The Newsletter 86 Summer 2020

Creating the universe

Simon Wickhamsmith

Eric Huntington. 2019.
Creating the Universe: Depictions of the Cosmos in Himalayan Buddhism
Seattle: University of Washington Press
ISBN 9780295744063

When the 19th century Mongolian monk-poet Danzanravjaa named a small rectangular area of the Gobi Desert close to his monastery at Hamarin Hiid ‘Shambhala’, he was showing his students how Indo-Tibetan Buddhist cosmology could be translated into their own lived experience of the teaching in Mongolia. Right before them the Gobi was transformed into a Pure Land, and their world was forever changed at the point of the intersection of the guru’s teaching with their practitioners’ minds. Today, Shambhala remains a place of pilgrimage for Mongolians and foreigners alike, its reputation in spiritual power growing even as its appearance remains essentially the same.

Eric Huntington’s lucid and beautifully-illustrated book deals with how, through image and through contemplative practice, the mundane world – such as the otherwise unremarkable part of the Gobi Desert that is Shambhala – is realized as a potent and transcendent space of spiritual transformation. The understanding of the cosmos as a dynamic aspect of the process of enlightenment reminds us that, in the Vajrayāna practise of Himalayan Buddhism, the world and the mind are reflections of one another, and in the recognition of the cosmos as inherently enlightened, the practitioner likewise recognizes the inherent enlightened state of mind.

The book’s four chapters explore this cosmological process of realization through four key ideas. The first offers an examination of the creation of the cosmos through text, one which reminds us, scholars and practitioners alike, that such a description (as with any text) is merely an approximation, bound in time and space, of the spiritual experience of an individual author, or set of authors. As Huntington says of Vasubbhandhu’s Treasury of Abhidharma (Abhidharmakośakārikā), compiled in the 4th or 5th century, “Vasubhandhu’s descriptions emphasize the features that fit his agenda, while his omissions make the unmediated use of his texts in other contexts problematic” (p.30). This acknowledgement of the slippery quality of spiritual texts is nothing new in scholarship, but for this book it bears repeating insofar as texts such as Vasubhandhu’s are believed by practitioners, who rely upon such descriptions as they embark upon their practise, until such a time as they perceive the cosmological form through their own understanding.

The second chapter investigates the graphic and cosmological construct of the maṇḍala, the palace of a Buddhist deity (a personification of enlightened mind), architecturally rendered to emphasize the qualities associated with the deity in question. Each of these maṇḍalas is seen as “one particular place within the Buddhist cosmos and [the means by which] conceptions of that place relate to the achievement of enlightenment” (p.105). These ‘conceptions’ relate to the construction and absorption of maṇḍalas in contemplative practise, in which the practitioner experiences the maṇḍala and realizes (makes real) him- or herself with the deity. Thus it is that two practitioners sitting side by side, or on different sides of the world, can experience directly, and according to their own understanding, the maṇḍala of the same deity in different ways. The idea of the local becomes translocal, as Huntington says, and it is through this process that the transformative power of the maṇḍala is experienced.


By extension, the offering of the maṇḍala is one of the four foundational practises (ngon ‘gro) in Vajrayāna Buddhism, and includes both mental and physical construction of a maṇḍala representing the realized universe. The physical construction of the offering, the theme of Huntington’s third chapter, includes objects of sensory enjoyment, such as rice and jewels, piled upon a base. The omission of the hell realms, which as Huntington points out would not make for a pleasant offering, is interesting, since it reveals the presumed gap in the (as yet unenlightened) practitioner’s mind between offering the physical representation of the enlightened cosmos and realizing (that is, making real) its idealized and conceptual form. Nonetheless, in making the maṇḍala offering, as in making any offering, the physical, restricted by time and space, is a limited form from which the imagined form, with no such restrictions, develops. Moreover, the mudra form, in which the hands interlace to make a representation of the cosmic Mount Meru surrounded by the four continents (of which our own Jambudvīpa is one), offers another approach. In this way, and with the spoken prayers of offering, the practitioner conjoins the body–speech–mind triad in an act of cosmic realization.

In his final chapter, Huntington discusses the architectural construction of sacred space, as a simulacrum of the spiritual cosmology with which the preceding chapters have dealt. This ordering is especially welcome, since it places – conceptually as well as physically – the translocal before the local, and so emphasises the state of realization over the process. This is not to say, of course, that the process of construction of a temple is not in itself an aid to contemplative practise; indeed, it emphasizes how the spiritual trajectory necessarily returns to the physical place in which the practitioner is located.

Huntington’s exploration of the cosmological architecture of religious buildings reminds us that their relationship with the spiritual world is mediated by time and space, as well as by the choices of those who commission, design and build them. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of this book is its subtle observation on how human perception and comprehension of the spiritual is made explicit in the buildings in which, and through whose construction, it is approached, and this is greatly aided by the illustrations which accompany the text.

The creation of the universe, and the rendering of cosmological constructs in physical form, is a complex aspect of Vajrayāna practise, and while this book provides a scholarly treatment of one important cultural aspect of the Buddhist spiritual path, it also comes close to being a contemplative text. While its language and discourse is firmly rooted in scholarship, its multitude of explanatory and artistic images and its profound investigation into the relationship between the physical and the mental will surely appeal to those with both an academic and spiritual interest in the subject matter. Creating the Universe, then, is an especially notable achievement, and I look forward to future work based upon Huntington’s innovative and important approach to the study of Buddhist cosmology and Buddhist practise.

Simon Wickhamsmith, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, United States