Courtesans and Tantric Consorts: Sexualities in Buddhist Narrative, Iconography and Ritual

By Serinity Young | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 13

OTHER LANDS/OTHER REALITIES

THE BUDDHIST UNIVERSE

For early Buddhists the defining feature of the universe is its impermanence. This view was enlarged by adding two pervasive South Asian notions about the nature of the universe and its construction. First, after a vast period of time (a mahākalpa) the universe dies and then slowly arises again. This process is repeated endlessly. Second, Mt. Meru is at the center of the world surrounded by a great ocean and large islands. The earth is a mysterious and magical place populated or visited by many kinds of mythic beings, such as yak

īs, nāgas, apśaras, ghosts, ghouls, demons, deities, and so on. Such a worldview allows for the existence of mythic lands hidden in the mountains or on islands in uncharted seas. Additionally, Buddhists developed an elaborate cosmology that has a threefold division between the realms (dhātus) of desire (kāma), form (rūpa), and formlessness (arūpa). 1

The desire realm (kāmadhātu) is encapsulated in the Wheel of Becoming or Rebirth (bhavacakra; Srid pa'i 'khor lo) and is characterized by du

kha (suffering). The Wheel of Becoming is a frequent subject of Buddhist art that depicts the five or six realms or destinies (gatis) of the gods, humans, asuras, hungry ghosts, hell beings, and animals, all held in the grasp of Impermanence or the wrathful deity Yama (the god of Death), or Māra (Lord of the Realm of Desire and archenemy of enlightenment). It includes heavens and hells, as well as the earth. All sentient beings transmigrate through these six realms according to their karma. The only way to get off this wheel is to achieve enlightenment. To remind all beings of their situation, they were painted in the entrance halls of monasteries from the earliest times. 2 The boundaries of these realms are quite porous, as is suggested by the ability of

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