Realms of Existence
By Ven. Dr. K. Sri Dhammanada - From the book "What Buddhist Believe"
The Following Sections are Covered in this Document
Contents Section
The Origin of the World 1
Other World Systems 2
The Buddhist Concept of Heaven and Hell 3
Belief in Deities (Devas) 4
Existence of Spirits 5
The Significance of Transference of Merits to the Departed 6
  - Highest Gift to the Departed 6.1
“There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our thoughts.”

THERE are three schools of thought regarding the origin of the world. The first school of thought claims that this world came into existence by nature and that nature is not an intelligent force. However, nature works on its own accord and goes on changing. The second school of thought says that the world was created by an almighty God who is responsible for everything.

The third school of thought says that the beginning of this world and of life is inconceivable since they have neither beginning nor end. Buddhism is in accordance with this third school of thought. Bertrand Russell supports this school of thought by saying, ‘There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our thoughts.'

Modern science says that some millions of years ago, the gradually cooled earth was lifeless and that life originated in the ocean. Buddhism has never claimed that the world, sun, moon, stars, wind, water, days and nights were created by a powerful god or by a Buddha. Buddhists believe that the world was not created once upon a time, but that the world has been created millions of times every second and will continue to do so by itself and will eventually by itself. According to Buddhism: world systems always appear, change, decay and disappear in the universe in a never-ending cycle.

H.G. Wells, in A SHORT HISTORY OF THE WORLD , says ‘It is universally recognised that the universe in which we live, has to all appearances, existed for an enormous period of time and possibly for endless time. But that the universe in which we live, has existed only for six or seven thousand years may be regarded as an altogether exploded idea. No life seems to have happened suddenly upon earth.'

The efforts made by many religions to explain the beginning and the end of the universe are indeed ill conceived. The position of religions which propound the view that the universe was created by God in an exactly fixed year, has become a difficult one to maintain in the light of modern and scientific knowledge.

Today scientists, historians, astronomers, biologists, botanists, anthropologists and great thinkers have all contributed vast new knowledge about the origin of the world. This latest discovery and knowledge is not at all contradictory to the Teachings of the Buddha. Bertrand Russell again says that he respects the Buddha for not making false statements like others who committed themselves regarding the origin of the world.

The speculative explanations of the origin of the universe that are presented by various religions are not acceptable to the modern scientists and intellectuals. On the other hand, even the com­mentaries of the Buddhist Scriptures, written by certain Buddhist writers, cannot be challenged by scientific thinking in regard to this question. The Buddha did not waste His time on this issue although He did make passing references to the magnitude of the cosmos. His main aim was to help His disciples escape from suffering in Samsara. The reason for His silence was that this issue has no religious value for gaining spiritual wisdom. The explanation of the origin of the universe is not a spiritual concern. Such theorizing is not necessary for living a righteous way of life and for shaping our future lives. However, if one insists on studying this subject, then one must investigate the sciences, astronomy, geology, biology and anthropology. These sciences can offer more reliable and tested information on this subject than can be supplied by any religion.The purpose of a religion is to cultivate the life here in this world and hereafter until liberation is gained and not merely to satisfy our curiousity about the operation of the universe.

To the Buddha, the world is nothing but Samsara—the cycle of repeated births and deaths. To Him, the beginning of the world and the end of the world is within this Samsara. Since elements and energies are relative and inter-dependent, it is meaningless to single out anything as the beginning. Whatever speculation we make regarding the origin of the world, there is no absolute truth in our notion.

“Infinite is the sky, infinite is the number of beings, Infinite are the worlds in the vast universe, Infinite in wisdom the Buddha teaches these, Infinite are the virtues of Him who teaches these.” (SRI RAMACHANDRA )

One day a man called Malunkyaputta approached the Buddha and demanded that He explain the origin of the Universe. He even threatened to cease to be His follower if the Buddha did not reveal this. The Buddha calmly retorted that it was of no consequence to Him whether or not Malunkyaputta followed Him, because the Truth did not need anyone's support. Then the Buddha said that He would not go into a discussion of the origin of the Universe. To Him, gaining knowledge about such matters was a waste of time because a man's task was to liberate himself from suffering. To illustrate this, the Enlightened One related the parable of a man who was shot by a poisoned arrow. This foolish man refused to have the arrow removed until he found out all about the person who shot the arrow. By the time his attendants discovered these unnecessary details, the man was dead. Similarly, our immediate task is to attain Nirvana, not to worry about the beginning or the end of the world.

And all that is necessary to escape from rebirth into a suffering existence is taught in the Four Noble Truths. Anything beyond these Truths was not the concern of the Buddha, just as knowledge of the origin of water is not necessary to quench one's thirst.

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In the light of modern, scientific discoveries, we can appreciate the limitations of the human world and accept the hypothesis that other world systems can exist in other parts of the universe.

ON certain occasions, when the Buddha knew that the listeners was intellectually ready to understand, He did comment on the nature and composition of the universe. According to Him, other forms of life exist in other parts of the universe. The Buddha has mentioned that there are thirty-one planes of existence within the universes. They are:

4 States of unhappiness or sub human realms: (life in hells, animal life, ghost-worlds and demon-worlds)
1 Human world.
6 Devalokas or heavenly realms
16 Rupalokas or Realms of Fine-Material Forms.
4 Arupalokas or Formless Realms.*

The existence of these other-world systems is yet to be confirmed by modern science. However, modern scientists are now working with the hypothesis that there is a possibility of other forms of life existing on other planets. As a result of today's rapid scientific progress, we may soon find some living beings on other planets in the remotest parts of the galaxy. Perhaps, we will find them subject to the same laws as ourselves. They might be physically quite different in appearance, elements and chemical composition and exist in different dimensions. They might be far superior to us or they might be far inferior.

Why should the planet earth be the only planet to contain life forms? Earth is a tiny speck in a huge universe. Sir James Jeans, a distinguished astrophysicist, estimates the whole universe to be about one thousand million times as big as the area of space that is visible through the telescope. In his book, T HE MYSTERIOUS UNIVERSE , he states that the total number of universes is probably something like the total number of grains of sand on all the sea shores of the world. In such a cosmos, the planet Earth is only one-millionth of a grain of sand. He also informs us that the light from the sun, which takes about 8 minutes to travel the 93 million miles to earth, probably takes something like 100,000 million years to travel across the universe! Such is the vastness of the cosmos. When we consider the vastness of the many universes making up what is popularly known as ‘outer space', the hypothesis that other-world systems might exist is scientifically feasible.

In the light of modern scientific discoveries, we can appreciate the limitations of the human world. Today, science has demonstrated that our human world exists within the limitations of the vibrational frequencies that can be received by our sense organs. And science has also shown us that there are other vibrational frequencies which are above or below our range of reception. With the discovery of radio waves, X-rays, T.V. waves, and microwaves, we can appreciate the extremely limited vision that is imposed on us by our sense organs. We peep out at the universe through the ‘crack' allowed by our sense organs, just as a little child peeps out through the crack in the door. This awareness of our limited perception demonstrates to us the possibility that other world systems may exist that are separate from ours or that interpenetrate with ours. In Hamlet, Shakespeare says “There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in thy philosophy”. How true!

As to the nature of the universe, the Buddha said that the beginning and ending of the universe is inconceivable. Buddhists do not believe that there is such thing as the complete destruction of the whole universe at once. When a certain section of the universe disappears, another section remains. When the other section disappears, yet another section reappears or evolves out of the dispersed matters of the previous universe. This is formed by the accumulation of molecules, basic elements, gas and numerous energies, a combination supported by cosmic impulsion and gravity. Then some other new world systems appear and exist for sometime. This is the nature of the cosmic energies. This is why the Buddha says that the beginning and the end of the universe are inconceivable.

It was only on certain, special occasions, that the Buddha commented on the nature and composition of the universe. When He spoke, He had to address Himself to the understanding capacity of the enquirer. The Buddha was not interested in the kind of metaphysical speculation that did not lead to higher spiritual development and insight. He knew that a clever person who talks a lot is not necessarily a wise person.

Buddhists do not share the view held by some people that the world will be destroyed by a god, when there are more non-believers and more corruptions taking place amongst the human beings. With regard to this belief people can ask, instead of destroying with his power, why can't this god use the same power to influence people to become believers and to wipe out all immoral practices? Whether god destroys or not, it is natural that one day there will be an end to everything that comes into existence. And the process will continue indefinitely. In the language of the Buddha, the world is nothing more than the combination, existence, disappearance, and recombination of mind and matter ( nama-rupa ).

In the final analysis, the Teaching of the Buddha goes beyond the discoveries of modern science however startling or impressive they may be. In science, the knowledge of the universe is to enable humanity to master it for material comfort and personal safety. But the Buddha teaches that no amount of factual knowledge can ultimately free mankind from the pain of existence. A person must strive alone and diligently until he or she arrives at a true understanding of his or her own nature and of the changeable nature of the cosmos. To be truly free a person must seek to tame the mind, to destroy craving for sensual pleasure. When one truly understands that the universe one is trying to conquer is impermanent, one will see oneself as Don Quixote fighting windmills. With this Right View of oneself, one will spend one's time and energy conquering the mind and destroying the illusion of self without wasting effort on unimportant and unnecessary issues.

*For further details read ‘The 31 Planes of Existence' by E. Baptist

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Wise people make their own heaven while foolish people create their own hell here and hereafter.

THE Buddhist concept of heaven and hell is entirely different from that in other religions. Buddhists do not accept that these places are eternal. It is unreasonable to condemn a person to eternal hell for his or her human weakness but quite reasonable to give a person every chance to develop him or herself. From the Buddhist point of view, those who go to hell can work themselves upwards by making use of the merit that they had acquired previously. There are no locks on the gates of hell. Hell is a temporary place and there is no reason for those beings to suffer there forever.

The Buddha's Teaching shows us that there are heavens and hells not only beyond this world, but in this very world itself. Thus the Buddhist conception of heaven and hell is very reasonable. For instance, the Buddha once said, “When the average ignorant person makes an assertion to the effect that there is a Hell (patala) under the ocean he is making a statement which is false and without basis. The word ‘Hell' is a term for painful sensations.” The idea of one particular ready-made place or a place created by god as heaven and hell is not acceptable to the Buddhist concept.

The fire of hell in this world is hotter than that of any possible hell in the world-beyond. There is no fire equal to anger, lust or greed and ignorance. According to the Buddha, we are burning from eleven kinds of physical pain and mental agony: lust, hatred, illusion, sickness, decay, death, worry, lamentation, pain (physical and mental), melancholy and grief. People can burn the entire world with some of these fires of mental discord. From a Buddhist point of view, the easiest way to define hell and heaven is that wherever there is more suffering, either in this world or any other plane, that place is a hell to those who suffer. And where there is more pleasure or happiness, either in this world or any other plane of existence, that place is a heaven to those who enjoy their worldly life in that particular place. However, as the human realm is a mixture of both pain and happiness, human beings experience both pain and happiness and will be able to realise the real nature of life. But in many other planes of existence inhabitants have less chance for this realisation. In certain places there is more suffering than pleasure while in some other places there is more pleasure than suffering.

Buddhists believe that after death rebirth can take place in any one of a number of possible existences. This future existence is conditioned by the last thought-moment a person experiences at the point of death. This last thought which determines the next existence results from the past actions of a man either in this life or before that. Hence, if the predominant thought reflects meritorious action, then he or she will find the future existence in a happy state. But that state is temporary and when it is exhausted a new life must begin all over again, determined by another dominating ‘karmic' energy which lies dormant in the subconscious mind, waiting for the right conditions to become active. This is very much like a seed waiting for rain and sunshine to sprout. This repetitious process goes on endlessly unless one arrives at ‘Right View' and makes a firm resolve to follow the Noble Path which produces the ultimate happiness of Nirvana. Heaven is a temporary place where those who have done good deeds experience more sensual pleasures for a longer period. Hell is another temporary place where those evil doers experience more physical and mental suffering. It is not justifiable to believe that such places are permanent. There is no god behind the scene of heaven and hell. Each and every person experiences pain or pleasure according to good and bad karma. Buddhists never try to introduce Buddhism by frightening people through hell-fire or enticing people by pointing to paradise. Their main purpose is character building and mental training. Buddhists can practise their religion without aiming at heaven or without developing fear of hell. Their duty is to lead righteous lives by upholding humane qualities and peace of mind.

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Buddhists do not deny the existence of various gods or deities.

DEVAS are more fortunate than human beings as far as sensual pleasures are concerned. They also possess certain powers which human beings usually lack. However, the powers of these deities are limited because they are also transitory beings. They exist in happy abodes and enjoy their life for a longer period than human beings do. When they have exhausted all the effects of their good karma, which they gathered during previous births, these deities pass away and are reborn somewhere else accord­ing to their residual good and bad karma earned on previous lives. According to the Buddha, human beings have more opportunities to accrue merits to be born in a better condition, and the deities have fewer chances in this respect since they are more concerned with sensual pleasures.

Buddhists do not attribute any specific importance to such gods. They do not regard the deities as a support for the moral development or as a support for the attainment of salvation of Nirvana. Whether they are great or small, both human beings and deities are perishable and subject to rebirth. Therefore, we share a common destiny with the gods.

It is a common belief amongst the Buddhist public that such deities can be influenced to grant their favours by inviting them to share the merits we accrue whenever meritorious deeds are performed. This belief is based on the Buddha's injunction to the deities to protect those human beings who lead a religious way of life. This is the reason why Buddhists invite these deities to share the merits or remember them whenever they do some meritorious deeds. However, making of offerings to and worshipping such deities are not encouraged as a means to salvation, although some Buddhist customs centre around such activities. When people are in great difficulties, they naturally turn to the deities to express their grievances in a place of worship. By doing this, they gain some relief and consolation; in their hearts, they feel much better. However, to an intellectual who has strong will power, sound education and understanding, such beliefs and actions need not be resorted to. There is definitely no Teaching in Buddhism to the effect that Buddhists can attain Nirvana by praying to any deity. Buddhists believe that ‘purity and impurity depend on oneself. No one from outside can purify another.' (DHAMMAPADA 165)

Buddhahood and Nirvana can be attained without any help from an external source. Therefore, Buddhists can practise their religion with or without the deities.

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There are visible and invisible beings or spirits in the same way as there are visible and invisible lights.

BUDDHISM does not deny the existence of good and evil spirits. There are visible and invisible beings or spirits in the same way as there are visible and invisible lights. We need special instruments to see the invisible light and we need a special sense to see the invisible beings. One cannot deny the existence of such spirits just because one is unable to see them with one's naked eyes. These spirits are also subject to birth and death. They are not going to stay permanently in the spirit form. They too exist in the same world where we live

A genuine Buddhist is one who moulds his life according to moral causation discovered by the Buddha. He or she should not be concerned with the worshipping of these gods and spirits. However, this kind of worshipping is of some interest and fascination to the multitude and has naturally brought some Buddhists into contact with these activities.

Regarding protection from evil spirits, goodness is a shield against evil. Goodness is a wall through which evil cannot penetrate unless the good person opens the door to an evil influence. Even though a person leads a truly virtuous and holy life and has a good shield of moral and noble living that person can still lower the shield of protection by believing in the power of evil that can bring harm.

The Buddha never advised His followers to worship such spirits or to be frightened of them. The Buddhist attitude towards them is to transfer merits and to radiate loving-kindness to them. Buddhists do not harm them. On the other hand, if person is religious, virtuous and pure in mind, and is also intelligent and possesses strong will­power and understanding capacity, then such a person could be deemed to be much stronger than spirits. The evil spirits will keep away and the good spirits will protect him or her.

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If you really want to honour and help your departed ones, then do some meritorious deeds in their name and transfer the merits to them.

ACCORDING to Buddhism, good deeds or ‘acts of merit' bring happiness to the doer both in this world and in the hereafter. Acts of merit are also believed to lead towards the final goal of everlasting happiness. The acts of merit can be performed through body, speech or mind. Every good deed produces ‘merit' (store of positive spiritual well being) which accumulates to the ‘credit' of the doer. Buddhism also teaches that the acquired merit can be transferred to others; it can be shared vicariously with others. In other words, the merit is ‘transferable' and so can be shared with other persons. The persons who receive the merit can be either living or departed ones.

The method for transferring merits is quite simple. First some good deeds are performed. The doer of the good deeds has merely to wish that the merit gained accrues to someone in particular.

This wish can be purely mental or it can be accompanied by an expression of words.

The wish could be made with the beneficiary being aware of it. When the beneficiary is aware of the act or wish, then a mutual ‘rejoicing in' merit takes place. Here the beneficiary becomes a participant of the original deed by associating him or herself with the deed done. If the beneficiary identifies him or herself with both the deed and the doer, he or she can sometimes acquire even greater merit than the original doer, either because the elation is greater or because the appreciation of the value of the deed is based on an understanding of Dharma. Buddhist texts contain several stories of such instances.

The ‘joy of transference of merits' can also take place with or without the knowledge of the doer of the meritorious act. All that is necessary is for the beneficiary to feel gladness in the heart when he or she becomes aware of the good deed. If one wishes, one can express joy by saying ‘ sadhu ' which means ‘well done'. What is being done is creating a kind of mental or verbal applause. In order to share the good deed done by another, what is important is that there must be actual approval of the deed and joy arising in the beneficiary's heart.

Even if so desired, the doer of a good deed cannot prevent another's ‘rejoicing in the merit' because he or she has no power over another's thoughts. According to the Buddha, in all actions, thought is what really matters. Transference is primarily an act of the mind.

To transfer merit does not mean that a person is deprived of the merit originally acquired from his or her good deed. On the contrary, the very act of ‘transference' is a good deed in itself and hence enhances the merit already earned.

Highest Gift to the Departed

The Buddha says that the greatest gift one can confer on one's dead ancestors is to perform ‘acts of merit' and to transfer these merits so acquired. He also says that those who give also receive the fruits of their deeds. The Buddha encouraged those who did good deeds such as offering alms to holy men, to transfer the merits which they received to their departed ones. Alms should be given in the name of the departed by recalling to mind such things as, ‘When he was alive, he gave me this wealth; he did this for me; he was my relative, my companion,' etc. (TIROKUDDA SUTRA — KHUDDAKAPATHA ). There is no use weeping, feeling sorry, lament­ing and wailing; such attitudes are of no consequence to the departed ones.

Transferring merits to the departed is based on the popular belief that on a person's death, his or her ‘merits' and ‘demerits' are weighed against one another and destiny is thus determined. Lifetime actions determine whether one is to be reborn in a sphere of happiness or a realm of woe. The belief is that the departed one might have gone to an existence in the spirit world. The beings in these lower forms of existence cannot generate fresh merits, and have to live on the merits which are earned from this world.

Those who did not harm others and who performed many good deeds during their lifetime will certainly have the chance to be reborn in a happy place. Such persons do not require the help of living relatives. However, those who have no chance to be reborn in a happy abode are always waiting to receive merits from their living relatives to offset their deficiency and to enable them to be born in a happy abode.

Those who are reborn in an unfortunate spirit form could be released from their suffering condition through the transferring of merits to them by friends and relatives who do some meritorious deeds. What happens is really quite understandable. When the dead person becomes aware that someone has remembered him or her, then he or she becomes glad, and this happiness relieves the suffering. As there is greater happiness accrued from repeatedly being remembered, the unhappy birth is transformed to a happy one. It has all to do with the power of the mind.

This injunction of the Buddha to transfer merits to departed ones is the counterpart of the Hindu custom which has come down through the ages. Various ceremonies are performed so that the spirits of dead ancestors might live in peace. This custom has had a tremendous influence on the social life of certain Buddhist communities. The dead are always remembered when any good deed is done, and more on occasions connected with their lives, such as their birth or death anniversaries. On such occasions, there is a ritual which is generally practised. The transferor pours water from a jug or other similar vessel into a receptacle, while repeating a Pali formula which is translated as follows:

As rivers, when full must flow and reach and fill the distant main, so indeed what is given here will reach and bless the spirits there. As water poured on mountain top must soon descend and fill the plain So indeed what is given here will reach and bless the spirits there.


The origin and the significance of transference of merit is open to scholarly debate. Although this ancient custom still exists today in many Buddhist countries, very few Buddhists who follow it understand the meaning of transference of merits and the proper way to do it.

Some people simply waste time and money on meaningless ceremonies and performances in memory of departed ones. These people do not realise that it is impossible to help the departed ones simply by building big graveyards, tombs, paper houses and other paraphernalia. Neither is it possible to help the departed by burning joss-sticks, joss-paper, etc; nor is it possible to help the departed by slaughtering animals and offering them along with other kinds of food. Also one should not waste by burning things used by the departed ones on the assumption that the deceased persons would somehow benefit by the act, when such articles can in fact be distri­buted among the needy.

The only way to help the departed ones is to do some meritorious deeds in a religious way in memory of them. The meritorious deeds include such acts as giving alms to others, building schools, temples, orphanages, libraries, hospitals, printing religious books for free distribution and similar charitable deeds.

The followers of the Buddha should act wisely and should not follow anything blindly. While others pray to god for the departed ones, Buddhists radiate their loving-kindness directly to them. By doing meritorious deeds, they can transfer the merits to their be­loved ones for their well being. This is the best way of remembering and giving real honour to and perpetuating the names of the de­parted ones. In their state of happiness, the departed ones will reciprocate their blessings on their living relatives. It is, therefore, the duty of relatives to remember their departed ones by transfer­ring merits and by radiating loving- kindness directly to them.

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Buddhist Teachings Realms of Existence