* The Realms — (Popular Version)
* The Realms — Authentic Pali Version
* Rebirth and The Law Of Karma
* Rebirth v Reincarnation
* The Rare Event of Human Birth
* The Lighter Side
* Buddhism – A Concise Introduction

THE REALMS OF REBIRTH — POPULAR VERSION: Here is a brief overview of the Realms of Rebirth, as they are popularly spoken of today. Referring to the Wheel Of Life image at the top of the page, the Hell Realm is located in the 5 o’clock position. In some illustrations of the Wheel, Yama (Lord of the Hell Realm) is depicted holding a little hand mirror toward the viewer, indicating that you create your own circumstances, which are consequences of your karma (volitional action). Beneficial consequences arise from benficial karma, and harmful consequences result from harmful karma.  In a popular sense, it can be said that one is reborn into the Hell Realm as many times as it takes to “work off” the consequences of one’s past karma.  Since creating “good” consequences is not possible in the Hell Realm, since karma (volitional action) is not possible here, working off one’s past karma consists solely of enduring suffering.

In the 3 o’clock position is the Hungry Ghost Realm, inhabited by people who created their circumstances through many acts of greediness (past karma). When born into this realm one is destined to suffer the prolonged agony of intense hunger and thirst which is never satisfied. Here, too, time spent existing in this Realm can be considered to be time spent working off one’s “karmic debt,” by enduring suffering.

In the 1 o’clock position is the Animal Realm. One is relegated to rebirth in this Realm by one’s previous dedication to satisfying animal urges. In this Realm one is at the mercy of the elements and human dominance, and the suffering experienced here also goes toward working off the results of one’s past karma.

In the 11 o’clock position is the Deva Realm. In terms of pleasure, luxury and lack of suffering, this is the Realm of choice. Many enlightened beings, or those who have developed purity of heart and mind, inhabit this Realm for a few rebirths while they perfect the subtleties of their enlightened condition. The only drawback for some of the less developed of these beings is the danger of backsliding to a lower spiritual condition, due to the lack of suffering that can provide real motivation for making spiritual progress, so Devas are commonly reborn in one of the three “lower” Realms..

In the 9 o’clock position is the Titan, or Demi-god Realm, which is inhabited by people similar to the Devas in power, but with less spiritual development and more craving. Beings in this Realm are notorious for envying the Devas and thus producing grasping karma which usually sends them to a lower rebirth.

In the 7 o’clock position is the Human Realm, depicted by an image of a man toiling. This is the Realm which offers the greatest opportunity and motivation for progress toward enlightenment, so some regard it as the Realm of choice for serious seekers — not that you can “choose” it per se.

For a fuller, more authentic discourse on The Realms, see the article below titled “Authentic Pali Version.”


Pancagati — According to the Buddha, all beings, save for arahants [enlightened ones — ed], are destined, upon dying, to take further rebirth. The various types of rebirth to which beings may be subject are classified in a number of ways. One of the more common in the early literature is that of the pa–cagati (literally “the five goings or destinies”), consisting of those who take rebirth in:

(1) the hells (2) the animal womb (3) the peta realm (4) amongst humans (5) amongst the gods (devas and Brahmas).

It should be immediately clear that these five gatis, though sometimes misleadingly referred to as “realms”, are not always spatially distinct, for men and animals (and to some extent devas and petas) can and do all co-exist within the same region, namely on the earth’s surface.

The various hells are frequently, and graphically, described, and range from intensely hot realms to those that are extremely cold, some of the names for the latter, such as Ahaha, and Atata, being onomatopoetic for the chattering of teeth.

The animal womb needs little explanation. Petas, sometimes referred to as “hungry ghosts”, would seem to be beings who inhabit the lowest heavenly world but who, as a result of their previous deeds, are unable to enjoy the pleasures normally associated with that world. As a result they are unable even to drink the water of the river Ganges, for when they scoop this up in their palms it immediately turns into blood. What is perhaps remarkable about the peta gati is that, once the deed that took a peta there has been exhausted, that peta can receive an offering from a still living human relative, whereupon all his distress disappears and he is henceforth able to enjoy the pleasures around him.

Little, also, needs be said about the human gati, or for that matter that of the devas, except to say that it should be borne in mind that even a rebirth as a deva or a Brahma is itself impermanent.

Indeed, the Buddha frequently points out that of those deceasing from the human and heavenly gatis, very few regain such a birth again–far more will, instead, take rebirth in the lower three gatis.

This is mainly due to the fact that those in the three lower gatis are unable, whilst there, to generate any good kamma which might allow them to attain a better rebirth when their period there comes to an end. Hence, those in the three lower gatis can be likened to those who have been imprisoned for their debts (bad kamma). Since they are unable, whilst in prison, to engage in any undertaking that would generate an income, they are likely to find, when their term of imprisonment is at an end, that they are still impoverished and thus obliged to take further birth in one or another of the three lower gatis.

This inability to make good kamma also seems true of those in the heavenly world. These may be likened to those who exhaust all their fortunes (good kamma) in enjoying the delights associated with their heavenly existence, such that, when their time there similarly comes to an end, they do not have the means (good kamma) that would allow them to move on to a further birth as a human or heavenly being. Hence, most heavenly beings also, upon deceasing, find themselves destined to one of the three lower gatis.

This is why human birth is thought best, being unique in the sense that it is only as a human that one can act in such a way as to generate sufficient good kamma to keep one afloat in pleasant births in the future.

Human birth is also thought best, in that it also provides an opportunity to follow the Buddha’s path to liberation. Such a path is also open to those in the heavenly worlds, though it would seem that many beings in those worlds fail to follow this, being constantly distracted by the pleasures that surround them. In time, the fifth class came to be subdivided into those of: (5a) the gods (5b) the asuras the latter being considered a kind of fallen deity, whose origins are somewhat obscure, but who are generally portrayed as being eternally locked into an ongoing conflict with the gods (devas), a good many texts pointing out that the gods triumph when the Buddha’s Dhamma prospers, the asuras when it wanes.

(For those historically minded, it may be worth noting that it is quite possible that there were, amongst the various Indo-European tribes that migrated into Iran and the Indian Subcontinent, those who worshipped the devas and those who worshipped the asuras. The fact that, in India, the devas became supreme, with the asuras relegated to an inferior position, whilst in Iran the complete opposite occurred, viz. that Ahura (=asura) Mazda became the supreme deity, with the devas similarly relegated to an inferior position, suggests that the various triumphs on the divine plane reflected similar triumphs on the mundane, social plane.)

The addition of the asuras as a separate gati also gave rise to a pictorial representation of the various gatis in the form of the bhavacakka, or “wheel of becoming”, in which the six classes of rebirth are portrayed, surrounded externally by the twelve links of the paticcasamuppada (dependent co-arising), and internally by the three roots of lust, hatred and delusion (symbolised by a cockerel, pig and snake) that perpetuate becoming. This is described more fully elsewhere on this website.

REBIRTH AND THE LAW OF KARMA: In Buddhism, the Law Of Karma states that for every intentional action there is a corresponding consequence. Beneficial actions produce beneficial results, and harmful actions produce harmful results. It is important to understand that the consequence of anything you do depends on your motive for doing it, so the deed itself is not as important as the intention, with regard to your own karma. It is also important to know that in this context the word `action’ includes the intention or “volition” behind all conduct, thought and speech

Your karma (volitional action) determines your future circumstances. Like the Native American saying, “The smile you send out comes back to you.” And so does the frown. Your present circumstances are a product of your past karma, just as you are creating your future circumstances and tendencies (karma-vipaka) right now with your every desire, intention, choice and action.

REBIRTH V REINCARNATION: The Buddha’s Principle of Impermanence states that nothing is eternal or unchanging, except Nirvana. This gives rise to an important point of difference with other religions: Buddhist thinking does not acknowledge the concept of an eternal unchanging soul. Instead, Buddhism regards the constantly changing flow of mental formations, which carries the karmic imprint of past conduct, as the impersonal vitalising energy which passes into rebirth.

When a person’s physical body dies, this ‘energy’ migrates into another physical life form, carrying with it the karmic imprint of that person’s previous lives. Within Mahayana Buddhism some use the word “reincarnation,” to denote an already enlightened person such as a Lama taking physical form again for a beneficial purpose. However, outside Buddhism, other religions regard “reincarnation” to be what happens to the eternal soul when it takes physical form again. Since Buddhism does not acknowledge an eternal soul, nor any other aspect of life being eternal, the word “rebirth” is used to connote a more impersonal process.

by George Gantenby

We all, without exception – or, with very few exceptions – can remember a moment in our lives when we became aware of our individuality and uniqueness. I still vividly rememer when I had this kind of awakening. I was about 14 years old and was walking home from Denistone Railway Station in suburban Sydney. Suddenly it struck me in the form of questions: “Why am I me?”; “Why am I here at this precise moment?”

From that very second my religious quest began. It was not long before I discovered that since the beginnings of agriculture in the Middle East and the development of human civilization, people have understood that life is an endless cycle, like the seasons, of birth, death and re-birth. In terms of human history, it has been unusual for people to see this life as absolutely unique – as a one-off event. I think it actually takes a lot of self-convincing to think that way. I think it is natural to see the cycles of the years as a metaphor for life.

In Shakyamui’s time (he is the first Buddha in recorded history) everyone was aware of the cycle of birth-and-death and it was common to see this as ominous because life was hard, fragile and often brutal. People wanted to break free from the cycle. They thought that their present existence was the result of causes in previous lives but it was Shakyamuni who pointed out that the true cause was “karma” – our actions. Everyone who takes Shakyamuni as their teacher (Buddhists) tend to see things that way, too.

It is rare to be born as a human, not only because the number of human beings in any generation (even ours) is so minute – compared with the number of other animals, including insects and microbes – as to be impossible to compute, but also in the Buddhist view, we cannot be born as a human without prior good actions (kusala karma).

But not only that! It is an immense privilege to be born as a human being because the Buddha-Dharma was discovered by a human being and is still conveyed in human language. Human birth affords us the opportunity of finding out how, at the very least, we can be re-born as a human being (by doing good, especially dana – generosity), but – better still – to find a way out of the cycle of birth-and-death and into total, absolute and final transcendence. Now’s the time, to get off the merry-go-round and find transcendence – “Nirvana”. Turn your attention to the Buddha Dharma and take it up single-mindedly. — by George Gatenby, Assistant Priest, Hongwanji Buddhist Mission of Australia.













ON THE LIGHTER SIDE: A humourous look at the Realms of Rebirth:

“Thermodynamics of Hell” – A true story. [This is an internet posting by an Australian University student — ed].
A thermodynamics professor had written a take-home exam for his graduate students.  It had one question: Is hell exothermic or endothermic?   Support your answer with a proof.

Most  of  the  students  wrote proofs of their beliefs using Boyle’s Law or some variant.  I, however, wrote the following:

First, we postulate that if souls exist, then they must have some mass. If they  do,  then a mole of souls can also have a mass.  So, at what rate are souls  moving  into  hell and at what rate are souls leaving?  I think that we can safely assume that once a soul gets to hell, it will not leave. Therefore, no souls are leaving.

As for souls entering hell, lets look at the different religions that exist in the world  today.  Some of these religions state that if you are not a member  of  their religion, you will go to hell.  Since there are more than one of these religions and people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that all people and all souls go to hell. With birth and death rates as they are, we can expect the number of souls in hell to increase exponentially.

Now,  we  look at the rate of change in volume in hell. Boyle’s Law states that  in  order  for the temperature and pressure in hell to stay the same, the ratio of the mass of souls and volume needs to stay constant.

#1  So,  if hell is expanding at a slower rate than the rate at which souls enter  hell,  then the temperature and pressure in hell will increase until all hell breaks loose.

#2  Of  course,  if hell is expanding at a rate faster than the increase of souls  in  hell,  then  the  temperature and pressure will drop until hell freezes over. So  which  is it?  If we accept the postulate given to me by Trish Bolinski during Freshman year, “that it will be a cold night in hell before I sleep with you” and take into account the fact that I still have not succeeded in having  sexual  relations  with  her,  then  #2 cannot be true, and hell is exothermic.

  • August 22, 2019