A direction (disā) is the general position a person or object moves or points towards or comes from. The ancient Indians recognized six cardinal directions (D.III,180) and starting with the east where the sun rises, enumerated them in a clockwise sequence; east (puratthimādisa), south (dakkhinādisā), west (pacchimādisā), north, the nadir (heṭṭhimādisā) and the zenith (uparimādisā). They also recognized four intermediate directions (anudisā), i.e. south-west, north-west, etc.
Each of the four compass points were associated with an animal; the elephant, bull, horse and lion respectively; and were believed to be presided over by a particular deity (D.III,257). The south was considered the least auspicious direction and the cemetery or charnel ground and place of execution were always situated outside the south gate of any town (D.II,322). Wherever possible the Buddha always sat facing the east or lay down with his head towards the east, although his reason for doing this is nowhere given (D.II,85). Other than this, the directions were of no significance to him.
There is, however, one matter where the directions have a relevance to the practise of the Dhamma. The Buddha said that we should not just nurture love in our hearts but radiate and spread it everywhere: ‘in one direction, then a second, a third and a fourth, above, below, all around, everywhere, to others as to oneself. One should live pervading the great wide world with the mind filled with an abundant and exalted love that is freed from anger and ill-will’ (M.I,38). These beautiful and moving words can be understood both literally and metaphorically. North, south, east and west mean our immediate vicinity and those within it, but it can also refer to the economic ‘north’ and ‘south’ i.e. those living in rich developed countries and those in poor undeveloped ones, likewise the people of the Middle East, the Far East, etc. Upwards can refer to extending love to people in positions above us; our employer, those with more power or wealth than us. To extend love downwards can refer to the humble people we often ignore or do not even notice, to those we consider our intellectual inferiors and also to animals.