31 Realms Associated with the Earth

May 20, 2016; revised November 29, 2018; April 25, 2019

1. There are many things in “this world” that we cannot see, hear, etc (i.e., perceive with our six senses). Scientists admit that they cannot account for 96% of the “stuff” that makes our universe; read the book, “The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality”, by Richard Panek (2011), or Google “dark energy, dark matter” for more information.

  • There are also many energy forms that apparently do not have significant mass (or weight) but exist out there in the world.
  • A good example is the fact that we are totally unaware of the huge amounts of “information” that surrounds us. There are hundreds and thousands of radio and television signals in a major city. Yet, we cannot see or hear any of those programs (i.e., we are unaware of their existence) without having a radio or a television “tuned” to the correct frequency.
  • In the same way, we are totally unaware of the existence of the 31 realms that are centered around the Earth. Living beings in some of those realms live side-by-side by us, but we are unaware of them. Most of these beings are “more like energy forms” than solid matter that we are used to.
  • With better detection technologies we may be able to communicate with some of these living beings with fine bodies in the future. Of course, those who develop abhiññā powers can also see some of them. We will get back to this issue below, but let us first discuss the relative locations of the 31 realms.

2. Buddha Dhamma says there are 31 realms associated with each habitable planetary system (cakkavāla), and there are infinite number of them in the universe (this latter fact has been confirmed by science).

  • Modern science is gradually confirming this wider world view explained by the Buddha 2500 years ago; see, “Dhamma and Science – Introduction“. Only a few hundred years ago, Western world accepted a universe that centered around the Earth with stars “embedded in a celestial sphere”; see, “Celestial spheres“.

3. In the post, “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma – Introduction“, we described a model that consisted of 31 concentric “shells”. The actuality is pretty much close to that analogy, with some additional features. I have compiled a summary of the 31 realms in the table “31 Realms of Existence“.

  • The sphere with 31 concentric shells overlaps the Earth. The lowest realm, niraya (or hell) is located deep inside the Earth.
  • The next four realms (preta, asura, animal, and human) are located closer to the Earth’s surface. There are some preta apāyās deep inside the Earth, but some pretās live on the surface. Asurās also live on the surface, but mostly in remote locations such as the ocean and isolated mountains. Both pretās and asurās cannot be seen by the humans.
  • There are many suttas in the Tipitaka that describe those three realms (niraya, preta, asura) in detail. We will discuss in the future. The Peta Vatthu in the Khuddaka Nikaya of the Tipitaka describes pretās as well as gandhabbās.

4. Of course, humans and animals live on the surface of the Earth. It must be noted that gandhabbās only belong to either the human or animal bhava. Those gandhabbās are waiting for a suitable womb to be born with human (or animal) bodies; see the section: Gandhabba (Manomaya Kaya).

5. Then come the 6 realms for the devas. The lowest of the 6 realms are again located on the surface of the Earth; those devas are called Bhummatta devas, and they belong to the Cātummahārājika deva realm; see, “31 Realms of Existence“. They live mostly in their residences (deva vimāna) based on trees. Of course, we cannot see them or their “residences”.

  • The higher deva realms extend out from the Earth.
  • The 16 rupa realms extend even higher above the Earth.
  • The 4 arupa lōka realms are located even further from the Earth.
  • All these realms are concentric with Earth’s center. As the Earth spins around its axis and rotates around the Sun, all 31 realms move along with the Earth, just like the human realm does.
  • Buddha has named these various realms in several key suttas, for example, in Dhammacappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11) and Maha Samaya Sutta (DN 20).

6. In general, beings in higher realms can “see” or “perceive” those in the lower realms, but not the other way around. For example, devas can see us, but cannot see the rupi or arupi brahmās. Rupi brahmās can see devas, but cannot see the arupi brahmās.

  • From the previous post, “Our Two Worlds : Material and Mental“, and other relevant posts at the site, we know that there are only traces of “real matter” (suddhāshtaka) in the arupa realms. Thus beings in the other 27 realms cannot “see” or”perceive” those arupi brahmās.
  • When one develops abhiññā powers, one is said to be able “see” successively higher realms. Of course, one needs to be able to get into the fourth jhana in order to develop such abhiññā powers. Eventually, when one develops the eighth jhana (and able to get into attha samāpatti), one could be able to see many of the 31 realms.

7. Now let us look at “things” in this world from a different perspective. A key premise of Buddha Dhamma is that “energy” is embedded in spin (bramana in Pāli; bramana or බ්‍රමණ in Sinhala) and rotation (paribbramana in Pāli; bramana or පරිබ්‍රමණ in Sinhala).

  • The smallest unit of matter, a suddhāshtaka, does not stay still. Depending on its rotation or spin (bramana) and its rotation around something else (paribbramana), other “modes of energy” and “types of rupa” arise.
  • It is easy to visualize by considering the motions of the Earth. We all know that the Earth rotates (paribbramana) around the Sun, and it takes a year to complete one revolution around the Sun.
  • While doing that the Earth rotates around its own North-South axis; this is the spinning (bramana). It takes a day for the Earth to complete one such spin.
  • Here is a nice video that discusses this universal feature:

8. There are infinite number of such cakkavāla (star systems or a collection of planets revolving around a star) in our universe. Each planet in such a “star system” undergoes spin around its own axis and rotation around the star. This has been confirmed by science within the past hundred years.

9. Scientists have also confirmed that all elementary particles (the smallest particles scientists can detect) have spin. Furthermore, in an atom the electrons can be said to “rotate” around the nucleus, in a crude analogy with the Earth rotating around the Sun.

  • Then our Solar system rotates too. The next higher conglomerates (for example galaxies) also undergo rotation. Because of these rotations, all these structures tend to flatten out. For example, in our Solar system, all the planets are on a plane. In the same way, all galaxies in a galaxy cluster in a flattened disk.
  • Therefore, even though we see a very calm starry night sky, things out there are in constant motion, not to mention very violent explosions of stars (supernova) that occur a billion times a year in the visible universe.
  • This is why the realities out there are much more different than what we perceive with our very crude sense faculties. All the atoms and molecules in our bodies are in constant motion, not to mention the spins and rotations of uncountable suddhāshtaka that constitute them.
  • Thus everything around us is in constant flux. Our senses are just not capable of detecting them.

10. Modern science has also enabled us to see more and more of living beings around us. For example, the Western world was not aware of the existence of microscopic living beings until the advent of the microscope by Leeuwenhoek in the late 17th century: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonie_van_Leeuwenhoek.

  • Now we know that there are billions of living beings on or in the body of a human being: “There are as many creatures on your body as there are people on Earth!“.
  • Hopefully, new technologies will enable us to “see” many living beings belonging to the preta, asura, and deva realms — as well as gandhabbās — in the future.
  • Even though there are some claims of detection of horrible sounds from the niraya deep inside the Earth, they have not been confirmed; see, “Does the Hell (Niraya) Exist?“.

11. It needs to be emphasized that as one moves up to higher realms, it is easy see to that attachments to the material aspects decreases, and correspondingly, number of sense faculties is reduced.

  • In the kāma lōka, one has all six sense faculties. Even there, the higher deva realms have “less strong sense contacts” with less dense bodies that we cannot see.
  • The bodies of rupi brahmās are much more fine compared to kāma lōka devas, and of course they do not have touch, taste, and smell sensations.
  • The density of “matter” becomes so fine in higher rupa lōka realms that even in the final destruction of a cakkavāla (in a supernova explosion), the realms above the Abhassara realm (realm #17) are not destroyed. Of course the four arupa realms are also not destroyed. This is why the lifetimes of those realms are much longer than a single mahā kappa (an aeon or the age of universe); see, “31 Realms of Existence.

12. Let us discuss the reasons as to why we cannot see the other 29 realms, and how it would be possible to “see them”. Also, we will discuss the relative locations of these other realms as described by the Buddha.

  • The main reason that we are not aware of most other realms is that most living beings (and their realms) are not made of “dense” matter that our world (with humans and animals) is made of.
  • The four arupa realms are mostly devoid of even the smallest unit of matter (suddhāshtaka); Realms in the rupa lōka and even in the deva realms of the kāma lōka are made of very fine matter that we cannot see.
  • The beings in the niraya (hell) have very dense bodies that can be subjected to various forms of torture; of course that realm is located deep inside the Earth.

13. Even though we are used the “ghana saññā” or the perception of “solid tangible physical bodies” of humans and animals, those physical bodies are actually inert.

  • They all start with a single cell (zygote) in a mother’s womb that we cannot even be seen. As we discussed in the post, “Buddhist Explanations of Conception, Abortion, and Contraception“, a gandhabba merges with that zygote that was formed by the union of a mother and a father.
  • Before entering the womb, that gandhabba had a fine body similar to that of a rupi brahma. Then that cell grows by taking in food first from the mother and then by eating once coming out of the womb. What we are enamored with “my body” is just the accumulation of inert matter.
  • And as we discussed in “Bhava and Jāti – States of Existence and Births Therein“, a human bhava may not end at the physical death of the solid body that lives about 100 years. A human bhava may last thousands of years, and that life stream continues its existence in many “physical bodies” with the gandhabba as the basis.

14. For example, in rebirth stories, the physical bodies in successive births are different, even though there may be some similarities; see, “Evidence for Rebirth“. In between successive lives, the life stream continues just in the form its core, the gandhabba.

  • The solid body of a few hundred pounds that we consider to be “me”, is just a shell. When the gandhabba leaves the body — either at death or sometimes during a heart operation (see, “Manomaya Kaya and Out-of-Body Experience (OBE)“), it has no attributes of life.
  • This is a good way to contemplate on the “ghana saññā” or to really realize that our physical bodies are mostly dead matter; a shell that the gandhabba resides in. If a person of 300 pound loses 100 pounds of weight, really that person “lose” one third of his/her identity? It is the same person, because the gandhabba is the same.
  • All beings in the 31 realms eventually have “mental bodies” that are very fine comparable to that of a gandhabba; that cannot be seen even with the finest microscope.

15. Finally, this overall picture gives us a perspective on how foolish we are to focus on the material wealth, titles, etc. for at most 100 years in this life. By living a moral life, and by doing meritorious deeds we can make a much bigger “investment” on the future by accruing merits that could lead to rebirths in deva or brahma deva worlds where there much less suffering with no physical illnesses.

  • But even in those higher realms, there is the inevitability of death no matter how long the lifetimes are. Most of all, there is no escape from the possibility of future births in the lowest four realms with so much suffering. Thus Nibbāna is the only permanent solution.

Next in the series, “Gandhabba – Only in Human and Animal Realms“, ….

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