What Did the Buddha Mean by a “Loka”?

October 11, 2021; revised March 4, 2023

By the word “loka,” the Buddha did not mean only the “physical world” we can experience. He meant various types like kāma loka, rupa loka, arupa loka, manussa loka, Deva loka, etc.


1. In the previous post, “Paṭicca Samuppāda – Introduction,” we started a new discussion on Paṭicca Samuppāda. In the “Saṁyutta Nikāya 12″ in the Sutta Piṭaka, there are over 100 suttas on Paṭicca Samuppāda.

  • Recently I realized that these suttas are in a particular order. Even though it is impossible to discuss all those suttas, it is beneficial to see the progression of suttas there to get some key insights. Furthermore, I will discuss only those suttas relevant to our ongoing discussion on the connection between Paṭicca Samuppāda and Tilakkhana (and the Noble Truths.)
  • In the previous post, I pointed out that the first two suttas briefly introduce Paṭicca Samuppāda. See “Paṭicca Samuppāda – Introduction.”

2. The third sutta, “Paṭipadā Sutta (SN 12.3),” points out that the steps in the standard Akusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda describe unwise actions (starting with “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra”) that lead to future suffering (“jāti paccayā jarā, marana, soka-paridēva-dukkha-dōmanassupāyasā sambhavan’ti”). Therefore, it describes an average human’s micchā paṭipadā (immoral practices/way of living). Such future suffering can be stopped by stopping the steps in Akusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda. That is accomplished by cultivating wisdom (knowledge of the Noble Truths) and removing avijjā. Once one understands the true nature of this world (Tilakkhana) at the Sotapanna stage, one will follow sammā paṭipadā (correct practices/way of living) or the Noble Eightfold Path to get to Nibbāna.

  • Then there are seven suttas (SN 12.4 through 12. 10) that describe how most recent 7 Buddhas discovered how future suffering arises via the Paṭicca Samuppāda process, i.e., why an average human follows the micchā paṭipadā. (The teachings of a given Buddha last only a limited time. That is why each Buddha must discover this process independently.) Of course, simultaneously, each Buddha figures out how to stop future suffering in the rebirth process, i.e., sammā paṭipadā.
  • The following sutta in the series (of interest to the present discussion) clarifies a “loka.” In almost all English translations, “loka” is translated as “world” and gives the impression that the Buddha meant the “physical world around us” or even “the universe with its stars, planets, galaxies, etc.” But the Buddha meant something broader, as we see below.
Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12.15) – “Loka” Is Not the “Physical World”

3. The “Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12.15)” provides the first clues. Venerable Kaccānagotta asks the Buddha what is meant by “sammā diṭṭhi” and the Buddha explains in the following way: “Dvayanissito khvāyaṁ, kaccāna, loko yebhuyyena—atthitañceva natthitañca.”

  • The world (loka) repeatedly arises (and the rebirth process continues) mainly based on two extreme views:
    (i) the world lasts forever (atthitañca), and
    (ii) the world ends at the death of the present physical body (natthitañca.)
  • Here the Buddha is NOT talking about the physical world with stars, planets, galaxies, etc. He is referring to the existence of a living being. Just like these days, people mainly had two extreme views: (i) a living-being exists forever (i.e., the belief of a “soul” or “ātman“), and (ii) “one’s world” (loka) ends at the death of the physical body (the materialistic view of today).

4. Then, the Buddha explains that both those views are incorrect. A living being will exist (within the 31 realms) as long as the (Akusala-Mula) Paṭicca Samuppāda process is in effect and thus exists in a “loka.” Of course, most existences are filled with unbearable suffering. And that will not end until that living-being starts comprehending the Four Noble Truths (or Tilakkhana or Paṭicca Samuppāda) and becomes a Sotapanna

Thus the Buddha almost always used the word “loka” to refer to the “world of a living being.”  The next verse in this sutta also confirms that: “Tañcāyaṁ upayupādānaṁ cetaso adhiṭṭhānaṁ abhinivesānusayaṁ na upeti na upādiyati nādhiṭṭhāti: ‘attā me’ti. Dukkhameva uppajjamānaṁ uppajjati, dukkhaṁ nirujjhamānaṁ nirujjhatī’ti na kaṅkhati na vicikicchati aparapaccayā ñāṇamevassa ettha hoti. Ettāvatā kho, Kaccāna, sammā diṭṭhi hoti.” 

Translated: “But someone with the right view does not cling to existence. He does not see any benefit of existence in this world, i.e., anything in this world is of no value (and thus should be considered mine or ‘attā me’ti). He has no perplexity or doubts that what arises is only suffering; what ceases is only suffering. In this way, Kaccāna, there is CORRECT VIEW.” 

5. The verses at the end of the sutta provide further confirmation:

Sabbam atthī’ti kho, kaccāna, ayameko anto. ‘Sabbaṁ natthī’ti ayaṁ dutiyo anto.

Ete te, kaccāna, ubho ante anupagamma majjhena tathāgato dhammaṁ deseti:
– ‘avijjāpaccayā saṅkhārā; saṅkhārapaccayā viññāṇaṁ …pe… evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo hoti.
– Avijjāya tveva asesavirāganirodhā saṅkhāranirodho; saṅkhāranirodhā viññāṇanirodho …pe… evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa nirodho hotī’”ti.


“‘All exists‘: Kaccāna, that is one extreme. ‘All does not exist: that is the second extreme.

Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathāgata teaches the Dhamma by the middle:
– ‘With avijjā as condition, saṅkhāra arise; with saṅkhāra as condition, viññāṇa (and the rest of steps in PS)…. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering.
– But with the remainderless fading away and cessation of avijjā comes the ending of saṅkhāra; with the cessation of saṅkhāra, cessation of viññāṇa (and the rest of steps in PS)…. Such is the end of this whole mass of suffering.”

  • Also, note that the Buddha has defined “all (sabba)” as “all that pertains to a living being,” i.e., the five aggregates/12 āyatana/6 dhātu/etc. Thus, by “all,” he did not restrict to the physical world (that is, of course, a part of “all”). The five aggregates/12 āyatana/6 dhātu/etc include the physical and mental worlds. See “256 results for Kiñca AND sabbaṁ.”
  • But in a sutta elsewhere in the Tipiṭaka, the Buddha did discuss the “physical world” too.
Rohitassa Sutta (AN 4.45) – A Sutta That Addresses the “Physical World”

6. In the “Rohitassa Sutta (AN 4.45),” Rohitassa Deva comes to the Buddha and asks whether it is possible to “travel to the end of the physical world.” Buddha answers that it is not possible. The Rohitassa says he had confirmed that in a previous life where he had developed abhiññā powers as a yogi. With his manomaya kāya (gandhabba-like), he could travel the distance from one ocean to another in one stride. One day, he decided to see the “end of the world.” He said he traveled for a hundred years and died on the way.

Then the Buddha makes the following deeper point:Yattha kho, āvuso, na jāyati na jīyati na mīyati na cavati na upapajjati, nāhaṁ taṁ gamanena lokassa antaṁ ñāteyyaṁ daṭṭheyyaṁ patteyyan’ti vadāmi. Na cāhaṁ, āvuso, appatvāva lokassa antaṁ dukkhassa antakiriyaṁ vadāmi. Api cāhaṁ, āvuso, imasmiṁyeva byāmamatte kaḷevare sasaññimhi samanake lokañca paññāpemi loka samudayañca loka nirodhañca loka nirodhagāminiñca paṭipadanti.

  • The following is the concept described by the Buddha in the above verse: “Without attaining Nibbāna, it is not possible to get to an “end of the world” by traveling.  Until the suffering (associated with the rebirth process) is ended, one cannot reach the “end of this world.” For it is in this physical body with its manomaya kaya with perception and mind (sasaññimhi samanake) restricted to moment-to-moment arising (byāmamatte) that I declare the arising and cessation of this world and the practice that leads to its cessation.”

7. Modern science admits that it cannot find “an edge to the universe.” The size of the universe is genuinely mind-boggling. The furthest a human has traveled in outer space is to the Moon. It is doubtful that humans can travel to even the nearest star system anytime soon or probably ever.

  • Distances between stars are too large to be measured in km or miles. Such vast distances are calculated in “light-years.” One light-year is the distance traveled by light in a year. The closest star to us is over four light-years away, meaning it will take a light beam over four years to travel to that star.
  • For comparison, the distance to the Moon is only about 1.3 light-seconds! (meaning it takes only 1.3 seconds for Moonlight to reach the Earth). Of course, our fastest rockets take about three days to get to the Moon. Such a rocket will take over 80,000 years to get to the vicinity of the nearest star! You can Google that to verify.
  • Then there are billions of stars in our galaxy and billions of such galaxies in the universe. There is no way to count all galaxies, and there may not even be a limit!
  • That is why the Buddha said there is no point in investigating the physical universe. We will NEVER be able to even fully explore the closest stars and their planets, let alone the whole universe.
Loka” Is One’s (Physical and Mental) World!

8. Therefore, it is critical to understand that when the Buddha referred to “loka,” he meant the existence of a living being.

  • That is why the Buddha only talked about various types of loka encompassing the 31 realms: In one category, we have kāma loka, rupa loka, and arupa loka with 11, 16, and 4 realms, respectively. Within the kāma loka, there are various “lokā“: manussa loka (human world), peta loka (loka of hungry ghosts), Deva loka, etc. The 20 realms in rupa loka and arupa loka are all inhabited by Brahmas and thus are commonly known as Brahma loka.
  • A living being WILL ALWAYS live in one of those “worlds” until Parinibbāna is attained (the death of an Arahant.) Thus, the “world’ does not cease to exist until then.
  • Thus, we can also see that “cessation of the world” is the same as Nibbāna. 
What Are”Loka Samudaya” and “Loka Niodha“?

9. When the current existence (say, human existence) ends, that is the end of the current “human bhava” in the “manussa loka.” But all of us (who are not Arahants) still have many accumulated kammic energies to “power up” different types of “bhava” for different kinds of “loka.”

  • For example, that human may grasp a “Deva bhava” and thus be born in a “Deva loka.” Someone who has cultivated jhāna will grasp a “Brahma bhava” and thus be born in a “Brahma loka.” Yet another who had killed a parent will grasp a “niraya bhava” and be born in a “niraya.” For each of them, that will be their “loka” until that kammic energy runs out.
  • However, there will always be many possible bhava for any average living being. We all have accumulated many such “seeds” in our past lives and maybe even a few in this life. That is why there is no end to this process until Arahanthood. The creation of such a kammic energy (to power up a new bhava) is the “arising of a “loka” or “loka samudaya.”
  • That “loka samudaya” takes place via the Akusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda process. It describes how such kammic energies accumulate via acting with avijjāWe will continue that discussion in the next post.
  • Accumulation of new bhava (and grasping such accumulated bhava) will stop at the Arahant stage. Then no more existences in any realm in the loka, and that is “loka nirodha” or Nibbāna. We will get to that discussion on the Kusala-Mula Paṭicca Samuppāda process later.
Paṭicca Samuppāda, Tilakkhana – Details of Four Noble Truths

10. One cannot fully comprehend the Four Noble Truths without understanding Paṭicca Samuppāda. Tilakkhana provides another way of looking at the same concepts.

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