The Path to Nirvana, from an 18th Century Buddhist Carving

Asha Bajaj
4 min readMay 26, 2021
The top of the 31 levels of existence, as seen on the cosmography. Photo: John Hessler. Geography and Map Division.

This is a guest post by John Hessler, a specialist in the Library’s Geography and Map Division, focusing on computational geography and geographic information science. He’s also the Library’s curator of the Jay I. Kislak Collection.

Recently, the Library’s Geography and Map Division acquired a rare 18th-century carving of a Theravãda Buddhist cosmography that originated in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma).

The panel, which is more than 9 feet high when its three parts are fully assembled, shows the many levels that are the temporary resting places for living beings as they make their way to the ultimate goal of nirvana. The carving shows the levels that spiritual entities — humans, animals, or gods — transmigrate. It pictures these way stations as floating palaces. It gives their names, the geography of the cosmos, and the life of beings who temporarily reside in each of them.

The teachings of the Guatama Buddha, from which the engravings on the panel ultimately derive, are found in a series of writings that are known as the Pali Canon. These are the earliest written records of Buddhist scriptures, which had previously been handed down in the oral tradition. This large body of texts, written in the ancient Indian language of Pali, is divided into discourses of various lengths. It treats the metaphysics, psychology, and cosmology of the Buddhist path toward enlightenment through meditation.

“In the sky, there is no distinction of east and west; people create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true,” is one of the Buddha’s metaphysical sayings.

The information found on the engraving in the Library’s collections does not derive from a single source but from a variety of texts in what is called the “Sutta Pitaka,” or Basket Discourse. Most of the information inscribed on the panel can be traced to the “Majjhima Nikaya, Anguttara Nikaya, Samyutta Nikaya,” which are the middle length, numerical, and connected discourses of the Buddha, respectively.

I recently translated the panel. It describes, both graphically, as temples, and in writing, the 31 levels of existence. It starts at the top of the panel with “neither-perception-nor-non-perception.”

Asha Bajaj

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