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The Thirty-one Planes of Existence

© 2005

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.

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


(thedevas) 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.

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)

Cause of rebirth
Comments
Realm here

(31) Neither-perception-nor-non-
perception(nevasaññanasaññayatanupaga Fourth formless
deva) The inhabitants of these realms are jhana
possessed entirely of mind. Having
(30) Nothingness(akiñcaññayatanupaga no physical body, they are unable to
deva) hear Dhamma teachings. Third formless jhana

(29) Infinite
Consciousness(viññanañcayatanupaga Second formless
deva) jhana

(28) Infinite Space(akasanañcayatanupaga


deva) First formless jhana

II. The Fine-Material World (rupa-loka)

Cause of rebirth
Realm Comments here

(27) Peerless devas (akanittha deva) These are the five Pure
Abodes(suddhavasa), which are
(26) Clear-sighted devas (sudassi deva) accessible only to non-
returners (anagami) andarahants.
(25) Beautiful devas (sudassa deva) Beings who become non-returners
in other planes are reborn here,
(24) Untroubled devas (atappa deva)
where they attain arahantship.

Among its inhabitants is Brahma


Sahampati, who begs the Buddha to
teach Dhamma to the world (SN
(23) Devas not Falling Away (aviha deva) 6.1).

(22) Unconscious beings(asaññasatta) Only body is present; no mind.

(21) Very Fruitful devas (vehapphala Fourth jhana. (See,


deva) e.g., AN 4.123.)

Third jhana(highest
(20) Devas of Refulgent Glory(subhakinna degree). (See,
deva) e.g., AN 4.123.)

(19) Devas of Unbounded Third jhana(medium


Glory(appamanasubha deva) degree)

(18) Devas of Limited Glory(parittasubha Beings in these planes enjoy varying Third jhana (minor
deva) degrees of jhanic bliss. degree)

Second
jhana(highest
(17) Devas of Streaming degree). (See,
Radiance(abhassara deva) e.g., AN 4.123.)

Second
(16) Devas of Unbounded jhana(medium
Radiance(appamanabha deva) degree)

(15) Devas of Limited Radiance(parittabha Second jhana(minor


deva) degree)

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 First jhana(highest
(14) Great Brahmas (Maha brahma) (DN 11). degree)

(13) Ministers of Brahma (brahma- First jhana(medium


purohita deva) degree)
Beings in these planes enjoy varying
degrees of jhanic bliss. First jhana (minor
(12) Retinue of Brahma (brahma-parisajja degree). (See,
deva) e.g., AN 4.123.)

III. The Sensuous World (kama-loka)

HAPPY DESTINATIONS (SUGATI)

Realm Comments Cause of rebirth here

These devas enjoy sense


pleasures created by others
(11) Devas Wielding Power over the for them. Mara, the
Creation of Others (paranimmita- personification of delusion
vasavatti deva) and desire, lives here.

These devas delight in the


(10) Devas Delighting in sense objects of their own
Creation(nimmanarati deva) creation.

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
(9) Contented devas (tusita deva) said to dwell.
· Ten wholesome actions
These devas live in the air, (MN 41)
(8) Yama devas (yama deva) free of all difficulties.
· Generosity
Sakka, a devotee of the
· The development
(7) The Thirty-three Gods (tavatimsa Buddha, presides over this of virtue andwisdom (AN
realm. Many devas dwelling
deva) 10.177)
here live in mansions in the
air.

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,
(6) Devas of the Four Great trolls, and fairies of Western
Kings(catumaharajika deva) fairy tales.

You are here (for now).

Rebirth as a human being is


extraordinarily rare (SN · The development
56.48). It is also of virtue andwisdom (AN
extraordinarily precious, as its 10.177)
unique balance of pleasure
and pain (SN 35.135) · The attainment
facilitates the development of of stream-
virtue and wisdom to the entry(sotapatti)guarantees
degree necessary to set one that all future rebirths will
free from the entire cycle of be in the human or higher
(5) Human beings (manussa loka) rebirths. realms.

STATES OF DEPRIVATION (APAYA)

Realm Comments Cause of rebirth here

The demons — "titans" — that


dwell here are engaged in
(4) Asuras (asura) relentless conflict with each other. · Ten unwholesome actions (MN 41)

Ghosts and unhappy spirits


wander hopelessly about this
realm, searching in vain for sensual
fulfillment. · Ten unwholesome actions (MN 41)
(3) Hungry
Shades/Ghosts(peta Read Ajaan Lee's colorful · Lack of virtue, holding to wrong views
loka) description of this realm. (AN 10.177)

This realm includes all the non- · Ten unwholesome actions (MN 41)
human forms of life that are visible · Lack of virtue, holding to wrong views. If
(2) Animals(tiracchana to us under ordinary
yoni) one is generous to monks and nuns,
circumstances: animals, insects, however, one may be reborn as an
fish, birds, worms, etc. "ornamented" animal (i.e., a bird with
bright plumage; a horse with attractive
markings, etc.;AN 10.177).

· Behaving like an animal (MN 57)

· Ten unwholesome actions (MN 41)


These are realms of unimaginable
suffering and anguish (described in · Lack of virtue, holding to wrong views
graphic detail in MN 129 and MN (AN 10.177)
130). Should not be confused with · Murdering your parents, murdering an
theeternal hell found in other arahant, injuring the Buddha, or creating
religious traditions, since one's a schism in the Sangha (AN 5.129)
time here is — as it is in every
realm — temporary. · Being quarrelsome and annoying to
(1) Hell (niraya) others (Snp II.6)

Sources:

 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).

See also:

 Intentional Action (Kamma)

 Heavens (sagga)

 The Round of Rebirth (samsara)

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