May 20, 2016; revised November 29, 2018; March 10, 2020; July 23, 2022
1. There are many things in “this world” that we cannot see, hear, etc. (i.e., perceive with our six senses). Scientists admit they cannot account for 96% of the “stuff” that makes our universe. See “The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality” by Richard Panek (2011). For more information, Google “dark energy, dark matter.”
- Many forms of energy do not have significant mass (or weight) but exist in the universe.
- A good example is that we are unaware of the vast amounts of “information” surrounding us. Hundreds and thousands of radio and television signals pervade a major city. We cannot see or hear any of those programs (i.e., unaware of their existence) without having a radio or a television “tuned” to the correct frequency.
- In the same way, we are unaware of the existence of 29 of the 31 realms centered around the Earth. Living beings in some realms live side-by-side with us, but we are unaware of them. Most of these beings have bodies “more like energy forms” than solid bodies.
- With better detection technologies, we may be able to communicate with some of these living beings with subtle 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 an infinite number of them in the universe (this latter fact has been confirmed by science).
- Modern science has gradually confirmed this broader worldview explained by the Buddha 2500 years ago; see “Dhamma and Science – Introduction.” Only a few hundred years ago, the Western world accepted a universe 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 close to that analogy, with some additional features. I have summarized the 31 realms in the “31 Realms of Existence” post.
- The sphere with 31 concentric shells overlaps the Earth. The lowest realm, niraya (or hell), is deep inside the Earth.
- The next four realms (preta, asura, animal, and human) are closer to the Earth’s surface. Some preta apāyās deep inside the Earth, but some pretās live on the surface. Asurās live on the surface, mostly in remote locations such as the ocean and isolated mountains. Humans can not see both pretās and asurās.
- Many suttā in the Tipiṭaka describe those three realms (niraya, preta, asura) in detail. The Peta Vatthu in the Khuddaka Nikāya of the Tipiṭaka describes pretās as well as gandhabbā.
- Most humans are born in the niraya, preta, asura, and animal realms at the end of the human bhava; see a series of suttas starting with “Passing Away as Humans and Reborn in Hell (SN 56.102).”
4. Of course, humans and animals live on the surface of the Earth. 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 “Mental Body – Gandhabba” section. There are many other posts as well.
- Thus we say those gandhabbās are in para lōka (nether world). Even though they live alongside us, we cannot see their subtle bodies: “Hidden World of the Gandhabba: Netherworld (Para Lōka).”
- So, our world is much more complicated than we think.
5. Then come the six realms for the devas. The lowest of the six deva realms are on the surface of the Earth. Those devas are Bhummatta devas belonging 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 four 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 domains move along with the Earth, just like the human realm.
- Buddha has named these various realms in several key suttā, such as Dhammacappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11) and Maha Samaya Sutta (DN 20).
6. In general, beings in higher realms can “see” those in the lower ones, but not the other way around (if they came “face-to-face”). 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,” we know that there are only traces of “real” matter (suddhāṭṭhaka) in the arupa realms. Thus beings in the other 27 realms cannot “see” arupi brahmās.
- When one develops abhiññā powers, one is said to be able to “see” successively higher realms. Of course, one needs to be able to get into the fourth jhāna to develop such abhiññā powers. Eventually, when one develops arupāvacara samāpatti (and can get into aṭṭha samāpatti), one can see many of the 31 realms. See “The 89 (121) Types of Citta.”
7. Now, let us look at “things” in this world in a different way. A fundamental premise of Buddha Dhamma is the following. “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 suddhāṭṭhaka, 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 North-South axis; this is spinning (bramana). It takes a day for the Earth to complete one such spin.
- Here is a video that discusses rotation and spin (see #17 below for an advanced video):
8. Our universe has an infinite cakkavāla (a star with a set of planets revolving around it). Each planet in a “star system” undergoes spin around its axis and rotates around the star. Science has confirmed this within the past hundred years.
- Each cakkavāla may have “Earth-like” planets with their own 31 realms.
- A cluster of thousand of such cakkavāla is called a “cūḷanikā lokadhātu” or a “small world system.” A thousand such systems are a “majjhimikā lokadhātu” or a “medium world system.” A cluster of thousand of such systems is a “mahāsahassī lokadhātu” or a “large world system”; see “Cūḷanikā Sutta (AN 3.80)“.
- Also, see “Paṭhamakosala Sutta (AN 10.29)” and “Buddhism and Evolution – Aggañña Sutta (DN 27)”.
9. Scientists have also confirmed that all elementary particles (the minuscule 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 instance, 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 may see a very calm starry night sky, things out there are in constant motion. Furthermore, star explosions (supernovas) occur a billion times a year in the visible universe.
- That is why the realities out there are much more different than what we perceive with our crude sensory faculties. All the atoms and molecules in our bodies are in constant motion, not to mention the spins and rotations of uncountable suddhāṭṭhaka 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 living beings around us. For example, the Western world was unaware 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 billions of living beings are in the body of a human being. See, “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 and gandhabbā in the future.
- Even though some claims of detecting horrible sounds from the niraya deep inside the Earth have not been confirmed, see “Does the Hell (Niraya) Exist?“.
11. Attachments to the material aspects decrease as one moves up to higher realms. That is why living beings in higher realms have less number of sense faculties.
- 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.
- Rupi-brahmās have much more delicate “bodies” compared to kāma lōka devas. They do not have touch, taste, or smell sensations.
- “Matter” is very subtle in higher rupa and arupa lōka realms. Therefore, even in the final destruction of a cakkavāla (in a supernova explosion), the realms above the Abhassara realm (realm #17) are not destroyed. That is why the lifetimes of those Brahmā are much longer than a single mahā kappa (an eon or the age of the universe); see “31 Realms of Existence“.
12. Now, we can understand why we cannot see the other 29 realms.
- In the higher realms around the Earth, living beings (and their environments) have very little solid matter. That is why we cannot see them or their habitats.
- The four arupa realms are mostly devoid of even the smallest unit of matter (suddhāṭṭhaka). Realms in the rupa lōka and even in the deva realms of the kāma lōka are made of fine matter that we cannot see.
- The beings in the niraya (hell) have very dense bodies subjected to various forms of torture; of course, that realm is located deep inside the Earth.
13. We are used to the perception of “solid tangible physical bodies” of humans and animals. That is called the “ghana saññā.” However, those physical bodies are mostly “empty.” That is because atoms, the basic building blocks, are mostly empty.
- Furthermore, our physical bodies start with a single cell (zygote) in a mother’s womb. One needs a microscope to see a single cell. A gandhabba (even smaller than a cell) merges with that zygote formed by the union of a mother and a father. See “Buddhist Explanations of Conception, Abortion, and Contraception,”
- Before entering the womb, gandhabba had a fine body similar to a rupāvacara Brahma‘s. Then that cell grows by taking in food from the mother and eating once coming out of the womb. Our heavy physical bodies result from accumulating inert matter (by eating food).
- 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 lifestream 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 consecutive lives, the lifestream continues in the form of its core, the gandhabba.
- The solid body of a few hundred pounds that we consider “me” is 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.
- That is an excellent way to contemplate the “ghana saññā” or realize that our physical bodies are primarily inert matter, an “inert shell” in which the gandhabba resides. If a person of 300 pounds loses 100 pounds of weight, really that person “loses” 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 and comparable to a gandhabba. Even our most excellent microscopes cannot see their ultra-fine “bodies.”
15. The above picture gives us a perspective on how foolish we are to focus on material wealth, titles, etc., for at most 100 years in this life. By living a moral life and doing meritorious deeds, we can make a much bigger “investment” in the future. That is by accruing merits that could lead to rebirths in the Deva or Brahma worlds where there is much less suffering and no physical illnesses.
- But even in those higher realms, death is inevitable 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. Thus Nibbāna is the only permanent solution.
16. Following is a fairly good video describing the general features of the 31 realms:
Next in the series, “Gandhabba – Only in Human and Animal Realms.”