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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Human Realm. We’ll get back to this one.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Koun, thank you for you thoughts on the Six Realms of Existence and putting them in writing. The last year or so I have been working on the idea that the Hungry Ghosts, Hell, Animal and Human Realm were not just a metaphor or myth. I was seeing them in my life and the lives around me. I had not seen the Deva or Asura Realms in the picture yet, thank you for bring it all together for me, and giving more to think about.
Thanks for this, the clearest explanation of the 6 realms I’ve seen. Especially enjoyed your take on the Asura realm. But it strikes me that, as well as the basic societal striving you mention for that realm, that it also really speaks to a certain attitude towards spiritual/meditative paths. This could be seen most obviously in any enlightenment-based tradition, especially when there’s a Westernized or new age spin on it. But I see it quite perniciously as well in zen folks, even ‘just sitting’ ones, where there is this unexamined expectation of finally ‘getting it’, a satori or whatever that will change everything, as well as a sense of disappointment for those whose practice has failed to reach that inchoate goal.
But I must take exception to an idea you mention here, as well as in your last post: ‘animals live in constant fear’. This doesn’t jive with my perception of them at all. If anything I would describe the general mindstate of a typical, healthy animal as ‘ignorant bliss’. Birds singing and fluttering about, cows munching lazily in the field, zebras trotting merrily across the African plains. Of course they’re hardwired to respond to any threat with a flight or fight immediacy, but other than that they don’t seem bothered at all. I don’t know if you’ve ever lived with cats, but my impression is that they spend 18-20 hours a day so relaxed that their bones seem to melt away. I remember taking my house-bound cat outside. Whenever a car would drive by he’d sit up, eyes huge and ears perked. But as soon as the noise passed, he’d collapse back into a puddle of fur. The only times my cats got excited was at meal time or when they had something to chase around, and fear didn’t seem to figure into that at all. And from what I’ve seen of cats in the wild they seem to be of a similar dispostion.
What animals seem to lack (as far as we can tell, who knows what they’re really thinking) is an abiltity to conceptualize their death, and hence a lack of fear of it (beyond the instinctual response to danger stimuli). I think one of the defining characteristics of human animals is our ability to conceive of death, and then react neurotically in response. The desire to blot out this fear through unskillful actions takes us to the Hungry Ghost realm; misguided efforts to transcend it take us to the Asura.
Thank you. I agree completely with your thoughts on the asura realm. I gave a very limited description of these things, but the idea is that absolutely everyone is always in one of these realms or another, so yes, anywhere we see that kind of striving, we’re at least likely looking at someone in an asura state of mind.
A number of people have come down on the “constant fear” description of animals; I’ll chew on it for a while. I don’t think that animals live in a state of anxious, anticipatory fear; I don’t see them as being neurotic or paralyzed. But it seems reasonable — to me — to say that self-protection is a base factor in the decision-making process of a cat, and it also seems fair to say that humans at least have the potential to make decisions in which self-protection is not a factor.
I don’t feel very strongly about this, so I’m trying to only defend it lightly…. I know, as I’m writing this, that people will point out the brave and selfless acts of some dogs, and they’d be right to do so. I do think, though, that long-domesticated animals are in a category all their own. Adult domestic dog behavior (barking, for example) is like the behavior of wolf puppies. Something instinctive has been lost over the years; perhaps something has also been gained. I read once that the reason wolves will sometimes kill multiple sheep is that sheep don’t really struggle when they’re under attack, and wolves need that struggle to signal a “kill reflex,” which lets them feel they accomplished their goal. They just keep killing until one puts up a fight. It’s complicated.
In researching the post, I found that a very common description of the animal realm — especially among Tibetan schools, it seems — has to do with a kind of stupidity or denseness, not fear or impulse gratification. That seems harsh, and also much less interesting to me.
It’s a fun topic to think about.
Koun – Please don’t mind me adding two cents: I offer this poem and Dogen for good measure. Gassho
Come into Animal Presence by Denise Levertov
Come into animal presence.
No man is so guileless as
the serpent. The lonely white
rabbit on the roof is a star
twitching its ears at the rain.
The llama intricately
folding its hind legs to be seated
not disdains but mildly
disregards human approval.
What joy when the insouciant
armadillo glances at us and doesn’t
quicken his trotting
across the track into the palm brush.
What is this joy? That no animal
falters, but knows what it must do?
That the snake has no blemish,
that the rabbit inspects his strange surroundings
in white star-silence? The llama
rests in dignity, the armadillo
has some intention to pursue in the palm-forest.
Those who were sacred have remained so,
holiness does not dissolve, it is a presence
of bronze, only the sight that saw it
faltered and turned from it.
An old joy returns in holy presence.
After a pause Dogen said: Why would hundreds of thousands of roaring lions fear the old wild foxes in the human realm?
I’m fearful of the implications of placing teenage boys in the category of animals without putting teenage girls in there too….imo the data is not conclusive.
This is a the first time I have visited this blog. This entry about the Six Realms is excellent, very thought provoking. Thank you for writing it.
A nice summary. The six realms is a useful tool. It may be real or allegorical but either wy it’s useful.
WRT animals, they do not live in constant fear. If you study them you will see that mostly they are relaxed but respond to danger very rapidly with a fear response and action. They also de-esclate very rapidly. The physiology for this is all well documented.
We have the same physiology. Not similar, the same. The difference is that we can consciously over-ride it sometimes. We can also prevent the necessary de-escelation. We can also imagine things to be afraid of.
The evidence is strong that we are built like animals to deal with real fearful situations on a daily basis. Because are lives are so safe in historic terms we find things like News and Drama to generate fear responses so that we cycle through the fear escalation, de-escalation process.
Peter Levine has written a lot of practical stuff on this. I’m having to learn how to let my body de-escalate – it got locked into on. It’s a somatic process, maybe beyond the reach of mind. Being in constant fear trashes the body and the mind. Humans are very good at making themselves constantly fearful, not animals. Show me a zen student who doesn’t worry about everything, creating fear needlessly….
Incidntally, if you look at pets you will understand people. Many pets become neurotic because their owners teach them to be so.
If you have a pet learn its language, let it be whatever it is. Cats hunt for fun. They eat when they want. They prefer to kill and eat even when good food is available. They love the night. They love company. They love to fight over territory. They will shit naturally in a litter tray or outdoors. That is there nature. Locking them up, feeding by the clock, bells and lots of things that humans do to their pets is a denial of their nature. It makes them neurotic and fearful. We do it to them.
Dogs have a nature, it’s not cat nature. A dog I know seems quite doggy. Part of its friendship Involves wrestling and trust. He likes it when I let him grasp an arm or hand in his teeth – incisors just touching skin but leaving no mark. For him it seems to establish trust and respect and express strength. If I wrestle too strongly he lets me know by squeezing a little harder. Likewise he seems to expect me to be sensible and withdraw my hand if he squeezes too hard. Even a dog oesn’t respect stupidity. His owners seem to let him be a dog and so he seems happy to me.
There is a tendency to rank realms. I think that is a human thing.
Today a sparrow perched outside my window and sung to the world. He didn’t at that moment seem afraid of anything. He seemed like a happy bird who wanted to sing. It’s the breeding seaon for him I think….
His naturalness and hs inifference to me was inspirational for me today.
In retrospect, I can see that I was not very skillful in trying to explain the animal realm. There are reasons, of course, that it’s called an animal realm and not something else, but at least for my purposes, the “animals” in this model are no more literal than the “hungry ghosts” — they’re all human beings. Trying to draw too close a connection between the realm and actual non-human animals has not helped me in this explanation at all. It’s clear that this idea of fearfulness in animals does not sit well, with, well, people.
And so yes, I agree that ranking is a human thing, but again, they’re all humans, so in this model of six realms, they’re all doing it. Every realm has an opinion about who’s on top.
Thank you for your thoughtful response.
I have to agree with Koun’s initial proprosition. I think that most, if not all wild animals live in constant fear. I think they must, in order to stay alert and alive.
And many/most domestic animals do also. It depends on their circumstances.
I think when animals are sleeping and playing, we can probably say that they are not experiencing intense fear. Any other time – how could we know. Just because an animal or person appears ‘relaxed’, it doesn’t mean they are not experiencing fear.
It is also crucially adaptive for animals to hide their fear and pain.
Animals are fragile, incredibly sensitive, complex and mysterious.
Many of their sense abilities are exponentially more acute than ours, so it stands to reason that they probably also feel many times more intensely than we do.
Birds must worry constantly. With battling disease, parasites, weather, food shortages, dwindling habitat, predators, territorial competition, trying to raise young, etc. etc.
I also don’t think birdsong is merely an expression of joy. Just because it sounds beautiful to us, and the bird “looks happy”, it doesn’t mean we have the slightest idea what is actually being communicated, or how that bird feels. We can only imagine that there must be any number of things they are always communicating through their song – ie., to their young (“I’m here, I’ll be back soon, it’s alright”), to their mate, (“I’ll get some nesting materials here, I’ll be back to sit on the eggs shortly, Please come and relieve me”) to other birds, (“There are good berries here, watch out for the cat by the big oak tree, I’m looking for a mate”), etc., etc.
But I also see Koun’s description of the Animal Realm as more metaphorical than literal.
Enjoyable post on the Realms, Koun. (I enjoy all your posts!)
There is a difference between being alert and being fearful. Animals are frequenly alert, as am I, as are many people who have been trained a lot in Yoga or Martial Arts or Dance.
In walking around today my own levels of alertness move around constantly. Maybe something interesting catches my eye, maybe I see a stranger approaches on a quiet street. We smile and relax.
Yesterday I watched a squirrel – a creature that move in a stop-start jerky fashion. It wanted to bury a nut ready for winter. It was only a few feet away from me. Several times I thought it would go ahead whilst I watched but it aborted several half-hearted digs. It was alert but I don’t think it was feaful. A scared squirrel makes loud screeching sounds and/or runs for high safety. It might have been nervous but it was hard to tell – squirrels don’t meander much.
I think Worry is a uniquely human thing. It requires so much intellect. It requires a self projected into a fearful future.
But you are also correct. I have no real idea what an animal thinks or emotes or whether or not it worries.
When I had a pet cat I could not tell if a plaintif mewing was worry about something that might happen or an immediate response to something that it was unhappy about.
If only one dog would give an interview we could answer so many of these questions.
I spoke to one dog today who was panting in the heat. “How are you feeling today?” I asked. “Rough!” he replied.. 🙂
Mike, you touched on something that I’ve been thinking regarding another way to view the Animal Realm besides a state of fear and base needs. An animal’s inability to conceptualize and project a self into the future is, as far as we can reckon, for them a good thing, allowing for simplicity and freedom. But for a human to live in that state requires degrees of inertia and myopia that can get in the way of recognizing their suffering and developing healthy ways of dealing with it. As Koun said in the article, to be human is to see possiblity grounded in the present reality.
I enjoyed your post, Mike! 😉
Bud, Koun, et al, I’m sure we’ve all heard endless stories of different kinds of animals risking their lives to save humans, and other animals.
Heck – in ancient Greece, the penalty for harming and killing a dolphin was death, as it was such a well-known and frequent occurrence that dolphins risked their lives to save mens’ lives.
Long ago, the same fellows who decided that animals don’t feel pain or fear or grief are the ones who decided that animals are incapable of making decisions in which self-protection is not a factor, and the same ones who decided that all animals are incapable of ‘conceptualization’ or projecting themselves into the future. All kinds of studies (especially with chimps) have long since disproved that.
Nowadays, these are the people who torture animals for “medical research”, run factory farms, the calgary stampede, fur farms, etc.
The more I read about and spend time with animals, the more respect and awe I feel for the mystery of them.
All this talk about humans being so fabulous and unique is hard to stomach as one looks down through history, and around the planet.
We humans are so exponentially more powerful than any other species in our ability to manipulate our environment, but *our* capacity to make decisions and act in ways in which self-protection is not a factor, etc. is not so impressive.
To be human is to be unbelievably destructive, to cause endless suffering, to be trapped in desire and delusion.
(I also don’t think that we should underestimate the sacredness and profundity of frogs “doing frog stuff”)
I think it is absurdly inaccurate to lump “animals” into a category of beings who only act out of fear and to satisfy their needs. And of course, we do them an extreme disservice to say that only when humans are at their cruelest and most base, selfish, and violent, are they inhabiting the Animal Realm.
That’s why I find it useful to think of the buddhist Animal Realm model in terms of metaphor..
After posting I started to recall lots of e xamples where animals show planning. There’s plenty of examples with Crows for example, let alone primates or mammals.
I don’t think we should be too hard on humans either.
Are humans really more destructive than termites, beavers, ants or elephants? Lots of animals shape their environment for their own needs. Trees destroy grassland – when trees move in they take the light from almost everything. A billion or so years agomthe world was different. The things alive at that time destroyed the planet as it was to create the one we know. If humans wipe themselves out or run our of fuel the planet will continue. In another billion years the biosphere would be different and the lifeforms alive would think it ideal and fragile. We are part of nature and part of the environment, not outside of it. It doesn’t need our help, we don’t have to hate ourselves for being Human even as we recycle and walk to work.
I’ve watched a cat play with mice, frogs and spiders. Was it cruel? Was it torture? If you ask the creature then maybe. If you ask the cat then maybe not. It wasn’t an appetizer, it was play.
Are we trapped in desire and delusion? We imagine we are trapped and imagine we can be free. But can we? A few days of summer means lots of attractive women are wearing short skirts and shorts. I don’t seem to be the least bit free of desire or delusion. They seem to be fun, part of being human. When at night I hop into my bed alone they don’t seem so fun, but still part of being human.
Thank you for the remarkable blog.For the humans, the realms are, at the most a few intentions away.So, he has to be aware of the multitude of choices he has at a given moment. And choose a position that allows him to act most freely and most authentically. And meanwhile, allowing other beings that come to his space to be more authentic and real than the last moment.This, of course, is a sure ground to find the frontiers of human existence. Gracias.
[…] Finally, there is the human realm. Humans are the only ones capable of perceiving the unreality of their psychological projections. That doesn’t mean they don’t have psychological projections, but that they have the capacity to understand such projections for what they are. There’s a much better explanation of the Six Realms at a site called Nyoho Zen that I recommend highly — “Staying Human.” […]
The theme of realms,is among other things,central to Buddhist thought. Its serious study can take us away from major traps caused by unaware action. Thank you.
Koun, since your are a Zen priest coming from the West and in Japan, I think you have unique access and insight into this matter. I’ve noticed that the greater Zen community in the West, as varied as it is, seems to have an ambiguous conceptual and functional relationship to rebirth and the realms of samsara. My question is this: is this ambiguous relationship a product of Zen’s development in the West, or is there something intrinsic in the fundamental Zen teachings that makes this so? Or here is another, more direct way to ask the same question: How do Zen practitioners in Japan understand rebirth? I suppose I am asking you to speak for an entire people, which is neither fair nor realistic, but nevertheless, any thoughts you could contribute would be most helpful.
Thank you for some great questions. My short answers go like this:
(1) Though the ambiguity seems to be particularly embraced in the West, I do think it’s intrinsic to Zen; for that matter, I think it’s intrinsic to Buddhism. I’d like to write this all up in more detail, but simply put, it’s possible for us to approach karma objectively, without consideration for teachings on rebirth, and arrive at conclusions that do not include rebirth. I know it’s always dangerous to say that Buddhism is somehow separate from how Buddhism has been commonly understood for more than 2000 years, but it’s also reductive to say that it can’t be.
(2) In light of some other folks’ blog posts, I’ve been thinking about this recently, and to my memory, no teacher or senior of mine at any temple or monastery has ever insisted on a belief in literal rebirth. I’m sure people have all sorts of beliefs. It’s very common for laypeople–even Zen laypeople–to believe in fairly simple versions of heaven and hell, and in my experience, I’ve never heard anyone in “authority” try to convince them that they’re wrong about that. I wouldn’t say it’s taboo, but at the same time, it seems to never come up. I have no idea what my teachers think about it.
I thank you for this reply. And if you ever did write this up in more detail here in this blog, I would love to read it. The subject of rebirth has become a koan of sorts for me, I suppose. No matter how many opinions, theories, and acidic forum arguments I read about Buddhist rebirth, the question keeps coming back to me. Rather than dismiss this recurrent doubt, I am now confronting it. I find that my intellect is not of much help here. I’m trying to let my heart guide me on this, or at least my experience. Nevertheless, rebirth remains a tricky subject, and I suppose I can’t wait for anyone else to give me the unified field theory of rebirth in Zen. I’ve got to take responsibility for my own beliefs, if that makes any sense.
Again, thanks for your thoughtful comments.
I think journey is about to start…