LIVES AND MANY HEAVENS|
Salvation Versus Liberation, The Limitations of the Paradise Worlds
The approach to paradises or heavens presented here is a Mahayana Buddhist one. Buddhists generally do not recommend that individuals seek paradises following death for two reasons. First, such places are believed to be temporary and do not give eternal salvation and happiness as is claimed by some religions. Second, many paradises are believed to halt the spiritual development of those that reside there. In addition, paradises tend to also halt learning and creativity, and do not provide opportunities to help the suffering which is an important value for Mahayana Buddhists.
However we should also note that some forms of Mahayana Buddhism including the Tibetan and Pure Land forms believe that Buddhist paradises can be stepping stones to nirvana and ultimate Buddhist goals. So there is no universal agreement about the value of paradises in Buddhism.
A distinction can be drawn between deities whose primary focus is to obtain as much worship by as many followers as possible and those who primarily seek freedom and happiness for their followers or visitors. Buddhist deities are of the second type as one might conclude from the contents of this site.
From a Buddhist perspective, there are many gods and many paradises and we will generalize about them rather than talking about a specific heaven or a specific deity.
The discussion presented here is based on intuition, and conversations with a Bhairava, or an inner spiritual Buddhist guide. However, in many ways, it echos the basic approach of Buddhists to paradises. What is somewhat unique about the approach is that it clarifies the relationship of an individual's negative karma (or sin) to the paradise worlds.
The Bhairava describes the attributes of the paradise worlds by answering two questions.
Many Buddhists question what becomes of a person's karma when he or she enters a heaven world. In western terms, the question is more correctly stated: "Is it true that all sin is forgiven when an individual is admitted to a paradise?"
The Bhairava answers as follows:Many paradise worlds revolve around deities who are powerful enough to create the world and are therefore also powerful enough to manipulate the karma of the souls who enter that world. Many paradises are made with a sort of coat closet at the entrance - a place to check your karma until you leave. The karma has not disappeared - it is just waiting in the coat closet. It is returned when the person or being leaves the paradise.This approach emphasizes that there is not really a "forgiveness of sins" when the individual enters the paradise as much as there is a suspension of karma where retribution is delayed perhaps for a very long time.
To the question, "Why not enter a paradise rather than seek Buddhist Nirvana?" the Bhairava responds:In a paradise, the individual is a kind of slave to the deity. Many of the deities are quite nice, but there is no tolerance for rebellion. If you do not worship the deity, you are out. Some gods are notorious about requiring constant worship, and they are very sensitive about any concern for or loyalty to other gods.The Bhairava because he focuses on wisdom has a somewhat harsh view of the paradise worlds. He does emphasize that some gods act out of compassion to create paradise worlds to help individuals purify themselves through meditation and prayer, and thus escape the worlds of incarnation and suffering. He views Buddhism as a path towards spiritual maturity rather than towards happiness as an end in itself. In many ways, the debate about the fundemental values and goals of life is reflected in this opposition of seeking knowledge versus happiness. **
The Buddhist paradises are more tolerant, but the individual is still expected to behave in a certain way. He or she should be meditating, or planning how to become a Bodhisattva. The individual in such a paradise can focus on mercy or emptiness but not on passion or creativity. Being in a paradise means you cannot even think about such things, or your karma will be thrown around your neck like iron chains, and you will be reborn.
Paradises are very good places to meditate and pray. However, they have limited options for creativity. These paradises already exist, and are decorated and furnished. They do not need creativity and change. And there are limited options for helping the suffering. Beings who suffer usually have karma too heavy to even consider paradises. If you are in a paradise, you cannot help them. You are too busy pleasing the deity or pleasing yourself. As Bhairavas, we value helping suffering beings, and we work in the worlds of form and formlessness.
People in paradises take the easy way out. They could be struggling and striving for enlightenment, and instead choose a feathered nest without responsibility or maturity. For the sake of temporary happiness, they renounce knowledge and freedom. They then have no choice but happiness. Their growth is stunted like a child who will never leave his mother's lap, no matter how old he gets.
From a certain perspective, the individual carries his karma like a knapsack full of stones. Most are heavy and dirty, but some are like bright jewels. These two classes of stones represent bad and good karma respectively.
Though the individual lays the bag at the coat check room in the paradise, some paradises require an entrance fee. It may be your total love and devotion, and it may be a renunciation of spiritual maturity. In some cases, the individual must offer those jewels of light - the light of his or her past kindness and good deeds. They are taken away as the individual enters, and if the individual should turn his or her back on the god, he will be left with nothing [i.e. no good karma]. It is like a woman giving up her dowry in marriage - she will have nothing to turn to if the marriage does not work out.
Liberation is not easy, but it is the birthright of every person. Frittering away time in the heaven worlds may be enjoyable, but it is a form of spiritual gluttony. You are fulfilling your own desires and those of a powerful and often egotistical deity, but what are you doing to help the universe?
Paradises are places for the weak and traumatized, who need shelter and cannot take life's intellectual challenges. This is why paradise deities emphasize love [as opposed to knowledge]. Only those who cannot go forward will choose to stay back forever. And paradises fulfill a valid need - the world is full of people seeking shelter.
The Bhairava's approach to paradises is generally consistent with the Buddhist worldview though many Buddhists believe that the individual who enters a paradise will eventually run out of good karma and be forced to reincarnate. The Bhairava takes the approach that individuals can stay in the paradises for eons, and may never be forced to reincarnate. Paradises can be virtually eternal for those that live according to the rules of the paradise world. However, any place where staying is contingent upon certain attitudes and actions which could cease is not truly eternal since at least theoretically, access to that paradise could end at any point in time.
A common notion is that good karma is basically a kind of currency. Being in a paradise is like living in a luxury hotel where because it is expensive to stay there, the guests will eventually run out of money, and need to reincarnate (leave the paradise) when they become destitute. However, a different approach to paradises is that once the individual enters one, there developes a self-sustaining system where the individual gives devotion to the deity and the deity gives grace in return. Here, we have a kind of perpetual motion machine which does not require good karma to sustain it. A certain amount of good karma is required to enter the paradise but not necessarily to stay there.
** The statement in the preamble of the American Declaration of Independence is a secular attempt to describe the ultimate values of Western man. The values of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness", however, are not nesessarily consistent ones. In the concept of heaven, we see two of these values expressed, those of (eternal or long) life, and of happiness. Heavenly worlds provide concentrations of both. However, liberty is the element that is missing in the heavenly worlds from a Buddhist point of view. Dependence on another (a god) no matter how powerful and good that being is is something to be rejected by some Buddhists whose highest values are knowledge and freedom.
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