The Six Realms
by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo
Many of you, I’m sure, have seen thangkas of the “Wheel of Life.” For those of you who haven’t, they depict a big wheel held in the jaws of Yama, the Lord of Death. On the outer rim are the twelve links of interdependent origination. Inside that are the six realms of existence, and at the hub are three animals — a cock, a pig and a snake, each biting the tail of the one in front. They make up the inner circle. The cock represents greed, the snake anger, and the pig ignorance. According to Buddhist psychology, it is these three negative emotions which keep the whee of samsara turning. It’s our underlying ignorance about how things really are which projects greed and anger. In other words, the “I want” and the “I don’t want” which govern the way we live. We spend our lives trying to get what pleases us and to avoid the things we don’t like. These are the motivating forces which keep us chained to the wheel.
At the very bottom of the picture, you will see the depiction of the hell realms. Of course, nowadays many people don’t believe in hell realms. Ironically, they still believe in heaven but consider the hell realms to be pure fantasy! I have my own views about this. As I was brought up a spiritualist, I feel at ease with a belief in other realms of being outside of this concrete material realm. But anyway, even in Buddhism, the hell realms are not necessarily considered to be physical places. In the Bodkicharyavatara, Shantideva says, “Who made the red-hot iron floors? Who made the demons tormenting the beings? All this is a projection of the perverted mind.” Even if we don’t believe in the physical reality of the hell realms, we can definitely believe that a mind filled with anger, which loves harming others and takes pleasure in cruelty, could easily project a paranoid environment for itself. The Buddhist belief is that after we pass on to other realms and lose the physical support which keeps us grounded here, the content of our inner mind is projected outward and becomes our entire reality. We already project quite a bit on this plane, but the extent of our projection increases once we lose our physical base. So if the mind is already filled with anger and sadistic pleasure in others’ pain, that state of mind will be projected outwards and the person involved in it will respond in a paranoid way. We can get some understanding of hell realms right here and now. We all know people who are physically located in hell realms, such as those living in war zones. There are also people suffering from incurable and painful sicknesses, people in prisons, and people in asylums for the mentally ill who are tormented by their own paranoid fantasies. We know people living with partners who are extremely abusive and children living with abusive parents. These are the hell realms we all know about right here.
One of the big problems with hell realms is that the suffering is so intense that we become completely engulfed by it, rendering us incapable of action. For this reason, it is very difficult to break free. That’s why so many women who live with abusive husbands can’t break away. They’re completely trapped in the relationship. There is a story of the Lord Buddha in one of his past lives. In this life, for some reason, although he was already a bodhisattva, he was reborn in hell and had to drag a very heavy chariot backwards and forwards. There was another person beside him, and they were yoked together. They had to carry this heavy chariot back and forth over red-hot pavement. There were guards on either side whipping them if they flagged. At one point, the Bodhisattva’s companion collapsed. They were both very tired and weak because this goes on practically for eternity. Anyway, the Bodhisattva said, “You rest a while. I will carry this all by myself,” because he felt so sorry for his friend. He said to the guards, “Let him rest a bit. I will carry it alone.” The guards replied, “You can’t do that. You’re all the heirs to your own karma,” and they hit him with a big iron-spiked ball. At that moment he died and was reborn in heaven.
This instant death and rebirth occurred because in that very painful, paranoid situation, it is almost impossible to generate a thought for the welfare of others, and yet the Bodhisattva managed to do so. For this reason he died and was immediately reborn in heaven. Hell is self-perpetuating and this is why it is so difficult to get out of it and why it is traditionally considered, although not eternal, to last for so long. He 11-beings are entrapped by their own paranoia. We can see this in our everyday lives. We can see this in people who are caught in deep depressions or in schizophrenia or paranoia.
The next is the realm of the preta, the hungry ghosts, or unsatisfied spirits. These are traditionally shown as beings roaming the surface of the earth, invisible to ordinary humans. They are usually shown with huge empty stomachs and very thin necks. It is said that even if they manage to get a morsel of food, it can hardly pass down this hair thin neck. Even if the food manages to pass through the neck, the stomach is like a mountain. So a morsel of food is of little benefit to them. Others may be able to drink or eat, but the water they drink turns into pus or fire, and their food turns into disgusting, indigestible substances. In other words, they are always being tortured by their intense hunger and their longing for food and water. This is considered to be the result of stinginess. The Buddha said that if people only knew the results of giving, they would give continually. Even more so if they understood the results of not giving! We can also see hungry ghosts in our everyday lives. There are people who, no matter how much they have, inwardly always feel poor. They are perpetually looking to see what others have. Not only are they always wanting more and more, but they find it very difficult to give anything away unless they happen not to want it. It’s very easy to give away something we don’t want, like last year’s fashions. It’s much more difficult to give away something we like and value.
When I was very young, there was a man living opposite our house. The windows in his room were completely black because he hadn’t cleaned them for probably about thirty or forty years. He shuffled around in rags. His room was absolutely bare, filthy, and very dark. He was a gentle person, but he was angry with his relatives. He hated them. He said he didn’t want his relatives to have the pleasure of seeing him enjoy anything. It was a very convoluted way of thinking. When he died, they found stacks and stacks of shirts and suits still in their plastic wrappings and thousands of pound notes. These were concealed inside chairs, under the bed, under the floorboards, everywhere. Of course the moment he died, his family descended and took it all away. One could imagine that because of his inability to enjoy his own wealth or to share it with others, he might stay around the room as a kind of ghost haunting the place.
Sharing is very important. It is the opposite of a hungry ghost mentality. It’s noticeable in Buddhist countries that the people who give the most to charities, who give the most offerings to the monks and nuns on alms rounds in the morning and so on, are the poor people, or the emerging middle class. The people who do not give are the more established middle class and the wealthy, unless they give as a big show, inviting everybody along to rejoice in their merit. We should be very careful to avoid miserliness. We need to learn to open up the heart and be able to give wherever we see a need. This includes even little things. Not just material things, but smiles, a nice word, time to listen, sometimes just being there for others. This is giving, having a generous heart and not always thinking, “What can I get out of it? What’s in it for me? If I give that, then I won’t have it for myself.”
The third realm is the animal realm. According to Buddhist theory, this realm is characterised by basic stupidity. I think this is a little unfair to animals. I don’t think animals are as stupid as all that, but they do lack a certain quality of self-knowing. They can’t stand back and look at situations objectively. They always become very subjectively involved in whatever they’re doing. Their biggest concern is getting something to eat. Have you ever noticed how much time animals spend just eating and looking for food They also spend a lot of time sleeping and trying to keep themselves warm and comfortable. Their other great preoccupation is procreation. This is not so different from many human lives, if you think about it.
Unless we develop the mind, we are not much better than animals ourselves. There are people who are totally concerned with their instincts, their pleasures, and making themselves comfortable. There are so many people who don’t even try to develop the mind, who don’t try to think, discriminate, or analyse. They go along with the crowd, creating pleasant situations and avoiding painful ones, just like animals. Many of us are pretty much like that. How to be comfortable? How to keep ourselves warm but not too warm; cool, but not too cool? Comfortably fed. Nicely clothed. Everything comfortable. We are basically animals unless we develop that part of ourselves which is distinctly human, by which I mean the mind. Animals think too, but they are not capable of creative thinking. The potential to use the mind creatively is the main thing distinguishing humans from beings in the animal realm.
The next segment on the wheel is humans, but we’ll come to those last. The one after that is the realm of what are called the ashuras.. These are demi-gods. The demi-god realm and the god realms are iconographically depicted one above the other from the grossest to the most sublime. Just below the grossest of the god realms is the realm of the ashuras. They’re also very beautiful, like the gods. Many of the female ashuras are captured by the gods. I haven’t noticed male ashuras being captured by female goddesses, but anyway, the ladies are taken up from time to time. The main problem for the ashuras is the wish-fulfilling tree. The roots and the trunk of this tree are in the realm of the ashuras, so the tree gets all its nourishment from the ashura soil. However, the branches, and therefore the fruit of the tree, are in the realm of the gods. Consequently the ashuras are devoured by jealousy. They cannot appreciate all the good things they already have, and they do have good things because they are demi-gods. They could lead perfectly happy lives. But they do not permit themselves happiness because they are consumed by this competition against the gods to try to regain the fruit of this tree which they believe is rightfully theirs. And so they’re always at war — the titans against the gods.
We can see this very easily in our own realm in the psychological patterns of people who already have more than enough. Because there’s always someone who has more, they can’t ever appreciate what they have. They’re always consumed with envy for those who have more than they do, who have higher promotions or bigger houses or bigger cars, a larger income, or whatever. We can also see this happening in big business. I think many businessmen will be reborn as ashuras because they are always organising takeovers and all kinds of deals. This is the mentality that is never satisfied. All of us slip into this ashura mentality sometimes. Whatever we have is just not enough. If we had what somebody else has, we would be happy. But even if we get it, of course it’s not enough, because somebody else has even more — a newer model or a bigger one, or something like that. This kind of mindset torments many people, yet today it is considered a good thing, because it is the basis of our consumer society. We have to keep consuming. The only way to keep us consuming is to generate all these artificial needs, and the way to generate artificial needs is to point out that other people have these things and look how happy they are! All the advertisements assure us that if we had a bigger car or better clothes or a better brand of whiskey, we would be sublimely happy. Of course there’s a part of us that knows this is not true. But another part of us is under such pressure to believe the myth that we tend to go along with it anyway. Our whole society is very much based on this ashura mental’ ity of competition for material goods.
Recently I was staying in Singapore. In some ways, Singapore is sort of a god realm, but it’s also very much an ashura realm because the whole society is based on competition. It’s a very small island off the Malaysian peninsula, and it does not have any land to cultivate. It doesn’t have any resources of its own. It’s basically a small city-state. So it relies totally on trade and commerce, and this creates a sense of instability, because it knows that if for some reason business went elsewhere, its economy would collapse. No matter how successful they are economically, you will always hear people saying, “Yes, but Taiwan is doing better,” or, “Malaysia is catching up with us.” One day, I was driving with a Chinese friend who had a white Mercedes. We parked it, and when we came back there were eight white Mercedes all in a row. Everybody has white Mercedes because without one you’re nothing. Unless, of course, you have an olive-green Rover, which is the second choice. Everybody seems to have three jobs. Meanwhile, children are committing suicide because they can’t stand the pressure. This is very much the ashura mentality of competition, insecurity, fear, and resentment. The Singaporeans themselves are very nice people, but nowadays the whole structure of their society is geared towards this extremely stressful way of living. Yet at the time I was there, the government found themselves at the end of the fiscal year with a surplus of millions and millions of dollars, which they didn’t know what to do with. What a problem! “What should we do with all these millions of dollars,” they cried. And still they said, “That’s very good, but we must not rest on our laurels. We must do even better next year because Taiwan is catching up.”
At the top is the realm of the devas. This word is sometimes translated as “god,” but deva literally means “a shining one,” a being of light. It is related in the sutras that in the middle of the night, devas would often come and light up the grove where the Buddha was sitting and ask him questions. In Buddhist cosmology there are twenty-six different heavens. So no one can say that Buddhism is pessimistic. We have many more happy realms than miserable realms, actually! The heavenly realms begin with the grossest. The descriptions are written from the male point of view, so there are beautiful young gods with lots of lovely pink-footed nymphs serving them — every man’s fantasy! Everything you wish for just appears spontaneously. The branches and fruits of the wish-fulfilling tree are located in the lower realm of the gods. This is a bit like the Californian life-style, I always think. Beautiful homes, beautiful cars, beautiful children, hopefully beautiful bodies, everybody doing yoga or tai chi, everybody on healthful diets, everybody thinking positive thoughts.
Above this there are many levels, each more rarefied and more refined than the one below. Finally, we come to the realms that are the result of advanced meditational abilities. They correspond to various meditational levels. In those realms the gods are androgynous, neither male nor female. After this there are the formless realms, which correspond to the formless attainments like infinite space, infinite consciousness, neither perception nor nonperception, and so on. But however rarefied these states become, they are still within the realm of birth and death. However long we stay there, the karma which created the causes for rebirth there will eventually be exhausted, and we will have to descend again.
From the Buddhist viewpoint, the heavenly realms are not considered such good places to be reborn. Life is so pleasurable there that we have very little motivation to make spiritual progress. Instead, we just use up our good karma, which means that eventually we’re left with only the bad. We saw that in the lower realms, there’s too much misery for beings to think about spiritual progress, but in the higher realms, there’s too much happiness. Both realms present equal impediments to spiritual growth.
California is like the deva realm. Many Tibetans who come here from India are convinced of this. But of course any realm which is wholly focused on youth, beauty, joy, and light is very fragile because life isn’t all youth, beauty, joy, and light. Those who deny the shadow are in a very insecure and precarious position. To be exclusively in a deva realm and not recognise its precarious nature is a form of gross self-delusion. I remember a very nice lady from California who was a yoga teacher and a masseuse. When I first met her she was in her fifties, but she looked very youthful because she ate all the right things and did all the right kinds of exercise. She came to Nepal and was always talking about joy, love, and light. One lama used to call her the Bliss Cloud. Then she got sick. Everybody gets sick in Nepal. That brought her down from her cloud. Then she began to develop genuine compassion. It is hard to develop true compassion when you are continually blocking out all suffering from your own life.
From a Buddhist point of view, the best rebirth we can possibly have within samsara itself is the human realm, because we have this unique combination of joy and sorrow. We are able to see things much more clearly, and we have the motivation to go beyond all of it. What is more, in the human realm we have choice. We can choose how we will act, how we will speak, and how we will think. We are in training. Because of actions we have performed with body, speech, and mind in this and in past lives, we do not have much control over most of the circumstances which occur in this lifetime. But we can control our response to those circumstances, and in that lies our freedom. We can respond with negative roots or with positive roots. If someone shouts at us, we can shout back or we can try to deal with the situation more skillfully. If someone is angry with us, we have choice. We can be angry in return or we can try to bring some understanding and patience into the situation. If we respond positively, we will attract more positive occurrences into our life. If we always respond negatively, we will create more and more negativity. According to whether we respond skillfully or unskillfully, we create our own future from one moment to the next. It’s up to us. We are not computers. We are not completely programmed.
The main purpose of meditation is to create self-knowing and awareness so we can break through our patterning and respond with more openness, clarity, and understanding. Meditation is not just to make us feel peaceful; that’s just the basis for further progress. Meditation is about arousing self-knowledge. Once we know ourselves, we can understand others. When we understand others, we can put an end to suffering. We can respond to everything with great skill. We can respond to others with respect and compassion. In this lies the importance of the human realm. This is our great opportunity. If we waste it, it might be a long time before we get it back again. It’s here and now. It’s not just in sitting, it’s in everyday life, in everybody we meet, in every circumstance. It is up to us whether we act with awareness or with delusion. It is up to us whether we create further suffering for ourselves and for others or whether we gradually release this and create positive circumstances. That’s what the Buddhist path is about — helping us to make the best of the opportunity that is our human life, not just when we’re sitting on our meditation seats or visiting Dharma centers, but the whole of our human life, with all our relationships, our work, our social life, everything. All of it is within the province of Dharma practice. We really must not waste this chance.