Buddhist Cosmology
Universe in the Mandala
31 Planes of Existence

Physical reality is outside the mandala. As a whole the mandala represents the manifest universe. The path inward is through higher planes of consciousness to the Bindu, portal to the Void.



BUDDHISM:  Origins: Buddhism began in the 6th century BCE with the life. enlightenment and teaching of Siddhartha Guatama, the Buddha who was born in Nepal and taught in northern India. It developed into two main divisions: Hinayana, the lower path of wisdom and enlightenment for the self, and Mahayana, the higher path of compassion and enlightenment as a Bodhisattva, for others.   The original form of Buddhism called Theraveda, now mostly in southeast Asia, is sometimes associated with Hinayana as it seeks enlightenment for the self.  Numerous branches and sects developed in different countries.  Among these Vajrayana, the Diamond Vehicle or Path, the fast lane for enlightenment, now one of the three major schools, developed about the 8th century AD as a branch of Mahayana, is based on Tantric ritual and Yogic practices.  Vajrayana, known as esoteric or tantric Buddhism, has itself two major schools: the Shingon School of Japan and Tibetan Buddhism.  The Vajrayana of Tibetan Buddhism has four schools: Nyingma (the “ancient ones, the oldest), Kaygu (the Karmapa, 3 Yanas), Sakya (scholars) and Gelug (Way of Virtue, logic and debate, The Dalai Lama).  The Nyingma school is known for its Nine Yanas, Nine Vehicles or Paths to Enlightenment: These include bodhisattva, tantric and yoga paths, the highest of which is the Dzogchen or Deity Yoga.

ENLIGHTENMENT:  The objective of Buddhist belief and practice is to become a Buddha, a fully enlightened and liberated being, attaining Nirvana, a timeless and formless state of Bliss wherein the being is dissolved into the original Nothing or Emptiness.  It is a state of cessation of being, of absolute non-duality.  Enlightenment can be thought of as spiritual evolution but obviously not the survival of the fittest since it is the destiny of all conscious being.   This is achieved through a practice of compassion, acquiring wisdom and releasing attachments/desires which are the causes of suffering.  The teaching of relieving suffering and starting the Path to enlightenment is stated in the Four Noble Truths and the 8-Fold Path of Right Living.  Buddhists believe in a system of reincarnation or rebirth into one of the six worlds of Samsara, or wheel rebirth, in the lower planes of existence (see model Diagram No.12).  The cycle of rebirth is nearly endless, lasting trillions upon trillions of years…the only way to get off the wheel is to become enlightened, i.e. to become a Buddha. The question here is the definition of nirvana: does the emptiness, non-form mean also non-being and non-awareness or does it mean the opposite, absolute, un-limited awareness of the self as totality, a merging with original cause.?

PRINCIPLE of CAUSATION: CO-DEPENDENT ARISING or INTERDEPENDENT ORIGINATION:  All phenomena arise together in a mutually interdependent web of cause and effect. Everything is connected. The Buddha was simultaneously awakened to the ‘emptiness’ of all form, sunyata, the nature of nirvana, and to the nature of existence as Co-dependent Arising or Causation.  Cause and effect co-arise…everything is both the cause and effect of everything else. No Beings or phenomenon are absolute. Similarly all things come into existence in every moment and in every moment are passing away. “There is no solid and enduring reality”.  From a scientific point of view then reality is digital-quantisized, rather than a relativistic contunuum. The universe that is continuously arising anew as a unified whole.  This core teaching of all schools of Buddhism is true non-dualism. 

Buddhist Cosmology

Wheel of Rebirth

Wheel of Rebirth

Wheel of Rebirth-Samsara has Six Realms: The Hell Realms, Demons, Animals, Hungry Ghosts, Human Beings and Devas/gods.

The Adi Buddha-Vajradhara or Vajrasattva

The Adi Buddha-Vajradhara or Vajrasattva

COSMOLOGY and the HIEARCHY of BEING: Multi-dimensional reality called the planes of existence, have a somewhat different population than western systems. In Buddhist thought Planes of Consciousness only exist as places or environments for beings. Instead of types or degrees of angels or ascended beings (and extraterrestrials) there are humans, demons, devas/gods, Bodhisattavas, Buddhas and Cosmic Buddhas, all sentient beings.

The Buddha taught that the universe was infinite, without beginning or end, thus without an originator or Creator. There is no supreme creator God of the Universe.  The origin of the universe and of a Supreme Being was not exactly denied but was said to be “unknowable” and could not be understood by the limited mind of man.  It was more important to alleviate suffering through the elimination of attachment and ignorance.  Questions concerning the eternal and infinite nature of the universe, the self and the Buddha are essentially unknowable. Self/Soul, Buddhists do not believe in a ‘soul’ per se in the western sense of an eternal conscious entity but as a collection of memories, habits, thoughts, desires and Karmic debts that persist as a unit.  Karma is essentially the principle of cause and effect and the way balance is maintained in the lower worlds of rebirth.

The Universe has neither beginning nor end…it is infinite. In Buddhism it was not created. Things are constantly coming into being, and ceasing to be. It is however bounded, thus finite in size, cyclically appearing. evolving and disappearing in endless cycles of existence. Therre is no origin not original cause.  Everything is caused by everything else in a system of “co-dependent arising” or causation.

The Buddhist cosmology draws on its roots in the Vedas tradition.  The cosmos is a multi-verse with uncountable universes connected by a cosmic web (plasma filaments) called “Indra’s Net’.  (Indra is the King of the Gods in the Vedas.)  Each is set like a pearl at the intersections of the net perfectly reflecting all the other universes.  Each contains the pattern the whole cosmos like a part of a hologram has the basic information of the holon but in less detail.  All the individual parts are bound together in the whole in “causal interdependence”.

The six planes of Samsara, rebirth, are the lowest dimensions of the Buddhist 31 Planes of Existence.  Above are the Worlds of the Bardo State, known as the “dream world” or the desire worlds, Kama Lokas, experienced by the soul after death, between lifetimes.  The Bardo is a series of planes that are basically astral or emotional nature experienced in three stages: 1.) the experience of death and infinite light, 2.) where one experiences of a torrent of conscious states, meeting all manner of beings or deities, peaceful/positive and wrathful/negative who test the soul’s level of spiritual attainment and karma and 3.) the where one plans the next lifetime/rebirth.  The experiences of the second stage are really mental projections conditioned by training and experience in life and are different for each individual. They have no reality and can be avoided by the soul that realizes this.

In Buddhism the Planes of Existence are not so much places or ‘lokas” as they are states of mind and habitations for various kinds of beings. There are two main divisions of worlds above the Bardo: the 16 Rupa Lokas, worlds of form and matter and the four Arupa Lokas planes, the formless, immaterial worlds. These total 31 Planes of Existence which are seen to stack, one upon the other in ascending order. The planes of form, Rupa Lokas double in size with each step to accommodate Devas who are increasing in size as they ascend. Everything is in constant flux, and so conditions and the thing itself are constantly changing.

Mt Meru: where heaven and earth meet is said to arise at the mid-point of the Buddhist universe and is thus enclosed within the dome of the stupa as a virtual stepped pyramid.  Mt. Meru, like all mountains has more than one, perhaps many paths to its summit, in this case they are paths of enlightenment.  It is often shown as an inverted cone with the City of the Gods, Brahmapuri, at its apex and surrounded by either the 5 rings of the elements or 7 rings for alternating mountain ranges and oceans with the twelve continents of the earth as islands. The mountain ranges are nearly impassable barriers around Mt. Meru. The continents are world floating in space time, like stars and planets. Humanity lives on the “rose apple tree” continent, otherwise known as the ”Land of Karma”.

Adi Buddha (also Vajradhara): Uppermost in the hierarchy the Adi Buddha resides in the emptiness beyond the Arupa Lokas, the “self-originating”, primordial consciousness, existing before the universe, the originator and source of all things. His body contains the entire Buddhist cosmos.  He is represented in body form holding the vajra scepter of wisdom and the bell of compassion crossed over the heart representing non-duality or the co-existence of the two worlds: The Diamond World and the Matrix World of dimensions.

Dhyani Buddhas: The 5 cosmic Dhyani Buddhas, residing in the Arupa (formless) Lokas, represent the five wisdoms to be cultivated or the 5 delusions to be overcome for enlightenment. (See chart)

COSMIC DHYANI BUDDHAS Delusion Wisdom/Consciousness Cosmic Element Name Color-Element
Vairacana Ignorance All encompassing Form Radiant Supreme White-Ether
Ashobhya Anger/Hatred Mirror-Like Consciousness The Unshakable Blue-Water
Ratnashambava Pride Equality Sensation Source of Jewels Yellow-Earth
Amitoba Desire/Passion Discrimination Perception Infinite Light Red-Fire
Amogasiddha Jealousy All-accomplishing Volition Lord of Karma Green-Air



Arguelles, Jose and Miriam, Mandala, Shamballa, 1972.
Govinda, Lama Anagarika, Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism, Samuel Weiser, 1969.
Govinda, Lama Anagarika, The Psycho-Cosmic Symbolism of the Buddhist Stupa, Dharma Publishing, 1978.
Lawlor, Robert, Sacred Geometry: Philosophy and Practice, Crossroad, 1982.
Snodgrass, Adrian, The Symbolism of the Stupa, Cornell U Press, 1985.
(Various Translations), Prajnaparamita Sutras (The Wisdom of the Yonder Shore),



The multi-dimensions states of existence-planes of consciousness in the Buddhist cosmos are divided into 3 worlds:  Worlds of Desire (Kama Lokas-6 heavens), Worlds of Form (Rupa Lokas-16 heavens) and the Worlds of Formlessness (Arupa Lokas-4 heavens).  Below this structure there is actually a fourth World called Samsara, the Wheel of Rebirth which has 6 planes, the highest of which is also the lowest plane in the Kama Lokas, the plane of the 4 Celestial Kings. These total 31 Planes of the Buddhist Vajrayana. (See the Mandala Model). See p.330 of Symbolism…)

The universe is divided into three realms in the Buddhist cosmology:
The Three Lokas
Rupa Lokas: Form/Body Planes- Devas of various degrees of aeareness
Kama Lokas:Desire Planes-Devas still subject to attachments
Arupa Lokas:Non-form Planes-

In the Buddhist high dimensions are beings who are involved solely in the process of evolution to a state of enlightenment rather than also having beings who are involved in the maintenance and manifestation of the universe and who may not have descended into physical form for incarnation as in other mystical traditions.
The four Arupa Lokas which are still subject to causation are as follows: the lowest-
28. The Heaven of Infinite Space (negation of all physical phenomenon).
29. The Heaven of Nothingness (Pure Consciousness is negated),
30. The Heaven of Pure or Infinite Consciousness or of Nothingness (empty space is negated)
31. The Heaven of Neither Consciousness Nor Non-Consciousness (highest plane of manifestation, all consciousness is negated), This is where enlightenment occurs

This plane is represented in the stupa as the top of the pinnacle.  Above this the mind is severed from all consciousness leaving only the un-manifest infinite Void, “thin air”, where the Buddhas exist.
The attainment of each plane of consciousness is viewed as a rebirth on that plane rather than an ascension of consciousness.
At this point there is a divergence in the teaching of different schools of where enlightenment occurs: 1. It is at the Akanistha, the top of the spire-the highest rung, the entry to the Formless Worlds or 2. The Pinnacle-highest point called the bhavagra, beyond which there is nothing-thin air.

Three Segments of Universe
Heavens-Realms of Planets & Stars, Beings bound by desire
Earth: Continents, oceans & mountains surrounding Mt. Meru-
         Land of Karma/Rebirth
Hell Realms-Increasing horrifically,6: Hot & Cold


The mandala is perhaps the most well known symbol of Buddhism in the west. It is a representation of the abode of the deity who sits in its center. It is a map of the world, a model of multidimensional reality, in short, it is the universe. The whole cosmology can be correlated to it. In Buddhism these are called the Planes of Consciousness. It is used in meditation practice to direct the spiritual aspirant along a path into the mandala to enlightenment at the center and the merging with the divine being whose realm it represents.* A we shall explore later, it is also the foundational matrix from which the Buddhist the vertical form of the stupa arises.

The Mandala is a Sanskrit word which means “circle”, “wheel” or “that which turns about a center”. The circle symbolizes unity, totality, and perfection. It is found in various forms in the teachings of many traditions around the globe: the Hindu yantra, the Gothic rose window, the Native American medicine wheel and the medieval Christian Empyrean shown at left. It differs from the mandala in that earth is at the center of the diagram rather tan outside. In design it is a geometrical progression of circles and squares, each within and without the other, increasing or decreasing in size according to the √2…the ratio between the side and diagonal of a square. The square represents the physical planes, its basic four-ness traditionally associated with matter or earth and the circle the higher, spiritual planes or heaven which is the first to be drawn in the sequence of circles. It contains all possibilities, all forms…it is the most perfect. As been noted previously, an ancient Chinese text on the design of temples specifies two basic plans: a circle within a square-heaven within earth, or a square within a circle, earth within heaven. In the Japanese Shingon School of Buddhism the mandala takes the form of a matrix of mandalas called the Womb World and Diamond Realm.