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Thirty-one planes of existence and Buddhist teachings

From Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia
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Art work by Frank Kliewer;
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The beginning of our class was about the beginning of time and the world. There are really long periods of time called aeons. The Buddha called it a kappa. To explain how long a kappa is, the Buddha gave this example. Imagine if there was a solid mountain, one mile high and one mile across in all directions. If a man wiped that mountain top with a handkerchief, would it wear away that mountain? "No" It would only take the dust off it. So, if a man, at the end of every one hundred years wiped the top of the mountain with a cloth, the mountain would wear away before the end of a kappa. Then he said, that there have been not 100 nor 1000 but hundreds of thousands of kappa. Is the world old? "Very old!"

In Buddhism, we say that there isn't a very beginning to the world or even if there was it happened so long ago that we could not really know for sure. We say that the world contracts, destroys itself and becomes dark and uninhabitable (cannot live) but from that time on, it expands, begins to become light again and beings can again live in the water and on the land.

Modern scientists say now that the world is extremely old and that all life developed out of the dark, from tiny little organisms and cells that became animals and animals developed into apes and apes developed into humans. They also think that the world will be destroyed either by man's foolishness or by natural disasters but that will also take a very long time, nobody knows how long.


How many planets are in space? "9." How many suns? "1." What is this all called? "A solar system." Right. Actually, now the astronomers say, there other solar systems. The Buddha also knew about the planets and stars. He said there is a minor world system which has 1000 solar systems, then there is a medium world system which has 1000 minor world systems and there is a major world system that has 1000 medium world systems. How many solar systems is that? 1000 million, 1 billion. Human beings think we are really clever because we've been to the moon and back but that's a bit like just going out the front gate of your house and coming back and saying, "I've seen the world!"

There are billions and trillions of beings in our yards, neighbourhoods, cities, countries and everywhere. Not just this little bunch of humans on this little planet Earth who think that we know everything. These days we have a lot more information about UFO's which makes us think that there are other beings living outside of our solar system, they can come and visit us whenever they want to and go back home again but we haven't even been to Mars and back yet.

The Buddha lived more than 2500 years ago, he didn't have clocks, or machines, microscopes, electricity, gadgets, calculators or computers but he knew about time, space, the past, the future, animals, humans, other beings, and the worlds they live in and so-on. How? Because his mind was clear and pure. He could know about things that ordinary men with greed, hatred and delusion, cannot know. Modern science now supports Buddhism and proves that the Buddha was right.

Another way that we can know that the Buddha was right, is if we practise the Noble Eightfold Path. Then we can find wisdom and happiness for ourselves. Not just because Buddha said so or because a famous Sayadaw said so or even because I said so but because you follow and practise for yourselves. Then you really know if it works or if it's true or not.

We can't know the beginning or end of time. We can't know the beginning or end of space or the world and we can't know the beginning or end of the lives of beings. So dont worry about it!


Here existence means, life or living. Planes means realms, levels or worlds, places. In Pali we use the word Loka, it's the best word, the English words are not exactly right.

Human beings like to put things in order so here is the order of the realms of all beings. We can even say that these are not so much places as they are mental states. For example, if your mind is evil then you will live in or go to a hell realm. If your mind is quite pure, then you will live in or go to a clean, beautiful and pure heaven realm.

Another thing that we should remember is that ALL of the beings living in these realms are impermanent, that means that they don't live forever. Some beings in the heavens can live for aeons but once you die in one realm, you must be reborn, either in the same realm or another, unless you have attained to Nibbana which means, that you don't have to suffer in or be reborn in any of these realms, you reach non-existence.


On this scale we put hell at the very bottom and we often think that hell is inside a volcano or under the ground or the ocean but it doesn't have any one place. Besides there are 1000,000,000 solar systems so why does hell have to be under the ground on earth, it could be anywhere. And the heavens could be anywhere too, not just up in the clouds.

Once, when I was up in an aeroplane, about 10,000 metres in the air, amongst the clouds, I thought to myself, "we must be going through the deva loka" so I looked out the window but I didn't see any devas, only clouds.

Getting back to hell, Niraya is the worst place of all to live. There is no happiness (sukkha) at all, only dukkha. So if you do very evil things, like killing, then your mind is bad. When you die, if your mind is still bad, you will go to a bad place to join all the other bad beings, there you have to suffer for a long time, until your evil mind becomes more clear again, then you might be reborn in another realm.


The animal world is also not a pleasant place but often we think that it is. We look at birds flying in the sky and we say "Ah, so beautiful, they are free and can go anywhere they want to. "Flying is not as easy as it looks, imagine if I put a set of wings on you and said now run as fast as you can and take off, could you do it? "NO!" Also can you keep your arms out stretched for 5 or 10 minutes? Birds do it for hours sometimes days! Besides, why are they flying around up there anyway? They're not doing it for fun, they're working. They're searching for food or something to build their nest with, looking after their kids, and looking out for danger. Birds and animals are always afraid that someone or something is going to get them, so they live with fear and worry.

Animals lives are not great, they have no choice but to search for food, fight and kill to stay alive. We think that some animals are lucky, like house pets but are they happy? Maybe they would prefer to be out in the wild or catching their own food, we don't know. I met a Sri Lankan Buddhist man in Australia, he said that he wanted to be reborn as a lion, king of the jungle. I said that lions have to kill for their food and fight the other lions to continue to be the king, it's not an easy life.

No matter who or what you are, if you're the best or at the top of anything, someone always wants to be better than you. Jealousy makes beings angry and crazy, so they fight and kill.


The next realm is peta, hungry ghosts. They say these beings have big, fat stomachs and tiny, little mouths. They are very greedy, always hungry and can never get enough to eat. So if people are greedy and don't practise dana, sharing, then they might become one of these. More dukkha! Sometimes people are afraid or have pity for the petas, so they try to help them by doing good deeds and sharing the merits for them, because they can't do good deeds for themselves.

I think that friendly ghosts live here too, the ones that have lost their way, so we can just do metta for them to help them along, there's no need to be afraid of them.


Asura demons are powerful and warlike but it seems that they don't harm humans. Almost all beings can not go from one realm to another. Just think can you become an animal or just go and visit heaven or hell and come back again? "No" Neither can they, so don't be afraid, be friendly.

These four lower realms are unhappy or dukkha realms. There is no chance to be good or do good.

When we do metta bhavana, loving kindness meditation and we say, "May ALL beings be happy and peaceful healthy and strong", it includes ALL of these beings too.


The human world has a mixture of Dukkha and Sukkha but also, Uppekkha which means balanced or neutral. Humans can live very different lives, some might be born in a poor village or country, without food, clean water, clothes, money etc., it's like hell on earth, all dukkha. We are very lucky, we have good families, clothes, school, we're not rich, not poor and everything is OK. While some other people are reborn as a prince or princess and have the best of everything, very little dukkha and lots of sukkha, like heaven. Only in this realm, there is pleasant and unpleasant, happy and unhappy, good and bad, therefore, beings can only attain to Nibbana in the human realm.


Here, there is very little dukkha, it's mostly very pleasant. The beings here are not born as babies, they are already adults and they stay young until they die. In Christianity, when they talk about heaven, (only one), they are talking about this deva loka, that has beautiful golden mansions with gardens and even with angels playing lovely music. Some people have been so close to dying, that they have left their body and seen these heavens but meanwhile their body gets better and they have to come back to their body again, this is called a near death experience, it's not strange. A person might end up in these realms by doing a little bit of dana, sila and bhavana or by praying to God and being good.


In Buddhism, we don't say that there is just one God but we say that there are many gods, in many realms. Remember, that it is very rare that beings can go from one realm to another, in the same way, the gods don't rule over humans, they rule over the heavens. Most religions teach that there is one God who made everything and is the ruler of all. Some say, that once, a Brahma died and re-appeared in deva loka and the devas thought that he was God, so he said "Yes I am". Then one deva was reborn as a man, he practised meditation and could remember his past life as a deva so he told everyone, " I am a fallen angel, I've seen God in heaven, if we pray to him he will save us and we can all go back to heaven."

The beings in all of these heavens have very fine material bodies, they can go anywhere, even flying through the air. Really, it's not flying, they just think about where they want to be and they are already there, like in your mind or in a dream. If we want to go somewhere, we have to take this heavy body with us and we have to walk or run, take a car or an aeroplane, dukkha.


These are the most pure of them all. Do you remember nama and rupa, mind and matter? Well this is arupa which means no-body, these beings have only mind, no body. If you have no body, then you have no physical dukkha. Do you remember the story of the monk who discovered No-thing? When he died, he probably went to one of these realms. Life here is very nice but it's extremely long and when you die you have to be reborn again, boring.


As human beings we have the choice of doing good or bad or nothing, then when you die you will be born in a good, bad or the same place. There are cycles of lives, from one life to the next, in Pali it's called, samsara. We just keep going round and round until we we become wise from meditation, then we can understand that there is no end to samsara and we may attain to Nibbana which is not boring because there is no mind, no mind, no dukkha!