Here is a video from Carl Sagan to get an idea how vast our “detectable universe” is:
The “world view” 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”. This is why I say that the Buddha transcended “this world”. He was able to “see” the whole of existence: see “Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem” under “Dhamma and Science”.
Now, it is not easy to describe the 31 planes of existence in a short essay. Therefore, I will use a visual to simplify things a bit.
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 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 (the fifth shell). The sixth through eleventh shells represent the realms of the devas (wrongly translated as gods by many), beings who enjoy higher level of mundane happiness and no suffering. These innermost 11 shells represent the kāmaloka, where all five physical sense faculties are present.
2. The next 16 shells represent realms where only two physical sense faculties (eye and ear) are active. These beings have very fine (less dense) bodies. These are called rupa lokas.
3. The last 4 shells represent the arupa lokas, where beings have ultra fine bodies and only the mind faculty; no physical senses.
4. In rupa and arupa lokas, the beings are in jhānic states. These states can be attained by humans and thus a humans can “temporarily live” in those lokas by attaining jhānā. The 16 realms in the rupa loka correspond to the four lower jhānā, and the 4 realms in the arupa loka correspond to the higher four jhānā.
5. Any living being (including each of us) has been in all realms in this beginning-less samsara. We have been in the niraya (hell) and we have been at the highest (except on arupa loka 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 loka. The saṃsāra is that long; there is no discernible beginning.
6. Above the human realm, there is no suffering (except at death, which is inevitable). However, unless one has achieved at least the Stream Entry (Sotāpanna) 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. I will explain the cause of births in different realms in terms of “kamma seeds” in upcoming posts.
7. 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 “sansaric wandering” is the critical point to think about and comprehend.
8. 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 rupa and arupa lokas it is mainly the jhānic pleasures, not the sense pleasures.
9. The human realm is the only one from which one can attain Nibbāna. Nibbāna, in this 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 niramisa 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 there are no kamma seeds left to start a new birth. He/she is in Parinibbana with niramisa sukha.
10. Can we taste Nibbanic “pleasure”?. Yes. We can taste it in increments, even below the Stream Entry stage. This is niramisa sukha, the “pleasure of giving up worldly things”. This niramisa sukha has “quantum jumps” at the four stages of Nibbāna: Stream Entry, Once-Returner, Non-Returner, Arahant. Thus when one is on the Path, one can experience niramisa sukha at varying degrees, all the way to Nibbanic bliss, during this very lifetime.
11. All these 31 realms are located in our solar system (Chakrawata), and are associated with the Earth. There are a great number of such Chakrawata (planetary systems) in existence at all times with living beings. These are in clusters of small (galaxies?), medium (universes?), and large (multiverse?) “world systems”. 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 galaxies in our universe, and are now exploring the possibility of the existence of multiple universes (multiverse).
The other big factor to take into account is that we have been born in almost all of these realms in our sansaric 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.