Sunday, July 6, 2008

31 Planes of Existence (Theravada)

The inescapable law of karma 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 firsthand 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 sutras 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 karma and their karma at the moment of death. When the karmic force that propelled them to that realm is finally exhausted, they pass away, taking rebirth once again elsewhere according to their karma. And so the wearisome cycle continues.

The realms of existence are customarily divided into three distinct "worlds" (lokas), 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 "non-returning," 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 here was assembled from a variety of sources. In the interest of economizing space each fact is not attributed to its respective source.

I. The Immaterial World
(31) Neither-perception-nor-non-perception. The inhabitants of these realms are possessed entirely of mind. Having no physical body, they are unable to hear Dharma teachings. Attained by the cultivating the Fourth formless jhana
(30) Nothingness, the Void, attained through the Third formless jhana
(29) Infinite Consciousness, attained through the Second formless jhana
(28) Infinite Space, attained through the First formless jhana

II. The Fine-Material World
(27) Peerless devas. These are the five Pure Abodes, which are accessible only to non-returners (anagami) and arahants. Beings who become non-returners in other planes are reborn here, where they attain enlightenment. Among its inhabitants is Brahma Sahampati, who requested the Buddha to teach Dharma to the world (SN 6.1). Attained by Fourth form jhana. See, for example, AN 4.123.
(26) Clear-sighted devas.
(25) Beautiful devas.
(24) Untroubled devas.
(23) Devas not Falling Away.
(22) Unconscious beings, only body is present; no mind.
(21) Very Fruitful devas. Beings in these planes enjoy varying degrees of jhanic bliss.
(20) Devas of Refulgent Glory. Attained through Third form jhana (highest degree). See, for example, AN 4.123.
(19) Devas of Unbounded Glory. Attained through Third form jhana (medium degree)
(18) Devas of Limited Glory. Attained through Third form jhana (minor degree)
(17) Devas of Streaming Radiance. Attained through Second form jhana (highest degree). See, for example, AN 4.123.
(16) Devas of Unbounded Radiance. Attained through Second form jhana (medium degree).
(15) Devas of Limited Radiance. Second form jhana (minor degree)
(14) Great Brahmas [gods]. One of this realm's most famous inhabitants is the Maha Brahma, a deity whose delusion leads him to regard himself as the all-powerful, all-seeing creator of the universe (DN 11). Attained through the First form jhana (highest degree).
(13) Ministers of Brahma. Beings in these planes enjoy varying degrees of jhanic bliss. Attained through First form jhana (medium degree).
(12) Retinue of Brahma. Attained through First form jhana (minor degree). See, for example, AN 4.123.

III. The Sensuous World
(11) Devas Wielding Power over the Creation of Others. These devas enjoy sense pleasures created by others for them. Mara, the personification of delusion and desire, lives here. Rebirth here is attained through:
° Ten wholesome actions (MN 41)
° Generosity
° The development of virtue and wisdom (AN 10.177)
(10) Devas Delighting in Creation. These devas delight in the sense objects of their own creation.
(9) Contented devas (Tusita deva world). 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. These devas live in the air, free of all difficulties.
(7) The Thirty-three Gods (Tavatimsa deva world). Sakka, a devotee of the Buddha, presides over this realm. Many devas dwelling here live in "mansions" in the air.
Original art by Howard David Johnson:
(6) Devas of the Four Great Kings [corresponding to the four cardinal directions]. Home of the gandhabbas, or celestial musicians, and [bhumi-devas, "earthbound devas," and] yakkhas. These are tree spirits of varying degrees of ethical purity, whereas the latter are analogous to the goblins, trolls, and fairies of Western fairy tales.

Bhumi-devas, yakkhas, gandhabbas (note Fly agaric mushrooms) by H.D. Johnson.
(5) Human beings (manussa loka). You are here (for now). Rebirth as a human being is extraordinarily rare (SN 56.48). It is also extraordinarily precious, as its balance of pleasure and pain (SN 35.135) facilitates the development of virtue and wisdom to the degree necessary to set one free from the entire cycle of rebirths. Rebirth attained through:
° The development of virtue and wisdom (AN 10.177)
° The attainment of stream-entry (sotapatti) guarantees that all future rebirths will be in human or higher realms.
States of Deprivation
(4) Asuras. The demons — literally, "titans" — that dwell here are engaged in relentless conflict with each other.
° Ten unwholesome actions (MN 10)
(3) Hungry Ghosts (peta loka). Ghosts and unhappy spirits wander 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 10.177)
(2) Animals. 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 10.177).
° Behaving like an animal (MN 57)
(1) Hells (niraya). These are realms of unimaginable suffering and anguish (described in graphic detail in MN 129 and 130). They should not, however, be confused with the "eternal" hell proposed by other religions, since one's time here is — as it is in every realm — temporary. They are correct in saying that the lifespans here are seeming eternities. They can last aeons. Rebirth here is attained through:
° Ten unwholesome actions (MN 10)
° Lack of virtue, holding to wrong views (AN 10.177)
° Murdering your parents, murdering an arahant, injuring a Buddha, or creating a schism in the Sangha (AN 5.129)
° Being quarrelsome and annoying to others (Snp II.6)

Depiction of hell, Angkor Wat, Cambodia (note similarity to later Western conceptions).
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.
OTHER ART: heavenly deva from; fine-material devas from; earth-devas by H.D. Johnson; Bartolomeo's Map of Hell; trolls or ogres from
More details (such as full list of Pali place names) at:

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