31 realms not the Buddha's teachings?

Hello, I read a writing from a prominent Buddhist monk which to me was saying that the 31 realms were later additions. Could anyone share me any information on this please? Thank you

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If the chart here is examined it shows the jhana levels associated with each plane, that is when a jhana is experienced, the mind is on the relevant plane. It also shows suttas which refer to the various planes. So the 31 planes are interwoven with the teachings as we now have them in a fundamental way.


The three worlds of Buddhism, Kamaloka, Rupaloka and Arupaloka were a development of a threefold system known in pre-Buddhist times.

Bh. Analayo has compared Sri Lankan chanting of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion, SN 56.11 with the written accounts in the Pali Canon and finds that in the oral version there is a long list of devas that does not appear in the written versions. This suggests that the 31 planes developed over time.—“Rebirth in Early Buddhism and Current Research.”


I agree with it, but it’s a matter of opinion in the end. The underlying logic of equivalence of mental state and realm is, to me, abhidhammic in nature, and also the table provided by paul1 doesn’t always include a proper sutta legitimation for the claimed state-realm-connection. My take on it is that some state-realm-connections are old and that later pedantic teachers enforced-extrapolated a ‘complete system’.


Here is the sentence: “The maps detailing the many levels of the Buddhist cosmos were later extrapolations from comments scattered in the early texts. What he did offer was just a handful of leaves …”
Am I missing anything?

As the comprehensive list of the realms first appears in the Vibhaṅga and Kathāvatthu of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, but not in the Suttas, the monk’s statement would be quite uncontroversial from the point of view of modern scholarship.


My opinion is it was a preaching strategy developed by sangha after Buddha. As the earliest parts of suttanipata Buddha doesn’t seem someone that mention such things. Well depending on what you see as early parts. You won’t agree.


Interesting hypothesis. Could you share more about who is making the claim and how exactly the claim is being made?

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It’s by Bhante Thanissaro. He writes the sentence as in my post prior to this in his writing First Things First.

Is it this one?

Is this the quote behind your question?^

In fact, he never gave a complete picture even of a “Buddhist cosmology.”
The maps detailing the many levels of the Buddhist cosmos were later extrapolations from comments scattered in the early texts.
What he did offer was just a handful of leaves (SN 56:31).
A prominent leaf in that handful was a view of the world in which the mind’s acts of fabrication play an important role.
On one level, this is eminently sensible.
Given the effort that goes into constructing worldviews, why bother fabricating a worldview, as some people do, in which the mind’s activities play no effective role—in which they’re regarded as nothing more than after-effects of physical events, for example, or denied any reality at all? (DN 2)
It’d be a senseless waste of time.

In context I understand Bhante Thanissaro is not rejecting some of the 31 realms were mentioned by the Buddha. What is he is saying is that the big picture, a cosmology, was only systematized later on from what was found scattered in the suttas and understanding passed on within the Buddhist community.

And in the spirit of a handful of leaves analogy, Bhante Thanissaro seems to acknowledge that maybe the big picture of a full blown cosmological model was not part of that handful the Buddha shared with us in the many years between his awakening and final extinction.



Yes, that’s the writing. Thanks Gabriel and all for the discussion. :grinning: :anjal:

Thank you for drawing attention to this important tract: https://www.dhammatalks.org/Archive/Writings/Ebooks/FirstThingsFirst_181226.pdf

Here Thanissaro is making the point that conditioned reality is real. This leads to the understanding that the noble eightfold path consists of utilizing conditioned phenomena skillfully to make progress.

“This is why the main leaf in the Buddha’s worldview is that the processes

of fabrication are real. Unlike some later Buddhist theorists, such as

Nāgārjuna, the Buddha stated clearly that fabrications—even though they’re

conditioned, inconstant, and subject to change—really do exist (SN 22:94).”—-“Worlds and Their Cessation.”

“Is the noble eightfold path fabricated or unfabricated?”

"The noble eightfold path is fabricated.”—-Dhammadinna, MN 44

Thanissaro has simplified Buddhist cosmology to its two realities, conditioned and unconditioned, as defined in right view in MN 117 as mundane and transcendent. The first step in making practical use of this knowledge is to mentally separate conditioned reality from the unconditioned. In the practice, the unconditioned is any conceptual knowledge or physical experiencing of peace where the mind is turned towards nibbana. But conditioned reality when properly understood is necessary raw material on the path.

In the essay Thanissaro goes on to describe the role of mundane right view (conditioned reality) and its conversion to transcendent right view (p 50, 56) .

“The meditation is now not something that happens in the context of the world; the world happens in the context of the meditation.” In other words every external phenomenon becomes meaningful in terms of the practice, this is why the word ‘dhamma’ means both the teaching and phenomena.


What I never really understood in connection with the equivalence of mental realm and rebirth realm is how it works in detail. E.g. how ‘well’ do I have to achieve a brahmavihara state in order to be reborn as a Brahma - for a split-second? complete mastery? anything in between?

Or first jhana - is achieving a muddled piti-sukha state enough? Can I ‘fall away’ from my achievement, or is once I achieved a meditation state a cosmic switch turned on and no falling-away from that equivalent rebirth is at all possible?

It’s even weirder with the ‘donation-based’ rebirths (according to AN 7.52, AN 8.35-36 and DN 23). Is the ‘cosmic switch’ that determines my rebirth activated at a certain amount of donation? or a certain regularity of donation? And if it’s a much more complex karmic calculation, then why make the claim at all? Wouldn’t it then make more sense to lay out the conditions under which a one-time donation or regular donations lead to a certain rebirth?

Same with lay-uposatha-based rebirth (AN 3.70, AN 8.42-43). Can I keep the lay uposatha once and get reborn as a Tusita Deva, or do I have to do it perfectly, or always, or after keeping 42 times? Again, if it’s much more complex, why to make the claim at all?

Anyhow, you get the picture of my point. It looks like an ancient Indian form of click-bait.


Study has to be done in the differences in teaching in peṭakopadesa which might be written before the Nikayas was written down and Nettipakaraṇa which was probably after Before/After Nikayas combination. That way we can detect change in teachings. But in Nettipakaraṇa. Which has many probably Real theravada teaching. It’s a total different way they taught. But in it already Sakka is mentioned as ruler of gods. Brahma is used already. Mara. Hell is mentioned. So maybe at this point when Nikayas was written down. Some started to be used already

I think Thanissaro has it right here, there are scattered references in the sutta which were later formalised and elaborated.
Perhaps the more important point is that there are references to different realms in the suttas, and also references to beings reappearing in them, according to kamma.