The Formless Realms

Friday 09 Aug 2019

The Formless Realms always seem to be a formidable topic in the Buddhist teachings. I would like to share with you a more generalised insight into what they are and what they mean. The Formless realms can be seen as higher order mental realms or states that are locked inside the so called ‘lower Material realms’. The Buddha listed the structure of both the Material and Formless realms in stages as the mind purifies and unifies. When the Material Realms unify back into the mentality of the Formless Realms, they stand forth and are listed as: Consciousness of infinite space, Objectless infinite consciousness, Awareness of no-thing-ness and Neither-perception-nor-non-perception.

Looking at the other end of the Buddha’s ‘Path to Concentration’ we can see that the Material Realms are a more coarse aggregation of these mental formless realms. The whole path is built in our ignorance to be grasped as real, so with practice, we can see or intuit that it is the Mental Realms that aggregate with the movement of consciousness to build the Material Realms, creating life as we know it. When we practice to make our mind still and concentrated, our mind will unify to leave the material states behind. When this happens we are left with just the mentality of mind and its formless realms

For a more complete discussion on the ‘path of concentration’, see my previous articles in ET (Spring & Autumn 2017) that discus the Mundane and Supra Mundane. My web site blogs will also give a more rounded explanation. You can find it all here at:

The formless realms are always with us. They are right there with us in the present moment. Even though in this epoch, we are living in a world that is relatively quiescent and stable, each one of us has in our minds the consciousness of more unstable times. Unstable times from the early evolution of our World and Universe. Times of massive violent eruption and change! With practice we can intuit past worlds forming and reforming, while consciousness goes about using its fungible nature to move, create and recreate. This process locks inside our minds this elementary formation as it conditions and fuses inside us. This all happens inside the laws of nature. This evolution is the precursor for grasping and delusion. The past conditions the present and the present conditions the future while this present moment --- right now, contains it all. We lose sight of the fact that in reality, there is nothing there and we get reborn again and again!

This elementary experience gets locked into our stories and myths that get passed down through the ages. Stories like the Bhagavad Gita, the Iliad, Odyssey and Dante’s Inferno, stories of Good and Evil working to lock in and habituate our conditioning. Then there are the diverse but very similar stories of mythical Gods and Powers that have been dreamed and created separately by nations from the Greeks right through to our own Aboriginal communities. All of these myths and legends are often stories that have been written into the stars. These nations may not have had a physical connection but they are connected with still fungible consciousness before it moves. This consciousness is the foundation of all conditioning. Our dreams also connect into the formless realms as we let go of our awake but conditioned conscious mind in sleep, to allow the vastness of the sub-conscious mind to have sway. The formless realms live mostly unseen in our unconscious mind, but our evolved history keeps us in touch with these formless realms with an unseen consciousness of this evolution, and it works to keeps us relatively sane in our delusion.

<The Buddha was no different in his explanation of many things. This is an extract from the Seven Suns Sutta that gives a remarkable insight into the future of our planet. Only in the last 50 years or so, has Physics discovered the truth of what he saw in his mind here. Physicists now know that the earth will be engulfed inside the atmosphere of the sun when it becomes a Red Giant in approximately four billion years. The Buddha said, ‘There comes a time when, after a long time a seventh (stage of the) sun appears. With the appearance of the seventh (stage of the) sun, this great earth and Sineru, the king of the mountains burst into flames, blaze up brightly and become one mass of flame. As the great earth and Sineru are blazing and burning the flame, cast up by the wind, rises even to the brahma world. As Sineru is blazing and burning, as it is undergoing destruction and being overcome by a great mass of heat, mountain peaks of a hundred yojanas disintegrate: mountain peaks of two hundred yojanas --- three hundred yojanas --- four hundred yojanas --- five hundred yojanas disintegrate. When the great earth and Sineru, the king of the mountains are blazing and burning neither ashes nor soot are seen”. (AN 7.66)

Note how the Buddha uses the imagery of Sineru King of the mountains to illustrate what he knows and his references to the number seven can also be seen as idiomatic. Idiosyncratic; language a big part of our language today and forms the basis of all of our stories and beliefs..

Our consciousness is constantly changing and we are constantly confabulating stories from our conditioned situation. We do not know that we are trapped into rounds and rounds of ignorance. Our consciousness is feeding all of this back, iterating and looping in a ‘Mundane way’, “countless times in the wink of an eye” according to the Buddha. With strong mindfulness we can start to get a feel for this iteration and intuit the feedback as we learn to cultivate and develop knowledge of the still consciousness that builds and aggregates it all. With strong mindfulness we can eventually see directly that this still consciousness will finish feeding back from the world. This is knowledge that the universe has now unified inside us! Consciousness is no longer iterating from the external world and Universe. We now have our Universe contained within us, and we see that by carrying this unification into our death, we will not be born again. The delusion is finished! This is knowledge of the ‘Supra Mundane’, which is very helpful for our progress towards enlightenment, but wisdom needs to be constantly cultivated to truly understand what the Buddha saw. The Buddha went past the last four mental realms with his one pointedness and equanimity to be become Arahant, ‘Fully Enlightened’! The Buddha kept reminding us that the “House of self is on fire, get out as soon as you can!” He has given us a wise and noble pathway to follow. It is the pathway to the deathless.


02 Aug 2020 : Understanding Fungible Consciousness

(‘How it creates & How it lets go’) --- (‘How it begins & How it Ends’)Consciousness is a condition. We can know this because it can be objectified. We can make an object of it. We can get above it, below it, and see all ...

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02 Aug 2020 : Eternity

Is eternity a desirable state to try and cultivate? What does eternity mean? In this piece I would like to look at the way this question might resolve itself for a meditator on the Buddhist path. Buddhist practice is usually a gradual inclination toward ...

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01 Aug 2020 : Release

ReleaseThe naturalness of ‘Letting-Go’ Buddhist practitioners (like me) often lament the difficulty of letting go. How do we let go? Any serious meditator who practices to ‘experience’ what the Buddha was pointing to will ...

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