Theravada Buddhist cosmology describes the 31 planes of existence in which rebirth takes place. The order of the planes are found in various discourses of Gautama Buddha in the Sutta Pitaka. For example, in the Saleyyaka Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya the Buddha mentioned the planes above the human plane in ascending order. In several suttas in the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha described the causes of rebirth in these planes in the same order. In Buddhism, the devas are not immortal gods that play a creative role in the cosmic process. They are simply elevated beings who had been reborn in the celestial planes as a result of their words, thoughts, and actions. Usually, they are just as much in bondage to delusion and desire as human beings, and as in need of guidance from the Enlightened One. The Buddha is the “teacher of devas and humans (satthadevamanussanam). The devas came to visit the Buddha in the night. The Devatasamyutta and the Devaputtasamyutta of the Samyutta Nikaya gives a record of their conversations. The devaputtas are young devas newly arisen in heavenly planes, and devatas are mature deities.
The data for the 31 planes of existence in samsara are compiled from the Majjhima Nikaya, Anguttara Nikaya, Samyutta Nikaya, Digha Nikaya, Khuddaka Nikaya, and others. The 31 planes of existence can be perceived by a Buddha’s Divine eye (dibbacakkhu) and some of his awakened disciples through the development of jhana meditation. According to the suttas, a Buddha can access all these planes and know all his past lives as well as those of other beings.
In the Maha-Saccaka Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya of the Pali Canon, Gautama Buddha said:
“When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, & attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of the passing away & reappearance of beings. I saw — by means of the divine eye, purified & surpassing the human — beings passing away & re-appearing, and I discerned how they are inferior & superior, beautiful & ugly, fortunate & unfortunate in accordance with their kamma:
‘These beings — who were endowed with bad conduct of body, speech, & mind, who reviled the noble ones, held wrong views and undertook actions under the influence of wrong views — with the break-up of the body, after death, have re-appeared in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell. But these beings — who were endowed with good conduct of body, speech & mind, who did not revile the noble ones, who held right views and undertook actions under the influence of right views — with the break-up of the body, after death, have re-appeared in the good destinations, in the heavenly world.’
Thus — by means of the divine eye, purified & surpassing the human — I saw beings passing away & re-appearing, and I discerned how they are inferior & superior, beautiful & ugly, fortunate & unfortunate in accordance with their kamma.”
In the Itivuttaka edition of the Khuddaka Nikaya and in the Māpuññabhāyi Sutta of the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha told about his past lives:
“Whenever the eon contracted I reached the “Plane of Streaming Radiance”, and when the eon expanded I arose in an empty divine mansion. And there I was Brahma, the great Brahma, the unvanquished victor, the all-seeing, the all-powerful. Thirty-six times I was Sakka, ruler of the devas. And many hundreds of times I was a wheel-turning monarch, righteous, a king of righteousness, conqueror of the four regions of the earth, maintaining stability in the land, in possession of the seven treasures.”
Causes for rebirth in various planes
The process by which sentient beings migrate from one state of existence to another is dependent on causes and conditions. The three causes are giving or charity, moral conduct, meditative development, and their opposites. Rebirth in the Kama-loka depends on a person’s moral conduct and practice of giving. Rebirth in the Rupa-loka and Arupa-loka also requires meditation development. Liberation from all rebirth requires wisdom in addition to moral conduct and meditation.
About the cycle of rebirth, Bhikkhu Bodhi, a scholar monk who has translated numerous texts from the Pali Canon, writes that beyond all planes of existence is the unconditioned Nibbana, the final goal of the Buddha’s teaching:
“A blissful heavenly rebirth, however, is not the final purpose for which the Buddha taught the Dhamma. At best it is only a temporary way station. The ultimate goal is the cessation of suffering, and the bliss of the heavens, no matter how blissful, is not the same as the cessation of suffering. According to the Buddha’s teaching, all states of existence within the round of rebirths, even the heavens, are transient, unreliable, bound up with pain. Thus, the ultimate aim of the Dhamma is nothing short of liberation, which means total release from the round of rebirth and death.”
Liberation from rebirth
Liberation from the rounds of rebirth requires more than just meditation achievement. It is necessary to apply Yoniso Manasikara after emerging from Samma Samadhi (1st to 4th jhana) in order to arrive at a breakthrough by wisdom. The Udana shows that after emerging from the jhanas, the Buddha directed his attention to the cause of dukkha and the way leading to its cessation. This process culminates in the discovery of Pratītyasamutpāda (dependent origination) and the Four Noble Truths.
When the seven days had come to a close, the Exalted One arose from the state of trance and in the first watch of the night, thoroughly thought out the chain of cause and effect, in direct order, thus; “If there is this (state), another (state) arises, by the arising of this (state), a (state) is produced, that is to say: “From Ignorance spring Fabrications, from Fabrications springs Consciousness, from Consciousness spring Mind and Material Form, from Mind and Material Form, the six Organs of Sense, from the six Organs of Sense, Contact, from Contact, Sensations, from Sensations, Desire, from Desire, Attachment, from Attachment, Becoming, from Becoming, Birth, from Birth spring Decay, Death, Sorrow, Lamentation, Pain, Grief and Despair. Thus, the whole mass of suffering originates.”
“By the destruction of Ignorance, Fabrications are destroyed, by the destruction of Fabrications, Consciousness is destroyed, by the destruction of Consciousness, Mind and Material Form are destroyed, by the destruction of Mind and Material Form, the six Organs of Sense are destroyed, by the destruction of the six Organs of Sense, Contact is destroyed, by the destruction of Contact, Sensations are destroyed, by the destruction of Sensations, Desire is destroyed, by the destruction of Desire, Attachment is destroyed, by the destruction of Attachment, Becoming is destroyed, by the destruction of Becoming, Birth is destroyed, and by the destruction of Birth, Decay, Death, Sorrow, Lamentation, Pain, Grief and Despair are destroyed. Thus, the whole mass of suffering is brought to an end.”
Pure Abodes (Suddhavasa)
The Pure Abodes are distinct from the other worlds of the rupa-loka in that they do not house beings who have been born there through ordinary merit or meditative attainments. Birth in these five realms are a result of attaining the fruit of non-returning or Anagami, the third level of enlightenment. These Pure Abodes are accessible only to those who have destroyed the lower five fetters, consisting of self-view, sceptical doubt, clinging to rites and ceremonies, sense desires, and ill-will. They will destroy their remaining fetters of craving for fine material existence, craving for immaterial existence, conceit, restlessness and ignorance during their existence in the Pure Abodes. Those who take rebirth here are called “non-returners” because they do not return from that world, but attain final nibbana there without coming back. They guard and protect Buddhism on earth, and will pass into enlightenment as Arhats when they pass away from the Suddhavasa worlds. According to the Ayacana Sutta, among its inhabitants is Brahma Sahampati, who begs the Buddha to teach Dhamma to the world.
The five Pure Abodes are:
27 – Peerless Devas (Akanittha deva): World of devas “un-equal in rank”. The highest of all the Rūpadhātu worlds, it is often used to refer to the highest extreme of the universe. The current Śakra will eventually be born there.
26 – Clear-Sighted Devas (Sudassi deva): The “clear-seeing” devas live in a world similar to and friendly with the Akanitṭha world.
25 – Beautiful Devas (Sudassa deva): The world of the “beautiful” devas is said to be the place of rebirth for five kinds of anāgāmins.
24 – Untroubled Devas (Atappa deva): The world of the “untroubled” devas, for whose company those of lower realms long.
23 – Devas not Falling Away (Aviha deva): The world of the “not falling” devas, perhaps the most common destination for reborn Anāgāmins. Many achieve arhatship directly in this world, but some pass away and are reborn in sequentially higher worlds of the Pure Abodes until they are at last reborn in the Akanitṭha world. These are called in Pāli uddhaṃsotas, “those whose stream goes upward”.
Human Beings (manussa loka)
5 – Human (manussa loka): Birth in this plane results from giving and moral discipline of middling quality. This is the realm of moral choice where destiny can be guided. The Khana Sutta mentioned that this plane is a unique balance of pleasure and pain. It facilitates the development of virtue and wisdom to liberate oneself from the entire cycle or rebirths. For this reason rebirth as a human being is considered precious according to the Chiggala Sutta. In the Cula-kammavibhanga Sutta (The Shorter Analysis of Action), the Buddha taught that:
Killing others lead to short life if one becomes reborn in the human plane instead of the four lower States of Deprivation. By abandoning the very acts of killing and harming, one gets to be reborn in a heavenly world. Alternatively, one gets to be reborn in the human world being endowed with long life.
Injuring of others beings can lead to rebirth in the States of Deprivation. Alternatively, the person comes back in the human plane as someone very sickly. Non-injuring of others leads to rebirth in good destinations. Alternatively, one comes back to the human plane enjoying good health.
The same goes for the following:
Beautiful or Unattractive Human Rebirth depends on whether the person has an irritable character in this life.
Influential or Ordinary Human Rebirth depends on whether the person is envious of the gain and honor received by others in this life.
Rich or Poor Human Rebirth depends on whether one is generous to others, such as providing the requisites of holy people, in this present life.
Related Suttas: Janussonin Sutta, Cula-kammavibhanga Sutta,
States of Deprivation (Apaya)
Rebirth into these planes results from unwholesome conduct. Beings reborn there have no moral sense and generally cannot create good kamma (karma). However, when the unwholesome kamma that brought them to these planes is exhausted, some stored good kamma can bring them rebirth in some other plane. Only stream-enterers and other ariyans can be sure they will never again be born in these planes of misery.
Related sutta: Saleyyaka Sutta and The Vipaka Sutta
4 – Asura: They are demons or “titans” that are engaged in endless conflict with each other. From the Jataka Tales, we are told that the Asuras are always fighting to regain their lost kingdom on the top of Mount Sumeru, but are unable to break the guard of the Four Great Kings. The Asuras are divided into many groups, and have no single ruler, but among their leaders are Vemacitrin (Pāli: Vepacitti) and Rāhu. According to Marasinghe:
“In later texts we find the Asura realm as one of the four unhappy states of rebirth. The Nikāya evidence however does not show that the Asura realm was regarded as a state of suffering”
Related sutta: Rattana Sutta
3 – Hungry ghost (pretha loka): This is the realm where ghost and unhappy spirits wander in vain, hopelessly in search of sensual fulfillment.
Related sutta : Tirokudda Kanda from the Khuddakapatha
2 – Animal (tiracchana yoni): The animal realm includes animals, insects, fish, birds, worms, etc..
1 – Hell realms (niraya)
These are realms of extreme sufferings are mentioned in the Balapandita Sutta and the Devaduta Sutta.