Nibbāna in the Big Picture

July 8, 2016

Here we will discuss how one can get an idea about Nibbāna within the Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma.

1. In the posts in this series I described the wider world of 31 realms according to the Buddha, and why ALL living beings have been just meandering through these 31 realms from beginning-less time.  We can summarize the results succinctly as follows:

  • The lowest four realms (apāyā) are where all beings suffer the most during the beginning-less rebirth process. Unfortunately, this is where each and every living being spends the most time in the long run. This is the real suffering that the Buddha tried to convey.
  • The fifth realm or the human realm is where one is most likely to be able to grasp Buddha Dhamma and become a Sotāpanna. This is the only realm where one can experience (or at least see) both suffering and sense enjoyments.
  • A deva in the next six realms is also capable of becoming a Sotāpanna, but due to the absence of much visible suffering, incentive to strive for the Sotāpanna stage is almost non-existent (think about a healthy, wealthy teenager!).
  • The same is true for rupi and arupi Brahmā, who enjoy jhānic pleasures in the higher realms.

2. Thus one can clearly see that as one proceeds to higher realms, suffering is reduced in stages. The worst sufferings are in the lowest 4 realms (apāyā), and we can see animal suffering if we pay attention and think especially about the animals in the wild. There are no “old animals” in the wild. As soon as they get a bit slow due to old age they are killed for food by stronger animals.

  • One could try to stay away from the apāyā (in future births) by avoiding from immoral acts. But the problem with just that approach is that we have almost certainly done such immoral acts in our previous lives, and thus are likely to have accumulated enough kamma seeds to be born many times over in the apāyā.
  • Thus the key is to cleanse our minds of the worst defilements, which will prevent apāyagāmi citta from arising at the cuti-patisandhi moment; see, “Akusala Citta – How a Sotāpanna Avoids Apayagami Citta“. Such thoughts cannot just be suppressed; they arise in a billionth of a second. Thus the practical way to do that is to reduce cravings (āsavā) in STAGES; see, “The Way to Nibbāna – Removal of Āsavā“, and “Gati (Character), Anusaya (Temptations), and Āsava (Cravings)“.
  • As mentioned above, the first stage of the cleansing process is possible mainly in the human and deva realms, but  the incentive to do that is virtually non-existent in the deva realms.

2. Another subtle reason for the uniqueness of the human realm is that one’s future destiny is MOSTLY determined while in the human realm. Humans are the unique species who can access all 89 types of citta that are present in all 31 realms. Moreover, they are the ones who can generate the all important javana citta that can produce kamma bīja (seeds) for future existences (bhava).

  • Here is a simile that hopefully will convey this idea: Human realm can be compared to a training school, and the other realms can be compared to where one gets employment depending on one’s qualifications upon completing the training.
  • Those who did not make progress and caused problems for others are born in the apāyā and will have to suffer the consequences. Another way to say this is to say that they cultivated saṅkhāra (or gati or habits) suitable for a being in the apāyā: cruel and hateful gati correspond to the lowest realm of niraya (hell); extreme greed correspond to the pretha realm; those who are lazy and depend on others are born in the asura realm; those with different combinations of those bad gati are born in the animal realm.
  • Once born in the apāyā, they are more like programmed machines. They just suffer their fate without having any way to even lessen the suffering (in contrast, humans are capable of devising ways to make their lives better).

3. This last point is worth discussing a bit more.

As we can see, animals just live their lives like robots. They are incapable of sorting out moral from immoral and also from being able to come up with ways to improve their lives. Birds have been building the same kind of nests for billions of years. Ants have been building the same types of anthills, and the dolphins (who are one of the animals with higher intelligence) have been the same way over billions of years.

  • In the same way, rupi or arupi Brahmā also just live their serene lives until the lifetime is exhausted. It is like a nice vacation. Then they come back to the human realm and start over.
  • It is mostly humans and devas who are CAPABLE of forging their own future, but the devas enjoy so much sense pleasure, they have no incentive to think about Nibbāna.

4. Continuing that analogy, those who do well in the training school can go to one of the 27 higher realms. those who cultivate rupa jhānā are born in the 16 rupa realms. Those who cultivate higher jhānā are born in the 4 arupa realms. The Brahmā in those 20 realms are like beings who are on a nice, very long vacation. They just live happy lives in jhānic bliss.

  • Of course there are some Brahmā who had attained a magga phala in either human or a deva realm previously and they can proceed to higher stages. And there are a few rupa realms reserved for the Anāgāmis only.
  • But in general, the rupi and arupi Brahmā are the ones who graduated with high qualifications and thus get to enjoy the fruits of those efforts for long times. Yet, when they come back to the human realm, they may be born into environments where they could go in a wrong path and fail next time around and thus could be born in the apāyā.

5. Those who want to enjoy sense pleasures without causing problems to others work on it by doing meritorious deeds and are qualified to be born in the 6 deva realms (according to the level of merits accrued). They may not have even known about Buddha Dhamma, but knew moral from immoral.

  • Life in a deva realm is more like a vacations to a “pleasure island”. Those who cultivate “deva gati” (high moral character, but with attachment to sense pleasures) are qualified for those realms. Devas are more like humans but with fine bodies that do not age (until close to death), and are not subject to diseases. Thus if one really wants to “enjoy sense pleasures” one should focus more on doing good deeds instead of just focusing on making a lot money in this life, because this human life is so short and the human body is subjected to diseases and old age problems.
  • However, devas can build up extreme attachment to sense pleasures and are capable of tailoring their future lives down to the animal realm. After their “pleasurable vacation” they could even come back to the animal realm instead of the human realm.

6. Finally, those who cultivate “human gati” are born in the human realm. They are more like deva gati, but generally have more attachment to sense pleasures at close contact.

  • However, those humans who may have cultivated high moral values AND had some inkling of the sansaric suffering (via exposure to Buddha Dhamma) are like to come back to the human realm to “complete their training”. That is because that is what they desired (upādāna).
  • That is a very simple outline of the existence in the 31 realms.

7. Now, if one has attained the Sotāpanna stage in the human realm, then his/her number of possible destinations become less and better. In #7 and #8, we will discuss how a Sotāpanna goes through higher realms as he/she approaches Arahanthood.

  • Of course that person will never be born in the apāyā, because those “apāya gati” have been permanently removed via Sammā Diṭṭhi with a grasp of the anicca nature.
  • Sotāpanna starts to comprehend the futility and even dangers of sense pleasures (kāma rāga).
  • Then one first loses the desire to “own” sense objects (“vatthu kāma“) that provide sense pleasures; one is merely satisfied with enjoying them. Thus one has not given up all kāma rāga, just “vatthu kāma“. Now one is at that Sakadāgāmi stage, and will not be born again below the deva realms. Thus one is freed from rebirth where diseases are possible (including the human realm) and one is said to be “healthy forever”.

8. When a Sakadāgāmi contemplates on the anicca nature more (while in the human or deva realms) he/she can remove kilesa kāma and also paṭigha from their minds and become free of all kāma loka realms. Then one becomes an Anāgāmi, i.e., not coming back to the kāma loka ever again.

  • But an Angami has not removed the liking for Dhamma, and thus will be born in one of the five rupa realms reserved for the Anāgāmis. He/she will attain Nibbāna from there.
  • An Anāgāmi becomes an Arahant by removing rupa rāga, arupa rāga, māna, uddacca, and remaining avijjā.
  • Of course one can proceed all the way to the Arahanthood while in the human realm. An Arahant will not be born anywhere in the 31 realms at death. His/her mind becomes free of even a trace of matter that is subject to decay and destruction; see, “What Are Rupa? (Relation to Nibbāna)“.

9. This gives a brief summary of how a living being goes from realm to realm in the rebirth process, until the Arahanthood is attained. It is NOT a random process. Everything happens due to causes. The following are two (related) ways to analyze that process.

10. It is also clear why it futile to seek happiness anywhere in the 31 realms.

  • One could live for millions of years in deva realm with much higher sense pleasures than in the human realm (and without being subjected to diseases), but then one has to come back to human realm or even a lower realm.
  • Even if one is born in the highest brahma world (31st realm) and lives 84,000 aeons in jhānic bliss there (each aeon is roughly 30 billion years!), one has to eventually come back to the human realm and start over. Then at some point after that, birth in the apāyā is unavoidable. This is why infinite time (or beginning-less time) is a concept that is hard to wrap one’s mind around; see, “Infinity – How Big Is It?” and “Saṃsāric Time Scale, Buddhist Cosmology, and the Big Bang Theory“.
  • Thus one needs to contemplate whether it is worthwhile to seek happiness in a 100-year human life! I know by experience that this is not easy to fully grasp, even when logically proven, because our minds are enamored and blinded with sense pleasures. That truth starts to sink in when the mind loses more and more defilements (greed, hate, and ignorance) and start seeing the perils of sense pleasures to some extent.


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