Friday, April 15, 2011

Buddhist Extraterrestrials in Space (sutra)

Wisdom Quarterly translation based on original Maurice Walshe translation ("The Great Steward," Mahā-Govinda Sutra, DN 19)

The following is an elaborate discourse that takes place in space. Benevolent beings well aware of the Buddha regularly gather in "Spaceport 33" (Tavatimsa, Sanskrit, Tratyastrimsa). Meetings are conducted with four space commanders (named in the sutra) entrusted with ruling the skies of Earth and particular kinds of nonhuman beings under their purview.

Walshe's translation is excellent although obscured by British-English and the common portrayal of these characters as heavenly, which leads to assumption that it is myth. But this takes place in space within our solar system. The "heavens" (skies, spheres, zones in space) and devas ("shining ones," angels, godlings, demigods, sky-kings, lords, protectors) are always plural in Buddhism (as they originally were in Christianity). This sutra names and describes some of the most relevant to earthly affairs.

The Great Steward (DN 19)

1. Thus have I heard. Once the Buddha was staying at Rājagaha, on Vultures' Peak. And when the night was nearly over, Pañcasikha of the messenger-devas ("angels" or gandharvas) alighted on Vultures' Peak.

[A brahma named Brahmā Sanankumara materialized in the form of the youth Pañcasikha (literally, "Five Knots") to appear in person; he was wearing his hair tied in five top knots or ringlets as the youth Panchasikkha had worn his hair when he passed away as a young boy].

He lit up the entire Vultures' Peak with a splendid radiance [as would a spacecraft, but devas (literally, "shining ones") emit a radiance, as science has shown humans do, and brahmas are even brighter].

He approached the Buddha, saluted him, stood respectfully to one side, and said: "Venerable sir, I wish to report to you what I have personally seen and observed when I was in the presence of the Thirty-Three Devas."

"Tell me then, Pañcasikha," replied the Buddha.

2. "Venerable sir, in earlier days, long ago, on the lunar observance day of the fifteenth at the end of the rainy season, on the full moon night, all the Thirty-Three Devas were seated in the Hall of Truth -- a great congregation of celestial beings, and the Four Great Sky Kings from the four quarters [eastern, southern, western, and northern skies] were there. There were these great sky kings:

  1. Dhatarattha from the east at the head of his followers sat facing west;
  2. Virulhaka from the south...facing north;
  3. Virupakkha from the west...facing east;
  4. Vessavana from the north...facing south.

On such occasions that is the order in which they are seated, and after that came our seats. And those devas who, having lived the supreme life under the Buddha [now reborn as a result in these celestial worlds as beautifully radiant], had recently appeared in the space world of the Thirty-Three, outshone the other devas in in brightness and glory. And for that reason the Thirty-Three Devas were pleased, happy, filled with delight and joy, rejoicing: ‘The devas' hosts [defensive army] are growing, the titans' (asuras) legions [offensive army] are declining!'

Then Sakka [King of Kings and Lord of Lords, referring to the Four Great Sky Kings already mentioned and the 33 ruling lords of the Realm of the Thirty-Three], seeing the satisfaction of the Thirty-Three, uttered these verses of rejoicing:

"The devas of the Thirty-Three rejoice, their leader too,

Praising the Tathāgata [Buddha], and Dharma's truth,
Seeing new-come devas, fair and glorious
Who've lived the supreme life, now well reborn.
Outshining all the rest in fame and splendor,
The mighty Sage's pupils singled out.
Seeing this, the Thirty-Three rejoice, their leader too,
Praising the Tathāgata, and Dharma's truth."
At this, venerable sir, the Thirty-Three Devas rejoiced still more, saying: "The devas' hosts are growing, the asuras' legions are declining!"

4. [Pañcasikha continued:] "Then Sakka, seeing their satisfac­tion, said to the Thirty-Three Devas: "‘Would you like, gentle­men, to hear eight truthful statements in praise of the Buddha?" Receiving their assent, he declared:

5. "‘What do you think, my lords of the Thirty-Three? As regards the way in which the Buddha has striven for the welfare of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compas­sion for the world, for the welfare and happiness of devas and human beings -- we can find no teacher endowed with such quali­ties, whether we consider the past or the present, other than the Buddha.

6. "‘Well-proclaimed, truly, is this Buddha's Teaching, visible here and now, timeless [immediately beneficial], inviting inspection, leading onward, to be realized by the wise each one for oneself -- and we can find no proclaimer of such an onward-leading doctrine, either in the past or in the present, other than the Buddha.

7. "‘The Buddha has well explained what is right and what is wrong, what is blameworthy and what is blameless, what is to be followed and what is not to be followed, what is base and what is noble, what is foul, fair, and mixed in quality. And we can find none who is a proclaimer of such things... other than the Buddha.

8. "‘Again, the Buddha has well explained to his disciples the path [The path here is really the practice (patipadā). The Noble Eightfold Path is the "Middle Way" or better the "Middle Practice," majjhima-patipadā] leading to nirvana. And they coalesce, nirvana and the path, just as the waters of the Ganges and Yamunā rivers coalesce and flow on together. And we can find no proclaimer of the path leading to nirvana... other than the Buddha.

9. "‘And the Buddha has gained companions, both learners [those in training who have attained one of the three preliminary stages of enlightenment but not yet the fourth and final stage] and those who, having lived the supreme spiritual life, have abolished the corruptions [arhats, or fully enlightened followers], and the Buddha dwells together with them, all rejoicing in the one thing [liberation from suffering]. And we can find no such teacher... other than the Buddha.

10. "‘The gifts given to the Buddha are well-bestowed, his fame is well established, so much so that, I think, the warrior-caste nobles in India will continue to be attached to him. Yet the Buddha accepts food-offerings without conceit. And we can find no teacher who does this... other than the Buddha.

11. "‘And the Buddha acts as he speaks, and speaks as he acts. And we can find no teacher who does likewise, in every detail of Dharma... other than the Buddha.

12. "‘The Buddha has transcended doubt, passed beyond all 'how' and 'why,' accomplished his aim in regard to his goal and the goal of the supreme way of life. And we can find no teacher who has done likewise, whether we consider the past or the present, other than the Buddha.'"

"And when Sakka had thus proclaimed these eight truthful statements in praise of the Buddha, the Thirty-Three Devas were even more pleased, overjoyed, and filled with delight and happiness at what they had heard in the Buddha's praise.

13. "Then certain devas exclaimed: "Oh, if only four supremely-enlightened-teaching-buddhas were to arise in the world and teach Dharma just like the Blessed One! That would be for the benefit and happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit and happiness of devas and human beings!"

"And some said: ‘Never mind four supremely-enlightened-teaching-buddhas -- three would suffice!' And others said: ‘Never mind three -- two would suffice!'"

14. "At this Sakka said: ‘It is impossible, gentlemen, it can­not happen that two supremely-enlightened-buddhas should arise simultaneously in a single world-system. That cannot be. May this Blessed One continue to live long, for many years to come, free from illness and disease! That would be for the benefit and happiness of the many. Out of compassion for the world, it would be for the benefit and happiness of devas and human beings!'"

Then the Thirty-Three Devas consulted and deliberated about the matter concerning which they had assembled in the Hall of Truth. And the Four Great Sky Kings were advised and admonished on this matter as they stood by their seats unmoving:

The sky kings, instructed, marked the words they spoke, Standing calm, serene, beside their seats.

15-16. "A great radiance was seen, heralding the approach of Brahmā [a higher class of beings more powerful and better endowed than devas]. All took their proper seats... each hoping Brahmā would sit on his couch.

17. Then Brahmā Sanankumāra, having descended from his space world, and seeing their pleasure, uttered these verses:

"The devas of the Thirty-Three rejoice, their leader too..." (as above).

18. "Brahmā Sanankumāra's voice had eight qualities. (It is distinct, intelligible, pleasant, attractive, compact, concise, deep, and resonant).

19. "Then the Thirty-Three Devas said to Brahmā Sanankumāra: ‘It is well, Brahmā! We rejoice at what we have heard. Sakka, Lord of the Devas, has also declared eight truthful statements to us about the Buddha, at which we also rejoice.'"

"Then Brahmā said to Sakka: ‘It is well, Lord of the Devas. And we too would like to hear those eight truthful statements about the Buddha.'"

"‘Very well, Great Brahmā,'" said Sakka as he repeated those eight statements.

20-27. "‘What do you think, Lord Brahmā...?'" And Brahmā Sanankumāra was pleased, over­joyed, filled with delight and happiness at what he had heard in the Buddha's praise.

28. "Brahmā Sanankumāra assumed a grosser form and appeared to the Thirty-Three Devas in the shape of the youth Pañcasikha ("Five Knots").... Rising up in the air, he appeared floating cross-legged. And sitting thus cross-legged, he said to the Thirty-Three Devas: "For how long has the Blessed One [the Buddha] been one of mighty wisdom?

29. "‘Once upon a time there was a king called Disampatī. His court chaplain [purohita, brahmin priest who serves the king as a kind of prime minister] was a brahmin called the Steward.

[Govinda. Rhys Davids notes: "It is evident...that Govinda, literally "Lord of the Herds," was a title, not a name, and means Treasurer or Steward." But people were often known by some designation other than their proper names, probably for taboo reasons. Note how in Scotland the royal house of Stuart derived their name from the Steward who was originally the "sty-ward"].

"The king's son was a youth called Renu, and the Steward's son was called Jotipāla. Prince Renu and Jotipāla, together with six other nobles, formed a band of eight friends.

"In the course of time the Steward died, and King Disampati mourned him, saying: ‘Alas, at the very moment when we had entrusted all our responsibilities to the Steward and were abandoning ourselves to the pleasures of the five senses, the Steward has passed away!'

"Hearing this, Prince Renu said: ‘Sire, do not mourn the Steward's death too much! His son Jotipāla [a name that means "Guardian of the Light"] is cleverer than his father was and has a better eye for what is advantageous.

"‘You should let Jotipāla manage all the business you entrusted to his father.' ‘Is that so, my boy?' ‘Yes, sire.'

30. "Then the king called a man and said: ‘Come here, my good man. Go to the youth Jotipāla and say: "May the reve­rend Jotipāla be well! King Disampati sends for you. He would like to see you.'

"‘Very good, your majesty,' replied the man who then delivered the message.

On receiving the message, Jotipāla responded: ‘Very good, sir' and went to see the king. On entering the royal presence, he exchanged courtesies with the king, then sat respectfully to one side.

The king said: "We wish the reverend Jotipāla to manage our affairs. Do not refuse. I will install you in your father's place and consecrate ["anoint," suggesting that the office is a royal rank] you as Steward.'

"'Very good, lord,' replied Jotipāla. More (full Walshe translation at

Who is Brahmā Sanaṅkumāra?

Brahmā Sanaṅkumāra (Sanskrit, Sanat-kumāra, the "Ever-young") appears in various sutras in the Long Discourses (such as DN 18) where he creates an illusionary presence to make himself perceptible to the coarser senses of Śakka and the devas of Thirty-Three. He addressed these deities in such a way that each of them thought that he was being spoken to alone. He advised them to follow the precepts and practices of the Buddha. And he explained the profitable karmic results that would come from doing so. Commentators explain the epithet of "Ever-young" by saying that he had chosen the appearance of a very young male whose hair was still tied in the adolescent style of "Five Knots" (pancha-sikkha). (See also Four Kumaras. For video, search "Sanatkumara").

Brahma is depicted as having four faces, which is presumed to be symbolic, as if possessing the four qualities necessary for creation or the ability to see in all directions simultaneously. But as a live birth in India in 2008 shows (see video), it is within the range of our genetic makeup to literally have multiple faces.

Is This Your Brain on God? (NPR)