Planes of Existence
We are born, we die and then we are born again. It is beyond control in which plane of existence we will be reborn; it depends on the kamma which produces the paṭisandhi-citta (rebirth-consciousness) after the cuti-citta (dying-consciousness) has fallen away.
At this moment we are living in the human plane. Human life, however, is very short. When this life is over we do not know in which plane we will be reborn. Most people do not like to think of the shortness of human life; they are absorbed in what they experience through the sense-doors and on account of these experiences they are happy or unhappy. However, we should realize that happiness and unhappiness are only mental phenomena which arise because of conditions and fall away again. Our whole life is a sequence of phenomena which arise and fall away again.
Many religions teach about heaven and hell. In what respect are the Buddhist teachings different? Do we just have to believe in heaven and hell? Through the Buddhist teachings we learn to study realities, to study cause and effect in life. Each cause brings about its appropriate result. People perform good and bad deeds and these deeds bring different results; they can cause birth in different planes of existence. A plane of existence is the place where one is born. Birth in a woeful plane is the result of a bad deed and birth in a happy plane is the result of a good deed. Since the deeds of beings are of many different degrees of kusala and akusala, the results are of many different degrees as well. There are different woeful planes and different happy planes of existence.
The animal world is a woeful plane. We can see how animals devour one another and we find that nature is cruel. The animal world is not the only woeful plane. There are different hell planes. The akusala vipāka in hell is more intense than the sufferings which can be experienced in the human plane. The descriptions of hells in the Buddhist teachings are not merely allegories; the experience of unpleasant things through eyes, ears, nose, tongue and bodysense is akusala vipāka and akusala vipāka is reality. Life in a hell plane is not permanent; when one’s lifespan in a hell plane is over there can be rebirth in another plane.
Apart from the animal plane and the hell planes, there are other woeful planes. Birth in the plane of petas (ghosts) is the result of akusala kamma. Beings in that plane have a deformed figure and they are always hungry and thirsty.
Furthermore, there is the plane of asuras (demons). The objects which are experienced in the asura plane are not as enjoyable as the objects which can be experienced in the human plane. There are four classes of woeful planes in all.
Birth as a human being is a happy rebirth. In the human plane there is opportunity for the development of kusala. One can study Dhamma and learn to develop the way leading to the end of defilements, to the end of birth and death. Birth in the human plane is kusala vipāka, but during one’s lifespan in this plane there are both kusala vipāka and akusala vipāka. Each person experiences different results in life: there are gain and loss, honour and dishonour, praise and blame, happiness and misery. It is due to kamma whether someone is born into pleasant or unpleasant surroundings, whether he belongs to a family which is well-to-do or which is poor. The experience of pleasant and unpleasant things through eyes, ears, nose, tongue and bodysense are the results of kamma.
Other happy planes, apart from the human plane, are the heavenly planes. In the heavenly planes there is more kusala vipāka than in the human plane and less akusala vipāka. There are several heavenly planes and although life in a heavenly plane lasts a very long time, it is not permanent. The woeful planes, the human plane and the six heavenly planes which are deva planes, are sensuous planes of existence. Sensuous planes of existence are planes where there is seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, the experience of tangible object through the bodysense and other kāmāvacara cittas (cittas which are of the sensuous plane of consciousness). There are eleven classes of sensuous planes of existence in all.
Those who see the disadvantages of sense-impressions may cultivate jhāna; they can be reborn in higher heavenly planes which are not sensuous planes. Those who attain rūpa-jhāna can be reborn in rūpa-brahma-planes where there are less sense-impressions. There are sixteen rūpa-brahma planes in all. One of them is the asañña-satta plane (86) where there is only rūpa, not nāma. Those who have attained the highest stage of rūpa-jhāna and who wish to have no consciousness at all, can be reborn without citta; for them there is only a body. These beings have seen the disadvantages of consciousness; even happiness is a disadvantage, since it does not last.
Those who see the disadvantages of rūpa cultivate arūpa-jhāna. If they attain arūpa-jhāna they can be reborn in arūpa-brahma planes where there is no rūpa. There are four classes of arūpa-brahma planes. Beings born in these planes have only nāma, not rūpa. One may wonder how there can be beings which only have rūpa or beings which only have nāma. When right understanding of nāma and rūpa has been developed realities will be seen as only elements which arise because of conditions, not a being, not a person, no self. One will come to understand that, under the appropriate conditions, there can be rūpa without nāma and nāma without rūpa.
There are thirty-one classes of planes of existence in all, namely:
  • 4 woeful planes
  • 1 human plane
  • 6 deva planes
The above are 11 sensuous planes
  • 16 rūpa-brahma planes
  • 4 arūpa-brahma planes
We read in the Gradual Sayings (Book of the Sevens, chapter VI, paragraph 9a, Amity) about the value of wholesome deeds. They can bring pleasant results for a long time and cause birth in different happy planes. We read that the Buddha told the monks about his births in different happy planes. The Buddha said:
Monks, be not afraid of deeds of merit. It is a name for happiness, that is, meritorious deeds. For well I know, monks, that deeds of merit done for a long time have a ripening, a blossoming, which is pleasing, joyous and lovely for a long time.
For seven years I fostered thoughts of amity, and then for seven ages of the world’s rolling on and rolling back I came not again to this world. Then when the world rolled on, I reached the sphere of Radiance; then when the world rolled back, I won to Brahmā’s empty palace. Then, monks, I became Brahmā, great Brahmā, the conqueror, unconquered, all-seeing, all-powerful. Thirty-six times I was Sakka, the deva-king. Many times seven was I a Wheel-turning rajah, just, righteous, conquering the four ends of the earth, bringing stability to the country, possessing the seven gems...
As we have seen, the fact that beings are born in different planes of existence is due to their accumulated kamma. Plane of existence is the place or world where one is born. Plane of existence is not the same as plane of citta. There are different planes of citta depending on the object (ārammaṇa) the citta experiences. There are four different planes of citta which are the following:
  1. 1.
    kāmāvacara cittas (sensuous plane of citta or kāma-bhūmi)
  2. 2.
    rūpāvacara cittas (plane of rūpa-jhānacittas)
  3. 3.
    arūpāvacara cittas (plane of arūpa-jhānacittas)
  4. 4.
    lokuttara cittas (plane of supramundane cittas experiencing nibbāna)
Kāmāvacara cittas can be classified as asobhana cittas (cittas not accompanied by sobhana cetasikas) and as kāma-sobhana cittas (cittas of the sensuous plane of consciousness, accompanied by sobhana cetasikas).
Kāmāvacara cittas arise in thirty planes of existence; they do not arise in the asañña-satta plane, where there is no nāma, only rūpa. Even in the arūpa-brahma-planes there are kāmāvacara cittas.
As regards kāma-sobhana cittas, they can arise even in woeful planes. Furthermore, they arise in the human plane, in the deva planes, in the rūpa-brahma planes and in the arūpa-brahma planes. They arise in thirty planes of existence, the asañña-satta plane excepted. Not all types, however, arise in all planes of existence.
As regards asobhana cittas, they can arise in thirty planes of existence, but not all types arise in all planes. Lobha-mūla-cittas (cittas rooted in attachment) can arise in thirty planes; even in the rūpa-brahma planes and arūpa-brahma planes lobha-mūla-cittas can arise. Dosa-mūla-cittas (cittas rooted in aversion) arise in the eleven sensuous planes of existence. It is clinging to sense objects which conditions dosa; when one does not obtain the pleasant object one likes, one has aversion. Dosa-mūla-cittas do not arise in the rūpa-brahma planes or in the arūpa-brahma planes. So long as beings live in the rūpa-brahma planes and in the arūpa-brahma planes there are no conditions for dosa. Moha-mūla-cittas (cittas rooted in ignorance) arise in thirty planes of existence; all those who are not arahats have moha and thus moha-mūla-cittas arise in all planes of existence, except in the asañña-satta plane.
As we have seen, not only akusala cittas, but also ahetuka cittas are asobhana cittas (cittas which are not accompanied by sobhana cetasikas). As regards the asobhana cittas which are ahetuka, the ahetuka cittas which arise in a process of cittas experiencing an object through one of the sense-doors, can arise only in the planes of existence where there are sense impressions. Seeing-consciousness and hearing-consciousness arise in the eleven sensuous planes of existence (the four woeful planes, the human being plane and the six heavenly planes which are sensuous planes, the deva planes), and they arise also in fifteen rūpa-brahma planes, thus, they arise in twenty-six planes of existence. They do not arise in the arūpa-brahma planes where there is no rūpa.
Smelling-consciousness, tasting-consciousness and body-consciousness arise only in the eleven sensuous planes of existence. Thus, they do not arise in the rūpa-brahma planes and in the arūpa-brahma planes.
Pañca-dvārāvajjana-citta (five-door-adverting-consciousness), sampaṭicchana-citta (receiving-consciousness) and santīraṇa-citta (investigating-consciousness) arise in all planes where there are sense-impressions, thus, they arise in twenty-six planes: in the eleven sensuous planes and in fifteen rūpa-brahma planes; the asañña-satta plane is excepted.
The mano-dvārāvajjana-citta (mind-door-adverting-consciousness) arises in all planes where there is nāma, thus, it arises in thirty planes.
People are inclined to speculate about the place where they will be reborn. Would we like to be reborn in the human plane? We cling to life in the human plane and we do not always realize the many moments of akusala vipāka we are bound to receive in this world: we are threatened by calamities such as war and hunger; we are subject to old age, sickness and death. Some people would like to be reborn in a heavenly plane; they like to experience pleasant things through the senses. One may wish for rebirth in a heavenly plane, but whether or not this will happen depends on one’s kamma. Birth is result, it does not take place without cause. If one performs many good deeds one cultivates the cause which will bring a pleasant result but there is no way to know when the result will take place, this is beyond control.
Are we afraid of death? Most people want to prolong their lives. They fear death because they feel uncertain of the future. If one is not an ariyan (a noble person who has attained enlightenment) there may be rebirth in hell. We do not like to think of rebirth in a woeful plane, but there may be deeds performed in the past which can cause rebirth in hell. Even the Buddha was in one of his former lives born in hell (87). It is useless to think of hell with aversion and fear, but the thought of hell is beneficial when it reminds us to develop kusala at this moment, instead of akusala.
We read in the Kindred Sayings (V, Mahā-vagga, Kindred Sayings on Streamwinning, chapter VI, paragraph 4, Visiting the sick) that while the Buddha was staying among the Sakyans at Kapilavatthu, in Banyan Park, Mahānāma asked him how a wise lay-follower who is sick should be admonished by another wise lay-follower. The Buddha said:
A wise lay-disciple, Mahānāma, who is sick ...should be admonished by another wise lay-disciple with the four comfortable assurances, thus: “Take comfort, dear sir, in your unwavering loyalty to the Buddha, saying: He is the Exalted One, Arahat, fully enlightened One ...Teacher of devas and mankind, a Buddha, an Exalted One. Take comfort, dear sir, in your unwavering loyalty to the Dhamma, thus: Well proclaimed is the Dhamma ...Take comfort, dear sir, in your unwavering loyalty to the Sangha ...Take comfort, dear sir, in your possession of the virtues dear to the Ariyans...” A wise lay-disciple, Mahānāma, who is sick ...should be admonished by another wise lay-disciple with these four comfortable assurances.
Then, supposing he has longing for his parents, he should thus be spoken to:
If he say: ”I have longing for my parents”, the other should reply: “But, my dear sir, you are subject to death. Whether you feel longing for your parents or not, you will have to die. It were just as well for you to abandon the longing you have for your parents.”
If he should say: “That longing for my parents is now abandoned,” the other should reply: “Yet, my dear sir, you still have longing for your children. As you must die in any case, it were just as well for you to abandon that longing for your children.”
If he should say: “That longing for my children is now abandoned,” the other should reply: “Yet, my dear sir, you still have longing for the five human pleasures of sense.”
Then, if he say, “That longing for the five human pleasures of sense is now abandoned,” the other should reply: “My friend, the heavenly delights are more excellent than the five human pleasures of sense. It were well for you, worthy sir, to remove your thoughts from them and fix them upon the Four Deva Kings.”
Suppose the sick man say, “My thoughts are removed from human pleasures of sense and fixed upon the Four Deva Kings,” then let the other say: “More excellent than the Four Deva Kings and more choice are the Suite of the Thirty-three ...the Yama Devas, the Devas of Delight, the Creative Devas ...the Devas who rejoice in the work of other devas ...the latter are more excellent and choice than the former ...so it were better for you to fix your thoughts on the Brahma World.”
Then if the sick man’s thoughts are so fixed, let the other say: “My friend, even the Brahma World is impermanent, not lasting, prisoned in a person. Well for you, friend, if you raise your mind above the Brahma World and fix it on cessation from the person pack (88).
And if the sick man say he has done so, then, Mahānāma, I declare that there is no difference between the lay-disciple who thus avers and the monk whose heart is freed from the āsavas, that is, between the release of the one and the release of the other.
Being subject to birth is dangerous. No rebirth at all in any plane of existence is better than birth even in the highest heavenly plane. If one wants to have no more rebirth right understanding of realities should be developed in order to realize the four ariyan (noble) Truths. Then one is on the way leading to the end of rebirth.
The first ariyan Truth is the truth of dukkha. If we could experience, for instance, that seeing at this moment, hearing, attachment or any other nāma or rūpa which appears now is only an element which arises and falls away, we would have more understanding of the truth of dukkha. What arises and falls away cannot give satisfaction, it is dukkha. The second ariyan Truth is the truth of the origin of dukkha. Craving is the origin of dukkha. Through the development of the eightfold Path there will be less craving, less clinging to nāma and rūpa. When there finally is no more craving, there will be an end to rebirth, and this is the end of dukkha. The third ariyan Truth is the extinction of dukkha, which is nibbāna, and the fourth ariyan Truth is the Path leading to the extinction of dukkha, which is the eightfold Path.
We read in the Mahā-parinibbāna-sutta (Dialogues of the Buddha II, no. 16, chapter II, 1-4):
...The Exalted One proceeded with a great company of the monks to Kotigāma; and there he stayed in the village itself.
And at that place the Exalted One addressed the monks, and said: “It is through not understanding and grasping four Ariyan Truths, O monks, that we have had to run so long, to wander so long in this weary path of rebirth, both you and I!”
“And what are these four?”
“The Ariyan truth about dukkha; the Ariyan truth about the cause of dukkha; the Ariyan truth about the cessation of dukkha; and the Ariyan truth about the path that leads to that cessation. But when these Ariyan truths are grasped and known the craving for future life is rooted out, that which leads to renewed becoming is destroyed, and then there is no more birth!”

Questions

  1. 1.
    Why do the Buddha’s teachings speak about hell?
  2. 2.
    What is a plane of existence?
  3. 3.
    What is the difference between “plane of citta” and “plane of
    existence”?
  4. 4.
    The human plane is a sensuous plane of existence. Are there in the
    human plane only cittas which are kāmāvacara cittas (cittas of the
    sensuous plane of citta)?
  5. 5.
    The rūpa-brahma planes are not sensuous planes of existence. Can
    there be kāmāvacara cittas in the rūpa-brahma planes? If so, all
    types?
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