According to the Buddhist teachings, we human beings are not the only sentient beings in this universe. Sentient beings are, by definition, beings that can feel (sense) and perceive. In other words, they are beings with consciousness.
The Buddhist cosmology divides the universe into three main worlds. They are:
- Immaterial World (Arupaloka)
- Fine Material World (Rupaloka)
- Sensuous World (Kammaloka)
Beings in the Arupaloka has no form, only mind. They also have no sense organs and therefore cannot see or hear anything. Although the state of mind of these beings are very refined and blissful, the Arupaloka world is not considered to be an ideal place to be in because the beings there do not have the opportunity to hear the dhamma. There is, however, no suffering in this world.
Due to their long lifespan – the beings in Arupaloka live up to 84,000 eons or world cycles – and their blissful state, they are unable to appreciate the three characteristics of life, which are sufferings (dukkha), impermanence (anicca) and non-self (anatta).
There are four planes in the Arupaloka:
- Plane of Neither Perception nor Non-Perception (Eighth Jhana)
- Plane of Nothingness (Seventh Jhana)
- Plane of Infinite Consciousness (Sixth Jhana)
- Plane of Infinite Space (Fifth Jhana)
Beings are born into these planes according to the level of jhana that they have cultivated and achieved.
Beings in this Rupaloka world have very subtle, light bodies. They have the ability to see and hear but do not have the other three senses of smell, taste and touch. They are born into this world also according to the level of jhana that they have achieved, namely the first, second, third and fourth jhanas.
There are three planes each in the first, second and third jhana and seven planes in the fourth jhana, making a total of sixteen planes in the Rupaloka. The Pure Abodes, where the Anagami or Non-Returners are reborn, are found in the fourth jhana plane.
This kammaloka is a sensuous world. This is because the beings in this world possess the five physical senses to sense and perceive the material world they live in. Kammaloka, in turn, can be subdivided into two main groups – the woeful planes and the happy planes.
The woeful planes consist of these four planes – the hell plane, the hungry ghost plane, the animal plane and the asura plane. These planes are considered suffering planes because the sentient beings in these planes are constantly exposed to suffering and painful conditions and do not have the wisdom or state of mind to learn the dhamma.
There are seven planes in the happy planes of the kammaloka, of which our human world is one of these planes. The other six planes are:
- The Plane of the Four Great Kings
- Plane of the Thirty-Three Gods (Tavatimsa)
- Plane of the Yama Gods
- Plane of Delight (Tusita)
- Plane of Devas who delight in Creation
- Plane of Devas who delights in the Creation of Others
These happy planes are considered to be heavenly existence because the conditions there are blissful and happy. Although the word “deva” is often used to refer to these beings, they are not to be confused with the Devas in the Rupaloka, which are considered to be in a higher and more heavenly realm. The Devas in the Rupaloka are sometimes also referred to as Brahmas to differentiate them from the devas in the happy planes.
All the planes, when added up, make up the 31 planes of existence in the Buddhist scriptures.
Notable Characters in the Buddhist scriptures
According to the scriptures, Brahma Sahampati was the Deva who entreated the Buddha to preach the dhamma after his enlightenment. Brahma Sahampati is a non-returner or Anagami who resides in the Pure Abodes.
The Great Brahma, who thought he was the creator of the universe, resides in the highest level of the First Jhana planes in the Rupaloka. Since his lifespan corresponds to one world cycle, he was able to see all that appear after him. However, he was not able to see or perceive the existence of other sentient beings above him in the higher jhanas. Thus, he mistakenly thought that the universe appears because of him.
Mara, the deva who attempted to prevent the Buddha from gaining his enlightenment, resides in the Plane of Devas who delight in the Creation of Others, the highest plane in the Kammaloka. It is important to clarify that Mara was, in fact, a god and not a being from any of the woeful planes. From this, we can know that devas in the happy planes of the Kammaloka are not enlightenment beings. They are reborn in these happy planes due to their merits accumulated in previous lives through their generosity (dana) and virtues (sila).
This is not to say that there are no enlightened beings in the happy planes. The beings there are just like us in the human plane, consisting of a wide spectrum of beings with different degree of wisdom.
It is important to realize that beings are reborn in the various planes due to the state or quality of their mind. Another point to note is that having a high jhana achievement is not equivalent to wisdom or an enlightened mind, according to the Buddhist teachings. Thus beings can be reborn in even the highest jhana plane (the 8th jhana) and still not be enlightened.
The Tusita heaven in the happy plane of the Kammaloka is where the next Buddha-to-be is reborn in. It was also the plane from which our present Sakyamuni (Gotama) Buddha was before his final rebirth into our human plane where he gained enlightenment.
- The 31 Planes of Existence (Buddhanet)
- The 31 Planes of Existence (Accesstoinsight.org)
- Four Worlds of the Kabbalah