Jayarava’s “The World”

May 22nd, 2012

Over on his blog, Jayarava has a new post up on a subject dear to my heart: “the world” (loka in Pali). I had written a comment to send him before I discovered that he has closed the blog to all comments, so I am just going to post it here. It is not my expectation that Jayarava will actually read this or comment on it — when a person is tired of the blogosphere’s dialog, they deserve a break — it’s just here to put a pin in the word “loka” since I spent some time writing this up.

Hey Jayarava,

For a long time I assumed that when the Buddha spoke of “the world” (loka) he was actually talking about people; I supposed it was a sort of reference to samsara, and the way we create what we mistake for the actual world in more-or-less the same way we create what we mistake for a self. I still think this is the correct interpretation, but that the Buddha was being more specific than making references to samsara: he seems to be referring to Prajāpati’s story of creation, and the way that the First Man was the Cosmos, and when he split himself up into the individuality of name-and-form, each individual was, in a sense, the world. So when he talks (in, for example, SN 12.10) about his pre-enlightenment wondering about “This world, alas, has fallen into sore distress. There is being born, growing old, dying, passing over and being reborn…” he is clearly not talking about planet Earth as “this world” but about us as individuals — each and every one of us as bits of Prajāpati/the Cosmos. He’s actually talking about atta/anatta — that which we mistake for the self.

So in the Rohitassa sutta, when he talks about not being able to walk to the end of the world, he starts by answering the question as if it is meant literally, but when he says that we do have to reach the end of the cosmos, he is saying we have to put an end to that false sense of self. This is, I believe, a teensy-tiny model of dependent arising’s two levels: the literal (as conceived by folks back then) and what he is really talking about.

The reference was probably clearer to the people of the times than it is to us, because the word you mention, byama (‘an-arm-span’) is actually a reference to the measurement of the altar in sacrifices that used the model of the Prajāpati story. Joanna Jurewicz points this out in her year-2000 article “Playing With Fire” on p. 79 “A general example could be provided by the famous declaration of the Buddha that in this “fathom-long body” (vyāmamatte kalevara) is the world, its origin, its cessation, and the path which leads to its cessation. The Sanskrit term vyāmamāttra appears in SB 1.2.5.14 denoting the measure of the altar. It has the shape of a man and is not only the counterpart of the sacrificer but also the manifested counterpart of the Creator (Prajāpati)…”

By this reasoning, Ananda’s answer is that when *we* talk about “the world” we are talking about how we perceive and conceive it as something that has to come to an end. Buddhaghosa is also right, since sankharas have everything to do with the way we construct (perceive) self and world. The Loka Sutta, too, is consistent with this understanding, in that the world that arises is our perception of the world as being ours/us/self/in reference to us (because the Prajāpati myth says it is), and of course what arises from those kinds of perceptions is dukkha. As an aside I’m going to toss out a postulate of my hypothesis, that the five khanda will turn out to refer to the five layers of the altar that is self / Prajāpati / the World (though I have yet to find any solid evidence for it, it would make sense). I also wonder if Buddhaghosa’s comment about “wood and grass” is a reference to what gets burned during sacrifices — the sacrificial objects also being equated to atta.

I believe the language of the world-as-self refers back to dependent arising, as you will probably gather if you read the paper I wrote on it just out in the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. The structure I see in dependent arising speaks both to “rebirth as real” and “the world of experience” and in so doing explains why both can be found in the suttas.

As always, thanks for this and all the insightful articles you write.

Leave a Reply

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.