Staying Human

In the last post, I referred to the Six Realms of Existence; this time, I thought I might try to expand on that a little.

My take on this teaching is far from the most orthodox version, but I doubt there’s anything original about it. There are certainly schools which envision these as literal realms into which one can actually be born. But the interpretations which make the teaching most relevant, at least for me, view these realms instead as conditions or states which we all experience at different times in our lives, or even at different times of day. It’s highly conceptual — no one has to say even one word to convince me that this particular kind of exploration is not central to actual Buddhist practice. But as a construct, I find it compelling and useful. I find that I actually think about these six realms a lot.

  1. Deva Realm (or Realm of Heavenly Beings). Devas, to use a very recent term, are the 1 percent. A lot of people come to mind as examples, but for today, let’s use Kim Kardashian. I don’t know her — she may be a very kind and generous person. I hope so. But it’s clear that her life is quite different from that of what we might call an average person. She receives unthinkable paychecks for simply being who she is — at some point, surely, she has become accustomed to this. She is adored by many, and she has the means to avoid spending time with those who would not flatter her. She is given opportunities that most could never imagine. Does she suffer? Yes, as everyone does. But she also has the resources to distract herself from her suffering. Not everyone does. Tourists who stay at luxury resorts and treat the staff badly just because they can are trying — in the ugliest way — to taste this realm, to dress up as devas.
  2. Asura Realm. Asuras are beings in a constant state of struggle, ceaselessly competing and fighting. And what they’re fighting for is to be devas. They are consumed with winning, with getting what they think others have or what they think is owed to them. “Asura” is sometimes translated as “demigod,” but that sounds too comfortable. Asuras, like everyone else, experience dissatisfaction. But unlike many others, asuras embrace that dissatisfaction as a kind of call to arms. There is no need to point out one famous one — society encourages us all to dwell in this realm. The story of the American Dream is that if you want it badly enough, you can join the 1 percent, be whatever you want to be, live however you want. Asuras do want it badly enough, but they never get it. They probably couldn’t recognize it even if they did.
  3. Human Realm. We’ll get back to this one.
  4. Animal Realm. Those inhabiting this realm live according to instinct. I’ve heard one interpretation that animals live in a constant state of fear; another is that animals live only to satisfy base needs, without apology. Those two ideas, to me, are not very dissimilar. Animals, for the purpose of this model, define their wants as needs — that misunderstanding is their cage. If you’ve ever thought, “I don’t need to be kind/generous/articulate until I’ve had my first cup of coffee,” you’ve fallen into an animal state of mind. Teenage boys fully inhabit the animal realm, aggressively hunting for sex — real and imagined — like sharks that can never stop swimming, single-mindedly feeding and feeding. Both asuras and animals are consumed by desires, but of very different kinds.
  5. Preta Realm (or Realm of Hungry Ghosts). Hungry ghosts are a popular subject of Buddhist art. They are typically grotesque, with huge, bloated bellies and impossibly long, thin necks, making it impossible for them to ever be satisfied. I mentioned them once in a university class, and a student with some experience in these things said matter-of-factly, “Oh, they’re the addicts.” I’ve never heard that anywhere else, but it’s a perfect way of understanding this condition. An asura is not addicted to success — she’s never had it, or at least not her own definition of it. And a teenage boy is not addicted to sex — he just can’t see that there’s anything else. But an addict is different. An addict gets the fix, but it’s never enough; he knows there’s more, but he also knows he can’t have it. It’s a very specific kind of suffering. If you’ve ever been in an intensely dysfunctional romantic relationship, you probably know something about this realm.
  6. Hell Realm (or, to be parallel, the Hell-Being Realm). Hell, for this purpose, is a circumstance so overwhelming or painful that one cannot even imagine a world beyond it. Those who live in abject poverty live in the hell realm. Those who suffer from incurable, debilitating, degenerative diseases might find themselves here, so fully occupied with the pain of this moment and the next and the next that nothing else seems real, or possible. I’ve spoken with victims of sexual abuse who insisted that the world they live in — where one is assaulted and violated by close family members as part of the weekly routine — is the world everyone lives in, that there is no other world, that to insist otherwise is naive. “Hell” is a dangerous word, and we have to be careful. In this model, people are not put in hell to suffer; their suffering is what defines hell. It’s a place with no windows and no doors, no clear exit.

I’ve heard over and over that the deva realm is the most dangerous — someone in that realm is the least likely to arouse the aspiration for enlightenment, the mind of practice. There are just too many soft distractions from our true condition, and from the true condition of others. It’s critical to the story of the Buddha story that he lived the first few decades of his life in the deva realm, sheltered from the pain of the world. From a Buddhist perspective, the thing society tells us we should want most is precisely the thing we need least. In contrast, though no one wants to be in the hell realm (or would even wish it on another person), being sheltered from suffering is not a problem there–pain is all there is. In hell, if anything, the problem is that we’re sheltered from joy, to such a degree that we might stop believing it can be real.

As I understand it, this teaching is about choices. Each realm is a description of a particular personal narrative, a self-limiting story about who we are, what is possible, and what we need or deserve. A deva has no compelling reason to seek a different way of being. An asura has the same problem — you can’t convince an asura that what he’s seeking is not in his best interest. An animal’s story is all about me and my and mine. A hungry ghost is trapped in her own story of powerlessness and insatiability. And a hell being is so enveloped by the flames of this moment that she imagines that the whole world is on fire and that it will never, ever rain.

Which brings us to the human realm. Humans, in this teaching, are just as messed up and unskillful as we know them to be outside of this teaching. They want what the asuras want; they can be as self-serving as animals; they can be tethered by a single destructive desire, just like hungry ghosts. And when the conditions are there, they can fall into the self-serving mind of the deva or the angry sense of victimhood of a hell being. It’s all there. What makes “human” its own realm, however, is the recognition of complexity. Understood literally or metaphorically, traditions agree that the human realm is the only one where there is a possibility of enlightenment. In literal-interpretation circles, there is a lot of talk about valuing this “precious human birth” — to be born into this middle realm is the ultimate opportunity, not to be wasted. Especially if we’re taking a “you might be reborn as a frog” view of karma, this idea makes a lot of sense. After all, if you are a frog, and if you live out that life according to instinct, what might you do during that lifetime to affect a change in birth the next time around? If a frog just does frog stuff, then there’s a strong chance of just getting stuck in a loop, being born as a frog over and over, with few realistic opportunities to go beyond that mindset.

But humans are designed to get out of that loop, to upset their patterns. We don’t need to take that conservative view of karma for this to make sense. I can be a human being, but inhabit the asura realm, slowly killing myself by working too much at a job where success is measured only in terms of profits and losses, winning and losing. I can be completely immersed in that competitive world. And then, for no good reason, I can be startled by the beauty of a flower growing outside my office window, or I can bump into a friend from a time when I saw my life differently, or someone close to me can pass away, and just for a moment, I can recognize that there is more to my life, and to life itself, than the life I have made. I can see that reality is bigger than what I usually imagine; I can see, even if just for a fraction of an instant, that I have choices. I could turn left instead of right. I could express something more, or something else.

In that moment, I step into the human realm. It may be for just a second, but maybe not — maybe I’ll linger there, breathing it in, smelling the possibility. When we talk about being free from karma, in essence, we’re talking about this — recognizing our patterns and biases and addictions for what they are, and making real choices rather than just doing what we always do, or thinking what we always think, or saying what we always say. It doesn’t mean we’ll make good choices — as I said, humans are messed up. But the human realm is that place of not knowing. It’s being awake and unskillfully floundering around instead of being asleep and complacent. It’s turning off automatic pilot and taking the controls for ourselves, even when we have no idea how to fly.

It’s the only place to be.


Update June 13, 2013: A French translation of this post can be found here, on Éric Rommeluère’s blog J’ai deux kôans à vous dire… I am always so grateful to find things like this.

I Am a Small Man

Our boy is three years old. It’s a big deal to him. A couple months before his birthday, we started hyping it to him, planting all sorts of ideas in his head about what a three-year-old boy might be capable of. The big one (I still can’t believe we pulled this off) was convincing him that after his birthday, he would do away with diapers once and for all and forevermore be a toilet guy. He made the switch on his birthday, on his own. Unbelievable.

So from where I’m standing, it’s all about what he can do. He can do amazing things. He can ride his balance bike in all sorts of crazy ways and somehow, miraculously, not fall down. He uses the toilet by himself. He dances, he sings, he tells us weird, weird, made-up stories with a hundred characters and no ending. And none of what we see at home compares to what he does at daycare, which is run with military precision — there, he is a model of putting-away-the-toys, quietly-listening-to-the-story, waiting-in-line-for-the-toilet behavior. He can drive me crazy, but that doesn’t mean I’m not always bursting with pride.

But there are these little moments when it’s clear that for him, it’s a different story. He’s proud of what he can do, and he’s happy to rub it all in the face of our little girl, who is just now starting to walk and still thinks meals are all about dropping things from great heights. But he’s painfully aware, in everything he does, that he can’t yet do everything he wants to do.

There are lots of times when he talks to us and we just don’t understand. Sometimes it’s because it’s a mix of Japanese and English; sometimes, if it’s a word we haven’t heard him use before, we’re not even sure which language he’s using. In the strange little narrative he keeps of his own life, the orange collar on the dog we saw three weeks ago at the park is vitally important, and relevant, and immediate, so he references it the way I might reference something like “the car.” But it can take forever to figure out how we got there, and the frustration he feels in those moments is palpable, even when it doesn’t lead to a total breakdown (which it sometimes does). He knows enough to know that this whole language thing should be a lot easier than it is, but he can’t yet make it so. All the frustration and isolation I felt when I first came to Japan and tried to speak to shopkeepers, he feels when he speaks to his own parents.

With his body, too, there’s just so much that doesn’t yet come naturally. Big buttons are OK, but little ones taunt him. He gets trapped taking off his own shirt. And it keeps happening–Why, his eyes say, does this keep happening? He tears paper he doesn’t mean to tear, drops things he doesn’t mean to drop. He fully inhabits his body, but his body is not yet entirely his.

We see these things, and we feel for him, but we forget, over and over, to try to see it through his eyes. It’s cute when he gets trapped in his shirt. And we have the privilege of knowing that it will all get better — six months from now will be another world, again.

A couple months ago, we got him a little paddle toy — two big foam paddles with duck faces on them, and a sponge ball to knock back and forth. For a while, he used the paddles kind of like golf clubs, just pushing the ball around on the floor. He’d ask me to play, and I’d lob him the ball with the paddle, and he’d get angry and throw the paddle and walk away. It happened a few times. Then one morning, after lobbing it to him again, his eyes filled up with tears, and his face went red, and he shouted at me, “Papa, I’m a small man!” And through the sobs, with some little gestures and a combination of two languages that really don’t fit together at all, he explained that he can’t do what I do, dropping the ball on the paddle and hitting it underhand like that. It’s just beyond him right now. He’s tried and tried, but for today, it’s a no-go. But when I do it (it’s such an unconscious way of handling a ball and paddle, I hadn’t even given it a second thought), it just crushes him. It’s too much.

So much of teaching is putting oneself in the place of the student, anticipating that person’s difficulties and addressing them. That’s the start of skillful means, and it’s hard to remember it sometimes, much less to get it right. For some reason, I have the hardest time standing in my little guy’s shoes. I’m so busy celebrating for him (and congratulating myself) that I lose sight of what he sees, which is a world made of high walls, impossible dexterity tests, and cruel oral exams.

A Tibetan teacher startled me once with her simple description of animals (I still think about this every time I see a cat or dog). Buddhism sometimes includes talk of six realms, which we can imagine stacked vertically, from top to bottom: heavenly beings, asuras, human beings, animals, hungry ghosts, hell beings. Perhaps I’ll try to describe the purpose behind all of that in a different post — the important point here is that animals are listed below humans, a point that always bothered me a little. I, like many people, tended to think of animals in very romantic terms. A deer, for example, has such dignity, such apparent clarity of purpose, such a beautiful quiet expression. It’s easy to think, “I want to be that.” But the Tibetan teacher had a very clear reason why one should not want to be in the animal realm: animals live in constant fear. They are always on the lookout, even when seemingly at rest. Humans can transcend their fears, but other animals cannot. Now it seems obvious, but the lens I carried made me unable to see it.

One day my little boy couldn’t hop on one foot; the next day, he could. I watched him eat ice cream for the first time, saw how his face practically gave off light. Who wouldn’t like to eat ice cream again for the first time? It’s beautiful, his life. But right now, at three years old, he has no way of really seeing that. Most adults I know don’t see the beauty of their own lives — what chance does a preschooler have?  I’m grateful to be a witness to his life, to see it with my eyes, to be able to tell his story. But, as with each one of us and each person we know, that story is just a story. What I see as an unending photo opportunity is, for him, a sea of confusion; he is the embodiment of dukkha (dissatisfaction). He suffers, and the fact that he’s three doesn’t make that any less true.

I need to remind myself of this constantly. I need to learn to see with those eyes, to run with those legs, to crawl inside the mind of the Small Man.