In Buddhist cosmology, there are as many as 26 heavenly planes within the 31 planes of existence. (http://accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/sagga/loka.html) For focus, this article will compare the most commonly believed kind of heaven (as subscribed by some monotheistic faiths) with Buddhist Pure Lands. Please note that this is not to disparage any faith, but to clarify the common misconception of these worlds being the same in the context of Buddhism.
Of the heavenly planes in the Buddhist context, there is a group of three heavens that is often be seen to be the equivalent of the afterlife destination of some God-centred religions. They are, beginning from the above and more refined in the first jhanic heavens: (1) Maha Brahma heaven (of great Brahmas), (2) Brahma-purohita deva heaven (of Brahma’s ministers; ‘angels’) and (3) Braha-parisajja deva heaven (of Brahma’s retinue; followers).
According to the Kevatta Sutta (http://accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.11.0.than.html#bigbrahma), Maha Brahma’s delusion led him to imagine himself to be an omnipotent and omniscient creator of the universe. This is why some might regard Maha Brahma to be equivalent of the Godhead of religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism. According to the Ayacana Sutta (http://accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn06/sn06.001.than.html), it was not Maha Brahma, as typically mistaken, but Brahma Sahampati, from the higher Akanistha heaven (the highest of the Suddhavasa heavens), who first invited the Buddha to teach after his enlightenment.
It is however stated in the Kevatta Sutta that Maha Brahma acknowledged the supremacy of the Buddha’s wisdom. Does this mean there is a possibility that his heavens’ inhabitants might be encouraged to learn and practise the Dharma? Even if so, it is surely much more advisable to seek birth in Pure Land to learn the Dharma directly from a fully enlightened Buddha – where enlightenment is guaranteed, along with many myriad blessings. The best known Pure Land is Amitabha Buddha’s (Sukhavati Vyuha: Land of Ultimate Bliss).
What are the key differences between (Maha) Brahma’s heaven(s) and Pure Lands? (1) The Brahma heavens are still within the wheel of life and death, trapped within Samsara’s realms of good and evil. Pure Lands are beyond cyclic planes of existence. They are pure realms that directly facilitate purity, to transcend good and evil. Some believe Pure Lands are within the Pure Abodes (Suddhavasa), where Anagamis (Non-Returners) are also born, before attaining Arahanthood in that lifetime. This resembles how Pure Lands guarantee enlightenment.
(2) Due to possessing great merits, the inhabitants of Brahma heaven(s) have very long lifespans, creating the illusion of being in an ‘eternal heaven’, while possessing ‘eternal life’ and bliss. They are however, still subject to rebirth in Samsara once their merits are depleted – if they do not attain enlightenment in time. They are also mostly unaware that there are much higher planes of heavens, such as Suddhavasa, which do not expire, with the presence of beings who live much longer, while experiencing more sublime bliss. Pure Lands are truly eternal as they are manifestations of Buddhas’ infinite compassion. With the blessings shared by the presiding Buddhas coupled by diligent spiritual cultivation spurred by Pure Lands’ conducive environment, their inhabitants are no longer subject to karmic rebirth in Samsara (will not retrogress), and will definitely attain liberation.
(3) Life in Brahma heaven(s) is generally aimless in nature (unless one realises the need to learn and practise the Dharma), consisting of the enjoyment of the fruits of positive karma and merits while depleting them, and serving ‘God’, with whom one maintains a master-and-servant relationship. The purpose of seeking birth in Pure Lands is very clear in contrast – to learn how to be a perfect Bodhisattva and attain enlightenment, in order to return to Samsara (including the hells) to guide other beings to enlightenment. One’s relationship to the inhabitants of a Pure Land is that of Principal-Teachers-Students (Buddha-Bodhisattvas-Schoolmates). There, all inhabitants are trained to be equally and perfectly enlightened – like their Principal (Buddha).
An additional note (from http://moonpointer.com/pureland/2011/12/14/is-pureland-here-or-there-now-or-later/): ‘…the Buddha never taught the existence of an eternal or perfect heaven created by any unenlightened god with limited merits, compassion and wisdom; while the Buddha taught about the existence of immeasurably long-lasting Pure Lands created by fully enlightened Buddhas with perfect merits, compassion and wisdom. (The Buddha also taught that there is no omnipotent, omniscient and omni-benevolent creator god because if there is one, there would be no trace of suffering at all.) In case it is mistaken that Pure Land is exactly the same as, or even comparable to the usual concept of heaven, the Buddha says this in the Infinite Life Sutra to highlight the supremacy of Pure Land in contrast to general heavenly planes:
“Even though a king is the noblest of all men and has a regal countenance, if he is compared with a wheel-turning monarch, he will appear as base and inferior as a beggar beside a king. Likewise, however excellent and unrivaled the majestic appearance of such a monarch may be, if he is compared with the lord of the Heaven of the Thirty-three Gods, he will also appear incomparably inferior, even ten thousands kotis of times more so. Again, if this heavenly lord is compared with the lord of the Sixth Heaven, he will appear a hundred thousand kotis of times inferior. If the lord of the Sixth Heaven is compared with a bodhisattva or a shravaka dwelling in the land of Amitayus [Amitabha Buddha; Amituofo], his countenance and appearance will be far from matching those of the bodhisattva or shravaka, being a thousand million kotis of times or even incalculable times inferior.”’
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