The Physical World versus the Spiritual World in Indian Thought

Kenneth Leong
3 min readNov 5, 2023

A Buddhist friend and I recently had a discussion about the “31 Realms of Existence.” My friend thinks that these realms should be taken literally and that they are real. I, on the other hand, think that these realms are metaphors. Who is right?

It dawned on me just the other day that some of these realms correspond perfectly with the jhanas a meditator could experience during meditation. For example:

— the 5th jhana is called “Infinite Space.” It corresponds with the 28th realm with the same name.
— the 6th jhana is called “Infinite Consciousness.” It correspond with the 29th realm with the same name.
— the 7th jhana is called “Infinite Nothingness.” It corresponds with the 30th realm with the same name.
— the 8th jhana is called “Neither perception nor non-perception.” It corresponds with the 31st sphere.

The implication is not clear to me until I consult Bard, AI. It says the following:

In many Indian religions, the physical world is seen as an illusion or Maya, while the trance state is seen as a way to access a higher reality. Here are some examples of how Indians make this distinction:

1. In Hinduism: The physical world is seen as Maya, which is an illusion or a veil that obscures the true nature of reality. The trance state is seen as a way to pierce through Maya and experience the true nature of reality, which is Brahman, the ultimate reality or Godhead.
2. In Buddhism: The physical world is seen as Samsara, which is the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The trance state is seen as a way to achieve Nirvana, which is the liberation from Samsara.
3. In Jainism: The physical world is seen as a place of suffering and attachment. The trance state is seen as a way to achieve liberation from the cycle of rebirth and attain a state of perfect knowledge and bliss.

The take-home lesson is that generally speaking, the Indian religions do not consider the physical or material world as “real.” Instead, what one sees during a trance during meditation is considered as more real and it offers insights into the nature of reality.

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Kenneth Leong

Author, Zen teacher, scientific mystic, professor, photographer, philosopher, social commentator, socially engaged human