The inescapable law of karma guarantees that each and every one of our actions — whether it be of body, speech, or mind — has consequences in line with the skillfulness or unskillfulness of that action. We can often witness this process first-hand in our own lives, even if the effects may not be immediately apparent. But the Buddha also taught that our actions have effects that extend far beyond our present life, determining the quality of rebirth we can expect after death: act in wholesome, skillful ways and you are destined for a favorable rebirth; act in unwholesome, unskillful ways and an unpleasant rebirth awaits. Thus we coast for aeons through samsara, propelled from one birth to the next by the quality of our choices and our actions.
The various suttas describe various “planes” or “realms” of existence into which beings can be reborn during this long wandering through samsara. Sometimes they refer to five or six, sometimes more. The numbers differ according to the classification system used. These range from the extraordinarily dark, grim, and painful hell realms all the way up to the most sublime, refined, and exquisitely blissful heaven realms. Existence in every realm is impermanent; in Buddhist cosmology there is no eternal heaven or hell. Beings are born into a particular realm according to both their past kamma and their kamma at the moment of death. When the kammic force that propelled them to that realm is finally exhausted, they pass away, taking rebirth once again elsewhere according to their kamma. And so the wearisome cycle continues.
Conditions at the time of death can fortell where the rebirth will occur. If a particular part of the body remains warm after the rest of the body has become cold, that will indicate by which gate consciousness exited the body and that determines where that consciousness will go. If the crown has been opened and the top of the head is warm, one goes to the heavenly realms, If the throat, then it is the asura realm; the heart means rebirth in the human realm. If the stomach remains warm after the rest of the body is cold, rebirth takes place in the ghost realm and if it is the lower organs that remain warm, the animal realms. Consciousness leaves for the hell realms through the soles of the feet.
The realms of existence are customarily divided into three distinct “worlds” (triloka), listed here in descending order of refinement:
The Formless or Immaterial World (arupa-loka) which consists of four realms that are accessible to those who pass away while meditating in the formless jhanas.
The Form or Fine-Material World (rupa-loka) which consists of sixteen realms whose inhabitants (the devas) experience extremely refined degrees of mental pleasure. These realms are accessible to those who have attained at least some level of jhana and who have thereby managed to (temporarily) suppress hatred and ill-will. They are said to possess extremely refined bodies of pure light. The highest of these realms, the Pure Abodes, are accessible only to those who have attained to “non-returning,” the third stage of Awakening. The Form World and the Formless World together constitute the higher “heavens” (sagga).
The Desire or Sensuous World (kama-loka) which consists of eleven realms in which experience — both pleasurable and not — is dominated by the five senses. Seven of these realms are favorable destinations, and include our own human realm as well as several realms occupied by devas and asuras. The lowest realms are the three “bad” or lower destinations, which include the animal, hungry ghost, and hell realms.
Unless we take steps to break free of the iron grip of karma, we are doomed to wander aimlessly from one state to another, with true peace and satisfaction forever out of reach. The Buddha’s revolutionary discovery came in finding that there is a way to break free: the Noble Eightfold Path, which equips us with precisely the tools we need to escape from this wearisome wandering, once and for all, to a true and unshakeable freedom.