Six Realms. . .

For traditional Buddhists, there are six realms representing all possible states of existence.  They were originally conceived as real places, but can also be interpreted symbolically.  The animal, ghost and hell realms are all places of punishment for previous sins, whereas birth in the heavenly, asura, or human realms comes through the accumulation (and spending) of karmic merit.  Life in any of these realms is ultimately impermanent – one does not suffer forever in hell, nor enjoy eternal bliss in heaven.  

Birth in any of the these realms is based on one’s karma (“action”)—essentially the moral causality that good actions bring good results, and bad actions bad results.    Since one’s motive is critical for “goodness” or “badness,” one’s thoughts become at least as important as one’s actions (for example, accidentally killing something is far less serious than intentional killing). 

Karma presupposes a dynamic universe – one’s present life reflects past choices, but one’s  present choices are shaping the future. Only human beings can make choices and accrue karma, which means that one’s human actions (good or bad) determine one’s future births.  This gives added emphasis to one’s moral choices; it also means that a change of heart or better guidance can help one to lay a positive foundation for the future.  Such guidance can range from simple moral precepts (as found in board games such as Snakes and Ladders) all the way to instructions on how to select one’s next birth, as found in the final section of The Tibetan Book of the Dead.  

Note that each of these realms has a resident Buddha, through which its inhabitants can hear the dharma. This may reflect the Mahayana Buddhist notion that the ultimate Buddha-nature (dharmakaya or Suchness) pervades the entire universe. The six realms are:

Heavenly Realm – In the heavens (there are many) beings are is rewarded for past good deeds.  Life in heaven  is a continual round or pleasure and enjoyment, with no suffering, anxiety, or unfulfilled desires until the moment one is about to be reborn in another realm.  And this is one of the problems—life in heaven  is extremely long (e.g., 30,000 years), but is ultimately impermanent, and one must inevitably leave to take birth in another realm.  To be born in heaven, one also needs to “spend” an enormous amount of religious merit, and life there is so carefree that people have no inclination toward religious life. For these reasons, religious authorities have discouraged seeking birth in heaven. 

Asura Realm – Indian cosmology admits many different kinds of superhuman beings.  Whereas the devas (“gods”) dwell in the heavenly realms and are basically benevolent, the asuras (“not-gods”) are opposed to the devas and locked into continual struggle with them.  Asuras are powerful but often amoral beings, since they are primarily driven by envy and greed for power; these same qualities can bring them into conflict with human beings.  All of these qualities make birth in this realm undesirable. 

Animal Realm – Animal birth is seen as the result of past sins, and one expiates these sins through suffering in animal form (being hunted, worked, driven, slaughtered, etc.), often for thousands of consecutive births (as a dog, pig, dung beetle, etc.).  Animal behavior is also run by instinct, which means that animals cannot generate good karma, they are simply working off the bad.  This suffering and lack of control make birth as an animal undesirable.  The conviction that animals are sentient beings also underlies the prohibition on intentionally killing anything, which goes back to the Buddha’s earliest teaching (the Buddha was also vocally opposed to the animal sacrifice prevalent in his time).

Hell Realm – In a hell (there are many), one is punished for one’s evil actions.  Buddhist visions of hell (as Hindu visions of hell) often link particular punishments to particular sins, doubtless to warn the hearers.  One expiates one’s evil deeds through suffering–hunger and thirst, dismemberment, torture, psychological distress, and so on. Such suffering can last enormously long (60,000 years) but is ultimately impermanent, and when one’s term is up, one is reborn in a presumably higher state.

Ghost  (Preta) Realm – As with the hells, beings in the preta realm expiate their past misdeeds through suffering.  Pretas are described as tormented by hunger and thirst (illustrated by showing them with tiny thin necks, through which they can never eat or drink enough to satisfy themselves; this is described as the result of greed and stinginess in previous lives. Other torments are psychological, since pretas remain in the places where they used to live, but cannot be seen by the living (which brings feelings of frustration, isolation, and despair).

Human Realm – The human realm is the only one in which one’s choices (good or bad) affect one’s future—in all the others, one is either being rewarded or punished for one’s actions as a human being.  One’s present human condition (e.g., wealth, social status, and physical and psychological qualities) is based on one’s past karma, but one’s present choices also determine one’s future (in this life, or a future life). As conscious moral agents, human beings have agency that the beings in other realms do not; this clearly underscores the importance of moral action and spiritual development.

Peace and Love, Jim

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