The Three Thousandfold Universe: What is it?

Layout of a single world system according to Yungdrung Bön cosmology

The Three Thousandfold Universe

Within Yungdrung Bön cosmological literature, descriptions of the phenomenal universe are detailed and precise. Essentially, a collective of one billion individual world systems comprise one three thousandfold universe. For every three thousandfold universe there are four periods of time. First, there is the eon of coming into existence that begins with the movement of the primordial wind. The movement of wind creates friction and heat that creates moisture. The moisture thickens and eventually becomes form. Second, there is the eon of enduring in a steady state that begins when the first sentient being is born. Our universe is currently in the latter part of this eon. Third, there is the eon of dissolution when, due to negativity and extreme wrongdoing, the human lifespan has diminished to be only ten years long, food has lost most of its nourishment and taste. During this eon very little morality exists, violence is commonplace, and those in power are deprived and without concern for others. Eventually, the three thousandfold universe, with the exception of the highest realms, is destroyed by either a great fire, great water, or a great wind. After this is the fourth eon, the eon of emptiness. After this eon, the cycle begins again with the eon of coming into existence.

Scholars continue to comment upon whether the Bön and Buddhist cosmological details are literally real, metaphorically real, or unreal. Regardless, from the perspective and concern of a Yundgrung Bön practitioner, the scope of these details gives an opportunity to expand understanding and awareness. The practitioner is instructed to develop the four immeasurable qualities of equanimity, loving kindness, compassion, and joy towards all sentient beings throughout the three thousandfold universe. When practicing with a yidam deity, the text often advises a visualization that fills the entire three thousandfold universe, and/or to send out lights that purify all beings and all environments within the three thousandfold universe, etc. Therefore, having a general understanding of this concept can give more depth to spiritual practice. Reference to the three thousandfold universe occurs throughout Yungdrung Bön liturgies and visualization practices. One of the principal enlightened protectors, Sipé Gyalmo, is depicted as having three faces which represents her clairvoyance of past, present, and future events throughout the three thousandfold universe. This characteristic is reflected in the title of the divination text that relies upon her for information. It is entitled, Sidpé Gyalmo of the Six Times’ Clairvoyance of the Three Thousand fold Universe which is like a Clear Mirror. There are many other examples.

“You have a majestic posture upon a dragon throne, and your victorious sound is known throughout the entire three thousandfold universe.

“Extract from An Offering of Praise for the Supreme Wisdom Deity Sherab Mawé Sengé


“When my mind becomes free from the body and dissolves into the brain,

visions will appear to fill the three thousandfold universe.”

Extract from The Most Excellent Wisdom Windhorse Powa 



Within a palace of beautiful treasure that pervades the three thousandfold universe,

displaying the perfected Body of Bön, is the manifested body of the Teacher, the principal of enlightened refuge.

I supplicate to the Lord who has loving kindness for migrating beings and who has established the blissful path of liberation for sentient beings throughout the three thousandfold universe!

“Extract from Supplication Prayer of the Lineage Lamas of the Sublime Precious Lamp, Tantra of the MA TRI

A Single World System

The layout of one world system within the three thousandfold universe is depicted two dimensionally as a vertical arrangement of phenomenal existence. However, the limitations of this kind of representation should be kept in mind. For example, the uppermost four levels of a world system are the four formless realms. These realms and their inhabitants do not have actual, physical form or precise location. So, to represent the formless with a form can be misleading unless it is understood simply as a reminder of the of their actual characteristics. And although each categorized element of the universe has detailed subcategories within subcategories, a general description is sufficient to relay the scope and overall idea.

In the very center of the world system is Mt. Meru. Above are the form and formless realms, at its base are the continents, subcontinents, mountains and oceans, and below are the realms of the hungry ghosts and the hell beings. In general, a collective of 1,000 of these world systems is considered as a minor world system. A collective of 1,000 minor world systems is considered a middling world system. A collective of 1,000 middling world systems is then a three thousandfold universe that contains one billion world systems. Each buddha has as his sphere of influence, a three thousandfold universe.

Vertical layout of a single world system

Vertically from top to bottom, each world system consists of:

  • The Four Formless Realms-These realms are without actual location and the inhabitants have only subtle mental ‘bodies.’ For example, the uppermost realm is the realm of infinite space.
  • The Seventeen Form Realms-These realms and inhabitants have a kind of physical form and location although they remain invisible to our perception. These seventeen realms are furthered grouped into the five pure places, and then four groups each containing three levels.
  • The Desire Realm-The inhabitants of the desire realm, to a greater or lesser degree, are governed by their sensory perceptions of pleasure and pain. The desire realm is further divided into:
  • The Six Desire Realms of the Gods- Four of these realms are above Mt. Meru.
  • Mt. Meru-At the center of the world system is Mt. Meru. Some compare Mt. Meru to Gang Tisé a.k.a Mt. Kailash. They share similarities, for example, Mt. Kailash has four sides and is the source of four great rivers. However, Mt. Meru is not a physical place as such and cannot be visited or perceived by ordinary beings whose pure perception is obscured by the five poisons. At the very center of Mt. Meru is the palace of Nampar Gyalwa. The mountain is equally above and below the surface of the ocean.
  • Heaven of the Thirty-three Gods-This heaven is located at the very peak of Mt. Meru. It is said that one hundred human years equals one day in this realm.
  • Heaven of the Four Great Kings and their retinues in each of the four directions. It is said the sun, moon, and stars are located in this heavenly expanse.
  • Seven Encircling Ranges of Golden Mountains, Seven Gentle lakes, and Seven Flowing Rivers- These all surround Mt. Meru at its base.
  • The Four Continents and Eight Subcontinents-Beyond the encircling golden mountains is a massive ocean containing the four continents and eight subcontinents that are the abode of human beings. Each continent contains an animal-shaped rock from which water flows. These are the four sources of water.
    • East-Lus Pakpo, the continent of those with a sublime tall body. Upon this continent is an elephant shaped rock from which water flows.
    • North-Dra Mi Nyen, the continent of unpleasant sound. Upon this continent is a lion shaped rock from which water flows.
    • West-Ba Lang Chö, continent of those who use cows. Upon this continent is a horse shaped rock from which water flows.
    • South-Dzambuling, continent of the dzambu tree. This is the place where buddhas appear and is considered the most supreme place to be born as a human being. Upon this continent is a peacock shaped rock from which water flows. This is the continent where we have been reborn.

From The Sutra, “For those on the outer continents, there is no virtue to support going to a higher realm. There is no wrongdoing to cause rebirth in a lower realm. The teachings of Tönpa are not developed in those places. The purpose of their lifetime is to exhaust the power of their karma. Therefore, make the aspirational request for the southern continent of Dzambu.” 

Extract from Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen’s advice and instructions for the preliminary practices
Vertical layout of a single world system showing the placement of the three lower realms

The outer perimeter of the great ocean containing the continents and subcontinents is ringed with an iron fence which is surrounded by a great, blazing fire. Beneath the underground part of Mt. Meru is a column of water, and below that is a great wind. Below that are:

  • The Hungry Ghost Realm-The beings of this realm experience extreme agony related to insatiable hunger and thirst. Although depicted as below, in general hungry ghosts occupy the same areas as human beings although they mostly inhabit deserts and wastelands. Also, their perception of the environment is very different from human beings. Where a human being would see a river of fresh water, a hungry ghost would see a repulsive river of pus and filth.
  • The Eight Hot Hells-Each level of hot hell has greater suffering that the previous along with a lifespan eight times longer than the previous hell.
  • The Eight Cold Hells-Each level of cold hell has greater suffering that the previous along with a lifespan twenty times longer than the previous hell.

This constitutes one world system. As stated above, a collective of one billion of these constitutes one three thousandfold universe.

Monks at Menri Monastery in India offering a Yungdrung Bön mandala

Understanding of the three thousandfold universe is the foundation for practice of the mandala offering to the places of refuge. This is a widespread practice among both lay and ordained practitioners.

One of the common preliminary practices for purification and generation of positive merit in order to support spiritual development is the mandala offering of the three thousandfold universe. Either using mandala rings or a hand mudra, the entire universe of continents, subcontinents, mountains, oceans, etc. is imagined as an offering to the places of refuge. The traditional Yungdrung Bön mandala is topped with the square palace of Nampar Gyalwa.

“How wonderful!

Based upon the five elements is Mt. Meru, the seven mountain ranges, the four continents, and the subcontinents together with their external and internal desirable objects.

These billion universes ornamented with suns and moons, I offer from the core of my heart.

Please accept it!

Mandala offering prayer from The Aural Transmission of Zhang Zhung

“With devotion and non-attachment, and for their complete satisfaction,

I offer to the four supreme places a golden mandala of the three thousandfold universe containing mountains, continents, and clouds of offerings filled with the riches of gods and humans.

May the abundant wealth and success of all migrating beings be established!”

Mandala offering prayer within The Heartdrop of Jamma
Shen Rinpoche, a descendent of Buddha Tönpa Shenrap, with a Bön mandala offering

“Having imagined that these inconceivable offerings that satisfy desire completely fill the entire three thousandfold universe, I present them as an offering.” 

Mandala offering from The Accomplishment of the Ultimate Secret Mind of the Concentrated Elixir of the External, Internal, and Secret Sipé Gyalmo

“I offer to the assembly of enlightened Medicine Deities this mandala of the precious and ornamented three thousandfold universe. Having perfected the accumulations and actually manifested enlightenment, may I and others attain the fruit of being born into an enlightened realm!” 

Extract from The Summarized Sutra of the Medicine Deity, A Mala of Glorious Jewels

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Posted on July 23, 2022, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. This post came to me at just the right time, in answer to my need for understanding. Thank you for translating and sharing.

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