Buddhist Cosmology: where and where not to be reborn


Buddhist cosmology is central to an understanding of various factors in Southeast Asian culture. Cosmology is a map and a theory about the nature and structure of the universe. In religious descriptions this cosmology can describe various types of rebirth that can achieved through wholesome and unwholesome actions. Buddhist cosmology is then a description of the endless cycle of rebirths known as samsara. In simple terms, if one performs actions harmful to oneself and other, rebirth will be in a realm below that of the human realm. If one performs virtuous actions that benefit oneself and others, rebirth will be achieved in the human realm or one of heavenly realms. In many respects a Buddhist will perform ethical actions, primarily those based upon the five precepts, in order that their rebirth will be auspicious. Ultimately a Buddhist wants to escape from this endless cycle and the achievement of this is what is termed Nibbana. That is the philosophically complicated awakening that it is the ultimate aspiration of a Buddhist to achieve.

Buddhist cosmology contains a number of factors which explains these different types of rebirth. It also elaborates a theory about vast periods of time. Throughout its description the law of kamma is central. It is based upon the idea that all actions, good and bad, have consequences, and that these actions determine the nature of a person’s rebirth. It is an explanation of where and where not to be reborn.

The process of rebirth in Buddhist cosmology is measured in terms of vast aeons of time (kalpa in Sanskrit and kappa in Pali).  A kalpa is given the notional figure of 4,320,000 years. The Buddha explained this vast period with a metaphor:  Suppose there were a seven mile high mountain made of solid rock. Once a century the top of this mountain is stroked with a piece of silk. The mountain would be worn away before a kalpa has passed. However, more kalpas have passed than there are grains of sand in the banks of the river Ganges (Samyutta-nikaya, II 181-184).

The universe itself, or more correctly the endless cycle of rebirths known as samsara, is divided into three worlds. These worlds are known as dhatu. These three worlds are: The world of the five senses (kama-dhatu); the world of pure form (rupa-dhatu); and the formlessness world (arupa-dhatu).

All of these realms, including the realms of form and formlessness, are in the endless cycle of existences, they are part of samsara and subject to the law of kamma. Although some types of rebirth might contain less suffering than others they are all subject to impermanence and suffering.

Being can be reborn in any one of these three worlds. In the world of the five senses there are eleven levels. In the world of pure form there are sixteen levels and in the formless world there are four levels. This means that spread over the three world are thirty-one possible types of rebirth or planes of existence.

In the world of the five senses the lowest is the hell realm known in Pali as niraya. This comprises a number of very negative rebirths. One such place, described as the great hell, is place where beings are tortured.

Next to the hell realms is the animal realm, the realm of hungry ghosts (petas), and the realm of jealous gods (asuras). Animals are thought to be trapped by desire and instinct. Hungry ghosts or petas, also known as the departed, frequent the human realm due to their attachment to the world. They are sometimes portrayed as having huge stomachs and very thin necks, suggesting their frustration at not being able to satisfy their desires. Jealous gods or asuras are power-seeking and power-hungry beings. Their origins clearly goes back to Indian Vedic mythology.

The realm of human beings is one mixed with suffering and happiness. It is, in many ways, the best type of rebirth as it is from a human rebirth that the escape from rebirth, Nibbana, can be most readily achieved. The most auspicious rebirth is to be born in Jambudipa, the ‘rose apple island’ (a place connected with ideas of ancient India) when a Buddha has been born and is teaching the Dhamma.

Above the human realm are various other possible rebirths. Notable among these is the realm of the thirty-three gods (tavatimsa). This is the place where the Buddha’s mother was reborn after her passing. A mother of a Buddha dies seven days after given birth to her son. There are various reasons given for this, the most common idea is that the womb that has carried a future Buddha cannot again be occupied by a living being. The Buddha, several years after achieving Nibbana ascends to the tavatimsa heaven and teaches the intricate philosophy of Buddhism known as the Abhidhamma. This affords his mother great merit and is in a way symbolic of the Buddha’s respect for his elders. This is celebrated during the Thadingyut festival in October when respect for one’s elders is shown. This is associated with the respect shown by the Buddha to his mother.

In the realm of the contented, the Tusita heaven, dwells the next Buddha, Metteya/Maitreya. He is in meditation, awaiting the appropriate time to descend to his earthly life. This will be when the teachings of the previous Buddha are no longer known. And this will be after a very long period of time. This suggests the fortunate nature of being reborn during the time of a Buddha.

There are sixteen types of rebirth in the realm of pure form. These realms are increasingly subtle, and rebirth in them lasts for increasingly long periods of time. Part of their doctrinal importance is that though being happy destinations and lasting for incredibly long periods of time beings born in them are still subject to the consequences of their actions. The happiness, though long-lasting is impermanent.

The highest part of Buddhist cosmology is reserved for the four formlessness realms (arupa-dhatu) which consists of four types of rebirth: the realm of boundless space, the realm of boundless consciousness, the realm of nothingness and the realm of neither perception nor non-perception. These realms correspond to certain specific states that can be achieved in meditation. Indeed, some scholars of Buddhism have suggested that some aspects of Buddhist cosmology corresponds to states of mind achieved in meditation.

This is the Buddhist model of the endless cycle of existences. It explains how the consequences of actions performed in this life will result in a particular type of rebirth in the future. It also suggests how rebirth in a heavenly realm is subject to the subtle but pervasive suffering of impermanence. Rebirth as an animal or god is comparable in that they are both impermanent and pervaded by dukkha. Buddhist cosmology describes the totality of samsara and ultimately the Buddhist strives to overcome all forms of rebirth either as an animal, a human or a god.

Defining ‘dukkha’: The idea of suffering in Buddhism

An article I published in the Myanmar Times on 18th March, 2015.


Defining ‘dukkha’: The idea of suffering in Buddhism

One of the key features of Buddhism is its description of “suffering” (dukkha). Essential to this is the idea that the Buddha’s teachings should not become an object of attachment. If the Buddha’s teachings do become an object of attachment they are liable to be a cause of suffering. Throughout Buddhist history this has formed the cornerstone of much Buddhist philosophy.

In the Pali Canon, which forms the textual basis of Theravada Buddhism, this idea is expressed in a conversation between the Buddha and Dandapani. One can imagine Dandapani as a philosopher, round-shouldered, spending all his time disputing ideas. His name appears to suggest this, literally meaning “stick in hand”, implying that he walks around, leaning on his stick, looking somewhat arrogant.

Hearing of the Buddha, he decides to find out his position – what doctrine he proclaims, what he believes in – and engage him in debate. The philosophically minded young man approaches the Buddha and asks him, “What is the doctrine of the recluse, what does he proclaim?” (kimvadi samano kim akkhayi).

The reply he receives from the Buddha is probably not what he had expected, or particularly wants. He wants a clear doctrine, a set of beliefs, that he can argue with. The Buddha however replies, “I assert and proclaim such a doctrine that one does not argue with anyone in the world … Detached from sense pleasures, without perplexity, remorse cut off.” It is a teaching that leads to complete detachment and freedom from craving and suffering.

Dandapani is clearly confused by what the Buddha has told him: He shakes his head, raises his eyebrows, grimaces three times, and walks away, leaning on his stick. It seems to me that this is the kind of response we can expect to a religious teaching which ultimately leads to the abandoning of all positions, indeed the abandoning of all beliefs.

The Buddha does not propose a set of doctrines that followers of Buddhism should believe in, but makes pronouncements about suffering – its arising, its cessation, and the path to the overcoming of suffering.

When the Buddha began preaching, his first lesson was about the nature of suffering. This teaching is preserved in a discourse called the Dhammacakkappavattana-sutta, (Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion). The term dhamma here has the meaning of the teachings of a Buddha. The text is an indication that the teachings of a Buddha have once again been set in motion. According to the Theravada tradition, all the Buddhas of the past and all the Buddhas in the future will teach a similar teaching. The Buddha’s analysis of the religious path rests on the idea that suffering is an inescapable aspect of all human, animal and godly existence. From the lowest life form to the highest heavenly realm, suffering is an inescapable part of experience.

The Buddha describes this situation by teaching that birth is suffering. Ageing, illness and death are also suffering. He describes attachment with what is displeasing and separation from what is pleasing as suffering. He states that to not get what one wants is suffering. So, when a Buddha preaches, he preaches about suffering.

The idea of suffering is developed in the context of three key themes that were much discussed in the Indian religious context of the time of the Buddha. The first is the idea that all sentient beings are subject to an endless round of rebirths called samsara, or thanthayar in Myanmar language. Within this round of rebirths suffering is unavoidable. Following on from this the second idea is that our actions are causing us to be repeatedly reborn. This is the familiar notion of karma – that all of our actions have consequences. Wholesome actions, those based upon generosity and friendliness, and unwholesome actions, based upon greed and hatred, produce either a positive or negative consequence. But even a good rebirth, in the analysis of the Buddha, will be an impermanent rebirth and this impermanence is a form of suffering. This leads to the final idea: that one should strive to escape from the cycle of rebirths and achieve liberation. In Buddhism liberation is termed nibbana, literally the “blowing out” of greed, hatred and delusion, and the escape from the endless cycle of rebirths.

Suffering is then part of all forms of existence. The term does not merely point to physical suffering, but also to mental suffering and anxiety. Everything pertaining to an unenlightened individual is, on the final analysis, suffering. Even happiness is subject to certain conditions and when these conditions are dismantled happiness will disappear.

There is an important point to be made here about Buddhist culture. The Buddhist monastic is removed from society and is symbolically closer to understanding suffering. Through emulating the Buddha they are thought worthy of respect and donations. In this way we might gain an understanding of one of the reasons that reverence is shown to the monk in Buddhist societies.

The first form of suffering described by the Buddha is physical pain – the pain you feel when touching something hot, for example. The second way of describing suffering is that of change. As all things are “impermanent” (anicca), everything changes and becomes otherwise. The third way that suffering is described is that of conditions. This means that we rely on certain unstable conditions for our happiness and these conditions are unreliable. The conditioned and unstable nature of existence means that the world is frustrating.

It is in the context of the Buddhist description of suffering that we might better appreciate why the Buddha replied to Dandapani in the manner he is reported to have done. In an important sense Buddhism teaches a doctrine whereby the follower of Buddhism does not argue with anyone in the world. Elsewhere in the Pali Canon it is explained that to argue and dispute with others leads to worry, vexation and remorse. Obstinately defending any position with the idea “only this is true, anything else is wrong” (idam eva saccam, moggam annan ti) will lead to even more suffering.

Therefore, in an important way Buddhism is not a belief system but a description of how to escape from an endless cycle of suffering. Throughout the history of Buddhism its philosophers have been concerned with this fundamental idea contained in the Buddha’s teachings: namely, that to believe too rigidly in what the Buddha taught, in the dhamma, is a form of attachment and therefore a cause of suffering. In many ways, Buddhist philosophy is based upon this idea.

Paul Fuller has taught religious studies at universities in Southeast Asia, Australia and the United Kingdom. His research interests include early Indian Buddhist philosophy, the Buddhist ideas of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and ethnocentric Buddhism in Myanmar and Sri Lanka.