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The Thirty-one Planes of Existence

From Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia
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Scattered throughout the suttas are references to as many as thirty-one distinct "planes" or "realms" of existence into which beings can be reborn during their long wandering through samsara.

These range from the extraordinarily grim and painful hell realms all the way up to the most exquisitely refined and blissful heaven realms.

Existence in every realm is temporary; in Buddhist cosmology there is no eternal heaven or hell. Beings are born into a particular realm according to their past kamma.

When they pass away, they take rebirth once again elsewhere according to the quality of their kamma: wholesome actions bring about a favorable rebirth, while unwholesome actions lead to an unfavorable one. And so the wearisome cycle continues.

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The realms of existence are customarily divided into three distinct "worlds" (Loka), listed here in descending order of refinement:

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The Immaterial world (arupa)]-loka). Consists of four realms that are accessible to those who pass away while meditating in the formless jhanas.
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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).

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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 realm's.

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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.

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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 non-returners (anagami) and
arahants. Beings who become
non-returners in other planes are
reborn here, where they attain
arahantship.

Among its inhabitants is Brahma
Sahampati, who begs the Buddha to
teach Dhamma to the world (SN 6.1).

Fourth jhana.
(See, e.g., AN 4.123.)
(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).
(See, e.g., AN 4.123.)
(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).
(See, e.g., AN 4.123.)
(16) Devas of Unbounded Radiance
(appamanabha deva)
Second jhana
(medium degree)
(15) Devas of Limited Radiance
(parittabha deva)
Second jhana
(minor degree)
(14) Great Brahmas
(Maha brahma)
One of this realm's most famous
inhabitants is the Great Brahma, a
deity whose delusion leads him to
regard himself as the all-powerful,
all-seeing creator of the universe
(DN 11).
First jhana
(highest degree)
(13) Ministers of Brahma
(brahma-purohita deva)
Beings in these planes enjoy varying
degrees of jhanic bliss.
First jhana
(medium degree)
(12) Retinue of Brahma
(brahma-parisajja deva)
First jhana
(minor degree).
(See, e.g., AN 4.123.)


III. The Sensuous World (kama-loka)

Happy Destinations (sugati)

Realm Comments Cause of rebirth
here
(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.
(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 56.48). It is
also extraordinarily precious, as its
unique 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.

States of Deprivation (apaya)

Realm Comments Cause of rebirth
here
(4) Asuras (asura) The demons — "titans" — that dwell
here are engaged in relentless conflict
with each other. ·
Ten unwholesome actions (MN 41)
(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.

(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.
  • 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 MN 130).
Should not be confused with the
eternal hell found in other religious
traditions, since one's time here is
— as it is in every realm — temporary.


Sources:


Source

"The Thirty-one Planes of Existence", edited by Access to Insight]. Access to Insight, 29 August 2012, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/sagga/loka.html . Retrieved on 5 April 2013.