Buddhist Cosmology - The Thirty one Realms of Existence
The inescapable law of kamma guarantees that each and every one of our actions — whether it be of body, speech, or mind — has consequences in line with the skillfulness or unskillfulness of that action. We can often witness this process first-hand in our own lives, even if the effects may not be immediately apparent.
But the Buddha also taught that our actions have effects that extend far beyond our present life, determining the quality of rebirth we can expect after death: act in wholesome, skillful ways and you are destined for a favorable rebirth; act in unwholesome, unskillful ways and an unpleasant rebirth awaits.
Thus we coast for aeons through samsara, propelled from one birth to the next by the quality of our choices and our actions.
The suttas describe thirty-one distinct "planes" or "realms" of existence into which beings can be reborn during this long wandering through samsara. These range from the extraordinarily dark, grim, and painful hell realms all the way up to the most sublime, refined, and exquisitely blissful heaven realms.
Existence in every realm is impermanent; in Buddhist cosmology there is no eternal heaven or hell. Beings are born into a particular realm according to both their past kamma and their kamma at the moment of death.
When the kammic force that propelled them to that realm is finally exhausted, they pass away, taking rebirth once again elsewhere according to their kamma. And so the wearisome cycle continues.
The realms of existence are customarily divided into three distinct "worlds" (loka), listed here in descending order of refinement:
The Immaterial World (arupa-loka). Consists of four realms that are accessible to those who pass away while meditating in the formless jhanas.
The Fine-Material World (rupa-loka). Consists of sixteen realms whose inhabitants (the devas) experience extremely refined degrees of mental pleasure. These realms are accessible to those who have attained at least some level of Jhana and who have thereby managed to (temporarily) suppress hatred and ill-will. They are said to possess extremely refined bodies of pure light. The highest of these realms, the Pure Abodes, are accessible only to those who have attained to "nonreturning," the third stage of Awakening. The Fine-Material World and the Immaterial World together constitute the "heavens" (sagga).
The Sensuous World (kama-loka). Consists of eleven realms in which experience — both pleasurable and not — is dominated by the five senses. Seven of these realms are favorable destinations, and include our own human realm as well as several realms occupied by devas. The lowest realms are the four "bad" destinations, which include the animal and hell realms.
It is pointless to debate whether these realms are real or simply fanciful metaphors that describe the various mind-states we might experience in this lifetime. The real message of this cosmology is this: unless we take steps to break free of the iron grip of kamma, we are doomed to wander aimlessly from one state to another, with true peace and satisfaction forever out of reach. The Buddha's revolutionary discovery came in finding that there is a way to break free: the Noble Eightfold Path, which equips us with precisely the tools we need to escape from this wearisome wandering, once and for all, to a true and unshakeable freedom.
The information on this page was assembled from a variety of sources. In the interests of economizing space I have not attributed each fact to its respective source.
I. The Immaterial World (arupa-loka)
|Realm||Comments||Cause of rebirth here|
|(31)Neither-perception-nor-non-perception (nevasaññanasaññayatanupaga deva)||The inhabitants of these realms are possessed entirely of mind. Having no physical body, they are unable to hear Dhamma teachings.||Fourth formless jhana|
|(30)Nothingness (akiñcaññayatanupaga deva)||Third formless jhana|
|(29)Infinite Consciousness (viññanañcayatanupaga deva)||Second formless jhana|
|(28)Infinite Space (akasanañcayatanupaga deva)||First formless jhana|
II. The Fine-Material World (rupa-loka)
|Realm||Comments||Cause of rebirth here|
|(27)Peerless devas (akanittha deva)||These are the five Pure Abodes (suddhavasa), which are accessible only to nonreturners (anagami) and arahants. Beings who become nonreturners in other planes are reborn here, where they attain arahantship.||Fourth jhana|
|(26)Clear-sighted devas (sudassi deva)|
|(25)Beautiful devas (sudassa deva)|
|(24)Untroubled devas (atappa deva)|
|(23)Devas not Falling Away (aviha deva)|
|(22)Unconscious beings (asaññasatta)||Only body is present; no mind.|
|(21)Very Fruitful devas (vehapphala deva)||Beings in these planes enjoy varying degrees of jhanic bliss.|
|(20)Devas of Refulgent Glory (subhakinna deva)||Third jhana (highest degree)|
|(19)Devas of Unbounded Glory (appamanasubha deva)||Third jhana (medium degree)|
|(18)Devas of Limited Glory (parittasubha deva)||Third jhana (minor degree)|
|(17)Devas of Streaming Radiance (abhassara deva)||Second jhana (highest degree)|
|(16)Devas of Unbounded Radiance (appamanabha deva)||Second jhana (medium degree)|
|(15)Devas of Limited Radiance (parittabha deva)||Secnd jhana (minor degree)|
|(14)Great Brahmas (Maha brahma)||Two of this realm's more famous inhabitants are the Great Brahma, a deity whose delusion leads him to regard himself as the all-powerful, all-seeing creator of the universe (DN 11), and Brahma Sahampati, who begs the Buddha to teach Dhamma to the world (SN VI.1).||First jhana (highest degree)|
|(13)Ministers of Brahma (brahma-purohita deva)||Beings in these planes enjoy varying degrees of jhanic bliss.||First hana (medium degree)|
|(12)Retinue of Brahma (brahma-parisajja deva)||First jhana (minor degree)|
III. The Sensuous World (kama-loka)
|Realm||Comments||Cause of rebirth here|
|Happy Destinations (sugati)|
|(11)Devas Wielding Power over the Creation of Others (paranimmita-vasavatti deva)||These devas enjoy sense pleasures created by others for them. Mara, the personification of delusion and desire, lives here.||° Ten wholesome actions (MN 41)|
° The development of virtue and wisdom (AN X.177)
|(10)Devas Delighting in Creation (nimmanarati deva)||These devas delight in the sense objects of their own creation.|
|(9)Contented devas (tusita deva)||A realm of pure delight and gaiety. Bodhisattas abide here prior to their final human birth. This is where the bodhisatta Maitreya (Metteya), the next Buddha, is said to dwell.|
|(8)Yama devas (yama deva)||These devas live in the air, free of all difficulties.|
|(7)The Thirty-three Gods (tavatimsa deva)||Sakka, a devotee of the Buddha, presides over this realm. Many devas dwelling here live in mansions in the air.|
|(6)Devas of the Four Great Kings (catumaharajika deva)||Home of the gandhabbas, the celestial musicians, and the yakkhas, tree spirits of varying degrees of ethical purity. The latter are analogous to the goblins, trolls, and fairies of Western fairy tales.|
|(5)Human beings (manussa loka)||You are here (for now). Rebirth as a human being is extraordinarily rare (SN LVI.48). It is also extraordinarily precious, as its unique balance of pleasure and pain (SN XXXV.135) facilitates the development of virtue and wisdom to the degree necessary to set one free from the entire cycle of rebirths.||° The development of virtue and wisdom (AN X.177)|
° The attainment of stream-entry (sotapatti) guarantees that all future rebirths will be in the human or higher realms.
|States of Deprivation (apaya)|
|(4)Asuras (asura)||The demons — "titans" — that dwell here are engaged in relentless conflict with each other.||° Ten unwholesome actions (MN 10)|
|(3) Hungry Shades/Ghosts (peta loka)||Ghosts and unhappy spirits wander hopelessly about this realm, searching in vain for sensual fulfillment. |
Read Ajaan Lee's colorful description of this realm.
|° Ten unwholesome actions (MN 10) ° Lack of virtue, holding to wrong views (AN X.177)|
|(2) Animals (tiracchana yoni)||This realm includes all the non-human forms of life that are visible to us under ordinary circumstances: animals, insects, fish, birds, worms, etc.||° Ten unwholesome actions (MN 10) ° Lack of virtue, holding to wrong views. If one is generous to monks and nuns, however, one may be reborn as an "ornamented" animal (i.e., a bird with bright plumage; a horse with attractive markings, etc.; AN X.177). ° Behaving like an animal (MN 57)|
|(1) Hell (niraya)||These are realms of unimaginable suffering and anguish (described in graphic detail in MN 129 and 130). Should not be confused with the eternal hell proposed by other religions, since one's time here is — as it is in every realm — temporary.||° Ten unwholesome actions (MN 10) ° Lack of virtue, holding to wrong views (AN X.177) ° Murdering your parents, murdering an arahant, injuring the Buddha, or creating a schism in the Sangha (AN V.129) ° Being quarrelsome and annoying to others (Snp II.6)|
Suggestions for Further Reading
- Buddhism - The Concept of Anatta or No Self
- Anatta or Anatma in Buddhism
- Anicca or Anitya in Buddhism
- The Buddha on God
- The Buddha on Avijja or Ignorance and on the Origin of Life
- The Eightfold Path Of Buddhism
- The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism
- Buddhism - Right Living On The Eightfold Path
- Handbook for the Relief of Suffering by Ajaan Lee
- Meat Eating or Vegetarianism in Buddhism
- The Agendas of Mindfulness
- Meditation on Anicca or Impermanence in Buddhism
- A Sketch of the Buddha's Life
- What is Ignorance And Cessation Of Ignorance
- The Meaning of the Buddha's Awakening
- Basic Breath Meditation Practice
- Buddha's Teachings on Kamma or Karma
- Affinities Of Buddhism And Christianity
- Death and Dying in Buddhism
- Buddhism In A Nutshell
- The Buddha on Ignorance or Avijja
- Dhamma for Everyone by Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo
- Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism
- Four Discourses of the Buddha on Everyman's Ethics
- The Five Aggregates A Study Guide
- The Healing Power of the Five Buddhist Percepts
- The Working of Maya or Illusion - A Buddhist Perspective
- Buddhism - Kamma (Karma) and its Fruit
- Buddhism - Kamma (Karma) A Study Guide
- Buddhism - Living the Dhamma A Practice Guide
- What Anatta or No-Self is All About
- Buddhism - The Middle Way
- The Buddhist Monastic Code, Dhamma-Vinaya
- Nibbana, or Nivranva in Buddhsim
- Why The Buddha Taught the Anatta or Not-Self Doctrine
- The Status of Women in Buddhist Societies
- Buddhism - The Practice of Loving-Kindness (Metta)
- Buddhism - Does Rebirth Make Sense
- Buddhism - Right Concentration
- Buddhism - Intentions and Nirvana
- The Round of Rebirth - Samsara
- The Role of Samavega in Buddhism
- The Chaos Theory and Nirvana in Buddhism
- A Christian's Journey Into Buddhism
- A Simple Guide to Buddhism
- Buddhist Cosmology - The Thirty one Realms of Existence
- Buddhism and the concept of renunciation
- Sankharas (Samskaras) in Buddhism
- Vedanta and Buddhism A Comparative Study
- Buddhism - Vipansana or Insight Meditation
- The Right Approach To End Suffering in Buddhismm
Buddhist Dictionary, by Nyanatiloka Mahathera (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1980).
The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction (fourth edition), by R.H. Robinson & W.L. Johnson (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1997).
The Long Discourses of the Buddha (Introduction), translated by Maurice Walshe (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1987).
A Manual of Abhidhamma, by Ven. Narada Thera (Kuala Lumpur: Buddhist Missionary Society, 1979).
The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (Introduction), translated by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995).
Teacher of the Devas (Wheel Publication 414/416), by Susan Elbaum Jootla (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1997).
The Three Worlds (wall chart), compiled by Ven. Acaro Suvanno (printed for free distribution by devotees and Mr & Mrs Lim Say Hoe and family).
Source: Reproduced and reformatted from Insight.Access to Insight edition © 2005 For free distribution. This work may be republished, reformatted, reprinted, and redistributed in any medium. It is the author's wish, however, that any such republication and redistribution be made available to the public on a free and unrestricted basis and that translations and other derivative works be clearly marked as such.