The Territory of Doubt

By David Reigle on June 8, 2019 at 4:00 pm

            Mahatma letter #16 (chronological #68), the so-called “devachan letter,” refers to the “Territory of Doubt”:

“Thus, for instance, in enumerating the seven lokas of the ‘Kama-Loka’ the Avatamsaka Sutra gives as the seventh, the ‘Territory of Doubt.’ I will ask you to remember the name as we will have to speak of it hereafter.”

In the Mahatma’s answer to the next question, this phrase occurs again:

“From ‘Sukhavati’ down to the ‘Territory of Doubt’ there is a variety of Spiritual States; . . .”

Although the Mahatma asks his correspondent “to remember the name as we will have to speak of it hereafter,” we do not hear of it again in either the rest of the Mahatma letters or in the writings of the Mahatmas’ sometime amanuensis H. P. Blavatsky.

            The phrase “territory of doubt” comes from A Catena of Buddhist Scriptures from the Chinese, translated by Samuel Beal, 1871. It occurs only once there, on page 120, according to a digital search:

“If, however, a man prepares himself to acquire merit, and prays for birth in that land [Sukhāvatī, the Paradise of Amitābha], and yet afterwards goes back and loses his faith, he shall be born, if he again turns to the true belief, in a ‘territory of doubt,’ where he shall for five hundred years neither see Buddha nor hear the Law or the Bôdhisatwas.”

It was referred to earlier in Beal’s Catena, p. 42, footnote, as the “city of doubt”:

“But if a man who reverences Buddha, and has observed the precepts, yet with less thorough purpose, die without any marks either good or bad on his person, but lies as it were in a sleep, and, awaking for a moment, thus departs, this man, not yet wholly freed from the influences of unbelief, shall be born for five hundred years in an external paradise,* and afterwards enter on his perfect reward.”

“*City of doubt, a region bordering on the true Paradise of Amitâbha.”

The idea was referred to one more time, in a passage translated in Beal’s Catena, p, 375:

“And therefore the Amitâbha Sûtra says: ‘Every faithful person ought naturally to pray for birth in that happy country (Paradise).’ . . .

“Again there is a passage which says, ‘If a man is well-rooted, yet if he doubts, the flower will not open; but if he believes, then his heart (inner self) pure and calm, opening out like the flower opens from the bud, he forthwith beholds Buddha, and comprehends (hears) the law.’”

            From these references, we can see that the idea of the territory of doubt comes from the Sukhāvatī-vyūha-sūtra, referred to as the Amitābha Sūtra. The Mahatma’s reference to this as coming from the Avataṃsaka-sūtra is not found in Beal’s book, although Beal often refers to this sūtra, and may be an error (I could not find any such thing in a digital search of this extensive sūtra translated into English by Thomas Cleary as The Flower Ornament Scripture). This idea is explained at length in the larger Sukhāvatī-vyūha-sūtra. It is that if a person has once made the wish to be reborn in sukhāvatī or devachan, but later doubts rebirth in such a place, yet “plants the roots of merit,” that person will be reborn inside a closed lotus in sukhāvatī. Thus the person will be in sukhāvatī, but will not be able to benefit from its wonderful features until, after a long time, the lotus opens. The full passage explaining this is, as translated from Sanskrit by Luis O. Gómez in The Land of Bliss: The Paradise of the Buddha of Measureless Light, Sanskrit and Chinese Versions of the Sukhāvatīvyūha Sutras, 1996, pp. 104-106:

Two Kinds of Rebirth in the Land of Bliss

§133.    The Blessed One said: “Now, Ajita, do you also see the dwelling of those who here in this Land of Bliss dwell inside the closed calyxes of immense lotus flowers?”

            He said: “Blessed One, I see that these human beings whose dwelling is the closed calyxes of noble lotus flowers here in the Land of Bliss enjoy dwellings like those of gods—just as the gods of the Thirty-Three or the gods of the Yama Realm live in palaces fifty leagues or a hundred leagues or five hundred leagues wide, where they play, sport, and enjoy themselves, in exactly the same manner, Blessed One, those in the closed calyxes of noble lotus flowers play, sport, and enjoy themselves in similar palaces.

§134.    “Furthermore, Blessed One, there are beings who, born miraculously, appear sitting cross-legged on the lotus flowers. What are then, Blessed One, the causes, what are the conditions, that determine who will dwell in a closed calyx, and who will be reborn miraculously to appear sitting cross-legged on open lotus flowers?”

§135.    The Blessed One said: “Those bodhisattvas in other buddha-fields, Ajita, who entertain doubts about rebirth in the Land of Bliss, but who in spite of their doubts plant the roots of merit, they will dwell inside the calyx. But those who, on the contrary, are free of doubt, who have cut through uncertainty, and who plant roots of merit in order to be reborn in the Land of Bliss, and trust in the unimpeded knowledge of blessed buddhas, believe in it, and are committed to it, they are reborn miraculously to appear here sitting cross-legged in open lotus flowers.

§136.    “Those bodhisattvas mahasattvas, Ajita, who abide in buddha-fields elsewhere in the universe, if they aspire to see Amitabha, the Tathagata, Arhat, perfect and full Buddha, if they never entertain a doubt, never hesitate regarding the unimpeded knowledge of the buddhas, and believe in their own roots of merit, they too will be reborn miraculously, appearing cross-legged on the lotus flowers, in only an instant, already possessing a body exactly like that of other beings who have been born there long before.

§137.    “Consider, Ajita, the weakness in the discernment of those who do not believe in the Buddha’s knowledge. Consider the limitations of their discernment, the deficit in their discernment, the feebleness of their discernment. For, during five hundred years, they are deprived of seeing the Buddha, of seeing the bodhisattvas, of hearing the Dharma, of speaking about the Dharma. They are deprived of the practice of the roots of merit, of accomplishing the roots of merit. And all of this only because their ideas and conceptualization have fallen prey to doubt.

§138.    “Ajita, it is as if an anointed kshatriya monarch had a prison, inlaid entirely with gold and emerald, with strings of silk cloth, garlands, and tassels hanging from the walls, with open canopies of different colors. Its walls would be covered with cotton and silk, its floors scattered over with open flowers of many kinds. The prison would be scented with excellent scents, embellished with terraced roofs and terraced pavilions, with skylights, railings, and gateways, decorated with jewels of all kinds, covered with nets of bells of gold and gems. It would have four corners, four pillars, four doors, four stairs. And the son of that king would be thrown into that prison for some misdeed. He would be bound with chains made of gold from the Jambu River. And a couch would be prepared for him there, covered with many thick woolen spreads, with cotton and wool coverlets, pleasant to touch like fine Kachilindika cloth, wrapped in covers made of Kalinga cloth, and, on top, a silk spread, with red cushions on both sides, colorful and charming. He would sit or lie on that couch. And much food and drink of various kinds, pure and excellent, would be offered to him there. What do you think, Ajita? Would the prince have there fine objects of enjoyment?”       He said: “They would be great, Blessed One.”

§139.    The Blessed One said: “What do you think, Ajita? Would he relish this food, consume it, or feel any satisfaction from it?”

            He said: “No indeed, Blessed One. On the contrary, led away by the king and thrown in that prison, he would only wish for release from there. He would seek the nobles, princes, ministers, ladies of the court, rich merchants, property owners, and lords of castles, who might release him from that prison. Furthermore, Blessed One, there would be no pleasure for that prince in that prison, nor would he be freed from there until the king would show him favor.”

§140.    The Blessed One said: “In exactly the same way, Ajita, those bodhisattvas who plant roots of merit, but have fallen prey to doubt, hesitate in their belief in the knowledge of a buddha, which is a knowledge equal to the unequalled. They may be reborn in this world called the Land of Bliss, if they have heard the Buddha’s name, and by the sheer power of a serene, trusting, mind generated by that hearing; but are not born miraculously and do not appear in that land sitting cross-legged on the lotus flowers. Rather, they dwell only in the closed calyx of the lotus flowers. Although they reside there, inside the lotus flowers, with a mental image of the palaces and the gardens of the Land of Bliss, and no excrement or urine is discharged from their bodies, no phlegm or mucus, and nothing disagreeable to the mind is found on their bodies or in their dwellings, still, for five hundred years they are deprived of seeing buddhas, hearing the Dharma, seeing bodhisattvas, speaking about and ascertaining the Dharma, and practicing any of the best virtues taught in the Dharma . Although they do not rejoice there or find satisfaction, still, when their previous transgressions have been exhausted, they then, at last, leave that calyx; and, as they leave it, they cannot tell if they are leaving from above, from below, or across.

§141.    “Consider this, Ajita. If one did not dwell inside a calyx for five hundred years, one could wait upon many hundreds of thousands of millions of trillions of buddhas during those five hundred years. One could plant an immense, innumerable, immeasurable number of roots of merit, and one could gain all the qualities of a buddha. Now, inasmuch as these bodhisattvas will miss all this by reason of their doubting, consider, Ajita, how great is the misfortune to which the doubt of a bodhisattva can lead.

§142.    “Therefore, Ajita, bodhisattvas who are free from doubts should generate this aspiration to attain awakening. And, in order to obtain quickly the capacity to confer benefit and happiness on all living beings, they should dedicate their roots of merit to rebirth in the Land of Bliss, where the Blessed One Amitabha, the Tathagata, Arhat, perfect and full Buddha dwells.”

            One must wonder if the Mahatma intended to link this territory of doubt to the gestation state that he describes as taking place after death and before the person is reborn in devachan, i.e., sukhāvatī. Certainly, being in a closed lotus bud can be compared to a gestation state, whether in the womb or between lives. Indeed, the word that Luis Gómez translates as “closed calyx” is garbha, which is also the usual Sanskrit word for “womb.” Moreover, the Mahatma writes in this letter that the gestation state is “very long,” and the Buddhist text’s “five hundred years” would suggest a very long time to its readers. When a person enters the gestation state between lives, we are told, the cast-off fourth and fifth principles consisting of lower thoughts and emotions go on their way to eventual disintegration. Doubts would naturally be part of the discarded lower thoughts that are slowly fading away while the real person, consisting of the higher principles, is in the gestation state. When the gestation state is over, like when a lotus bud opens, the person is in effect reborn in sukhāvatī, i.e., devachan.

Note on References:

The Sanskrit text of the passage quoted above as translated by Luis O. Gómez is found in the edition by F. Max Müller and Bunyiu Nanjio, Sukhāvatī-vyūha, Oxford, 1883, pp. 65-69, and in the edition by Atsuuji Ashikaga, Sukhāvatīvyūha, Kyoto, 1965, pp. 57-60. It was also translated from Sanskrit by F. Max Müller in Buddhist Mahâyâna Texts, Part II (Sacred Books of the East, vol. 49), 1894, pp. 62-65. Luis O. Gómez additionally provided a translation of it from its most widely used Chinese translation in the same book cited above, pp. 217-219.

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