Heaven and Hell in Buddhism

Buddhism does not recognise a creator God. How is the origin of the earth and the universe explained in Buddhism?

This was one of the questions at which the Buddha remained silent. The Buddha realised that any answer would create much controversy and argument. The Buddha said, “Without cognisable beginning is this samsara (cycle of existence). The earliest point of beings who, obstructed by ignorance and fettered by craving, wander and fare on, is not to be perceived”.

The universe and its components are subject to the cyclic law of birth, death and rebirth, therefore an absolute begining is inconceivable.

The human population on earth has been increasing by the millions over the years. How can this be explained in terms of rebirth?

According to the ancient texts, there are countless world systems in the universe. The earth (an insignificant speck in the universe) is not the only place where life exists. It is said that there are thirty-one planes or states of existence in the universe and human plane is just one of them. A being is born to a particular plane depending on his accumulated kamma. The Buddha said that the number of beings in the universe is so vast that it cannot be counted. Therefore beings can be born from any of these planes into the human plane.

Is there a heaven and a hell?

As stated above, there are thirty one planes or states of existence (loka) in the universe, including that of humans. Beings are born into a particular plane depending of their accumulated kamma.

Below the human plane are four planes (asura,peta,thiracchana and niraya) which are described as unhappy states of existence. Beings are born into these states as a result of their unwholesome kamma. Excessive greed and attachment to worldly belongings may cause re-birth in the peta plane and be drawn to the place of attachment.

Above the human plane are the deva and brahma planes. As the level of plane becomes higher, more subtle is the state of existence and longer is the life span.

The devas have physical forms which are composed of more subtle material than that in the human plane. They possess five physical senses and mind as in humans and enjoy a life of great pleasure. They may also possess supernormal powers.

The brahma planes are described as form and formless states (rupa and arupa loka). The brahmas in the rupa loka have material forms even more subtle than that of devas. They have only three sense faculties; sight, hearing and the mind. In the formless states (arupa loka), the beings are devoid of any material bodies. They transcends all physical sensations and exist in a state of equanimity.

In general, the beings in the higher planes are invisible to the beings in the lower planes of existence. The humans cannot see devas or brahmas unless they have developed special powers called abhinna, through the practice of certain meditations.
Beings in these higher planes are described as celestial beings and their life span is said to last billions of years relative to earthly life.

Even though the life-spans in these higher planes of existence last millions of years relative to earth, they eventually come to an end, since the existence in all these planes are conditioned: that is, the laws of cause and effect operate, and all conditioned things are impermanent.

This is what is meant by the terms ‘heaven' and 'hell' in Buddhist teachings: there are no permanent heavens or hells as taught in other religions.

How is Nibbana different from the ever­lasting heaven, as taught in some religions?

Nibbana is not a realm of existence. Nibbana literally means ‘blowing out’- blowing out the causes that produce results in the cycle of life - hence there will be no rebirth. Nibbana cannot be described in terms of our normal experience, which is so limited. Nibbana is not subject to the law of cause and effect, therefore it is permanent.
Nibbana is a state to be attained whilst we are still alive; it is not something we reach after death. It is to be attained as a result of our own efforts, not from the judgment of a divine being.

Can humans be reborn as animals or trees?

According to the teachings, animals are sentient beings just as humans, comprised of mind-matter (nama-rupa) combination. They are subject to the same kammic laws as humans. A being may be born in the animal plane (which is classed below that of human) as a result of unwholesome kamma.
Plants do not have the type of consciousness (vinnana) inherent in a sentient being, therefore rebirth as a plant or tree is not supported in the teachings.