The Noble Eightfold Blog

Rebirth and the Buddhist Cosmology

by Eric Van Horn

Copyright © 2015 Eric K. Van Horn

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Table of Contents


The whole situation becomes multiplied further to dimensions beyond calculation when we take into account the Buddha’s disclosure of the fact of rebirth. All beings in whom ignorance and craving remain present wander on in the cycle of repeated existence, saṁsāra, in which each turn brings them the suffering of new birth, ageing, illness, and death. All states of existence within saṁsāra, being necessarily transitory and subject to change, are incapable of providing lasting security. Life in any world is unstable, it is swept away, it has no shelter and protector, nothing of its own (MN 82.36).

- [Bhikkhu Bodhi, Majjhima Nikāya, Introduction]

The teachings on rebirth are as central to the Buddha's teachings as those on jhāna.

As we saw in the story of the night of the Buddha's Awakening, two of his three realizations had to do with rebirth. The first was his ability to see his past lives. The second was his ability to see how beings are reborn according to their karma.

Rebirth has run into a cultural stonewall in the West. On one hand we have religious Westerners who believe in one physical life and one eternal afterlife. On the other hand we have philosophical materialists who only believe in the observable physical universe. The latter believe that when life ends, it ends.

The Buddha called the first idea "eternalism", and the second one "annihilationism", and he rejected them both. Rather, he said, we are born and reborn according to our karma, and the round of rebirths - and the suffering - goes on endlessly unless we break free from it. This is the goal of the practice, to free ourselves from the rounds of rebirth.

(It is beyond the scope of this document to provide proof of rebirth, but if you want to delve into the subject do an Internet search on the words "reincarnation" and "proof".)

When you hang around the Buddhist world long enough, particularly the monastic world where people do lots and lots of intensive meditation, you will hear stories about experiences in other realms. Ṭhānissaro tells a story about a monk who saw into his previous six lives one night. It's not the extensive experience of the Buddha, but it is hovering around the same territory.

We live in a vast and complex universe, and even the physical sciences are saying that we can't see most of it:

All the stars, planets and galaxies that can be seen today make up just 4 percent of the universe. The other 96 percent is made of stuff astronomers can't see, detect or even comprehend.

These mysterious substances are called dark energy and dark matter. Astronomers infer their existence based on their gravitational influence on what little bits of the universe can be seen, but dark matter and energy themselves continue to elude all detection.

"The overwhelming majority of the universe is: who knows?" explains science writer Richard Panek, who spoke about these oddities of our universe on Monday (May 9) at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY) here in Manhattan. "It's unknown for now, and possibly forever".

- [Richard Panek, The 4 Percent Universe]

I mentioned in the chapter on causality the monk who asserts that the different realms exist in the same physical space, just at different vibrational frequencies. This is why some people can see ghosts, because ghosts live at a vibrational frequency that is close to the human realm. Some people also see "devas" - sort of lower level gods - for the same reason.

I will also offer this story.

I know a meditation teacher who was in Thailand with a friend at the 10th anniversary of Ajahn Chah's death. Ajahn Chah is a revered forest Ajahn - teacher - in the Thai forest tradition. This friend was taking pictures with her camera phone, but none of them came out properly. Even though it was a crystal clear day, they had these smudges on them, like raindrops. She tried everything to get a clear picture, but nothing worked. Finally she showed the pictures to one of the monks who said, "Oh, those are the devas".

Devas Figure: Devas at Ajahn Chah's Death Commemoration

The Stages of Awakening

With the utter destruction of three fetters, he is a stream-enterer, no longer subject to [rebirth in] the lower world, fixed in destiny, with enlightenment as his destination...

With the utter destruction of three fetters and with the diminishing of greed, hatred, and delusion, he is a once-returner who, after coming back to this world only one more time, will make an end of suffering...

With the utter destruction of the five lower fetters, he is one of spontaneous birth, due to attain final nibbāna there without returning from that world...

With the destruction of the taints, he realizes for himself with direct knowledge, in this very life, the taintless liberation of mind, liberation by wisdom, and having entered upon it, he dwells in it. - [AN 3.86]

According to the Buddha, there are four stages to Awakening:

  1. Stream entry (Pāli: Sotāpanna) - A stream-enterer is a person has "entered the stream" that flows inevitably to nirvāṇa (Pāli: nibbana). A stream-enterer will attain a full Awakening within seven lifetimes at most, and in the interim is not reborn in any of the lower realms.
  2. Once-returner (Pāli: Sakadāgāmin) - A once-returner will be reborn in the human realm no more than one more time before attaining a full Awakening.
  3. Non-returner (Pāli: Anāgāmi) - A non-returner is not reborn in the human realm before attaining Awakening, being reborn instead into the "heaven of the Pure Abodes".
  4. Full-Awakening (Pāli: Arahant) - A fully Awakened/Liberated being who is free from suffering. The Third Noble Truth is realized.

You define each stage of Awakening by how many "fetters" are overcome. There are ten fetters, five "lower fetters" and five "higher fetters". A stream-enterer overcomes the first three - lower - fetters. These are:

  1. Self-identity view - That is, the identification with the aggregates (body, feelings, perception, mental formations and consciousness) as "self".
  2. Doubt - This is doubt or uncertainty in the Buddha's teachings.
  3. Attachment to rites and rituals - This probably had to do with the Brahmin belief that the proper performance of religious rites by the priests leads to a happy rebirth. (Ṭhānissaro says that this also has to do with our attachments to habits, like doing things in a certain order every morning after you get up.)

A once-returner weakens the next two lower fetters:

  1. Sense-desire
  2. Ill-will

A non-returner overcomes these fetters entirely.

An Arahant overcomes the five higher fetters:

  1. Desire for a material rebirth - This is rebirth in one of the physical realms.
  2. Desire for an immaterial rebirth - This is rebirth in one of the immaterial realms.
  3. Restlessness - (For those of you are restless in your meditation, note that this is not eliminated until a final Awakening, so go easy on yourself.)
  4. Ignorance - most especially the Four Noble Truths, in their entirety of meaning.
  5. Conceit

While at stream-entry you eliminate self-identification with the aggregates, what happens is still self-referential. There is still a sense that "I" am doing the abandoning. An Arahant does not have this notion. An Arahant would not think, "I am an Arahant", only that the attainment of liberation occurred. This is sometimes simply called "knowing".

I skipped over the desire for rebirth in the material and the immaterial realms. These will become clear in the next section where we discuss the Buddhist cosmology.

The Buddhist Cosmology

But how is it, Master Gotama, are there gods?”

It is known to me to be the case, Bhāradvāja, that there are gods. - [MN 100.42]

What follows may seem caught somewhere between science fiction and pure fantasy. Make of it what you will. A few years ago I heard a talk by Bhikkhu Bodhi on this topic, and midway through it someone asked him - rather incredulously - "Do you think this is true?" His response was, "I think something like this is true".

To be sure, the cosmology as we understand it was formalized in the centuries after the Buddha's death. He never gave a discourse on the topic. However, many of the realms described here show up in his discourses. The rest of them come from later works like the Abhidharma and the Visuddhimagga.

However, there is this passage that lists a number of realms in the "Kevaddha Sutta: About Kevaddha - What Brahma Didn’t Know" [DN 11]:

...Once, Kevaddha, in this order of monks the thought occurred to a certain monk: “I wonder where the four great elements - the earth element, the water element, the fire element, the air element - cease without remainder.” And that monk attained to such a state of mental concentration that the way to the deva-realms appeared before him.

‘Then, coming to the Realm of the devas of the Four Great Kings, he asked those devas: “Friends, where do the four great elements -- earth, water, fire and air - cease without remainder?” At this question the devas of the Four Great Kings said to him: “Monk, we don’t know where the four great elements cease without remainder. But the Four Great Kings are loftier and wiser than we are. They may know where the four great elements cease ... ”

‘So that monk went to the Four Great Kings and asked the same question, but they replied: “We don’t know, but the Thirty-Three Gods may know...”

‘So that monk went to the Thirty-Three Gods, who said: “We don’t know, but Sakka, lord of the gods, may know...”

‘Sakka, lord of the gods, said: “The Yāma devas may know ... ”

‘The Yama devas said: “Suyāma, son of the devas, may know ... ”

‘Suyama said: “The Tusita devas may know...”

‘The Tusita devas said: “Santusita, son of the devas, may know...”

‘Santusita said: “The Nimmanarati devas may know...”

‘The Nimmanarati devas said: “Sunimmita, son of the devas, may know...”

‘Sunimitta said: “The Paranimmita-Vasavatti devas may know...”

‘The Paranimmita-Vasavatti devas said: “Vasavatti, son of the devas, may know...”

‘Vasavatti said: “The devas of Brahmā’s retinue may know ... ”

‘Then that monk, by the appropriate concentration, made the way to the Brahmā world appear before him. He went to the devas of Brahmā’s retinue and asked them. They said: “We don’t know. But there is Brahmā, Great Brahmā, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-Seeing, All-Powerful, the Lord, the Maker and Creator, the Ruler, Appointer and Orderer, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be. He is loftier and wiser than we are. He would know where the four great elements cease without remainder.” - [DN 11.67-80]

(He didn't know.)

Here the Buddha walks us through the heavenly realms up to and including the Brahmā realm, "Brahmā" being the supreme god.

(There are 8 discourses in the Majjhima Nikāya that mention the Buddhist cosmology, 5 in the Digha Nikāya, etc., so this cosmological reference is not the only one.)

The final cosmology is a little suspicious because there are 31 realms plus the unconditioned realm, making 32, and 32 is a sort of magic number in ancient India. For example, they believed that a "great man" would have 32 marks. So the inference is that the cosmology was modified to fit that number. However, as Bhikkhu Bodhi states, it is probably something like this.

Practically, the most important point is that we live in these realms, being born and reborn and reborn, over and over again. Each time we are reborn according to our karma, and more precisely the karma that manifests at the time of rebirth. Thus, as already noted, karma is not deterministic, but probabilistic. Having a lot of good karma improves the odds, but it is no guarantee.

Further, even a good rebirth has its dangers. Beings in the heavenly realms are prone to conceit and arrogance, feelings of superiority over other beings, and this leads to lower rebirths. It is the inevitable fall from grace. Thus we move up and down through the realms like moving through the floors of a building. The upper floors are happy rebirths, and the floors below ground are unhappy rebirths.

What makes this so fundamental to the Buddha's teachings is that we are playing a very dangerous game of roulette. At stake is infinite rebirths up and down this cosmic building. Inevitably we are reborn into undesirable realms. Even the human realm - which is relatively positive - is, well, look around you. Turn on the news. It's not so great.

So while good karma and a good rebirth are certainly better than bad karma and a bad rebirth, the only way out is to attain an Awakening. It is the only way to free yourself from being thrashed about somewhat randomly, deposited here and there through infinite time, which is what has happened to us so far.

This understanding also should increase compassion for others and decrease our own arrogance. We have been in all the realms an infinite number of times. Everyone you see who is poor, starving, sick, a murderer, a drug addict, ruthless, mean, whatever it might be, we have all been there, we have all been that person. As the Christians would say, "There but for the grace of God go I." And without attaining an Awakening, you will be right back there some day. Maybe you are there now.

The Mahayana traditions accuse the Theravada of being self-centered, of only seeking their own happiness and liberation. We have already seen that this is not true, that - as the Buddha says - the best way to practice is for ourselves and others. And the more skillful your practice becomes, the more benefit you are to the people around you. It is not possible to do this practice properly and not be of benefit. We also do a lot of mischief because of our ignorance, so that begins to go away as well.

In addition, I heard Ayya Khema make an interesting comment once. Ayya Khema, I believe most people think, was an Arahant. She died in 1997. Her comment was that when you become an Arahant, after your physical death - "parinibbāna", in Buddhist terms - you become part of the fabric of the universe in a way that contributes to the greater good of all beings. Your Arahantship lifts everyone up throughout all time and space.

I certainly would have no way of knowing if this is true, but if it is, it demonstrates the supreme importance of Awakening. The Mahayana Buddhists - to their credit - emphasize full Awakening only after all beings are free. This is (I am guessing) because in the 1st millennium in India, when it was a Buddhist country, there were probably plenty of selfish monks and nuns, and the Mahayana Buddhists wanted to emphasize altruism, and to make that a centerpiece of their practice.

But the Buddha did not teach this, and I know many Theravada monks who are completely selfless. And I have met many self-preoccupied, arrogant Mahayana Buddhists. (There are plenty of self-preoccupied, arrogant Theravadans as well.) But one can certainly speculate that what Ayya Khema intimates is true. The Buddha was someone in whom extreme, pure altruism manifested. He was incapable of teaching a path that was not for the benefit of all beings.

The Buddha famously only taught what is necessary to attain an Awakening. We have seen how he refused to answer certain questions, such as whether or not the self exists, because they were of no benefit. In the Saṃyutta Nikāya there is this famous passage:

On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling at Kosambī in a siṃsapā grove. Then the Blessed One took up a few siṃsapā leaves in his hand and addressed the bhikkhus thus: “What do you think, bhikkhus, which is more numerous: these few siṃsapā leaves that I have taken up in my hand or those in the siṃsapā grove overhead?”

“Venerable sir, the siṃsapā leaves that the Blessed One has taken up in his hand are few, but those in the siṃsapā grove overhead are numerous.”

“So too, bhikkhus, the things I have directly known but have not taught you are numerous, while the things I have taught you are few. And why, bhikkhus, have I not taught those many things? Because they are unbeneficial, irrelevant to the fundamentals of the holy life, and do not lead to revulsion, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna. Therefore I have not taught them. - [SN 56.31]

The Buddha was not hiding anything from us. There is no double secret probation in the Buddha's teachings. There is no punch line that you have to figure out for yourself. The Buddha fixated on one thing, and that was showing us the way out.

(I heard this story on "The West Wing". A man falls into a manhole. Whenever he sees someone walk by, he calls for help. Finally someone stops, looks down into the hole, and jumps in. "What did you do that for?" the man asks. "Now we are both stuck down here." "Yes," said the other man, "But I have been down here, and I know the way out.")

It does take faith to do this practice. A lot of people don't want to hear that. But it isn't blind faith. With experience you develop "confirmed confidence" (Pāli: aveccappasāda). You see it for yourself. But the unconditioned realm is not describable in conventional terms of time and space. When you become a stream-enterer, then you see what the Buddha says is true. But along the way, as you see the teachings manifest, as you see yourself becoming happier and more skillful, your confidence grows.

Finally, you may hear that it is only possible to Awaken in the human realm, that the human realm is the only one that has the right balance between suffering and happiness. In the lower realms there is too much suffering to practice, and in the upper realms it is too pleasant, so there is not enough incentive to practice.

The Buddha never says this. We already know that some beings are practicing in the upper realms because non-returners have to be. There are happier realms, and they may be more conducive to practice because you don't have to worry about mowing the lawn or overdrawing your checking account.

The Realms of Existence

The Buddhist cosmology as pieced together from various sources looks like this:

Realms Figure: Realms in the Buddhist Cosmology

So here is the nickel tour.

The word "aoen" is the English translation of the Sanskrit word "kalpa" (Pāli: kappa). In both Hinduism and Buddhism a kalpa is a life of the universe, i.e., the time between the creation and recreation of a universe. Note that Western scientists only started to believe in a cyclical model of the universe in the 1980's.

A "celestial year" is "360 celestial days". A celestial day equals 50 human years in the lowest heaven ("the four great kings") and doubles with each level. In other words, it's a long time.

So starting from the top down, if - when you die - you have mastered the eighth jhāna, "the sphere of neither perception nor non-perception", you will be reborn into the highest formless world, and be there for 84,000 aeons. And so on down the line to the heavenly realm of "Brahmā's retinue", which is the lowest heavenly realm that corresponds to a mastery of jhāna. Thus there is a mapping between the human mind and human consciousness and the highest 20 heavenly realms.

Just below that are the 6 heavenly realms of the "devas". Devas are "lower-level gods", similar to humans, but happier, longer-lived, and more powerful. Because devas are close to human beings in the hierarchy, there are people who can see them. Bhikkhu Bodhi says that at the monastery in Sri Lanka where he was, there was a valley next to the monastery where lots of devas lived, and some of the monks could see them. Tradition also holds that devas know where they are not welcome, or where human beings are not well-behaved, so it is unlikely that devas live in places that lack compassion and kindness. They're not hanging around Walmart, Trump Towers, or hedge fund managers.

Going below the human realm, you can see the places where you don't want to go. These realms also map to human consciousness. Hell maps to anger in human consciousness. You probably know people who are angry all the time. This is the hell realm manifesting in a human life.

The amount of time someone spends in a hell realm depends on their karma. A basically good person who has some bad karma manifesting may be there for a brief time. Someone who is especially cruel will be there for a very long time, perhaps aeons. (Think "Nazis".)

There are those who believe that Christians got their notion of hell from Buddhism. You may have heard that in Jesus' lost "40 days in the desert" that he went to India where he was influenced by Buddhism. Buddhism was in its hey-day in India at that time, pre-dating Jesus life by about 400 years. Many early Christians, including St. Augustine, believed in reincarnation.

The primary characteristic of the animal realm is that animals only behave according to their nature. Lions are lions and monkeys are monkeys, alligators are alligators. You also see this at play in the human world where some people do not exercise any filters or judgment in their behavior. One of the qualities that we cultivate in our practice is the ability to exercise choice, not to be victims of our thoughts and emotions.

Hungry ghosts (Pāli: peta) have unquenchable desire. They are usually depicted with huge stomachs and very small throats; their hunger is never satisfied This is a metaphor for all types of desire. You may know people like this; no matter how much they have, it is never enough. People like this are never happy; they are never contented. They are hungry ghosts living in the human realm, and they may be reborn in the hungry ghost realm.

Hungry ghost Figure: Hungry ghosts

Hungry ghosts play an important part in the Buddha's teaching. The foundation of the path is generosity. Generosity is the feeling that you have more than enough, so much so that you can give it away. All of our conditioned experience - the prison of saṁsāra in which we find ourselves - is because we are constantly feeding, wanting, craving and clinging, and generosity is the antidote for that.

The jealous gods (Pāli: asura) are self-absorbed, egotistical, violent, angry with everyone, always looking for a fight. They are addicted to their passions. The Zen patriarch Zhiyi says this about the asuras: “Always desiring to be superior to others, having no patience for inferiors and belittling strangers; like a hawk, flying high above and looking down on others, and yet outwardly displaying justice, worship, wisdom, and faith - this is raising up the lowest order of good and walking the way of the Asuras.” - [Wikipedia]

They are the bullies of the cosmos.

Implications of the Buddhist Cosmology

There are many implications to looking at existence from this perspective. For example, you may find that parts of your temperament are problematic. Whatever quality it is, it may be manifesting as its opposite from a previous life. The Buddhist tradition famously holds that stinginess manifests as poverty, and wealth manifests from generosity.

Another example is that some people, no matter how knowledgeable they are, find that others tend not to find them credible. This is from past karma. People who lied a lot in a previous life will have this quality manifesting.

This is not intended to make us more judgmental. It just puts everything into a bigger space. And remember, it does not imply that someone is inherently superior or inferior, only that a particular type of karma is manifesting.

It also helps us to dis-identify with such traits. If you see such a trait, you can be a little more accepting of it. Of course, you want to work with it and cultivate virtue. But if it is a strong part of your temperament, it may not go away.

There is a story about Ajahn Chah and a lay person who had known him for 10 years. One day Ajahn Chah mentioned that he had an inherently angry temperament. The lay person was very surprised, and said that he had never seen Ajahn Chah get angry. Ajahn Chah responded that while the anger arose, "It has nowhere to go". That is a skillful way to cultivate the mind.

Our relationships may also have karmic roots in a previous life. You may meet people who have strong negative responses to you even though you have done nothing to warrant that. That may be the result of past karma. Or you may find yourself strongly drawn to someone, likewise for no discernible reason. The Buddhist tradition also holds that we are born to our parents because of karmic links. These may be good or bad.

It is important to remember that we don't really know. The Buddha himself said that if you try to understand all the causes and conditions that have a certain result you will go mad. [AN 4.77] But it can be helpful to know that when seemingly inexplicable events happen, they may be karmically rooted.

And finally, there is the really big picture. This path is not just about dealing with an unhappy job or being a little less stressed out on the drive to work or making up with your significant other. The stakes are enormous. The whole of existence is full of risks. It is all a bit of a crap shoot. We can improve the odds, but there are never any guarantees. The Buddha's final words before his passing were these:

Then the Lord said to the monks: ‘Now, monks, I declare to you: all conditioned things are of a nature to decay - strive on untiringly.’ These were the Tathāgata’s last words. - [DN 16.6.7]


In this section we saw how the teachings on rebirth are central to the Buddha's path. We discussed the stages of Awakening:

  1. Stream-entry
  2. Once-returner
  3. Non-returner
  4. Arahant

We discussed the 31 realms of existence (plus nirvāṇa/nibbana, making 32), and how we are born and reborn according to our karma.

And finally we discussed some of the implications of rebirth, how our karma may be playing out in this lifetime. Most importantly, the rounds of rebirth are uncertain, and we should "strive on untiringly" to Awaken, for this is the only guarantee of freedom.