknowledges the existence of gods, these beings are not creators of the cosmos. They are part of the cycle of death and rebirth (samsara) and are themselves subject to impermanence and suffering. Therefore, they are not capable of creating or governing the universe in the way gods are typically perceived in other religions.
- Buddha’s Relation to the Concept of a Creator: There are stories in Buddhist texts, such as the Digha Nikaya, that depict gods, including Buddha in a past life, mistakenly believing they might be the cosmic creator. These narratives are often used to illustrate that even gods require enlightenment and are not exempt from ignorance.
- Cosmography and Realms of Existence: Buddhism inherits a detailed cosmography with multiple levels of existence. At the highest are the formless realms (arupa-avacara), followed by realms of pure form (rupa-avacara) where gods reside in sixteen heavens. Below these are the sense-desire heavens, home to gods like Indra (Sakka in Buddhism) and the Tusita gods, where bodhisattvas like Maitreya reside before their final birth.
- Asuras, Humans, and Lower Realms: Further down are the levels where asuras (demi-gods), humans, and animals exist, followed by the realms of hungry ghosts (pretaloka) and hells (niraya/naraka).
- Impermanence and Lack of a Creator: All these worlds, according to Buddhist philosophy, are composed of transient moments and are impermanent. The universe is not a creation of a divine being or an eternal process (unlike the interaction between Purusa and Prakriti in Samkhya philosophy). Instead, it is a continually evolving process, passing through immense cycles (kappas).
- Mahayana Buddhism and Buddha-fields: In Mahayana Buddhism, beyond the three domains of karma, rupa, and arupa, there is an additional concept of Buddha-ksetras or Buddha-fields. These are pure lands created by the merits of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas where beings can practice Dharma more effectively.
Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 240-241