Planes of existences

In Buddhism, there are 3 planes of existences: sense-sphere existence, form-sphere existence, formless-sphere existence.

I am aware of the 31 planes of existence by Ven. Suvanno Mahathera. However, I am not convinced with the classification there. In the classification of that book, it seems to me that it tried to classify the planes from lowest to highest as it thinks they should be. Therefore:

  • Sense-sphere existence (kama-loka): From hell → Devas Weilding Power Over the Creation of Others.
  • Form-sphere existence (rupa-loka): From Retinue of Brahma → Peerless Devas.
  • Formless-sphere existence(arupa-loka): From Sphere of infinite Space → Sphere of neither perception nor non perception.

The separation between the spheres are not very logical and clear cut to me, not saying about the cause of rebirth to that realm.

Example: In Realm#22 Mindless devas - Only body is present, no mind. Cause of rebirth: Fourth Jhana (?)

Since I am not aware of any other classification of the 3 planes of existences, if you have one, please share with me.

Here is my own classification of the 3 planes of existences.

If we think the 3 planes of existences contain all possible existences then it must also include non-sentient beings like rock, minerals…If we think the 3 planes of existences only contain sentient beings then we can exclude them.

Assume we will try to include all:

Sense-sphere existence (kama-loka): Here rupa is dense, so beings have heavy and fixed form. This existence is the existence of rocks, mineral, trees, vegetables, animals, human. These beings have fixed forms, dog have dog’ form, trees have tree’s form, human has human’s form. Moreover, it is not easy to change the form of them. A human cannot appear as a cat by his wish. The denser their rupa body has, the less sense they have. Therefore, human is the highest sentient being in this group.

Form-sphere existence (rupa-loka): Here rupa is less dense to the point that the form cannot be fixed like the form in the kama-loka existence. This existence is where the beings in kama-loka live after putting down their old heavy body. This is called fine-material existences. Beings have lighter and non-fixed form. This existence is the existence of what we called the spiritual world. These existences still have rupa. Therefore, this is the existences of beings in hell, ghosts, peta, demons, devas… In other words, the forms of these beings can be changed by their strong wishes, and the forms are not very stable. The higher level beings have less rupa than the lower ones. Therefore, their forms are less stable than the lower ones. These beings have more senses than in kama-loka since rupa is less dense.

Formless-sphere existence(arupa-loka): Here there is no rupa. Beings do not have a body or a form. They are their mind-bases since they still take the mind-base as “This is mine, This I am, This is myself.” They are invisible. These beings have the highest senses since they are not limited by rupa.

Of course, this is my new theory, but it is more logical to me. I understand it will be received with skeptical. Not saying it may be controversial. However, since I think it will help me better understanding bhava in DO, so I hope that there will be some experts can give me some comments. If you refer me to some books or teachers, please let me know what are the differences between mine and theirs, and what should I pay attention in their views?

Hi. If the above is referring to the basic original sutta teaching, the 1st plane is kamabhava, which means ‘sensual existence’.

And what is continued existence?
Katamo ca, bhikkhave, bhavo?

Existence in the sensual realm, the realm of luminous form, and the formless realm.
kāmabhavo, rūpabhavo, arūpabhavo.

This is called continued existence.
Ayaṁ vuccati, bhikkhave, bhavo.



masculine, neuter

  1. (masculine) wish, desire; love; longing
  2. (masculine, neuter) pleasure of the senses; sensual enjoyment; especially sexual pleasure; the objects of pleasure, what gives pleasure to the senses



Ven. Thanissaro seemed to provided a similar explanation, here: The Thirty-one Planes of Existence

Thanks, I simply took Ven. Bodhi’s translation in SN12.2:

And what, bhikkhus, is existence? There are these three kinds of existence: sense-sphere existence, form-sphere existence, formless-sphere existence. This is called existence.

I am interest in the logic of how to categorize them.

There is a discussion about this, here: A mistranslation in the analysis of dependent origination?

This is from the same materials from Ven. Suvanno that I do not feel comfortable with. I do not agree with the logic there. That’s why I am looking for a new understanding.

For the terms, I am interest in how to classify kama, rupa and arupa. We can call it sphere or realm or whatever. My pali words may be wrong, but I hope you get my points.

I think kāmabhavo, rūpabhavo, arūpabhavo is better.

I am not sure about the above but I guess/speculate its origins are here in AN 9.24, where the 4th jhana seems to be classed as: “non-percipient and do not experience anything, such as the gods who are non-percipient beings” : SuttaCentral

Usually, the 4th jhana is classed as: “the gods of abundant fruit”, such as here in AN 4.123: SuttaCentral and in many other places, such as MN 1.

Moreover, I am interest to see if my own logic above is logical or not? If you see anything wrong or illogical, that’s what I want to know so I can correct it.

I am not sure the above is accurate because, in the Dependent Origination, ‘existence’ (‘bhava’) is born from ‘grasping’ (‘upadana’). It seems rocks, mineral, trees & vegetables don’t have ‘grasping’ (‘upadana’). I quoted AN 9.24 above, which as about the “abodes of beings (sattāvāsā)”. It seems to be a “being (satta/satto)” there must be “grasping”, as also described in SN 23.2, below:

“Sir, they speak of this thing called a ‘sentient being’.

“‘satto, satto’ti, bhante, vuccati.

How is a sentient being defined?”

Kittāvatā nu kho, bhante, sattoti vuccatī”ti?

“Rādha, when you cling, strongly cling, to desire, greed, relishing, and craving for form, then a being is spoken of.

“Rūpe kho, rādha, yo chando yo rāgo yā nandī yā taṇhā, tatra satto, tatra visatto, tasmā sattoti vuccati.

When you cling, strongly cling, to desire, greed, relishing, and craving for feeling …

Vedanāya …

perception …

saññāya …

choices …

saṅkhāresu …

consciousness, then a being is spoken of.

viññāṇe yo chando yo rāgo yā nandī yā taṇhā, tatra satto, tatra visatto, tasmā sattoti vuccati.



The four jhanas are called ‘rupa-jhanas’. It seems it is a subject of debate why they are called ‘rupa-jhana’. I recall reading some monks, such as Ajahn Brahm & Sujato, say its called ‘rupa-jhana’ because there is a mental image (nimitta) in jhana and the word ‘rupa’ (‘form’) refers to this mental image. I am not sure the above is correct however its seems many diverse monks interpret ‘rupa-bhava’ as related to the four rupa jhanas, for example I saw in the Bhikkhu Buddhadasa book posted by Thito, below:

30 These three kinds of becoming (bhava) reflect the levels of: (i) attachment to the physical body and its sensations; (ii) attachment to the fine-material states of meditative absorption and; (iii) attachment to the immaterial states of meditative absorption. These last two are respectively called the rūpa-jhāna and arūpa-jhāna states; they are highly developed
states of mental concentration

Page 64 footnote: Paticcasamuppada: Practical Dependent Origination by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu - Suan Mokkh


The above sounds logical to me when based on your underlying assumptions derived from Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation. However, this is probably why it is better to adhere to the translation of ‘kamabhava’ as ‘sensual existence’ rather than Bhikkhu Bodhi’s ‘sense-sphere existence’. It seems obvious the hell, ghosts, animal & demon existences are most often due to attachment to sensuality & worldliness. For example, many suttas say kamma such as of a warrior (SN 42.3) or comedian (SN 42.2) leads to animal & hell existences. For example:

The fire of lust burns mortals
Infatuated by sensual pleasures;
The fire of hate burns malevolent people
Who kill other living beings;

The fire of delusion burns the bewildered,
Ignorant of the Noble One’s Dhamma.
Being unaware of these three fires,
Humankind delights in personal existence.

Unfree from the bonds of Māra
They swell the ranks of hell,
Existence in the animal realm,
Asura-demons and the sphere of ghosts.


Some gods (deva) are also infatuated with sensual pleasures, as described in MN 37, MN 75, etc.

This again is probably why it is best to adhere to “sensual existence” as the translation of ‘kama-bhava’ rather than Bhikkhu Bodhi’s "sense-sphere existence/being’. The word ‘kama’ literally means ‘sensual’. Also, since the jhanas and immaterial meditations are also ‘sense spheres’ (‘ayatana’); and even according to Ud 8.1 Nibbana is a ‘sphere’; it is probably best to avoid Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation, which at least to me is confusing. :slightly_smiling_face:

Yes, I agree with the above. :slightly_smiling_face:

In 31 planes of existence, we can see that it shows beings in rupa-loka enjoy jhanas and are born to it by Jhanas. I think this is the reason why it is said so. However, as I understand, Jhana is where Mara cannot reach to. But it seems to me that Mara can go to rupa-loka too, even though, it tried to put Mara in kama-loka. It is quite confusing.

Indeed. I must agree here. I must go now. I am visiting my mum in the Covid big city and now perilously must catch a public bus to visit a friend. Wish me luck in Covid dodging. I trust others will contribute to this very interesting topic. :pray:t2: :slightly_smiling_face:

Thanks for your comments. I will investigate this more.

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I think saying that there is clear cut demarcation would be…too much of a narrow view!

See just as on this earth there are humans, animals, gods, and noble sangha of stream-enterers to arhats as well…same as there are different kind of beings with different qualities but at the same time, almost completely different than us!

So I don’t think only single type of being would exist in any certain realm. But I do believe that, demarcation must be there starting from absence of certain qualities, than presence of certain qualities! We cannot outrightly exactly say that there is presence of this quality…but we can exactly say which is tha quality that is absent in certain realm.

Plz try visiting/reading below link, it will definitely help you to some extent…

I also think that saying ‘sensual realm’ is better than to say ‘sense sphere’, because mind is also included in category of senses as 6th sense. Because in heaven of thirty three as well there are some monks there, yes there is chance, because somewhere I’ve read that, venerable Rahula(son of buddha) achieved parinibbana in heaven of 33 in some garden there. So yes, there even monks can have presence! I also don’t think, mind is absent completely, in some realms, but I do think that, state of mind can be so different that we cannot call it mind based on what definition of mind we have!

See when we use 5 senses to experience pleasure, 99 percent of time we will lose way towards liberation, but those who don’t use 5 senses but experience happiness from mind the 6th sense, well that is termed always better by the wise!

In our world(human world) it is mixture of pleasure and pain in enough quantity so that we don’t get carried away with pleasures unlike realms such as heaven of 4 kings and heaven of thirty three. In those realms pleasure is easily found, without complications like in our world. But when we go in realm of Brahmas, characterized by presence of 4 jhanas, well there universe is different laws are different, lifespan is different, all because there is dominance of certain qualities which cause tremendous happiness, not based on 5 senses.

I also think that finding exact demarcation would be very hard if not impossible! But there is very high chance of concluding wrong conclusion!

That’s what I think, btw plz go through above link, I believe it will definitely somewhat help you.

Thanks, I think this is correct. This is also what I see. I can see it goes from rupa to arupa. That means rupa is reducing until it reaches arupa. That’s why I categorized that way.

I will check the links.

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I think it’s an effect of the materialist philosophy that makes people want to lump things not commonly seen with the biological eye together. Ghost, devas, vs Brahmas sounds supernatural, thus lump them all in rupa realm. Well, I think the ancient commentators have been preserving the proper classification of these realms.

Consider that non-returners still have the fetters of attachment to rupa and arupa realms. And they do not return to this world. They cannot be reborn even as a deva in the 6 sensual deva realms. Your new classification doesn’t fit into this data of what we know about non-returners.

DN1 has this to say about the difference between devas vs Brahma’s body: SuttaCentral

But someone else says to them: ‘That self of which you speak does exist, I don’t deny it. But that’s not how this self becomes rightly annihilated. There is another self that is divine, physical, sensual, consuming solid food. You don’t know or see that. But I know it and see it. Since this self is annihilated and destroyed when the body breaks up, and doesn’t exist after death, that’s how this self becomes rightly annihilated.’ That is how some assert the annihilation of an existing being.

But someone else says to them: ‘That self of which you speak does exist, I don’t deny it. But that’s not how this self becomes rightly annihilated. There is another self that is divine, physical, mind-made, complete in all its various parts, not deficient in any faculty. You don’t know or see that. But I know it and see it. Since this self is annihilated and destroyed when the body breaks up, and doesn’t exist after death, that’s how this self becomes rightly annihilated.’ That is how some assert the annihilation of an existing being.

The mindless devas (actually Brahma) in the 4th jhana realm is one where one can explain the meditative attainments of other religions or spiritual people who do not follow the noble 8fold path properly. They might experience no consciousness (after attaining to 4th Jhana), and mistaken it to be the cessation of perception and feelings, thus thinking that they are liberated, whereas they are still not.

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In my classification, this world is kama-loka, as you said, non-returners still have the fetters of attachment to rupa and arupa realms, but not kama realms, then of course they will not return to kama realm that is this world. I think it fits well with my classification. My rupa realms contain all deva’s realms - sensual or not, so they should include the deva realms that the non-returner may return to. My rupa and arupa realms is what we called the spiritual worlds. I do not see any problem here. I am not sure if I understood well what you said?

It’s not neat, as opposed to the orthodox way of classifying.

Sensual realm including hell, ghost, humans, devas are the realms non-returners cannot be reborn into again. Then it’s neat that the rupa and arupa realms are the realms non-returners can be reborn into again corresponding to the fetters they have yet to eradicate.

If we follow your classification, then you’ll have to say that non-returners cannot return to the sensual realm, and also, the deva and hell realms in rupa realm, despite them having the fetter of attachment to rupa existence still.

I do not see this as any problem. They have fetter of attachment to rupa existence does not mean that they must attach to all realms in the rupa realms. However, if you can provide the suttas saying what realms they still attach to, then it will be very helpful for me to understand what you said. If you think about Pure Abode, then it is in my rupa realms since I think beings here do not have fixed and heavy bodies as in kama realms. Therefore, non-returner can go here.

As I understood, the non-returner will go to the Pure Abodes only. Therefore, with the orthodox way, we must say that non-returners cannot return to sensual realms, and also, the Retinue of Brahma, Ministers of Brahma, Great Brahma… up to mindless devas in rupa realms since these are not Pure Abodes. I do not see any difference with what I need to say here. Moreover, my classification provide more clear cut and logical flow for kama, rupa and arupa since we can clearly see the rupa element is reduced from kama ->rupa->arupa realms.

My understanding is that Pure abodes is reserved for non-returners, doesn’t mean they are limited to being reborn there only.

They might go into formless attainments and get reborn in the formless realms maybe, after their lifespan in a pure abode ends.

Anyway, you seem to be ignoring the DN 1 evidence that there’s a substantial difference between the sensual deva body vs the Brahma bodies. Substantial enough to not classify them in the same worlds in the 3 worlds classification.

If you can point me to the suttas for this, it will be very helpful so I can correct my understanding.

Can you quote what it said in DN1 so I can take a look? I think sensual deva body is not fixed like beings in kama loka. Of course, one thing we know that we do not live in the same realm with them. We live in the same realm with animals, we can contact them, but we cannot contact the sensual devas. Moreover, the rupa realms in my classification can also be divided into different levels depend on the density of the rupa. The less rupa, the higher rupa level, then sensual deva will not be in the same level with Brahma even though they are in the same rupa loka. Just like Brahma and the beings in Pure Abodes.

I will continue tomorrow. Thanks for your comments.