Kamma is a Pali word and it covers all kinds of intentional actions, whether mental (mano kamma), verbal (vaci kamma) or physical (kaya kamma). The Buddhist doctrine “Paticcasamuppada” is demonstrative of the process of kamma. It tells us that we all are responsible for our actions, and that most of our present conditions are the result of our actions in the past, and that present actions will determine our future condition. Every action produces an effect, and the effects of our actions come back to us.

Our good kamma will come back to us as blessings and lead to a good next life, while bad kamma will lead to lower forms of rebirth. A person can be born again as a different person or animal or any kind of living being after death depending on his or her kamma. Each birth is based on the actions or kamma accumulated in previous lives. Therefore people seek to gain merit by doing deeds in order to improve their kamma.

Three types of kamma can be defined: meritorious acts (kusala kamma) such as generosity, morality and meditation, which will help attain Nirvana, the path of liberation; demeritorious acts (akusala kamma), such as greed, hatred and delusion, which cause rebirth in hell; and neutral acts (kusala-akusala kamma) which are devoid of ethical substance. Rebirth takes place within the three realms (lokas) of the universe – Arupaloka, Rupaloka and Kamaloka – depending upon a being’s kamma. This blog will elucidate the planes of Buddhist rebirth, with illustrations from two Burmese cosmological manuscripts held in the British Library, Or. 14004 and Or. 14550, which have recently been fully digitised.

Planes of existence

The universe contains the earth and other planets, and the sun and moon. Mount Meru is in the centre and is encircled by seven concentric rings of mountain ranges, with seven great rivers in between. Beyond them lies the vast ocean with four great islands named after the huge trees that grow on them: circular Uttarakuru in the north, lozenge-shaped Zambudipa in the south, semi-circular Pubbavideha in the east and square Aparagoyana in the west. Uttarakuru has a wishing (padesa) tree which supplies its inhabitants with all their needs; these fortunate islanders have the most enviable existence: they never fall ill, and they live a thousand years. The islanders of Pubbavideha and Aparagoyana are always born back to the same island. The southern island, Zambudipa, is our earth and it is where 28 Buddhas appeared, culminating with the Bodhisatta Prince Siddharta.

The Thirty-One Planes (bhuṃ) of Existence: Buddhists believe in reincarnation, namely that all beings go through many cycles of birth, life, death and rebirth. Death is followed by immediate rebirth in one of the 31 planes of existence as a result of each being’s previous kamma. These 31 planes of existence comprise 20 planes of supreme deities (brahmas); six planes of deities (devas); the human plane (Manussa); and lastly four planes of deprivation or unhappiness (Apaya). The 31 planes are divided into three separate levels or realms: Arupaloka, Rupaloka and Kamaloka.

The first level, the Realm of Formlessness (Arupaloka), consists of four planes of brahmas who have no physical body, consisting entirely of mind, but who may create a physical body if they want to be seen. They are not completely free from the fetters of suffering (dukkha), but the dukkha experienced here is much less intense than that suffered in the Rupaloka. These brahmas are unable to hear the teachings of the Buddha (dhamma) and they can never become enlightened.

31. Nevasaññānāsaññāyatana bhuṃ (Realm of neither perception nor non-perception)

30. Ākiñcaññāyatana bhuṃ (Realm of nothingness)

29. Viññānaññcāyatana bhuṃ (Realm of infinite consciousness)

28. Ākāsānaññcāyatana bhuṃ (Realm of infinite space)

The second level, the Realm of Form (Rupaloka), is inhabited by brahmas who have a physical body but do not enjoy sensual pleasures, and it is a place of less intense dukkha. This realm consists of 16 planes inhabited by Rupa brahmas divided into four categories according to their status of meditative absorption (jhana). These Rupa brahmas can become enlightened if they come to know the dhamma.

Catuttha jhana bhuṃ (Fourth jhana realm): consisting of seven planes, of which the first five are called Suddhavasa or the heavens of purity, where only the enlightened ones at the anagami (non- returner) stage can reborn.

27. Akaniṭṭha bhuṃ (Realm of peerless devas)

26. Sudassī bhuṃ (Realm of clear-sighted devas)

25. Sudassā bhuṃ (Realm of beautiful devas)

24. Atappā bhuṃ (Realm of serene devas)

23. Avihā bhuṃ (Realm of durable devas)

22. Asaññasatta bhuṃ (Realm of mindless devas)

21. Vehapphala bhuṃ (Realm of very fruitful devas)

Tatiya jhana bhuṃ (Third jhana realm): these three planes harbour brahmas who have a body with an aura.

20. Subhakiṇṇā bhuṃ (Realm of devas with radiant glory)

19. Appamāṇasubhā bhuṃ (Realm of devas with unbounded glory)

18. Parittasubhā bhuṃ (Realm of devas with limited glory)

Dutiya jhana bhuṃ (Second jhana realm): the brahmas of these three planes have a body with different degrees of lustre.

17. Ābhassara bhuṃ (Realm of devas with streaming radiance)

16. Appamāṇabhā bhuṃ (Realm of devas with unbounded radiance)

15. Parittābhā bhuṃ (Realm of devas with limited glory)

Pathama jhana bhuṃ (First jhana realm): the planes of the lowest grade of Rupa brahmas.

14. Mahābrahmā bhuṃ (Realm of the great Brahma)

13. Brahmaparorita bhuṃ (Realm of the Brahma’s ministers)

12. Brahmapārisajja bhuṃ (Realm of the Brahma’s retinue)

The third level, the Realm of Desire (Kamaloka), contains seven planes of happiness (six heavenly planes of devas and the human plane) and four planes of unhappiness.

The six heavenly planes

11. Paranimmitavassavatī bhuṃ (Realm of devas who enjoy sensory pleasures created by others for them)

10. Nimmānarati bhuṃ (Realm of devas who delight in creating)

9. Tusita bhuṃ (Realm of devas of happiness and contentment)

8. Yāmā bhuṃ (Realm of blissful existence)

7. Tāvatimsa bhuṃ (Realm of the thirty-three gods)

6. Cātummahārājika bhuṃ (Heaven of four great kings)

The plane of humans

5. Manussa bhuṃ (human beings). Both dukkha (suffering) and sukha (happiness) are found here, but this plane is the most fortunate of all because it is the only sphere in which moral initiative occurs and the only one in which perfect Enlightenment can be achieved. The beings here are endowed with a measure of merit and can find protection on their own. They can listen to and learn all the teachings of the Buddha. Bodhisattvas prefer the human realm as it is the best plane in which to serve the world and perfect the requisites of Buddhahood.

The four planes of deprivation (Apāya)

These lowest four unhappy planes are infernal states, in which beings pay the price for akusala (demeritorious acts) committed in their previous life. Buddhists believe that beings are born as animals on account of evil kamma. Sprits and ghosts possess deformed physical forms of varying magnitude, generally invisible to the naked eye.

4. Asura loka (demon world): the inhabitants of this plane are powerful and are opposed to devas.

3. Peta loka (world of spirits and hungry ghosts): this plane is known as the “state of woe.” People share their merits with these beings when they do good deeds.

2. Tiracchāna loka (animal world): this is not a pleasant plane as beings have to search for food and fight each other to stay alive.

1. Niraya (world of hell): this plane is below the earth, in the deepest recesses of the Southern Island. There are eight different degrees of punishment: Sanjiva, Kalasutra, Sanghata, Roruva, Maharoruva, Tapana, Mahatapana and Avici. There is no happiness, only suffering, in this realm and it is the worst place to be reborn.

Good or evil kamma will bring rebirth in the plane of happiness (sugati) or the plane of suffering (duggati). After many cycles, if people manage to sever their attachment to desire and the self, they can attain Nirvana, which is a state of liberation and freedom from suffering.

This article first appeared on the British Library's Asian and African Studies blog.