The Four Stages in Attaining Nibbāna


Revised February 4, 2016; revised October 25, 2017; August 28, 2022

1. The 31 realms discussed in “31 Realms Associated with the Earth” are divided into three main categories based on the sense faculties and the level of suffering:

  • The lowest eleven realms belong to the “kāma lōka,” where all five physical sense faculties are present; “kāma” is indulging in the five senses.
  • Beings in the next sixteen realms have only two physical senses: vision and hearing. They have less-dense bodies, and this subset of realms is called the rūpa lōka. In rūpa lōka, there are mainly jhānic pleasures corresponding to the first four mundane jhānā that are attainable by humans. There is relatively less suffering in the rūpa lōkā.
  • The highest four realms correspond to the higher arūpa jhānic states (jhānic levels five through eight) that are also attainable in the human realm. Thus there is mainly jhānic bliss in these realms and relatively less suffering. These realms are commonly known as arūpa lōka because those beings have only a trace of matter with no physical senses and only the mind.

2. The lifetimes of the beings in the rūpa lōka are very long, and those in the arūpa lōka are even longer. The lifetime in the highest arūpa lōkā is so long (84,000 eons or mahā kappā) that it is beyond comprehension to us.

  • The ancient yōgis mistakenly thought that such realms corresponded to Nibbāna. The Buddha (or rather Siddharata Gōtama) attained the eighth jhāna months after leaving the palace as an ascetic. But he realized that it would only lead to rebirth in a Brahma realm that still has a finite lifetime.
  • Even though very long in the number of years, that lifetime is insignificant in the samsāric time scale (see, “Samsāric Time Scale, Buddhist Cosmology, and the Big Bang Theory“), which is infinite (see, “Infinity – How Big Is It?“).

3. One in the human realm can experience the jhānic pleasure of both rūpa and arūpa lōkā by attaining such jhānic states via Samatha meditation.

  • Furthermore, it is possible to gain access to both rūpa lōkā and arūpa lōkā in the next birth by developing the corresponding jhānā and by being in a jhānic state at death. As I understand, this is the goal of most Hindu practices.

4. The Buddha pointed out that even the highest jhānic state is temporary (even though long), and once that kammic energy is exhausted, it is possible to be born in any of the 31 realms. Unless the being has attained at least the Sōtapanna stage, it is guaranteed that rebirth in one of the lowest realms is inevitable at some point in the future.

  • He said that many of the beings still in the rebirth process (samsāra), i.e., we all, are likely to have been born in the higher arūpa lōkā, as well as the lowest realm (niraya) in the past. The samsāra is that long.

5. From this discussion, it is clear that the actual suffering is mostly in the kāma lōkā. But the problem is that beings spend the most time in kāma lōkā in their beginning-less journey in the samsāra.

  • The Buddha gave a simile to describe this situation. We leave home only to go on short, or may be even extended, trips, but we always come back home. The Buddha said that the four lowest realms (the apāyā) are the home base for most living beings.

Suffering in the Kāma Lōka

6. Suffering in the kāma lōkā ranges from unfathomable suffering in the lowest realm, the niraya (hell), to relatively little suffering and the highest sensory pleasures in the dēva lōkā (the highest six realms in the kāma lōka).

  • Just below the dēva lōkā is the human realm with both suffering and sense pleasures at about equal levels.
  • Below the human realm, there is preta lōka (hungry ghosts), asuras, the animal realm, and the nirayā, and the level of suffering generally increases in that order.

7. The lowest four levels in the kāma lōka are collectively called the apāyā (the undesirable realms). More than 99% of the beings are trapped in these four realms. The problem is that once born in any of those four realms, it is virtually impossible to get out.

  • This is because these realms are such that one is forced to commit apunnābhi saṅkhāra or evil actions (see, “Sankhāra, Kamma, Kamma Bīja, Kamma Vipaka”) by the very nature of that existence. For example, in the animal realm, most animals have to kill others for survival. In the niraya, virtually every thought is of hate because of the incessant suffering.
  • Still, when we analyze Abhidhamma, we can see that the javana of the cittā are much less potent for animals. Thus the kammic power of those actions is relatively small compared to the kammic power of such actions by humans. This is an important point that I wish to discuss in the future.

8. Just as it is likely that we have been born in the higher rūpa lōkā in the past, it is even more certain that we ALL have been in the apāyā. Luckily we do not remember those past lives.

  • But beings in certain realms (particularly the preta realm) remember their past lives, increasing the level of suffering.

Why We Need to Strive Now

9. From the above discussion, it is clear that most suffering is in the four lowest realms, below the human realm, which is the fifth realm. Essentially, there is relatively less suffering above the human realm, starting with the dēva lōka, which is the highest realm in the kāma lōka.

10. Even though the suffering is highest in the lower four realms, the beings there are helpless to do anything about the suffering. Their limited minds cannot grasp the causes that lead to suffering.

  • Many people wrongly believe that one needs to feel suffering to understand it and to get an incentive to seek Nibbāna. But when one suffers (say, when one gets too old), it is NOT possible to contemplate the deep concepts of Dhamma.
  • The Noble truth on suffering needs to be seen with wisdom (paññā), not via feelings (vēdana), i.e., by understanding the complete worldview AND the Three Characteristics of this “wider world”: anicca, dukkha, anatta; see, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta.”

11. Beings in the realms above the human realm, the 26 realms starting with the dēva realms,  do not even feel much suffering. This is the other extreme; there is no incentive for them to be concerned about suffering.

  • But when they approach the end of their lives, they realize that and become distraught and fearful.

12. Thus, it is only in the human realm that one is at least exposed to suffering, even if one may not be subjected to much suffering. Furthermore, the human mind is the best suited for grasping the true nature of “this world of 31 realms”, i.e., the Three Characteristics (see, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta”).

  • This is why the Buddha said that a human should not miss this opportunity to attain Nibbāna.

The Four Stages of Attaining Nibbāna

13. The first stage of Nibbāna is attained by “seeing” (not just reading about, but grasping) the true nature of existence: anicca, dukkha, and anatta.

  • Thus one needs to first learn from someone (like from this website) the nature of existence with the 31 realms, the aimless wandering of a being through endless rebirths (samsāra), the reasons for the rebirths, etc.
  • Thus the key areas to understand are the Three Characteristics, the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path. No one but a Buddha is capable of finding these, and this is why it is important to have exposure to the PURE DHAMMA.

14. At the first stage (Sōtapanna or Stream Enterer), one partially comprehends the validity of the Buddha’s worldview. This is called attaining Sammā Diṭṭhi (elimination of defilements through clear vision/understanding) to a significant extent.

  • He/she understands the “true nature” of existence: significance and the true meaning of the Three Characteristics of Existence (see “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta“).

15. The realization that it is not worthwhile or fruitful to stay in any of the 31 realms, in the long run, makes one morally conduct oneself. One’s mind decides it is not worthwhile or beneficial to do those actions that destine oneself to birth in the lower four realms.

  • This realization leads to a Sōtapanna phala citta (one thought-moment of realizing the Sōtapanna stage). When that is achieved, one will never again be reborn in the lower four realms (“free of suffering in the apāyā forever.”) That is explained in “Akusala Citta – How a Sōtapanna Avoids apāyagami Citta.”

16. At this stage, one has realized the First Noble Truth of suffering (dukkha), and one earnestly starts on the Noble Eightfold Path. He still has greed and hate left in him to some extent, but at the next stage (Sakadāgāmi), he loses more of the strength of such greedy or hateful thoughts.

  • A Sakadāgāmi is not fully released from the kāma lōka since he/she will be born in the dēva lōka (but not in the human realm).
  • In the dēva lōka (and in the Brahma realms above that where a Sakadāgāmi can be born subsequently), the bodies are not subjected to diseases. Thus a Sakadāgāmi is said to be “healthy forever.”

17. When the third stage of Anāgāmi (Non-Returner) is attained, one loses any desire to be born in the kāma lōka. Then greedy or hateful thoughts belonging to the kāma lōka cannot arise.

  • Thus, he/she will be born only once more in a higher Brahma world reserved for the Anāgāmis.

18. All through these three stages, avijjā or ignorance gradually diminish. But it is completely removed only at the Arahant stage.

  • Once the Arahant stage is reached, the mind becomes pure and is incapable of desiring anything “in this world of 31 realms”. Thus there is no more rebirth, and one attains the perfect happiness at the peak of nirāmisa sukha.

Also, see “Nibbāna” and “The Way to Nibbāna – Removal of Āsavā.”

Why Living a Moral Life Would Not Prevent a Birth in the Four Lower Realms

19. We desperately cling to “things in this world” because we perceive that lasting happiness can be achieved. We crave sensory pleasures. As mentioned before, nothing or no one is holding us in this world of 31 realms. We cling to existence in these realms like an octopus grabbing its prey with all eight legs.

20. Many Buddhists (who have not yet comprehended the anicca nature) like to stay in this world a bit more. They do not realize the level of happiness associated with the Nibbānic bliss; see, “Three Kinds of Happiness – What is nirāmisa Sukha?“.

  • Some Buddhist monks even today give a popular blessing like the following. “May you be reborn in prosperous (dēva or human) realms and then attain Nibbāna.” Even they do not understand the permanent happiness associated with Nibbāna or the possibility of much suffering in the next birth.

21. The danger in such thinking is due to the following reason. We all have done good and bad deeds in our lives before and have acquired uncountable kamma seeds, both good and bad. See, “Sankhāra, Kamma, Kamma Bīja, Kamma Vipaka”.

  • At death, any of those seeds can bear fruit. If it is a good kamma seed, one will get a good birth, but if it is a bad kamma seed, one will get a bad birth.

22. Our future births are not necessarily determined by how we live this life because we have done many good and bad kamma in previous lives.

  • This is why the Buddha said that even if one lives a perfectly moral life, he cannot say that one will get a good rebirth UNLESS one has attained at least the Sōtapanna stage. A Sōtapanna has made ineffective all those bad kamma seeds that could give birth in the lower four realms.
  • The Buddha also said that even if one lives immorally, that does not necessarily lead to a bad life in the next birth unless it is an ānantariya kamma. (Ānantariya kamma is an extremely bad kamma, like killing one’s parents.)
  • However, those bad acts will bear fruit at some point in the future. It is just that there are many good seeds as well as bad seeds with any lifestream. See “What is Kamma? Is Everything Determined by Kamma?“.
  • Thus the goal of this life should be to attain at least the Sōtapanna stage of Nibbāna.

A different analysis of Nibbāna can be found in “Difference Between Giving up Valuables and Losing Interest in Worthless“, ………

Next, “Nirāmisa Sukha (Happiness Arising from Dissociating from the 31 realms)“, …….

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