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

Revised May 5, 2017, August 24, 2017

Many people believe that if we live a “good, moral life”, a rebirth in the human or even higher deva worlds is guaranteed. This is a misconception because even if we do not accumulate any bad kamma in this life, we do not know what kinds of bad kamma we have accumulated in past lives and we have. This is why it is very hard to even get a human existence (bhava) let alone a deva or a brahma rebirth.

  • Evidence for rebirth is presented in, “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.
  • Even though a “human existence (bhava)” is rare, once one grasps a human bhava, one could be born 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 life stream exists in the nether world or “paralowa” 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:

Here is a translation from  “Nakhasikha Sutta” (the above link does not have the English translation):

Bhikkhus, those who depart from the human realm, those will be reborn as humans or devas can be compared to the few grains of sand that I pickup on my fingernail. Those who are reborn in the lower four realms are exceedingly many, compared to the sand on this great Earth”.

“From those who have expired their kamma in the lower four world, and are reborn in the human or deva worlds can be compared to the few grains of sand that I pickup on my fingernail. Those who are repeatedly reborn in the lower four realms are exceedingly many, compared to the sand on this great Earth” (This is because one can accrue only bad kamma while they are in the lower four world).

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 certain kammic energy associated with it, say 1000 years worth. In that case, the person may be born 10 times consecutively with 100 years in each birth (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 Jati – 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 difficult to attain a human bhava, but once in a human bhava, one can be born 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 seems to be out-of-proportion with the realities, it is not. This 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 microscope was invented in the 1500’s. In  1676, Van Leeuwenhoek reported the discovery of micro-organisms: He observed numerous beings in a glass of water; see,

Here is a short video showing numerous such microscopic beings:

  • 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 Earths surface, and the living beings 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 thumbful compared to innumerable beings 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 10 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 abhinna powers; see, “Power of the Human Mind – Introduction” and the follow up posts. One time, a bhikkhu who had developed abhinna powers 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 Nibbana“, and to drink the water. The INTENTION there is to quench the thirst; see, “How to Evaluate Weights of Different Kamma“.
  • With 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 2 realms (animal and human) compared to the 31 realms that the Buddha described.

2. Kanakacchapa Sutta

Reference: “Kanakacchapa Sutta

Bhikkhus, there is a blind turtle in the depths of the ocean. There is also a yoke of a cart that is floating on the ocean surface which is carried in away in all directions by tide, current , and wind. Thus these two go on throughout an incalculable space of time.  One day when the turtle comes up to the surface, the yoke arrives at the same precise place and time when the turtle puts up his head, and yokes on to it.  Now, Bhikkhus, is it possible that such a time might come as is said?”

“In ordinary truth, O Lord,” replied the Bhikkhus,  “it is impossible; but time being so spacious [my comment: see, “Sansaric Time Scale, Buddhist Cosmology, and the Big Bang Theory“] , and an aeon lasting so long, it may be admitted that perhaps at some time or other it might be possible for the two to yoke together, as said; if the blind tortoise lives long enough, and the yoke does not tend to rot and break up before such a coincidence comes to pass”

Then the Buddha said, “Bhikkhus, the occurrence of such a strange thing is not to be counted a difficult one; for there is still a greater, a harder, a hundred times, a thousand times more difficult than this lying hidden from your knowledge. And what is this? It is, Bhikkhus, the obtaining of the opportunity of becoming a man again by a man who has expired and is reborn once in any of the four realms of misery. The occurrence of the yoking of the blind tortoise is not worth thinking of as a difficult occurrence in comparison therewith. Because those who perform good deeds and abstain from doing bad alone can obtain the existence of men and Devas. The beings in the four miserable worlds cannot discern what is virtuous and what vicious, what good and what bad, what moral and what immoral, what meritorious and what de-meritorious, and consequently they live a life of immorality and demerit, tormenting one another with all their power. Those creatures of the Niraya and Peta abode in particular, live a very miserable life on account of punishments and torments, which they experience with sorrow, pain and distress. Therefore, Bhikkhus, the opportunity of being reborn in the abode of men is a hundred times, a thousand times harder to obtain than the encountering of the blind turtle with the yoke.”

However, it must be emphasized that 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 Jati – States of Existence and Births“.

3. Tim­samat­ta Sutta

Pali version in full: Timsamatta Suttam (SN 15.13) 

Sinhala translation:  තිංස සූත්‍රය (SN 15.13)

  • Here 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”.

He also gave many similes to describe how long the rebirth process is. He said that the blood from uncountable times where one is killed when born a specific animal (deer or cow, for example) is more than the water in the four oceans.

  • In fact, there are many suttas in the “Anamatagga Saṃyutta” in the Samyutta Nikaya that provide many more similes to illustrate the beginning-less rebirth process.

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

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