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.