Revised May 20, 2016; December 22, 2018 (#2 added); July 6, 2019 (#1 revised)
1. According to Buddha Dhamma EVERYTHING in existence can be put into four ultimate realities (paramatthathō):
- Thoughts (citta)
- Thought qualities or mental factors (cētasika)
- Matter (rūpa)
- All existence “in this world” can be described in terms of the first three. And they are all conditional, i.e., each is born due to the existence of a cause. If there is no cause, none of these three will arise. This is a fundamental cause and effect (paticca samuppāda) in Buddha Dhamma.
- Causes are numerous, but the root causes are six: greed, hate, ignorance, non-greed, non-hate, and non-ignorance.
- Nibbāna and those other three entities are mutually exclusive (entities in this world are completely absent in Nibbāna); see, “Paṭhamanibbānapaṭisaṃyutta Sutta (Ud 8.1)” (English translation: “The First Discourse about Nibbāna“).
2. When the three roots of greed, hate, ignorance are removed, Nibbāna results (rāgakkhyō, dōsakkhayō, mōhakkhayō Nibbānam).
- The three good roots non-greed, non-hate, and non-ignorance are not removed, but the CONDITIONS (tanhā and upādāna) for them to lead to rebirth are removed at that time. Therefore, one will not be reborn even in the “good realms”.
- Therefore, one actually strives to remove greed, hate, and ignorance, which are “san“; see, “What is ‘San’?“. This is the key to Nibbāna, as laid out in the Noble Eightfold Path.
- Since it does not arise due to causes, Nibbāna is permanent.
3. The citta arise and decay at a very fast rate: billions of citta can arise and pass away each second. But as we will see in the Abhidhamma section, such “active thoughts” occur relatively infrequently in “fast bursts” or citta vithi. Cētasika are “embedded” in each citta. There are 89 types of cittas in all, and 52 types of cētasikas; see, “Tables and Summaries“. Thus the mental realm is very complex.
- For an introduction to the mind, see “Amazingly Fast Time Evolution of a Thought (Citta)“, “The Amazing Mind – Critical Role of Nāmagotta (Memories)“, and “Do I Have “A Mind” That Is Fixed and “Mine”?” in that order.
4. Matter (rūpa) is constituted of 28 basic units, of which only four are truly fundamental. However, the smallest indivisible unit that anything in this world is made out of is called a “suddhāshtaka“; see, “Rupa – Generation Mechanisms” and “The Origin of Matter – Suddhashtaka“. These suddhāshtaka have very long lifetimes of a mahā kalpa (basically the age of the universe). Any “tangible thing” in the universe is made out of these suddhāshtaka, and those “composite things” are called sankata.
- All sankata in “this world” are subject to change. Each sankata (basically material things) has a lifetime which could be shorter than a second or as long as billions of years (for a star, for example).
5. Many people confuse “udayavaya” or formation and breakup of sankata means anything, including suddhāshtaka, is incessantly in flux; they try to tie this with “impermanence” which they incorrectly translate anicca to be. In the contrary, suddhāshtaka have very long lifetimes.
- It is only those “composites” such as humans, animals, trees, etc, that undergo decay and death at time scales that are discernible to us; a gold bar, does not decay for a very long time; see, “Does any Object (Rupa) Last only 17 Thought Moments?“.
- For a discussion on udayavaya nana, see, “Udayavaya Ñāna“.
6. The “end result” of this udayavaya nature of all sankata was summarized by the Buddha as the Three Characteristics of “this world”: anicca, dukkha, anatta. But anicca is NOT impermanence, and anatta is NOT “no-self”; see, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Wrong Interpretations“.
- Briefly, (i) it is not possible to find AND maintain happiness in anything in “this world”, (ii) because of that we become distraught and suffer, and (iii) thus one becomes helpless (not in control). It is important to realize that these characterize not just this life, but our beginning-less rebirth process in “this wider world” of 31 realms described below.
- Even though gold bars are virtually permanent relative to our lifetimes, we still cannot “maintain it to our satisfaction” since we have to leave it (and anything else) behind when we die.
- And all this is due to “udayavaya” of sankata, all that we experience; see, “Root Cause of Anicca – Five Stages of a Sankata“.
7. Therefore, there is NOTHING “in this world” that is permanent (except “nama gotta“; see below). Everything is constantly changing. This is the fundamental reason why nothing in “this world” can be maintained to one’s expectations; see, “Second Law of Thermodynamics is Part of Anicca!“.
- Some things can last longer than others, but nothing is permanent. Everything is CONDITIONAL, i.e., arises due to causes. When the causes are removed, it does not arise. Thus it is said that everything “in this world” is CONDITIONED.
- The only exception is “nama gotta” which are the permanent records of a given “lifestream”; see, “Recent Evidence for Unbroken Memory Records (HSAM)“. This is how one with abhinna powers can go back and look at one’s past lives; some children can recall their past lives too. That record is permanent.
8. This world that is made of citta, cētasika, and rūpa is very complex, and beings can be born in 31 realms out of which we can “see” only two realms: human and animal.
- Think about the fact that all biological matter is constituted from just four bases of DNA, and all computer codes are based on two units, 0 and 1. Thus, one could see how complex the mind is when there are 89 types of cittas and 52 types of cētasikas are involved!
9. Nibbāna, in contrast to citta, cētasika, and rūpa, is UNCONDITIONED. Nibbāna is attained when all the causes are eliminated; thus is it permanent.
- Nibbāna is attained at four steps or stages: Stream Entry (Sōtapanna), Once-Returner (Sakadāgāmi), Non-Returner (Anāgāmi), Arahant.
- At each stage, the causes (or “gathi“) that could result in births in some realms are “removed”; see, “Gati, Bhava, and Jāti“. For example, at the Sōtapanna stage, those hateful gathi suitable for beings in niraya, greedy gathi suitable for petas (hungry ghosts), etc are removed.
- All causes (and all “gathi“) are totally removed at the Arahant stage. However, an Arahant lives as a normal human being until death, and is not reborn anywhere in “this world” at death. This is discussed in depth in other posts, but let us first examine what the Buddha meant by “this world” in the next section.
Thirty One Planes of Existence
Here is a video from Carl Sagan to get an idea how vast our “detectable universe” is:
The “worldview” of the Buddha is not merely about the living beings on this planet. Our Solar system is one of an infinite number of “world systems” (planetary systems). In EACH planetary system with life (scientists have not found even one yet; but they are out there!), there are 31 “planes of existence”. As we find out below, we can “see” only two of these realms: our human realm and the animal realm. Thus our “world” is much more complex than even the present-day science believes.
As some of you may already know, science cannot account for 95% of the mass of the universe, which they label “dark energy” and “dark matter”; see, “The 4 Percent Universe” by Richard Panek (2011), or do a Google search on “dark energy and dark matter”. This is why I say that the Buddha transcended “this world”; see, “Power of the Human Mind – introduction“. He was able to “see” the whole of existence: see “Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem” under “Dhamma and Science”.
- A being in a given plane of existence is reborn in any of the 31 realms at death; this happens instantaneously and evidence for such a mechanism is slowly emerging from quantum mechanics; see, “Quantum Entaglement – We are all Connected“.
The Buddha has described these different realms of existence in many suttas, and a convenient summary has been presented at: “31 Realms of Existence“. For a detailed discussion see, “31 Realms Associated with the Earth“. In the following I will use a visual to simplify things a bit and to provide a simple description of Nibbāna with respect to this “wider world of existence”.
- Imagine a sphere with 31 shells, with a small sphere in the middle. Thus the total volume of the big sphere is completely filled by the center sphere and surrounding shells. The 31 sections represent the 31 planes of existence. I emphasize that this is just a visual. The reality is different. For example, animal and human realms co-exist in reality. Also, both time and space are infinite in reality.
1. The innermost 11 shells represent the kāma lōka, where all five physical sense faculties are present.
- The innermost sphere represent the niraya (hell) where there is non-stop suffering; next is the animal realm. Going outward there are two more realms where suffering is higher than at the human realm.
- Human realm is the fifth shell. This is the last realm where greed, hate, and ignorance all prevail. However, this is unique in the sense that humans can also get rid of all those three and attain Nibbāna.
- The sixth through eleventh shells represent the realms of the devas (wrongly translated as gods by many). Devas do not have dense bodies with flesh and blood, and thus they do not have the physical ailments. They do not generate greedy thoughts.
2. The next 16 shells represent realms where only two physical sense faculties (eye and ear) are active, in addition to mind. These beings have very fine bodies, even less dense than devas. These are called rūpa lōkas.
3. The last 4 shells represent the arūpa lōkas, where beings have ultra fine bodies and only the mind faculty; no physical senses.
4. In rūpa and arūpa lōkas, the beings are in jhānic states, and those beings do not have either greed or hate; but they still have ignorance.
- These states can be attained by humans and thus a humans can “temporarily live” in those lōkas by attaining jhānas; see, “Power of the Human Mind – Anariya or Mundane Jhanas“.
- The 16 realms in the rūpa lōka correspond to the four lower jhānas, and the 4 realms in the arūpa lōka correspond to the four higher jhānas.
5. Now, a lot of you may be thinking “How do I know all this is true? Is there any evidence?”. There are a lot of things we do not know about “this world”. We cannot rely on our senses or even science to verify/confirm these; see, “Wrong Views (Micca Ditthi) – A Simpler Analysis” and “Dhamma and Science“.
- Only within the last 50 years or so that science has accepted that our world is bigger than a few galaxies (now science has confirmed that there are billions of galaxies!).
- Furthermore, the newest findings (yet unconfirmed) in string theory indicate that we live in a 10-dimensional world (of course we cannot see the other spatial dimensions), not a 3-dimensional world. For a fun look at different dimensions, see, “What Happens in Other Dimensions“.
6. Any living being (including each of us) has been in all realms in this beginning-less sansāra (or samsāra). We have been in the niraya (hell) and we have been at the highest (except the five pure abodes in rūpa lōka which can be accessed only by Anāgāmis or Non-Returners). One time the Buddha pointed to a bunch of ants on the ground and told bhikkhus that each of those ants had lived in a brahma lōka. The sansāra is that long; there is no discernible beginning.
7. Above the human realm, there is relatively less suffering (except at death, which is inevitable). However, unless one has achieved at least the Stream Entry (Sōtapanna) stage, even a being at the highest level can fall to any lower level, and thus will end up in the niraya (hell) at some point; once there one will spend a long agonizing time there and eventually come out. Each of us have done this many times over. The cause of births in different realms can be explained in terms of “kamma seeds”; see, “Sankhara, Kamma, Kamma Beeja, Kamma Vipaka“).
8. So, each living being just moves from one realm to another, but spends most time in the four lower worlds, mainly because once fallen there it is hard to come out. This “sansāric wandering” is the critical point to think about and comprehend.
9. As one moves away from the center the level of suffering decreases, and level of mundane pleasure increases up to the 11th realm. After that in the rūpa and arūpa lōkas it is mainly the jhānic pleasures, not the sense pleasures; see, “Three Kinds of Happiness – What is Niramisa Sukha?“.
10. The human realm and the animal realm are the only ones where a being is born to parents. In all other realms, beings are born instantaneously, formed fully, within an instant (cittakkhana) of dying in the previous life. This is an opapatika birth. This is why the Buddha said, “manō pubbangamā dhammā………..“. The mind is the root cause, not matter.
- As discussed in the Abhidhamma section, even the humans and animals start off their “bhava” opapatically as gandhabbas; see, “Gandhabba (Manomaya Kaya)“. They start building a “dense physical body” after getting into a womb.
11. A person who becomes an Arahant or attains Nibbāna, will not be reborn in any of these 31 realms. Thus, Nibbāna is not difficult to understand, and it can be looked at from different angles: see, “Nibbāna – Is it Difficult to Understand?“, and “What are Rupa? Relation to Nibbāna“, and other posts (by the way, you can just type a keyword in the “Search box” at top right to get a list of relevant posts).
- Nibbāna, in the present model, corresponds to getting out of all 31 shells, out of the big sphere; no more rebirth in any of the 31 realms. Nibbāna is where the permanent sukha or nirāmisa sukha, is.
- When one attains Nibbāna or Arahanthood, he/she looks just like any other human, but has no attachments to any worldly things. He still has some kamma vipāka to pay off from the kamma seed that he was born with. When that kammic power is used up, he dies and is not reborn because he/she will not “willingly grasp” (or “upādāna“) any of the possible births.
12. Why are we trapped in the 31 realms? Because we perceive that there is happiness to be had in “this world”. We are not aware that there is much suffering in the lower four realms; many people look at their lives and say, “where is this suffering the Buddha was talking about?”: It is the hidden suffering that is there not only in this world, but mostly in the lowest four realms. The problem is that once fallen there, it is hard to come back up, since in those realms – animal realm included – beings are more like robots; they do not have developed minds like humans and it is too late then.
- No one or no external force is keeping us in “this world” of 31 realms; we are content with sense pleasures, do not see the suffering “in the long term” (even in this life as we get old), thus we are clinging to everything in this world like an octopus grabbing its prey with all eight legs. And we are not aware that there is a better kind of pleasure in Nibbāna, in detaching from “this world”; see, “Three Kinds of Happiness – What is Niramisa Sukha?“. (Also, unless a Buddha comes along, we do not know about the 31 realms and are not aware of the suffering in the lower four realms).
13. Can we taste Nibbānic “pleasure”?. Yes. We can taste it in increments, even below the Stream Entry (Sōtapanna) stage; see, “How to Taste Nibbāna“. This is nirāmisa sukha, the “pleasure of giving up worldly things”.
- This nirāmisa sukha has “quantum jumps” (large instantaneous changes) at the four stages of Nibbāna: Stream Entry, Once-Returner, Non-Returner, Arahant. Thus when one is on the Path, one can experience nirāmisa sukha at varying degrees, all the way to Nibbānic bliss, during this very lifetime; see, at the end of “The Four Stages in Attaining Nibbāna“.
14. All these 31 realms are located in our solar system (cakkavāla or Chakrawāta in Sinhala), and are associated with the Earth. There are a great number of such cakkavāla (planetary systems) in existence at all times with living beings.
- These are in clusters of small, medium, and large “world systems” (galaxies, galaxy clusters, and superclusters?). But none is permanent. They come into being and eventually perish. Within the past 100 years or so, scientists have confirmed the existence of billions of planetary systems within each galaxy and billions of such galaxies in our universe.
The other big factor to take into account is that we have been born in almost all of these realms in our sansāric journey that has no traceable beginning. All of us have been bouncing around “inside the sphere” (mainly in the inner ones) from a beginning that is not even discernible to a Buddha.
Continues discussion in , “Our Two Worlds : Material and Mental“, ……..