The Thirty-one Realms

Ancient Buddhist Cosmology

31 realms
Barbara O'Brien,

You may have heard of the Six Realms. You can't wade very far into Buddhism before bumping into discussion of the Six Realms, so understanding them is useful. But did you know there are 25 other realms?

In old Buddhist cosmology -- which was adapted from very ancient, pre-Buddhist Vedic cosmology -- there were 31 planes of existence, all clustered in layers around great Mount Meru. These 31 planes or realms are sorted into three meta-realms, or Three Worlds.

These are Arupyadhatu, the formless world or realm; Rupadhatu, the world of form; and Kamadhatu, the world of desire. "Our" Six Realms are parts of Kamadhatu.

If you ever run into mention of "Three Realms" or "Three Worlds,"  usually this is referring to Arupyadhatu, Rupadhatu, and Kamadhatu. And, as I said, within these three worlds are the 31 realms. You might run into a dharma wheel with 31 spokes some day, and this is what the 31 spokes represent.

Do you need to know this? Probably not. But you will run into it,so it's useful to know. There are some schools of Buddhism, especially in Asia, that take the 31 realms very seriously. For most of us, it's all right to understand them as allegories.

The image at left is my handy-dandy clip-and-save guide to the 31 realms.

The Three Worlds (or Dhatus)

Note that the Sanskrit word dhatu often is translated as "world" or "land," but that isn't exactly right.

A dhatu is more like a perceptual basis or source of something, not necessarily a geographical or physical thing.

Arupyadhatu. Arupyadhatu would not be a physical place even if you believed in it literally. The  Arupyadhatu and the beings who inhabit it are formless. They have no shape or location, and neither does their world.

This Formless World contains four spheres. The first is the sphere of neither perception or non-perception; the beings in this sphere have gone beyond perception but are not completely unconscious. The second is the sphere of nothingness, where beings contemplate, well, nothingness. Please understand this is not the same as "emptiness," which is more of an undifferentiated something than actually nothing.

The third sphere is the sphere of infinite consciousness, where beings contemplate vijnana pervading everywhere. And in the fourth, the sphere of infinite space, beings contemplate space pervading everywhere. I understand that these four kinds of contemplation represent states of mind that various not-Buddhist teachers considered to be enlightenment, but which really aren't enlightenment.

Rupadhatu. This is the world of form. The beings of this realm are said to have very subtle forms that would be invisible to most other beings, but they are forms nonetheless. The Rupadhatu is a more complicated place than the Arupyadhatu. There are five primary realms in the Rupadhatu but also a number of sub-realms, so that the Rupadhatu accounts for 16 of the 31 realms.

For reference, the five primary realms are:

  • Suddhavasa
  • Brhatphala
  • Subhakrtsna
  • Abhasvara
  • Brahma

These realms are visualized as stacked one on top of the other, and the lower realms don't know about the upper ones, so they all imagine they are living in the top realm.

The beings of the formless and form realms, Arupyadhatu and Rupadhatu, are considered to be devas of various sorts. These devas have transcended the world of desire, so they aren't the same sort of devas one finds in the Kamadhatu deva realm. But neither are they entirely enlightened, so they've missed out on Nirvana.

Kamadhatu. Again, this is "our" world, the world of desire, or samsara, or karma. When Buddhists talk about the Six Realms, they are talking about Kamadhatu. This is the world represented on the Wheel of Life. I've written about world in other articles, and if you are studying any form of Buddhism it's useful to become familiar with it.

And no, you don't have to believe in the Six Realms literally. I have found them to be a fascinating guide to personality types, however, and even to some of my own passing moods.

Although we call Kamadhatu the "Six Realms," the devas have sub-realms,so Kamadhatu counts for 11 of the 31 realms.

Whether it's useful to explore the other worlds I cannot say, because I haven't much looked at them myself. Information about them strikes me as a lot of brain clutter, frankly. But there may be some allegorical gems in the clutter somewhere that are worth seeking.