Does kamma lead to the arising/cessation of the realms of rebirth?

Obviously Buddhism puts forward the idea that karma results in continued existence, but I’ve come across several second-hand sources which seem to indicate that the realms of rebirth themselves are the product of karma.

For example, in “The Buddhist Cosmos: A Comprehensive Survey of the Early Buddhist Worldview According to Theravāda and Sarvāstivāda Sources” by Punnadhammo Mahāthero, the author twice alludes to this. First, regarding the different cycles of a mahākappa, he states the expansion/contraction of the realms of the cosmos—the cosmic cycle of the birth/death of certain planes of existence—is driven by the kamma of the beings inhabiting the various worlds. Then, when discussing niraya, he states that “this is a realm generated by the evil kamma of its beings.”

I feel like I’ve read this idea elsewhere, but can’t remember more examples.

Is anyone aware of any canonical or academic sources which allude to or explain this idea?

Thanks in advance!


That is correct:

“Yet it is just within this fathom-long body, with its perception & intellect, that I declare that there is the cosmos, the origination of the cosmos, the cessation of the cosmos, and the path of practice leading to the cessation of the cosmos.”—Anguttara Nikaya 4.45


If you read for example the Aggañña Sutta DN 27 you can see that both those beings and their environment there evolves in response to their actions:

Then those beings started to eat the solid nectar, breaking it into lumps. But when they did this their luminosity vanished. And with the vanishing of their luminosity the moon and sun appeared, stars and constellations appeared, days and nights were distinguished, and so were months and fortnights, and years and seasons. To this extent the world had evolved once more.

Etc. …


And to address the “cessation” side of the question in the title: There are four kinds of karma: good, bad, both, and neither. The last category (neither-bright-nor-dark karma) is the karma of the advanced meditator who is about to break out of the cycle of rebirth. It’s the karma that leads to the end of karma.


I believe the earliest extant source would be the Pathavīkammavipākotikathā section of the Kathavatthu.

The text records a Third Council debate on the question of whether the earth is produced by the ripening of sentient beings’ karma. The Theravadin argues that it isn’t.


This would seem to be supported by SN 36.21 (which lists the environment and karma as separate determinants of health) and DN 27 which reports the (contraction and) expansion of the universe as something that simply happens from time to time — with beings (merely) being reborn there due to their craving.


This is not from EBT, but from somewhat later text. Early Mahayana text. The idea is there.

The Application of Mindfulness of the Sacred Dharma

2.236 “How does the monk see the different forms, different situations, different names, different movements, and different abodes of sentient beings? Sentient beings are seen to have different minds, different abodes, different wishes, and different actions. Their different forms, different situations, different names and movements, and different abodes can be understood in terms of the following analogy. When a painter or his skilled apprentice sees a beautiful, smooth, hard ground, he may draw numerous fine and colorful forms and designs upon it. This he will do by the power of his mind. Likewise, the mind is like a painter, or a painter’s skilled apprentice. With its different wishes it creates upon the extremely smooth, hard ground of the three realms of existence‍—the ground that is the ripening of karmic results‍—the different situations, names, movements, features, [F.138.b] and abodes of sentient beings.

2.237 “Moreover, with the color white the painter may create white forms, with the color red he may create red forms, with yellow he may create yellow forms, with gray he may create forms of that color, and with black he may create black forms. Similarly, the painter of the mind may adhere to white objects and thereby create defiled phenomena that are free from the afflictive stains of desire, and so forth, and in this way may bring forth the white forms of gods and humans.
2.238 “When the painter takes up the color red, he may produce the red forms of gods and humans. Red here implies that dense sound, taste, tactility, form, and smell are applied correctly upon the backdrop for the painting.
2.239 “When the painter of the mind takes up the color yellow it may create animals. Because of the yellow, the animals drink each other’s blood and eat each other’s flesh. They kill each other with desire, anger, and delusion, which are like the color yellow.
2.240 “The painter-like mind may also observe an object that is gray. The stained karmic action that is gray will create the realm of starving spirits. In that realm the bodies of beings are like scorched pine trees. The painter-like mind observes stinginess and is obscured by the haze of delusion, and so these beings undergo starvation and dehydration, oppressed by numerous forms of debilitating suffering.
2.241 “The painter of the mind may also take up a form of karmic action that is like the color black, and so it may draw the black forms of hell beings. [F.139.a] Thus, within walls of black, flaming iron one is born with a black body that serves as the basis for disease, harm, hunger, and thirst. In this way one suffers incomparable harm and suffering due to one’s own misdeeds.

2.300 “How may a monk additionally perceive the karmic actions that are associated with the neighboring hells? Spiritual practitioners who carefully observe inner phenomena will see that the mind is like an artist who creates paintings, which are the results of his own acts. Thus, the mind engenders the landscape of the millions and billions of incomparable terrors associated with the regions that surround the Reviving Hell.

2.307 “As for the relevant karmic causes, fooling cattle by leading them on with food will make the painter of the mind draw the designs of this hell realm. Thus, the unvirtuous actions of the beings that inhabit that realm are responsible for their individual experiences. For as long as those unvirtuous karmic actions have not been overcome, relinquished, and exhausted, the beings in that realm will continue to the be cut up throughout many hundreds of thousands of years. Such is, as already mentioned, the way that the painter of the mind [F.149.b] creates its paintings.

2.917 “Wrecked by these torments, these hell beings may at some point be able to haphazardly escape. But then, they will see a vast ravine called the ‘Burning Inferno of the Vaitaraṇī.’ When, tormented by pain, they reel into it, they will see that this ravine is full of venomous serpents created by karmic action. The snakes will split them to pieces and devour them. Under the poisonous snakes’ sharp fangs, the hell beings will suffer miserably, and their screams, cries, and wailing will continue until finally their karmic actions have been overcome, relinquished, and exhausted.


Food for thought.

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Regarding this topic, it has always reminded me of modern physicist John Wheeler’s participatory universe idea.

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Thanks to everyone for all the insightful answers, there’s lots to chew on here! I greatly appreciate it.

It appears that though environment and karma could be either one or both become the determinant of our health condition but it doesnt neccessarily reflects the situation of whether the earth is produced by the ripening of sentient beings by karma or not , it is unclear or if there are other reasons . In buddhism it is an accepted belief and there seems to be not known of why does contraction and expansion of the universe as something that simply happens from time to time . :thinking:

According to Theravada Buddhism exegesis, it happens because of Dhammata or Dhamma Niyama (fixity of Dhamma or cosmic order), which is elaborated into 5 kinds of Niyama. One of these is Utu Niyama (cosmic order of heat) which corresponds to how universe is formed and destroyed in contraction and expansion cycle. For more information about Niyamas, here is a modern Theravadin writing about it:

Yeah, I’m a fan of compatibilism myself. Seems closest to the “two sheaves of reeds” simile