In stage 11 of the traditional story of the Buddha's life, he ascends into the Trayastrimsa heaven. Trayastrimsa literally means "the thirty three." In Hinduism, this name is a reference to the home of the thirty-three Gods, as explained in the Vedas. By heaven is meant a high level of consciousness.
The number thirty-three is very significant in all esoteric traditions. Jesus of Nazareth lived for thirty-three years. The primeval masons-who once shielded this esoteric knowledge-have thirty-three degrees of initiation. Most importantly, each of us has 33 vertebrae on our spinal column.
In synthesis, these thirty-three degrees or years are an esoteric symbol referring to the progress of the Divine Mother Kundalini up the spinal column of the initiate. The spinal column is the ladder to heaven.
And he (Jacob) dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the (philosophical, symbolic) earth (the physical body), and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. - Genesis 28:12
"I raise my ladder up to the sky, that I may behold the gods". - The Egyptian Book of the Dead, ch. 149
In the story, the Buddha leaves the Earth and visits his mother, who is in this Heaven of the thirty-three Gods. Once there, he teaches the Dharma to them. Interestingly, a very similar moment occurs in the Egyptian Pyramid texts:
"The king ascends to the sky among the gods dwelling in the sky. He stands on the great [dais], he hears the affairs of men. Re finds thee upon the shores of the sky in this lake that is in Nut (the Sky-goddess). 'The arriver comes!' say the gods. He (Re) gives thee his arm on the stairway to the sky. 'He who knows his place comes,' say the gods. O Pure One, assume thy throne in the barque of Re and sail thou the sky..." - (Pyr. 1169-72)
In traditional paintings of this moment, the Buddha is depicted seated on the throne of Indra, king of the Gods (sometimes western style, like the Maitreya). This symbolizes his perfection of the philosophical stone, his base and support, his throne; that stone is the sexual energy.
In the Judeo-Christian book of Genesis, after receiving the vision of the ladder to heaven, Jacob understood how to begin the process of ascending it:
And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. - Genesis 28:18
Jacob knew that it was necessary for him to transmute his sacred oil: the sexual energy. This is the same worship of the ancient Hindu Brahmins, who poured sacred liquids over the Shiva lingam as a symbol of sexual transmutation.
The Buddha ascended to sit on Indra's throne-becoming the king of the Gods-by perfecting his creative energy. Now he creates as the Gods do: perfectly, without lust, anger, jealousy, envy, gluttony, pride, or any other egotistical desire. Moreover, he paid homage to his Divine Mother, the source of everything.
The story continues by relating that the beings of the Earth beg him to come back. When he responds to the call of suffering humanity, the Buddha descends back to earth by means of a divine ladder that has thirty-three rungs.
Naturally, this divine ladder is symbolic of his own spinal column, illuminated by the power of the Divine Mother Kundalini. That same ladder is in Dante's Inferno: it goes up and down the back of Lucifer (literally, "the bearer of light"), the spinal column. In other words, the Buddha is able to ascend and descend up and down the spine, to go to Heaven and back. In Vedic symbolism, the Shiva lingam has the same power: the lingam is the sexual organ of Shiva, and it is so large that it reaches all the way from heaven into hell and back. All of these symbols relate the same truth: it is the use of our sexual energy that determines our path through life and death.
It is also related that when ascending or descending upon this ladder, the Buddha always takes three steps. How do you ascend a thirty-three rung ladder to heaven in three steps? How do you descend from heaven to help humanity with three steps? The three steps are the three factors of the revolution of the consciousness:
These three forces create. The Buddha becomes a Buddha and ascends to heaven by perfecting these three factors psychologically through:
- The death of desire (the ego) through sanctity
- The birth of the soul (the bodies of the Buddha) through chastity
- Sacrifice for humanity through charity
The Bodhisattva descends to assist humanity having perfected these three forces within, and exemplifies this by descending to the world to teach them. This is the measure of any true spiritual teaching: they must always teach the three factors. These are the three steps to ascend and descend the ladder.
In the eleventh Arcanum, we see an image of the Divine Mother holding open the mouth of a lion. The Tarot card is called Persuasion or Strength. The Buddha is the lion of the Shakya clan. The lion has many symbols: the lion can represent the Law of Karma, it can represent a Master, and the lion can also represent our animal passion. But in this eleventh stage of the Buddha's life, he ascends up to Heaven on the thirty-three rungs of this ladder, to the 33rd Heaven to visit his mother. She is the one who provides him the persuasive power, the strength, to give his lion's roar: the Buddhadharma.
In Kabbalah, the Divine Mother emanates from Binah, the third sephirah on the Tree of Life. Binah is Hebrew for "Intelligence." She is the skillful guidance that directs the flow of the Dharma from the mouth of the initiate. She skillfully manages the mouth of the lion, so that his Dharma roar can heal the heart and mind of those who suffer under the illusions of the ego. Without that necessary intelligence, the Dharma can kill or harm. The Dharma is powerful. The Dharma (Gnosis) is a two-edged sword that must be used skillfully. It must be given to suffering humanity with a great deal of intelligence: the guidance of the Divine Mother.
So, empowered by his Divine Mother Kundalini, the great bodhisattva descended upon his sacred ladder to help suffering humanity.