Posted by: Upāsaka | 09/09/2017

Saturday Uposatha with Bhante Piyadhammo

Every Saturday Bhante Piyadhammo hosts an uposatha practice day at his small vihara Wat Sacca in Berlin. He has graciously agreed to stream the refuges and precepts on these days as well as provide his thoughts in an essay that we serialize in our Facebook Uposatha Observance Club. Please join if you’re interested but here is this week’s entry below:

Angelic Upstarts

This underestimation is also the theme of a sutta to the Buddha’s stellar female disciple, Visakha, at A 3.71. In this most detailed exposition on the uposatha, the Buddha pushes the wealth analogy even further. He states that the sole rule over the popularly known world then, sixteen countries by name, is not worth the sixteenth of keeping the uposatha . The net value of such assets would certainly dwarf the $2.7 billion dollar scheme developed above.

But the Buddha makes a good case. He says that the lifespan in even the lowest of six sensual heavens is a full nine million years. For comparison, the currently held view of the paleoanthropologists’ community is that the earliest creature that can be considered having anything in common with human beings is Sahelanthropus Tchadensis, around seven or eight million years ago. These scientists, however, are not even certain whether this creature was terrestrial. The somewhat malleable term ‘homo sapiens’ that describes our species is used for beings who lived no more than a 130 000 years ago. The earliest hominids who use shelters clock in around 300 000 years ago. The Buddha with his psychic powers might possibly have a quite different view of evolution – paleontology itself changes its views still regularly according to new findings – but these comparisons show of how great value a teaching leading to a profitable rebirth can be, let alone one leading to the end of all suffering.

The drastic underestimation of samsaric suffering and the opportunity that contact with the teaching of a Buddha offers is at the root of many teachings, in fact, almost all of the teachings dealing with rebirth are designed to get this point across. It is difficult to understand for a one earning $50 dollars with a hard day’s work that he could make so much money that he had 100 000 dollars a day to put aside. So too, the perception of the fleeting ticker-tape world we live in makes it hard to imagine that we should be able to live for millions of years, developing in wholesomeness and bliss. The Buddha says that the lifespan in each of the following heavenly realms quadruples, so that the sixth and highest of them has a lifespan of over nine billion years. Current scientific consensus is that the age of the earth is about half that, 4.5 billion years.

To our imagination, nine million and nine billion years seem to be almost the same although one would have to live a thousand nine-million lifespans to get to nine billion years. That is a lot, though incomparable to the ten million human lifespans one would have to live to get to nine billion. The difference in cause, is only in degrees of purity of virtue on a few weekly

We know a little bit about the differences between heavenly realms from the suttas. In the lowest, that of the so-called Four Great Kings, which hosts fairies, gnomes, dragons, guardian spirits and creatures of that kind, beings still engage in some kind of work. Apparently serving the next higher realm is one of their obligations, though this work does not seem to be stressful. They seem to be the type of being who identify with their jobs and delight in them.

The six divine abodes seem to be really three groups of two realms and so the first two are tightly interwoven. Their inhabitants are the deities that are most involved with influencing the human realm. On uposathas their kings tour the world to see how human beings are doing with their observance (A 3.38). If they are doing well, the deities are happy because they know that their number will be increasing, namely, when those good people die. If humans are doing poor in this regard, the celestials feel a little down, not least because they fear that their battle strength against the rival asuras will be diminishing. These divine beings still have conflict to the point of occasional warfare and, in general, seem to be not overly lofty in their tastes.

The psychological profile fitting these realms is most likely one of strong generosity, right view and virtue but somewhat undiluted sensual preferences. Consequently, one ends up with occasional overspill into righteous indignation resulting in ‘holy wars.’ Sports, food, large harems, fancy buildings and great parks are the principal pleasures in those realms for those so inclined. It appears, though, that beings live somewhat in their own subgroup, i.e. the people one used to make merit with or is similar to. Obviously, some of these groups are not of the sporting & partying type, just as many humans are perfectly happy without many of the here available pleasures and nobody forces them to participate. One source claimed that sex in these two lower sensual realms involves genital contact, as that in the human and animal realm, though it’s said not to involve post-coital depressions and other unpleasant aspects of human and animal sexuality. Surpassing beauty is normal and supposed to be no serious concern for these beings, except in the period just before they die.

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