When reading through the Maha Nidana sutta I came across the three types of becoming: Sensual becoming, form becoming, and formless becoming. I am trying to understand what the different forms of becoming are. This sutta does not explain how they are different, it only says that birth occurs if any type of becoming occurs. To try to understand the differences I read the Bhava sutta; this sutta says

"Ananda, if there were no kamma ripening in the sensuality-property, would sensuality-becoming be discerned?"

"No, lord."

"Thus kamma is the field, consciousness the seed, and craving the moisture. The consciousness of living beings hindered by ignorance & fettered by craving is established in/tuned to a lower property. Thus there is the production of renewed becoming in the future.

This is repeated replacing "sensuality-property" and "sensuality-becoming" with "form-property" and "form-becoming", and likewise for formless property/becoming.

Ven Thanissaro Bhikkhu mentions in his notes on the Bhava sutta that the Buddha never defines becoming, the Buddha just splits becoming into these three types. From these suttas it appears that knowing what sensuality-property, form-property, and formless-property mean is all there is to knowing the differences in the types of becoming but I haven't been able to find information on what they are.

2 Answers 2


I think the passage you're asking about (in the Access to Insight translation of DN 15) is this:

"'From becoming as a requisite condition comes birth.' Thus it has been said. And this is the way to understand how from becoming as a requisite condition comes birth. If there were no becoming at all, in any way, of anything anywhere — i.e., sensual becoming, form becoming, or formless becoming — in the utter absence of becoming, from the cessation of becoming, would birth be discerned?"

I think that's a summary of the previous paragraph, i.e.:

If there were no birth at all, in any way, of anything anywhere — i.e., of devas in the state of devas, of celestials in the state of celestials, of spirits in the state of spirits, of demons in the state of demons, of human beings in the human state, of quadrupeds in the state of quadrupeds, of birds in the state of birds, of snakes in the state of snakes, or of any being in its own state — in the utter absence of birth, from the cessation of birth, would aging and death be discerned?

I.e. the types of becoming correspond to birth in the various planes of existence.

Dharmafarer's introduction to the Bhava Sutta describes them as follows:

Another interesting feature of the two discourses is their treatment of the three realms as “low” (hīna dhātu), “middling” (majjhima dhātu), and “subtle” (paṇīta dhātu), that is, the sense-world, the form world, and the formless world, respectively.

The “lowly” sense-realm (kāma,dhātu) [§1b] is the realm of beings dependent on some form of physical senses, and is the lowest of the three existential spheres. It comprises the human world, the subhuman realms (the hells, the animal kingdom, and the ghost realm of the departed), and the six lower heavens.6 It is said to be “low” (hīna) because the beings there are dependent on the physical senses and the mind.

The “middling” form realm (rūpa,dhātu) [§2] is the realm of blissful dhyanic existence of radiant fine-materiality,7 whose beings still have the faculties of seeing and hearing, but which along with the other physical senses are temporarily suspended in the four dhyanas.8 The beings of such realms are called brahmas (brahmā), or “high gods,” who normally have almost nothing to do with the sense world, since they are absorbed in their celestial dhyanic bliss. When they do appear in the sense-world, they apparently have to emerge from their dhyanic state.9

The “subtle” formless realm (arūpa,dhātu) [§3] comprises of beings of pure energy, that is, without any physical form whatsoever.10 They exist only as varying refined states of the four mental aggregates (feeling, perception, formations and consciousness). These beings have no contact with the sense-world whatsoever.11

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    There is just one part of your answer I don't quite grasp. (This comment is very long so I have to post it over two comments) I understand birth/rebirth in two contexts: 1. Rebirth after physical death where we may be reborn in a different realm, 2. Moment-to-moment rebirth which is related to the birth stage of dependant origination. Some traditions equate the two and say that one can change realms every moment, however I don't think you're assuming that.
    – Hugh
    Jul 20, 2016 at 16:18
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    The sources you gave cover rebirth after physical death and what form/formless/sense becoming means in that context but I'm not sure how this corresponds to moment-to-moment birth/becoming. Considering what Dharmafarer's document says: "if we habitually behave as an animal, then we are likely to be reborn as an animal" can the meaning of sense/form/formless becoming be extended to moment-to-moment birth by saying that through dependant origination formless becoming leads to a state of mind in our current realm where we are more likely to act like a being in a formless realm?
    – Hugh
    Jul 20, 2016 at 16:18
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    The little I've learned includes that various people don't quite always agree with each other on whether it's "rebirth" or whether it's "just birth", whether it's "after death" or "moment to moment", etc. If I recall correctly, other doctrine about the formless realm is a) Beings are born there because of their accumulated merit b) Being formless they cannot even listen to the Dhamma, and while they're there they cannot accumulate any more good merit c) Their time in the formless realm is therefore inevitably finite and (when their accumulated merit is used up) they're reborn in a lower realm.
    – ChrisW
    Jul 20, 2016 at 16:52
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    Thanks for your answers Chris, I think you've explained the differences between the types of becoming. I might have taken the question too far to try to understand part of rebirth unrelated to the question, sorry for that!
    – Hugh
    Jul 20, 2016 at 17:17
  • The Pali does not state "sense-realm". 'Kama bhava' is 'sensual becoming'. For example, the senses still operate in arahants that are free from becoming: "his five sense faculties remain unimpaired, by which he still experiences what is agreeable and disagreeable and feels pleasure and pain. It is the extinction of attachment, hate, and delusion in him that is called the Nibbana-element" Iti 44: The Nibbana-element accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/iti/… Jul 20, 2016 at 19:05

I am trying to understand what the different forms of becoming are. This sutta does not explain how they are different.

The different forms of 'becoming' are 'sensual', 'material' & 'immaterial' becoming.

Sensual becoming is when there is 'self-identity' in relation to sensuality. For example, the mind thinks: "I love this delicious food, this is now my favourite good, I am going to visit this restaurant every week". Or: "I love this (sexy & beautiful) woman, she is my wife, I am her husband".

Material becoming is 'self-identity' in relation to a material object or in relation to one of the four rupa jhanas. For example: "I am rich, I have lots of money, this is my big house (which make me feel materially secure rather than give me sensual pleasure); I am now a meditation master because I have attained the 1st jhana".

Immaterial becoming is 'self-identity' in relation to an immaterial object or in relation to one of the four arupa jhanas. For example: "I am famous, I am loved; I have a good reputation; I am important; I am now a meditation master because I have attained arupa jhana".

The scriptures explain:

The craving resulting in new becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving to be, craving not-to-be: This, friend Visakha, is the origination/arising of self-identification described by the Blessed One.

MN 44

Ven Thanissaro Bhikkhu mentions in his notes on the Bhava sutta that the Buddha never defines becoming.

The scriptures certainly define 'becoming'; just as the scriptures define the word 'being' or 'satta', as follows:

The consciousness of living beings hindered by ignorance & fettered by craving is established in/tuned to a lower property. AN 3.76


‘A being,’ lord. ‘A being,’ it’s said. To what extent is one said to be ‘a being’? Any desire, passion, delight or craving for form, feeling, perception, mental formations &/or consciousness Radha: when one is caught up there, tied up there, one is said to be ‘a being'. SN 23.2

Thus both 'becoming' & the 'birth' of 'being' appear to be forms of or extensions of 'attachment'.

The Mahanidana Sutta is different to the many other stock suttas (such as SN 12.2 & MN 9) on Dependent Origination. For example, the Mahanidana Sutta does not define 'aging-&-death'; defines 'birth' differently; ignores the six sense spheres; defines nama-rupa & consciousness differently; ignores sankhara & ignores ignorance.

It is rather unusual that DN 15 is called 'The Great' sutta about causation when a number of causes (nidana) are missing or undefined.

Contrary to DN 15, the other stock suttas appear to define 'birth' as the production of the ignorant 'view' of 'beings' ('satta'):

And what is birth? Whatever birth, taking birth, entering, coming-to-be, coming-forth of the various beings in this or that group of beings based on the manifestation ('play') the aggregates & taking possession of sense spheres/sense objects, that is called birth. SN 12.2


In human bodies in themselves, nothing distinctive can be found. Distinction among human beings is purely verbal designation….For name & clan are assigned, originating in conventions…Whoever makes his living among men by agriculture is called a ‘farmer’…Whoever makes his living among men by merchandise is called a ‘merchant’…that is how the wise truly see…seers of dependent origination. MN 98


Angulimala [the former mass-murderer], say to that woman: “Sister, since I was born with a noble birth [as a monk], I do not recall that I have ever intentionally deprived a living being of life”. MN 86


There is the case where an uninstructed person assumes form, feeling, perception, mental formations &/or consciousness to be a ‘self’. That assumption is a mental formation. Now what is the cause, what is the origination, what is the birth, what is the coming-into-existence of that fabrication? To an uninstructed, run-of-the-mill person, touched by that which is felt born of contact with ignorance, craving arises. That mental formation of ‘self’ is born from that. And that mental formation is impermanent, fabricated, dependently arisen. That craving… That feeling… That contact… That ignorance is impermanent, fabricated, dependently arisen. SN 22.81


Why now do you assume ‘a being’? Mara, have you grasped a view? This is a heap of sheer constructions: Here no being is found. Just as, with an assemblage of parts, the word ‘chariot’ is used, so, when the aggregates are present, there’s the convention ‘a being.’ SN 5.10

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    Your description of the types of becoming as an extension of the object of self-view (or clinging- the previous step in the nidanas) makes a lot of sense. Since the type of self-view leads to a type of becoming then I'm curious if the types of becoming lead to types of birth. If we are talking about moment-to-moment birth then does it make sense to talk about sense-birth, form-birth, or formless-birth while someone is in the human realm? In other words does formless becoming lead to birth with a state of mind similar to a being in a formless realm?
    – Hugh
    Jul 20, 2016 at 21:01
  • 'Birth' (jati) is not always physical birth. In India today, the word 'jati' does refer to physical birth. 'Birth' is the full maturation of self-identity. 'Becoming' is the formation process of self-identity. Clinging is when the mind first grasps onto an experience with an "I" reference. Therefore, if the mind attaches to a formless meditation or attaches to fame, status, etc, & develops a solid 'self-identity' in relation to these experiences, this is 'birth'. Then when the fame, status, etc. is lost, this is aging-&-death of this 'self-identity', which results in suffering. Jul 20, 2016 at 23:36
  • At this link is one of these Brahmanistic suttas: accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an04/an04.123.than.html But if it is read carefully, it states when an unenlightened mind enters into one of the meditative jhanas, it believes it is a god. But when a disciple of the Buddha enters into jhana, they are 'unbound' within, thus do not believe they are a god. Jul 20, 2016 at 23:40

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