The Six Realms: Not Solid — and Not to Be Taken Lightly
by Khandro Rinpoche
Contemplating the Six Realms is not just about seeing the diverse experiences of sentient beings. It is also about letting go of the intense arrogance that thinks the world begins and ends with “me.” By not only creating a favourable karmic ground for ourselves but also appreciating the suffering of others, we begin to generate selfless generosity and compassion without bias. To appreciate that sameness, we contemplate the six realms.
The modern world, East and West, tends to solidify the six realms and their suffering too much. We may think, “I got angry, I have such aggression, now I’m sure to go to the hell realm” and give up on the reasoning behind this. The point is not that we all go the hell realms for a million years. Is it? The point is to understand that suffering will exist as long as grasping and karmic patterns exist. Failing to understand our true nature, we revert again and again to the seeming reality of appearances. By solidifying appearances, we make our creations seem real.
The same grasping and elaborating of perceptions happens in all the realms. The six realms are created from one moment of distracted grasping, which creates karma, which comes to fruition as a particular environment-with the emotions, perceptions, and formations of a particular kind of experience. Therefore, the nature of all realms is illusory: every realm is a dream state, with the same fundamental essence as our own.
So the solidity or reality of the six realms is entirely up to us. The most fundamental and true Buddhist view sees the six realms to be no more real than a dream. Reality runs parallel with our grasping at the solidity of appearances-the solidity of sounds, tastes, feelings, thoughts, concepts, and so on. It’s entirely up to us how much “reality” we bring to whatever we perceive at this moment. The six realms are just that real; the hell realm is just that real. When we genuinely let go of grasping at each and every concept — even the tiniest concept, even the most subtle grasping we realise that the core essence of reality is based on the grasping mind itself. When the grasping mind can let go and remain within its true nature, there isn’t any such thing as samsara, nirvana, six realms, or sentient beings. At that point, everything dissolves into the fundamental ground of awareness. This is the view from the very beginning.
One way to realise your own ground potential is to let go of grasping at the solidity of your perceptions. But how does this ultimate view of true nature compare with your own ability? At this point, your potential may still be stuck in the relative reality of distinguishing between samsara and nirvana. If that sense of separation is still there, you are still solidifying your perceptions — sights, sounds, thoughts, and so on. It’s essential to see every appearance in the same way, as having the same consistency and same reality. This is another way to contemplate the reality of the six realms.
The main thing to know about the six realms is that they should not be solidified. They should not be seen as solid states of existence in which we’re trapped in inexhaustible suffering. This view can lead to a state of fear. And while fearing the six realms is not a problem from the point of view of practice, ultimately it is not necessary.
On the other hand, we cannot take the suffering of the six realms lightly. If Tibetan practitioners have a serious quarrel among themselves, one might say, “If I can get my point across, I’m not afraid to go to vajra hell”-which is the lowest depth of the lowest hell. Saying this casually is a clear indication of not understanding the tremendous suffering and confusion of samsara. If understood as a state of torment, the hell realms do exist.
We are talking about good, compassionate, responsible minds that shift from awareness in a moment of self-indulgence. As a result of that single karma, we could wander endlessly in a specific environment of suffering. From that perspective, when we talk about a million years burning in fire or boiling in molten lava, we’re really talking about a million years lost in ignorance through a single moment of not understanding our innate essence. Greater than the suffering of the six realms is the complete waste of our time, energy, and abilities, in that we’re unable to help ourselves or anyone else.
From that perspective, we cannot take the six realms and their relative sufferings lightly. We enter into the realms when our mind shifts away from the ground of awareness and begins to churn out negative karmas. At that point, hell realms and all the rest are possible. More important is the awareness we bring to this very moment. In this moment, we need not create suffering if we don’t want to — which brings us to the next reminder, karma.
A mind that wastes even a moment indulging in hesitation and non-awareness is simply unaware of the pain and suffering of others — and therefore incapable of generating genuine compassion. To be free from that ignorance, we must contemplate the suffering of the six realms and truly value this present moment. Now is the time to develop the ground of positive karma. Even if it’s not possible to save or benefit billions of beings, we can at least do that.