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Heaven and Hell (Asian Focus)


Mainly as an ideal place for the afterlife, heaven was described as a mysterious island in the ocean or a palace on the top of mountain or a multilayered structure in the sky. In different regions and times, people have different ideas about the location and appearance of heaven.

South Asia.

Various heavens, seven in total and one above the other, are recorded in the Pali literature, some of the earliest written information on heaven preserved in South Asia. Thirty-three heavens, again one above the other, are also described in ancient Sanskrit texts. These ideas about heaven were adopted in the sixth century B.C.E. by the historical Buddha, who, in turn, developed a more systematic and elaborate vision of heaven that we see in the surviving Buddhist scriptures. From the Buddhist perspective, the most important heaven is Sukhavati or the Western Paradise, the land of bliss. The master of the Western Paradise is Buddha Amitabha and the residents of the land are all holy beings. At the opposite location is the Eastern Paradise of Buddha Bhaisajya-guru or the Healing Buddha. This horizontal placement of the Western and Eastern Paradises is supplemented by a vertical structure consisting of thirty-three heavens in the sky. Beautiful and comfortable, all Buddhist heavens are occupied by holy beings such as the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and are ready to accept the reborn souls of the virtuous Buddhist devotees. In early Buddhist iconography, heaven is depicted as a part of the narrative representation of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha's (the historical Buddha, c. 563–483 B.C.E.) life; it is shown as a small house located on the top of a pagoda-like ladder. The Tushita Heaven of Bodhisattva Maitreya is also depicted as a frame-like house. The number of pictorial representations of heaven in ancient Indian Buddhist art, however, seems to be very small. The scarcity and simplicity of heaven images in ancient Indian art suggest that the motif of paradise in India was far less popular than in East Asian countries.

East Asia.

Before the introduction of Buddhism into China around the first century C.E., heaven and paradise were considered two different concepts. Heaven is up in the sky, and from there deceased ancestors provide legitimacy to the living rulers or send mythical signs celebrating or criticizing the rulers' behavior. Paradise is a livable place located either in the Eastern Sea or on the top of the Kunlun Mountains in the west. In the early thoughts of Daoism, an indigenous religion that began in China at almost the same time as Buddhism in South Asia, the islands of immortality float in the sea in the east. The lucky ones might obtain elixirs from the immortals on the islands and live forever. The most influential local paradise before the introduction of Buddhism is the paradise of the Queen Mother of the West, located on the top of the Kunlun Mountains in the remote west of China. The islands of immortality in the Eastern Sea and the Queen Mother's paradise on the Kunlun Mountains in the west also form a horizontal orientation. During the Qin-Han period (third century B.C.E. to third century C.E.), heaven (or the sky) and paradise (place for the afterlife) are shown in totally different visual forms: the former is perceived as an astronomical entity and depicted as a star map, and the latter is understood as a place and depicted as a remote mount where the deceased could meet the Queen Mother. When Buddhist ideas of heaven-paradise entered China in the first century C.E., they provided a great stimulation to the Chinese imagination regarding the afterlife and fundamentally changed the vision of heaven throughout East Asia. Thousands of pictures of the Buddhist paradise were created in medieval China and Japan to serve as aids in visualization by religious practitioners and to satisfy the need of ordinary devotees to accumulate merits and prepare for the future entrance into paradise. The most popular visual pattern of Buddhist paradise in East Asia consists of four basic elements: the holy icons of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, the palatial buildings in which devotees could imagine themselves living, large water ponds in which devotees could imagine themselves being reborn, and musicians and dancers who could entertain the devotees. In most cases, the visual details are created according to local and contemporary customs and somehow reflect the historical conditions of that time. The local visions of Buddhist paradise created in various regions in Asia can certainly help us understand the diversity of heaven images and provide us with critical evidence to understand the histories and cultures of Asia.

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