I was at lunch a few days ago with a friend and we were talking about Buddhism. I was telling her about my understanding of the Six Realms as stated in the teachings of Mahayana and Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism. I thought I would try to make some more sense of it for her and for me as well.
The Six Realms or Paths are as follows:
- Deva Realm, a realm of bliss and pride.
- Asura Realm, the realm of the jealous demigods.
- Human Realm, a blessed realm where we can achieve enlightenment.
- Animal Realm, a realm of prejudice and stupidity, the realm of earthly animals also.
- Hungry Ghost Realm, a realm where beings are possessive and desire all.
- Naraka Realm, the realm of hells where you are born and live until the karmic dept is paid.
In Tibetan Buddhism these realms are actual paths of rebirth. Your soul can be born into any of these realms depending on your karma. I also feel that these realms fit very nicely into view as the paths you and I take along our journey as humans.
From day to day we are prideful or prejudiced or possessive or in our own personal hell. Some of us are in the Deva Realm, some people are wealthy and famous but live within a boundary of pride and seek to attain more wealth or notoriety. How can you achieve enlightenment while you are proud of your status? The Buddha said “I observe treasures of gold and gems as so many bricks and pebbles. I look upon the finest silken robes as tattered rags. I see myriad worlds of the universe as small seeds of fruit, and the greatest lake on Earth as a drop of oil on my foot.”
I try to imagine the Deva Realm, I meditated upon it once and saw myself sitting upon a throne. Though I did not appear as I am today, I knew it to be me. I could wish an object in to reality with a thought. I could travel to the reaches of the realm in an instant, with only a notion. But I was unhappy. I wanted more, I needed something else, something I could not find in all the realm. So, though I was in a blissful palace with my every desire fulfilled, something was missing. This is a realm of gods, surely, but “gods” with a little ‘g’. Not creators, nor the eternal judge of Judeo-Christian heritage; but almost omnipotent beings far advanced compared to those of us in the other realms.
The Asura Realm is that of the demigods. They can see in to the realm of the devas, they can sense it and are oh, so close to ascending to it; but they can not get there in this lifetime. They are blessed with power, might, wealth and health; but they want more. They want it all, they want what you have. No matter if you have less than they do, you have something they do not.
Being able to see the devas in the realm above them compounds the matter. If you are living in a resort of luxury and wealth; heaven still looks tempting. They are willing to war with the other demigods, always vieing for position or control over this or that. Once a war is fought and over, another begins, in an endless cycle of intrigue and arms.
The Human Realm is where we are today. We are blessed, as we can achieve Enlightenment in this form. Think of it this way: we have been given another chance to change our karma for the good of ourselves and all sentient beings; we are blessed that we are able to learn the Dharma and that we can accept it and learn from the Buddha and all of the Bodhisattva’s of creation.
The Animal Realm is not such a bad place I suppose, but animals lack the basic understanding of their plight to grow and lessen their karmic burden. I am not sure, but I would think that there is no chance that an animal can attain the intellect that would be needed to ascend. But then again, maybe I need to learn that it is not intellect you need.
Some of us are trapped in the Animal Realm even though we were fortunate enough to be born as humans this go-around. If you are a person consumed by stupidity and prejudices you live in the Animal Realm, if you are a hateful person bent on cruelty and harming others around you, you live in the Animal Realm. At least you have the chance to grow and change your heart.
In the Hungry Ghost Realm souls take no joy from food or drink. The camp fire would provide no warmth, the waters of the river can never quench thirst, the sun shines and there is no light given. There have been times when I must have been walking in this realm, even here on earth. I have had times when no words offered to me would comfort my heart. Times when every look towards me contained pity and loathe, at least in my eyes. Even times when friends I hold dear seemed to turn their backs on my needs.
To be born in to the Hungry Ghost Realm would be a sad, desolate, and maddening existence; pray for the souls who walk the sands of this realm.
Lastly is the hell realm known as Naraka Realm. We can consider it a realm of different chasms, each chasm contains a variation on a theme, and the theme is always suffering. There are eight cold hells and eight hot hells. I wont go in to the exact theories of the 16 hells here, but if you wish to know more you can find a quick read here at the wiki. The cold hells have themes like chattering teeth, shivering bodies and blue skin; while the hot hells are filled with stories of hells where you are born fully grown, demons descend upon you, rendering your flesh from your body, you die and are reborn for another round.
You stay in Naraka until your karma is atoned for and then you are born in a higher realm. I wonder if you can accept the demons in the hells and show them compassion? Would you jump to the animal realm or human realm for finding a way to offer loving-kindness in hell?
I know that my friends and family would read this and think I have completely lost my mind. This is as far from Roman Catholicism as you can get, right? I don’t know. Some of this is very similar to the ideas of purgatory and hell; you just have the chance to grow and move forward in Buddhism. That is something that Christianity denies you. Get it wrong once and that is that.
If you are not Buddhist, you can still see the psychology behind the realms and how they apply to you in your life. If you are a Buddhist, you get that point and the deeper meaning as well. I think I see the deeper meaning.