This is a complicated issue, and one of the hardest things to get right. A bit of a detour is required, I think, to get at what Ven Bodhi is doing here.
The basic problem is that when the suttas talk about bhava they are speaking about rebirth. But when we use the word “existence”, it doesn’t by itself carry that connotation. So how are we to convey the meaning?
The distinction is subtly implied in your translation. Even though it tries to be literal, you have “kinds of existence” for bhavā rather than “existences”. Perhaps this is innocuous, but it does hint at the notion that “existence” and bhava have different nuances. We tend to think of “existence” as an overarching state, whereas in the Pali it has a more concrete, specific meaning.
Compare how Google puts it. The primary meaning is:
the fact or state of living or having objective reality.
But also, as a secondary meaning:
any of a person’s supposed current, future, or past lives on this earth.
“reaping the consequences of evil deeds sown in previous existences”
Leaving aside the curiously unnecessary “on this earth”, this is a pretty good Buddhist definition of bhava. Under “life”, we also have:
(in Hinduism and some other religious traditions) any of a number of successive existences in which a soul is held to be reincarnated.
“a spiritual pilgrimage into her past lives”
So this shows that either “existence” or “life” can be used in the sense of bhava. (It also shows the wonderful recursiveness of dictionaries: “life” is defined as “existence”, and “existence” is defined as “life”!) Also, these two dictionary entries nicely illustrate the emotional difference between these two words: an “existence” is somewhere you’re subject to bad karma, while a “life” is where you go for “spiritual pilgrimage”.
In translation, the problem is context. While these meanings work, it’s not necessarily the case that they’ll be apparent. Generally, in English they are very much secondary meanings, whereas in Buddhist texts they are the primary meaning. The suttas will often use bhava in a shorthand way, and it is obvious what it’s talking about. But when we translate that into English it doesn’t necessarily convey that meaning.
This is not just a technical point. It is a major reason why many secular Buddhists argue away the notion of rebirth altogether. For them, rebirth is not mentioned in the four noble truths or dependent origination, and hence is not a core teaching of Buddhism. This is obviously a mistake, but if we render bhava simply as “existence” we are inviting such misunderstandings.
So the challenge is to translate these and related terms so that they clearly and unambiguously convey the sense that they have in Pali, without relying on the crutches of notes, explanations, or Buddhist Hybrid English.
To get back to your original question, I think this is why Ven Bodhi uses “sphere” of rebirth here. I confess, I’ve been doing something similar, except I’ve been using “realm” or “state”.
Now, as to your main point, I understand what you’re getting at, and I agree that it’s important that in Buddhism existence is not a purely objective thing. The suttas are very subtle on this point, and it is not easy to maintain that.
However, I’m not entirely convinced that this particular rendering makes a major difference. After all, there are plenty of places in the suttas where there is a “world” into which a “being” is reborn. On the other hand, perhaps it is precisely in these more explicit philosophical contexts such as dependent origination that a more nuanced depiction is required.
No translation is perfect, and perhaps we simply have to choose. If we can’t capture every nuance of a term or phrase, I’d prefer to exclude actual mistaken interpretations of the basic meaning, rather than a possible misinterpretation of a subtle philosophical point.
To make a successful translation, I think, we have to be very clear what we want out of it. And what I want out of my translations is that someone who doesn’t know very much about Buddhism and has not studied philosophy should be able to simply and straightforwardly understand the basic meaning of the text.
It would be better, of course, if we could avoid the issue by finding a rendering that will satisfy both requirements.
In my renderings of bhava I have tried to ensure that the primary meaning is apparent in each context, rather than being completely literal or consistent. Sometimes I render as “existence”, sometimes “life”, sometimes “realm of existence”. Sometimes I use a more extended phrase such as “rebirth into a state of existence”. Sometimes I use “future existence” for bhava, on the assumption that it is essentially a contraction of āyatiṁ punabbhavabhinibbatti.
Here’s some cases. These are just from the first few books of the Anguttara, so there’s plenty more!
avijjānīvaraṇānaṃ sattānaṃ taṇhāsaṃyojanānaṃ hīnāya dhātuyā viññāṇaṃ patiṭṭhitaṃ evaṃ āyatiṃ punabbhavābhinibbatti hoti.
The consciousness of sentient beings—hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving—is established in a lower realm. That’s how there is rebirth into a new state of existence in the future.
for the sake of rebirth in this or that state
sabbe bhavā aniccā dukkhā vipariṇāmadhammā
All states of existence are impermanent, suffering, and naturally fall apart
appamattakampi bhavaṃ na vaṇṇemi
I don’t approve of even a little bit of future existence
Bhavadiṭṭhi ca vibhavadiṭṭhi ca.
Views about being reborn and views about not being reborn.
utterly ended the fetters of rebirth
upādānapaccayā bhavo, bhavapaccayā jāti
Grasping is a condition for future existence. Future existence is a condition for rebirth.
Kāmadhātuvepakkañca, ānanda, kammaṃ nābhavissa, api nu kho kāmabhavo paññāyethā
“If, Ānanda, there were no deeds to result in the sensual realm, would future existence in the sensual realm come about?”
Kāmayogo, bhavayogo, diṭṭhiyogo, avijjāyogo
The attachment to sensual pleasures, future lives, views, and ignorance.
Idha, bhikkhave, ekaccassa puggalassa orambhāgiyāni saṃyojanāni appahīnāni honti, upapattipaṭilābhiyāni saṃyojanāni appahīnāni honti, bhavapaṭilābhiyāni saṃyojanāni appahīnāni honti.
One person hasn’t given up the lower fetters, the fetters for getting reborn, or the fetters for getting a continued existence.
A couple of related points.
Why have we tolerated the translation of jāti as “birth”? Birth means “the emergence of a baby from the womb”. In Pali, this is vijāti. Jāti is never used in this sense, but always means the conception of new life in the process of rebirth, and it should be translated as “rebirth”.
For rūpa in this sense, I have, as you well know, struggled mightily. When used in the context of the realms of existence, rūpabhava, rūpadhātu, etc., it is surely related to the rūpa that appears to the meditator, which in modern usage is called nimitta. This, of course, harks back to the older sense of rūpa as “sight, appearance, manifestation, form”. It’s also closely associated with the Brahma realms, where the rūpa aspect is expressed in terms of light (ābhassara, etc.) So I’ve been using “luminous form”. What do you think?