The Thirty-One Planes of Existence

Scattered throughout the suttas are references to as many as thirty-one distinct “planes” or “realms” of existence into which beings can be reborn during their long wandering through samsara. These range from the extraordinarily grim and painful hell realms all the way up to the most exquisitely refined and blissful heaven realms. Existence in every realm is temporary; in Buddhist cosmology there is no eternal heaven or hell. Beings are born into a particular realm according to their past kamma. When they pass away, they take rebirth once again elsewhere according to the quality of their kamma: wholesome actions bring about a favorable rebirth, while unwholesome actions lead to an unfavorable one. And so the wearisome cycle continues.

The realms of existence are customarily divided into three distinct “worlds” (loka), listed here in descending order of refinement:

The Immaterial World (arupa-loka). Consists of four realms that are accessible to those who pass away while meditating in the formless jhanas.
The Fine-Material World (rupa-loka). Consists of sixteen realms whose inhabitants (the devas) experience extremely refined degrees of mental pleasure. These realms are accessible to those who have attained at least some level of jhana and who have thereby managed to (temporarily) suppress hatred and ill-will. They are said to possess extremely refined bodies of pure light. The highest of these realms, the Pure Abodes, are accessible only to those who have attained to “non-returning,” the third stage of Awakening. The Fine-Material World and the Immaterial World together constitute the “heavens” (sagga).
The Sensuous World (kama-loka). Consists of eleven realms in which experience — both pleasurable and not — is dominated by the five senses. Seven of these realms are favorable destinations, and include our own human realm as well as several realms occupied by devas. The lowest realms are the four “bad” destinations, which include the animal and hell realms.
The information on this page was assembled from a variety of sources. In the interests of economizing space I have not attributed each fact to its respective source.

I. The Immaterial World (arupa-loka)
Realm Comments Cause of rebirth here
(31) Neither-perception-nor-non-perception (nevasaññanasaññayatanupaga deva) The inhabitants of these realms are possessed entirely of mind. Having no physical body, they are unable to hear Dhamma teachings. Fourth formless jhana
(30) Nothingness (akiñcaññayatanupaga deva) Third formless jhana
(29) Infinite Consciousness (viññanañcayatanupaga deva) Second formless jhana
(28) Infinite Space (akasanañcayatanupaga deva) First formless jhana

II. The Fine-Material World (rupa-loka)
Realm Comments Cause of rebirth here
(27) Peerless devas (akanittha deva) These are the five Pure Abodes (suddhavasa), which are accessible only to non-returners (anagami) and arahants. Beings who become non-returners in other planes are reborn here, where they attain arahantship.
Among its inhabitants is Brahma Sahampati, who begs the Buddha to teach Dhamma to the world (SN 6.1).

Fourth jhana. (See, e.g., AN 4.123.)

(26) Clear-sighted devas (sudassi deva)
(25) Beautiful devas (sudassa deva)
(24) Untroubled devas (atappa deva)
(23) Devas not Falling Away (aviha deva)
(22) Unconscious beings (asaññasatta) Only body is present; no mind.
(21) Very Fruitful devas (vehapphala deva) Beings in these planes enjoy varying degrees of jhanic bliss.
(20) Devas of Refulgent Glory (subhakinna deva)
Third jhana (highest degree). (See, e.g., AN 4.123.)

(19) Devas of Unbounded Glory (appamanasubha deva) Third jhana (medium degree)
(18) Devas of Limited Glory (parittasubha deva) Third jhana (minor degree)
(17) Devas of Streaming Radiance (abhassara deva)
Second jhana (highest degree). (See, e.g., AN 4.123.)

(16) Devas of Unbounded Radiance (appamanabha deva) Second jhana (medium degree)
(15) Devas of Limited Radiance (parittabha deva) Second jhana (minor degree)
(14) Great Brahmas (Maha brahma) One of this realm’s most famous inhabitants is the Great Brahma, a deity whose delusion leads him to regard himself as the all-powerful, all-seeing creator of the universe (DN 11). First jhana (highest degree)
(13) Ministers of Brahma (brahma-purohita deva) Beings in these planes enjoy varying degrees of jhanic bliss. First jhana (medium degree)
(12) Retinue of Brahma (brahma-parisajja deva)
First jhana (minor degree). (See, e.g., AN 4.123.)

III. The Sensuous World (kama-loka)
Realm Comments Cause of rebirth here
(11) Devas Wielding Power over the Creation of Others (paranimmita-vasavatti deva) These devas enjoy sense pleasures created by others for them. Mara, the personification of delusion and desire, lives here. · Ten wholesome actions (MN 41)
· Generosity

· The development of virtue and wisdom (AN 10.177)

(10) Devas Delighting in Creation (nimmanarati deva) These devas delight in the sense objects of their own creation.
(9) Contented devas (tusita deva) A realm of pure delight and gaiety. Bodhisattas abide here prior to their final human birth. This is where the bodhisatta Maitreya (Metteya), the next Buddha, is said to dwell.
(8) Yama devas (yama deva) These devas live in the air, free of all difficulties.
(7) The Thirty-three Gods (tavatimsa deva) Sakka, a devotee of the Buddha, presides over this realm. Many devas dwelling here live in mansions in the air.
(6) Devas of the Four Great Kings (catumaharajika deva) Home of the gandhabbas, the celestial musicians, and the yakkhas, tree spirits of varying degrees of ethical purity. The latter are analogous to the goblins, trolls, and fairies of Western fairy tales.
(5) Human beings (manussa loka)
You are here (for now).

Rebirth as a human being is extraordinarily rare (SN 56.48). It is also extraordinarily precious, as its unique balance of pleasure and pain (SN 35.135) facilitates the development of virtue and wisdom to the degree necessary to set one free from the entire cycle of rebirths.

· The development of virtue and wisdom (AN 10.177)
· The attainment of stream-entry (sotapatti) guarantees that all future rebirths will be in the human or higher realms.

* * *
Realm Comments Cause of rebirth here
(4) Asuras (asura) The demons — “titans” — that dwell here are engaged in relentless conflict with each other. · Ten unwholesome actions (MN 41)
(3) Hungry Shades/Ghosts (peta loka) Ghosts and unhappy spirits wander hopelessly about this realm, searching in vain for sensual fulfillment.
Read Ajaan Lee’s colorful description of this realm.

· Ten unwholesome actions (MN 41)
· Lack of virtue, holding to wrong views (AN 10.177)

(2) Animals (tiracchana yoni) This realm includes all the non-human forms of life that are visible to us under ordinary circumstances: animals, insects, fish, birds, worms, etc. · Ten unwholesome actions (MN 41)
· Lack of virtue, holding to wrong views. If one is generous to monks and nuns, however, one may be reborn as an “ornamented” animal (i.e., a bird with bright plumage; a horse with attractive markings, etc.; AN 10.177).

· Behaving like an animal (MN 57)

(1) Hell (niraya) These are realms of unimaginable suffering and anguish (described in graphic detail in MN 129 and MN 130). Should not be confused with the eternal hell found in other religious traditions, since one’s time here is — as it is in every realm — temporary. · Ten unwholesome actions (MN 41)
· Lack of virtue, holding to wrong views (AN 10.177)

· Murdering your parents, murdering an arahant, injuring the Buddha, or creating a schism in the Sangha (AN 5.129)

· Being quarrelsome and annoying to others (Snp II.6)


Buddhist Dictionary, by Nyanatiloka Mahathera (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1980).
The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction (fourth edition), by R.H. Robinson & W.L. Johnson (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1997).
The Long Discourses of the Buddha (Introduction), translated by Maurice Walshe (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1987).
A Manual of Abhidhamma, by Ven. Narada Thera (Kuala Lumpur: Buddhist Missionary Society, 1979).
The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (Introduction), translated by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995).
Teacher of the Devas (Wheel Publication 414/416), by Susan Elbaum Jootla (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1997).
The Three Worlds (wall chart), compiled by Ven. Acaro Suvanno (printed for free distribution by devotees and Mr & Mrs Lim Say Hoe and family).
See also:

Intentional Action (Kamma)
Heavens (sagga)
The Round of Rebirth (samsara)

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