Revised May 20, 2016; December 22, 2018; July 6, 2019; August 21, 2019
1. According to Buddha Dhamma, EVERYTHING in existence can be put into four ultimate realities (paramattha):
- Thoughts (citta)
- Thought qualities or mental factors (cētasika)
- Matter (rūpa)
- All existence “in this world” described in terms of the first three. And they are all conditional; each is born due to the presence of a cause. If there is no cause, none of these three will arise. That is the fundamental cause and effect (Paṭicca 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 (things in this world are absent in Nibbāna); see, “Paṭhamanibbānapaṭisaṃyutta Sutta (Ud 8.1)” (English translation: “The First Discourse about Nibbāna“).
2. Nibbāna results with the removal of the three roots of greed, hate, ignorance (rāgakkhyō, dōsakkhayō, mōhakkhayō Nibbānam).
- It is necessary to cultivate the three moral roots non-greed, non-hate, and non-ignorance first while in the mundane eightfold path. That allows one to comprehend Tilakkhana (anicca, dukkha, anatta) and get to the Noble Eightfold Path; see, “Buddha Dhamma – In a Chart.”
- Therefore, one strives to remove greed, hate, and ignorance, which are “san“; see, “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansāra (or Saṃsāra)“. That 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 fast rate: billions of citta can arise and pass away each second. But as we will see in the Abhidhamma section, “active thoughts” occur relatively infrequently in “fast bursts” or citta vithi. Cētasika is “embedded” in each citta. There are 89 types of cittā in all, and 52 types of cētasikas; see, “Tables and Summaries.” Thus the mental realm is very complicated.
- 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) constitutes of 28 basic units, of which only four are truly fundamental. However, the smallest indivisible unit of matter is called a “suddhāṭṭhaka“; see, “Rupa – Generation Mechanisms” and “The Origin of Matter – Suddhashtaka.” These suddhāṭṭhaka have very long lifetimes of a mahā kappa (basically the age of the universe). Suddhāṭṭhaka are the building blocks of any “tangible thing” in this world.
- Any saṅkata in “this world” is subject to change. Each saṅkata (basically any material thing) has a lifetime that 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 the breakup of a saṅkata” means anything, including suddhāṭṭhaka, is perpetually in flux. They try to tie this with “impermanence” which they incorrectly translate anicca to be. In the contrary, a suddhāṭṭhaka has a very long lifetime.
- 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 ñāna, see, “Udayavaya Ñāna.”
6. The “result” of this udayavaya nature of all saṅkata embedded in 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 essential to realize that these are characteristics of 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.” That is because we have to leave it (and anything else) behind when we die.
- And all this is due to “udayavaya” of saṅkata, 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 “nāma gotta“; see below). Everything is constantly changing. That is the fundamental reason why nothing in “this world” will meet one’s expectations; see, “Second Law of Thermodynamics is Part of Anicca!“.
- Some things can last longer than others, but nothing is permanent. Anything is CONDITIONAL, i.e., arises due to causes. It would not come to existence in the absence of root causes. Thus it is said that everything “in this world” is CONDITIONED.
- The only exception is “nāma gotta,” which are the permanent records of a given “lifestream”; see, “Recent Evidence for Unbroken Memory Records (HSAM).” That is how one with abhiññā 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 made of citta, cētasika, and rūpa is very complicated. Living 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 arises from just four bases of DNA, and all computer codes based on two units, 0 and 1. Thus, one could see how complex the mind is when there are 89 types of cittā, and 52 types of cētasikas are involved!
9. Nibbāna, in contrast to citta, cētasika, and rūpa, is UNCONDITIONED. Nibbāna attained by removing all root causes. Thus Nibbāna itself does not arise due to root causes and therefore is permanent.
- Nibbāna is attained at four steps or stages: Stream Entry (Sōtapanna), Once-Returner (Sakadāgāmi), Non-Returner (Anāgāmi), Arahant.
- At each stage, bad character or “gati” (pronounced “gati“) that could result in births in some realms are “removed”; see, “Gati, Bhava, and Jāti.” For example, at the Sōtapanna stage, hateful gati suitable for beings in niraya, greedy gati suitable for petas (hungry ghosts), etc. are removed.
- All causes (and all “gati“) removed at the Arahant stage. However, an Arahant lives as a normal human being until death and is not reborn anywhere in “this world.” 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 of 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 the 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 complicated than even 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”. That 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. That happens instantaneously, and evidence for such a mechanism is slowly emerging from quantum mechanics; see, “Quantum Entanglement – We are all Connected.”
The Buddha has described these different realms of existence in many suttā, and a convenient summary is 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 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. Also, both time and space are infinite.
1. The inner 11 shells represent the kāma lōka, where all five physical sense faculties are present.
- The innermost sphere represents the niraya (hell) where there is non-stop suffering; next is the animal realm. There are two more realms where suffering is higher than in the human plane.
- The human plane is the fifth shell. That 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 devā (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 dēvā. These are called rūpa lōkā.
3. The last four shells represent the arūpa lōkā, where beings have ultra-fine bodies and only the mind faculty; they do not have physical senses.
4. In rūpa and arūpa lōkā, living beings are in jhānic states, and those beings do not have either greed or hate; but they still have ignorance.
- Humans can attain these jhānic states, and thus humans can “temporarily live” in those lōkā; see, “Power of the Human Mind – Anariya or Mundane Jhanas.”
- The 16 realms in the rūpa lōka correspond to the four lower jhānā, and the four realms in the arūpa lōka correspond to the four higher jhānā.
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 Diṭṭhi) – A Simpler Analysis” and “Dhamma and Science.”
- Only within the last 50 years or so that science has accepted that our universe has more 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 spatial dimensions, see, “What Happens in Other Dimensions.”
6. Any living being (including each of us) has been in all realms in this beginning-less saṃsāra (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 Anāgāmi or Non-Returners).
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 living being in the highest plane can fall to any lower level. Therefore, a normal human is bound to 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 has done this many times over. The cause of births in different realms is explained in terms of “kamma seeds”; see, “Saṅkhāra, Kamma, Kamma Bīja, Kamma Vipaka“).
8. So, each living being moves from one realm to another, but spends the most time in the four lower worlds, mainly because once fallen there, it is hard to come out. This “saṃsāric wandering” is the critical point to think about and comprehend.
9. As one moves away from the center, the level of suffering decreases and the level of mundane pleasure increases up to the 11th realm. After that in the rūpa and arūpa lōkā 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, living beings are born instantaneously, formed fully, within an instant (cittakkhana) of dying in the previous life. That is an opapātika birth. That is why the Buddha said, “manō pubbaṅgamā dhammā………..“. The mind is the root cause, not matter.
- As discussed in the Abhidhamma section, even the humans and animals start their “bhava” opapatically as gandhabbā; see, “Gandhabba (Manomaya Kaya).” They begin 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: see, “Nibbāna – Is it Difficult to Understand?“, and “What are Rupa? Relation to Nibbāna“, and other posts (by the way, you can 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. Until death, an Arahant is subjected to kamma vipāka. 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. In those realms – animal realm included – beings are more like robots. They do not have developed minds like humans.
- No one or no external force is keeping us in “this world” of 31 realms. Content with sense pleasures, do not see the suffering “in the long term” or 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 feel it in increments, even below the Stream Entry (Sōtapanna) stage; see, “How to Taste Nibbāna.” That is nirāmisa sukha, the “pleasure of giving up worldly things.”
- This nirāmisa sukha has “quantum jumps” (substantial 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 in our solar system (cakkavāla or Chakrawāta in Sinhala). They are associated with the Earth. There are billions of such cakkavāla (planetary systems) in existence at all times with living beings.
- These are in clusters of the 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 there are billions of such galaxies in our universe!
We have been born in almost all of these realms in our saṃsāric journey that has no traceable beginning.
Continues the discussion in, “Our Two Worlds: Material and Mental“, ……..