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Three Realms of Existence: Desire, Form, and Formless

by on February 26, 2015

During our weekly discussion the question came up as to meaning of the Three Realms of Existence: Desire (Sense-sphere), Form Realm and Formless Realm.

In response to the question a member found an explanation related to Buddhist cosmology. And yes, the Three Realms, Desire, Form and Formless consist of 31 planes of existence according to Traditional Theravada Cosmology. I found the detailed breakdown of planes in the book, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. Below are thoughts from Theravadan and Mahayana teaching.

The Desire Realm consists of the 6 realms (human, deva, titans, ghosts, animals, hell realm) and are dominated by attachment to the senses.

In the Form Realm samsaric existence includes many of the heavenly spheres and is characterized by temporary bliss and peace. Some descriptors are: clear-sighted, beautiful, serene, durable, radiance.

The Formless Realm is the samsaric realm of existence whose inhabitants dwell in states of meditation. In Theravada teaching the formless planes consist of the ‘base of neither-perception-nor-nonperception’, ‘base of nothingness’, ‘base of infinity of consciousness’, ‘base of infinity of space’. These four bases when reached are associated with an Arhat.

In Mahayana teaching the emphasis is not on reaching the higher planes of existence, i.e., the formless realms, thereby becoming an Arhat. That is individual liberation. Zen emphasizes the teaching of being present in our everyday life, skillfully working for the liberation of others before crossing over ourselves (the Bodhisattva Way).

In the past I have spoken about formless repentance. We have chants that help us with this practice: Verse of Repentance and Eihei Koso Hotsuganmon (see Sangha Communications for Bamboo Chant book). When practicing repentance we enter the gate to buddha world. It is simultaneous. One does not separate by thinking concepts of good person or bad person, good or bad deeds, etc. One just chants the verse with an open mind-heart and IS. This is very important because we can enter Buddha Way through myriad gates.

What are your gates?

Just This


From → Zen Buddhism

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