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Barbara O'Brien

The 31 Realms

By August 10, 2012

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I've been blogging about the Six Realms this week. 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. These were Arupyadhatu, the formless realm; Rupadhatu, the realm of form; and Kamadhatu, the realm of desire.

If you ever run into mention of "Three Realms" or "Three Worlds,"  usually this is referring to Arupyadhatu, Rupadhatu, and Kamadhatu. And these three realms have a  number of sub-realms. "Our" Six Realms are sub-realms of Kamadhatu.

Do you need to know this? Probably not. In case you run into Arupyadhatu and Rupadhatu in your reading, however, just knowing what they are might be useful. I've posted a handy-dandy clip-and-save guide to the 31 realms under the fold --

31 realms

The three meta-realms plus all the sub and sub-sub realms equal 31. You might run into a dharma wheel with 31 spokes some day, and this is what the 31 spokes represent.

The formless and form realms, Arupyadhatu and Rupadhatu, are populated by devas of various sorts. These devas have transcended the realm of desire, so they aren't the same sort of devas one finds in the Kamadhatu deva realm. When enlightened devas -- gods or goddesses -- pop up in the sutras, I believe they are Rupadhatu devas and not Kamadhatu devas. Being formless, Arupyadhatu devas probably don't make appearances anywhere. But I could be wrong about that.

Other than that -- I think understanding the Six Realms (of Kamadhatu) is helpful for most of us, but I'm not sure how much time anyone needs to spend on the rest of it. It strikes me as a lot of brain clutter, frankly.

Comments
August 13, 2012 at 7:41 am
(1) Hein says:

Thanks barbara for the clip-and-save guide.

Have to admit that the understanding of the Form Realm is not really helpful for me except to the extent that it explains the existence of enlightened devas.

The Formless Realm makes much more sense as it is concerned with “infinite” matters. But I suppose these realms served some or other purpose for the understanding of the ancients?

August 23, 2012 at 1:37 pm
(2) ronching@gmail.com says:

I think the Christian God resides in the Form realm of the Brahman realm.

Any comment?

August 23, 2012 at 2:19 pm
(3) Barbara O'Brien says:

I think the Christian God resides in the Form realm of the Brahman realm.

Or, he lives in one of the old sneakers in my closet. Take your pick.

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