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Five Realms of Rebirth

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What are the Five Realms?

In the Mahāsīhanāda Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya Sutta 130, the Buddha mentioned 5 destinations (pañcagati) for rebirth.

What are the five?

Hell, the animal realm, the realm of ghosts, human beings and gods.

Hell, animal and ghost realms are woeful states of existence (duggati) while the realms of humans and gods are happy states of existence (sugati).

Here “gods” include the sensuous gods (devas), the non-sensuous gods of the form plane (rūpa brahmas), and the non-sensuous gods of the formless plane (arūpa brahmas).

Hell or Niraya is believed to exist below the earth’s surface:

For example, the Lohakumbhi (Iron Cauldron) hell of hot molten metal mentioned in the Dhammapada Commentary, where the four rich lads had to suffer for committing adultery, is said to be situated below the earth’s crust.

The animal, ghost, and human realms exist on the surface of the earth. These realms are not separate, but the beings move about in their own worlds.

The gods are believed to live above the earth and high up in the sky in celestial mansions that travel swiftly through the sky (Vimānavatthu or Mansion Stories).

1. Hell (Niraya)

In Buddhism, beings are born in hell due to their accumulation of weighty bad kamma. There they undergo unlimited suffering that is hard to endure and dreadful, terrible and heart-rending.

The Buddha said that the suffering of one stabbed incessantly by three hundred spears compared to the suffering in hell is like a small stone compared to the Himalayas.

However, the hell beings do not suffer eternally unlike what is taught in some religions:

Upon the exhaustion of their evil kamma, beings may be reborn in good states as a result of their past good kamma.

According to the Commentaries, there are eight major hells, namely:

a) Eight Major Hells

1) Sañjīva where beings are cut into pieces and killed for many thousands of years and they revive there again and again to undergo this torture. Hence the name Sañjīva, the Revival Hell.

2) Kalasutta where they are split like wood with burning saws along a mark made by a black thread. Hence the name Kalasutta the Black Thread Hell.

3) Saṅghāta where they are crushed to death over and over again by iron rollers. Hence the name Saṅghāta, the Crushing Hell.

4) Roruva where there is terrible screaming by beings constantly consumed by flames and smoke entering their bodies through the nine orifices. Hence the name Roruva, the Screaming Hell.

5) Maharoruva where the screams are greater because of the awfulness of the fire torture by being baked in a huge mass of fire. Hence the name Maharoruva, the Great Screaming Hell.

6) Tapana where beings are pierced with giant red hot skewers and roasted over a fire, firmly held and unable to move. Hence the name Tapana, the Roasting Hell.

7) Mahatapana where beings are forced by fiery weapons to climb up a burning mountain until they fall down only to be strung up again on fiery iron bars, firmly held and unable to move while being roasted. Hence the name Mahatapana, the Extreme Roasting Hell.

8) Avīci the lowest and greatest hell, a hundred yojanas (one yojana is about 8 miles) square encircled by an iron wall with iron roof above and incandescent floor of glowing iron.

Here, beings are attacked by blazing fires that rush incessantly from one side and strike at the opposite side. The heat is so terrible that it is said that even the bones melt there. Since there is no intermission of suffering here, it is called Avīci, the Hell without Intermission.

b) Minor Hells

Each great hell is surrounded on each of its four sides by five minor hells bringing the total number of hells to 8 + 8 × 4 × 5 = 168.

The terrible sufferings of beings in these minor hells are described in the Devadūta Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya. Yet in all cases, the beings do not die but undergo the torture repeatedly so long as the evil kamma has not yet exhausted its results.

The minor hells are:

1) Milhakupa or excrement pit hell, where beings are pierced by a horrible horde of worms.

2) Kukkula or hot embers hell, where beings are cooked like mustard seeds.

3) Forest of Simbali Trees bristling with long, sharp, burning, blazing thorns which pierce and tear the flesh of beings who are forced to climb up and down those trees.

4) Forest of Sword-leaf Trees whose razor-sharp leaves, stirred by the wind, cut off the hands and feet, ears and noses of beings who enter it.

5) Terrible river Vaitaraṇī whose running water is caustic:

Beings fall into it and are swept upstream and downstream constantly being attacked by the caustic water. Next the being is pulled out with hooks and his mouth prised opened with red-hot tongs.

He is fed with a red-hot iron ball that burns his lips, mouth, throat, stomach and it passes out below carrying with it his large and small intestines.

To quench his thirst, molten copper is poured into his mouth that burns his lips, mouth, throat, stomach and it passes out below carrying with it his large and small intestines.

2. Animals (Tiracchana)

Tiracchana means ‘going horizontally’ and aptly describes the animal mode of movement.

Birth in the animal plane is full of suffering, violence and great fear:

Born in the wild, smaller animals live in constant fear of being eaten up by larger animals that in turn are constantly being harassed or hunted to extinction by humans for sport or commercial purposes.

They suffer from heat and cold, flood and drought, and there is no one to tend to them when they are sick and wounded.

Domesticated animals fare no better:

Most are bred and killed for their meat, fur, horns, bones, skin and so on.

In less developed countries, they become beasts of burden, bound by many ropes, yoked to carriage-shaft, plough or cart, shoulders bruised, beaten with whips and sticks, some carrying crushing loads.

Household pets would appear to have a relatively better life only if they have kind and understanding owners otherwise they would have to scavenge the streets for food and face the danger of being killed or injured by fast moving vehicles. Life is truly suffering for these creatures.

3. Ghosts (Preta)

Pretas are ghostly beings absolutely devoid of happiness:

They live a life of misery, being subjected to incessant pain and suffering, lack of food and clothing, much like human dregs living in abject poverty. Thus they restlessly search for food here and there, hence the name Preta – those gone on and on.

In appearance they are generally described as extremely emaciated and have large heads with eyes and cheeks sunken, their faces darkened by long dishevelled hair. Their bodies have only skin, bones and tendons remaining, skeletons visible and rib-spaces sunken.

But this is not always the case:

Descriptions of Pretas and pretis (female ghosts) in the Samyutta and Petavatthu show that they come in various shapes and sizes depending on their past unwholesome kamma. In fact, the sightings of Pretas narrated in Samyutta took place in broad daylight!

In the Samyutta Nidāna Vagga, Kindred Sayings on Lakkhana’s Questions, the descriptions of various Pretas, which Ven. Maha Moggallāna saw clairvoyantly

ranged from a skeleton to a lump of flesh going through the air chased by vultures, crows and falcons pecking at them; or a man or woman bristling with sword-blades, arrows or spears that kept falling and piercing their bodies causing them to scream in pain as they go through the air.

In the Petavatthu, the appearances of the Pretas and pretis are also highly variable:

one had a beautiful complexion but had worms in his putrid smelling mouth, another was ox-faced, another was red-eyed with fangs while others were emaciated with protruding veins and ribs, or with a body the size of a tree trunk and tongue sticking out of his parched throat.

There was even a preti who lived in a mansion enjoying celestial comfort by day and suffering at night − being devoured by a black dog, which cast her bones into a lotus pond and she regained her life each time as a result of kamma.

These vivid descriptions evidently highlight the extreme suffering experienced by Pretas as a result of their unwholesome kamma.

According to Milinda-Pañhā, there are 4 classes of Pretas:

a) Vantasikas who feed on what have been vomited by others.

b) Khuppipasinos who suffer from being continually tormented by extreme hunger and thirst for very long periods of time.

c) Nijjhamatanhikas who are consumed by thirst, being tormented by a continual burning feeling within their bodies.

d) Paradattupa-jivi who depend on what others offer for them:

They remember their living relatives and see what they do. Only this class of Pretas can receive and share in the merits when offerings are made on their behalf.

Notes on Asuras (Titans)

According to KathāvatthuPoints of Controversy Book VIII, the Kālakañja asuras resemble the Pretas in ugly and frightful shape, sex-life, diet, lifespan, and intermarry with them.

It is said that their bodies resemble dried leaves with scarcely any flesh and blood and cover a space of three gavutas. Their eyeballs jut out from their heads like crabs.

Their mouths are as small as a needle’s eye and are situated on top of their heads so that they have to bend their heads downward whenever they want to eat or drink.

Being consumed by anger, these demons or angry ghosts like to attack one another with burning weapons of their own kammic productions and are thus tormented, such torment being the resultants of their past evil actions.

These asuras of the woeful plane belong to a class of Pretas who are more powerful but are unhappy beings.

They are different from the asuras devas led by King Vepacitti who originally inhabited Tāvatiṁsa heaven but were defeated by Sakka, king of devas and driven to another part of the heavens. Vepacitti’s asuras are a class of devas and intermarry with devas.

In later Buddhist tradition, the asuras or titans were added as a separate unhappy realm to give four woeful states.

4. Human Realm (Manuṣya)

While the woeful realms and heavenly realms are dominated by suffering and bliss respectively, the human world is a mixture of both suffering and happiness.

Thus a person is born either rich or poor, good looking or ugly, powerful or weak, wise or stupid, etc. according to his or her own good or bad past actions (supportive or obstructive kamma).

However, to be born as a human being, the reproductive kamma that conditions the rebirth consciousness (patisandhi) must be wholesome with two or three good roots.

People do not realize how difficult it is to be born as a human:

By looking at the present human population, they think that there are many human beings on earth. By looking at the vastness of the heavens, they think that there are many inhabitants in the deva worlds.

However, if they observe the animal realm closely, they will realize that just the numbers of insects in a forest alone far exceed the human population. As for the deva worlds, it is said that although they are very extensive, the inhabitants are few.

From the discourse about the blind turtle and the yoke (Samyutta v, 455), one should appreciate how difficult and rare it is to be born as a human being.

Birth as a human is one of the five best opportunities that are difficult to obtain (dullabho), the other four being: encountering a Buddha; ordaining as a bhikkhu; attaining confidence in the Triple Gem; and hearing the True Dhamma (Doctrine).

These five opportunities are important because it is through them that release from suffering can be obtained.

Birth as a human being is important first of all because it means that one has escaped from the woeful states which involve great suffering.

But it does not mean that ordinary happiness is the reason why human existence is so fortunate. If this were so, the Buddha would have included the deva and brahma states where the celestial pleasures far surpass anything on earth.

Human existence is mentioned because it is the best state in which one can perform meritorious actions. This is not possible in the lower worlds because their inhabitants do not possess any good roots or they are in such pain that they cannot think of anything else.

In the heavens, there is so much pleasure to enjoy that their inhabitants find it difficult to appreciate the Truth of Suffering. Moreover, their lifespans are so long that it is difficult for them to understand impermanence (anicca).

Bodhisattvas prefer the human realm because they have the opportunity to develop the Requisites of Buddhahood (pāramīs) to the highest level. They are always born as human beings in their last birth where they attain Supreme Enlightenment and become Buddhas.

We are most fortunate to be human beings now because although the Buddha has passed into Parinibbāna, the Buddha Sasana is still available whereby we can hear the True Dhamma and attain confidence (saddha) even as lay folk. For those who become bhikkhus, they have obtained all the five best opportunities that are hard to come by.

5. World of Gods (Devas & Brahmas)

The gods of the sensuous plane are called Devas while the gods of the higher non-sensuous planes are called Brahmas. There are 2 types of Brahma gods, namely: those who possess form (rūpa) and those who are formless (arūpa).

A) The Six Sensuous Heavens (Devaloka)

There are 6 deva realms and they are situated above the earth. Except for the first two lower heavens, the rest are too far away to have any close connection with the earth.

1) Cātumahārājika (Four Great Kings):

This is the lowest of the heavenly realms where the four Guardian Deities reside with their followers. These Four Great Kings protect the four quarters of the world and are:

(1) Dhataraṭṭha, king of the East, sovereign lord of Gandharvas (heavenly musicians),

(2) Virūḷha, king of the South where the Pretas reside, sovereign lord of Kumbhakas (deformed asuras),

(3) Virūpakkha, king of the West, sovereign lord of the Nāgas (serpents), and

(4) Kuvera also called Vessavaṇa, king of the North and sovereign lord of the Yakkhas (ogres or genie).

2) Tāvatiṁsa (Heaven of Thirty-Three):

This is the next higher heaven where Sakka, king of gods reside. The original residents were the Asura devas but they were driven away by 33 new devas led by Sakka who did not want to share the kingdom with the Asuras who were addicted to drinking. Hence the name Tāvatiṁsa.

3) Yama (Heaven of Yama Gods):

This is a realm of great happiness presided by the divine king Suyama or Yama. The Yama gods are different from the Yama Rajah of Hell who is a Vemanika-Preta, a deva for half a month and a Preta the other half-month.

4) Tuṣita (Heaven of Delight):

This is the heaven where the Bodhisattva Maitreya is believed to be dwelling, waiting for the opportune time to be reborn as a human being and become the next Buddha.

5) Nimmarati (Gods who enjoy their own creations):

This is the realm of Devas who have the power to create objects of sensual pleasure at will according to their desires.

6) Paranimmita-Vasavatti (Gods who control the creation of others):

The highest of the six sensuous heavens is Paranimmita-Vasavatti, the realm of gods who bring under their sway things created by others. Incidentally, the god Mara, well known for opposing the Buddha and Arahants, lives in this realm.

However, the ruler of this realm is a righteous king – the Vasavatti Deva. Mara and his retinue reside in a separate corner of the realm like a rebel leader.

B) The 16 Form Realms (Rūpa Brahma)

1) Three Planes of the First Jhāna:

The lowest is called Brahma- parisajja or Brahma’s retinue and the second is called Brahma-purohita or Brahma’s ministers. The highest of these three planes is Maha-Brahma or Great Brahmas.

They are so called because they exceed others in happiness, beauty and lifespan on account of their superior mental development.

Those who develop the first Jhāna to a normal extent are born in the first plane; those who have develop to a medium degree are born in the second plane; while those who have perfect control of the first Jhāna are born as Maha-brahmas.

The three divisions of the other Jhānic planes should be similarly understood.

2) Three Planes of the Second Jhāna:

In order of mastery of the second Jhāna, the brahmas of the second Jhānic planes are: Parittabha, the gods of minor lustre; Appamanabha, the gods of infinite lustre; and Abhassara, the gods of radiant lustre.

3) The Planes of the Third Jhāna:

In order of mastery of the third Jhāna, the brahmas of the third Jhānic planes are: Paritta- subha, the gods of minor aura; Appamana-subha, the gods of infinite aura; and Subha-kinha, the gods of steady aura.

4) Seven Planes of the Fourth Jhāna:

The planes of the fourth Jhāna are Vehapphala, the gods of great reward; Asanna-satta, the unconscious beings; and the five planes of Suddhavasa, the pure abodes where Anāgāmins or Non-Returners are reborn.

Here again, depending on the predominant faculty, rebirth takes place as follows:

• Faculty of faith - Aviha, the durable heaven

• Faculty of effort- Atappa, the serene heaven

• Faculty of mindfulness - Sudassa, the beautiful heaven

• Faculty of concentration - Sudassi, the clear-sighted heaven

Faculty of Wisdom - Akanittha, the supreme heaven.

C) The Four Formless Realms (Arūpa Brahma)

Beings, who, practise tranquillity meditation by passing beyond all form perceptions and attain Arūpa Jhāna or Formless States of Absorption are reborn in the formless realms possessing mind only and no material quality at all.

4 formless realms, according to their Arūpa Jhānas are:

• Akasananca-bhūmi – Realm of Infinite Space
• Vinnanancayatana-bhūmi -- Realm of Infinite Consciousness
• Akincannayatana-bhūmi – Realm of Nothingness
• ’evanna-nasannayatana-bhūmi – Realm of Neither-Perception nor Non-Perception

===How do we get the 31 states of existence?===

If the asuras are considered as a separate state of existence, there are now

4 woeful states (hell, animal, ghost, asura),
7 happy sensuous states (human and 6 deva states),
16 form states (Form brahmas) and
4 formless states (Formless brahmas).

Total = 31 states of existence

6. Lifespan of Hell Beings and Preta

a) Hell beings, animals and Pretas do not have fixed lifespan. Their lifespan varies according to their individual kamma:

Some are short-lived like the case of the monk Tissa who was reborn as a flea on his new robe and expired after seven days or the case of Queen Mallikā who had to suffer seven days in hell due to an immoral deed but was reborn again as a celestial deva on account of her good kamma.

On the other hand, Devadatta had to suffer in Avīci hell for an aeon for his weighty bad kamma of causing a schism in the Sangha.

b) Human beings also do not have fixed lifespan. The age-limit rises from ten years to an exceedingly great age and then falls back to ten years again.

According to the Chronicle of Buddhas (Buddhavaṁsa), the lifespan of humans in the present world cycle was:

40,000 years at the time of Kakusandha Buddha,
30,000 years at the time of Konagamana Buddha,
20,000 years at the time of Kassapa Buddha and
80-100 years at the time of Gotama Buddha.

Although the earth-bound deities and degraded asuras both belong to the Cātumahārājika plane, they too do not have fixed lifespan.

===c) Devas & Brahmas in celestial planes have fixed lifespan:===

===7. Lifespan of Celestial Devas===

Cātumahārājika - 9 million human years / 500 Deva-years
Tāvatiṁsa - 36 million human years / 1000 Deva-years
Yama - 144 million human years / 2000 Deva-years
Tuṣita 576 million human years / 4000 Deva-years
Nimmarati - 2314 million human years / 8000 Deva-years
Paranimmita vasavatti - 9216 million human years / 16 000 Deva-years

How to calculate the lifespan of devas in terms of human years?

30 celestial days make a celestial month and 12 celestial months make a celestial year.

A celestial day in Cātumahārājika is equivalent to 50 years on earth. So one year in Cātumahārājika is equivalent to 360 x 50 = 18 000 years on earth. Multiply this by 500 deva-years gives Cātumahārājika lifespan of 9 million human years.

For each higher plane, the lifespan is doubled and the duration of a celestial day is also doubled. In terms of human years, deva lifespan increases 4 times for each higher plane.

How long did the Buddha preached to His mother in heaven?

According to the Texts, Lord Buddha preached the Higher Philosophy (Abhidhamma) to His mother in Tāvatiṁsa heaven continuously for three months without stopping. No human being would be able to listen to the whole sermon without a break.

But as 100 years on earth is just 1 day in Tāvatiṁsa, 3 months on earth is only 3.6 minutes in Tāvatiṁsa! To the gods, it would be a short discourse. They would have no difficulty listening attentively to it.