How the Buddha Described the Chance of Rebirth in the Human Realm

Revised May 5, 2017, August 24, 2017; October 30, 2018

Many people believe that if we live a “good, moral life,” rebirth in the human or even higher deva worlds is guaranteed. That is a misconception. Even if we do not accumulate a single new bad kamma in this life, we may have accumulated many bad kamma in past lives. That is why it is difficult to get a human existence (bhava).

  • Evidence for rebirth is at, “Evidence for Rebirth“. Rebirth can occur not only in as a human but in any of the 31 realms. Most suffering in the cycle of rebirth occurs in the lowest four realms: niraya (hell), asura, animal, and peta realms. Of those four, only the animal realm is visible to us. They are collectively called the apayas.
  • Getting a “human existence (bhava)” is rare. But once one grasps a human bhava, one could be born (jati) many times as a human until the kammic energy for that human bhava is exhausted. That is why children can recall past lives. In between consecutive human births, that lifestream exists in the nether world or “para lōka” as a gandhabba with a fine body; see, “Hidden World of the Gandhabba: Netherworld (Para Lōka)
  • The 31 realms of existence are described in “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma.”
1. From the Nakha­sikha Sutta (SN 20.2):

Translation:

At Sāvatthī. Then the Buddha, picking up a little bit of sand on his fingernail, addressed the bhikkhus: “What do you think, bhikkhus? Which is more: the little bit of sand on my fingernail, or this great Earth?”

Bhante, the great earth is far more. The little bit of sand on your fingernail is tiny. Compared to the great Earth, those cannot be compared or even imagined; it is not even a significant fraction.”

“In the same way, bhikkhus, sentient beings reborn as humans are few as this bit of sand on my fingernail. But those not reborn as humans are many as the sand on this great Earth. Therefore, you should strive diligently and without delay to end this suffering in the rebirth process”.

Let us make two points clear regarding the above simile of the Buddha:

1. When a being gets a human life, that “human bhava” has a specific kammic energy associated with it, say 1000 years worth. In that case, the person may be born a few times with a human body (this is the difference between “bhava” and “jati“). The cuti-patisandhi transition to a new “bhava” happens at the end of 1000 years; see, “Bhava and Jāti – States of Existence and Births Therein,” and “Cuti-Patisandhi – An Abhidhamma Description.”

  • What the Buddha refers to above is concerned with that new patisandhi at the end of the “human bhava.”
  • It is extremely rare to attain a human bhava, but once in a human bhava, one can be born tens or even hundreds of times as human. In the animal realm, a given animal may be reborn thousands or even millions of times to exhaust that kammic energy.

2. Even though the above simile may seem to be out-of-proportion with the realities, it is not. That is why I am saying that modern science has given a boost to Buddha Dhamma by making many things clear. Ordinary humans were not aware of the existence of innumerable microscopic living beings until the invention of the microscope in the 1500s. In 1676, Van Leeuwenhoek reported the discovery of micro-organisms: He observed numerous tiny living beings in a glass of water; see, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microscope

Here is a short video showing countless such microscopic creatures:

 

  • If you go out and dig a bit of dirt, there could be millions of living organisms there. In a household, there may be a few humans, but possibly billions or even trillions of living beings. The oceans cover two-thirds of the Earth’s surface, and the living creatures there are much more densely-packed. And there are beings in other 29 realms that we cannot see. Seven billion or so humans in this world are indeed a thumb-full compared to countless living creatures that live associated with the Earth. Thus, as in many cases, modern science has helped verify Buddha’s words.
  • Some of these realms could be in other dimensions; see, “Consciousness Dependence on Number of Dimensions.” In the string theory, scientists say there could be ten dimensions instead of the three that we experience.
  • However, one can actually “see” beings in other dimensions as well as microscopic beings in a glass of water if one develops abhiññā powers; see, “Power of the Human Mind – introduction” and the follow-up posts. One time, a bhikkhu who had developed abhiññā skills but had not becomes an Arahant, saw the presence of a large number of microscopic beings in a glass of water. He tried to filter them out but was unsuccessful, and became distraught. The Buddha told him that “it is not possible to live in this world without harming other beings. It is necessary to live this life to attain Nibbāna“, and to drink the water. The INTENTION there is to quench the thirst; see, “How to Evaluate Weights of Different Kamma.”
  • Using more sophisticated instruments, science is finding out that there are millions of living beings on a single human body (as well as on any other large animal). See, “There are as Many Creatures on your Body as there are People on Earth!“.

Thus modern science has indeed shown that the human population is negligible compared to just the animal populations (including microscopic beings). And we can experience only two realms (animal and human) compared to the 31 realms that the Buddha described.

2. Dutiya­chig­gaḷa­yuga ­Sutta (SN 56.48)

Translation:

Bhikkhus, suppose that this great Earth had become one mass of water, and a man would throw a yoke with a single hole upon it. An easterly stream would move it westward; a westerly stream would move it eastward; a northerly stream would move it southward; a southerly stream would move it northward.

There was a blind turtle that would come to the surface once every hundred years. What do you think, bhikkhus, would that blind turtle, coming to the surface once every hundred years, insert its neck into that yoke with a single hole?”

“It would be an extremely rare occurrence, Bhante, that the blind turtle, coming to the surface once every hundred years, would insert its neck into that yoke with a single hole.”

“So too, bhikkhus, how extremely rare that one is born a human.

You have this rare chance now, bhikkhus, to be not only born a human but be born while a Tathāgata has arisen in the world. While the Dhamma and Discipline proclaimed by the Tathāgata shines in the world.

Therefore, bhikkhus, you should strive without delay to understand: ‘This is suffering (dukkha), this is the cause of suffering (dukkha samudaya), this is how that cause is removed (dukkha nirōdhaya), and this is the way leading to the cessation of suffering (dukkha nirōdha gāmini patipadā).’”

However, when a living being acquires a human bhava or human existence, that can last a long time (many hundreds to many thousands of years). Within that human bhava, there will be multiple human births; see, “Bhava and Jāti – States of Existence and Births Therein.”

3. Assu Sutta (SN 15.3)

Translation:

First, the Buddha made the famous statement: “Anamataggoyam bhikkhave, samsarō pubbā kōti na pannāyati avijja nivārananam sattānam tanhā-samyōjananam sandhāvatam samsāratam

  • Translated: “Bhikkhus, this rebirth process, where beings whose minds are covered by ignorance and are bound to it by bonds of craving, has no discernible (na pannāyati) beginning.”

The rest of the sutta is as follows:

“What do you think, bhikkhus: Which is greater, the tears you have shed while trapped in this rebirth process or the water in the four great oceans? (crying because of being born into a bad birth or being separated from loved ones in good births)”

“As we understand the Dhamma taught to us by the Bhante, the tears we have shed while trapped in this beginning-less rebirth process is greater than the water in the four great oceans.”

“Excellent, bhikkhus. It is good that you thus understand the Dhamma taught by me. That is the larger: the tears you have shed while trapped in this beginning-less rebirth process — not the water in the four vast oceans.

Long have you (repeatedly) experienced the death of a mother. The tears you have shed over the death of a mother while trapped in this beginning-less rebirth process are greater than the water in the four vast oceans.

Long have you (repeatedly) experienced the death of a father, death of a brother, death of a sister, death of a son, death of a daughter, loss of relatives, loss of wealth. The tears you have shed over diseases while trapped in this beginning-less rebirth process are higher than the water in the four vast oceans.

Why is that? A beginning to this rebirth process is not discernible.”

The Buddha many other analogies to describe how long the rebirth process is: it is infinite. In another analogy, the blood from uncountable times where one is killed while born a specific animal (deer or cow, for example) is more than the water in the four oceans.

  • Infinity is hard to comprehend. Scientists have only recently realized this; see, “Infinity – How Big Is It?“.
  • In fact, there are many suttas in the “Anamatagga Saṃyutta (SN 15)“, “Opamma Saṃyutta (SN20)“, and, in ” in the “Sacca Saṃyutta (SN 56)” (SN 56.31 through SN 56.70) of the Samyutta Nikaya that provide many more similes/descriptions to illustrate the beginning-less rebirth process, during which an infinite amount of time has passed.
  • In the above, I presented only three out of about 70 such suttas in SN 15, SN 20, and SN 56.

Next, “Kamma, Debt, and Meditation“……….

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