30 - Six Realms of Existence Part 2: Asura, Beast, and Hell Realms
32 - The Practice of Not-Knowing: Relief, Intimacy, and Ground for Effective Action

 

In this third episode of a 3-part series on the Buddhist teaching of the Six Realms of Existence, I describe the Hungry Ghost and Human Realms. I continue offering a traditional, mythological account of the realms, followed by a section about how to practice with each realm as a particular mind state you might experience in the course of your daily life.

Read/listen to the Six Realms of Existence Part 2: Asura, Beast, and Hell Realms

 

 

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
The Hungry Ghost Realm Described
Significance of Rebirth in the Hungry Ghost Realm
Practicing with the Hungry Ghost Realm
The Human Realm Described
Significance of Rebirth in the Human Realm
Practicing with the Human Realm
A Note on Emptiness and Karma
Sources

 

The Hungry Ghost Realm Described

Hungry Ghost Section of the Six RealmsIf you’re looking at the Wheel of Life (click here for a full image), the Hungry Ghost Realm is usually the section just above the Hell Realm to the left, below the Human Realm. Hungry ghosts (also known as pretas or gakis) are strange and pathetic-looking creatures that are consumed with hunger and thirst.  There are four types of hungry ghosts: those with external obstacles, those with internal obstacles, those with specific obstacles, and those who move through space (Patrul p.75).

Ghosts with external obstacles never find the food and drink they crave.  They may not hear news of food or water for centuries.  Occasionally they glimpse a stream from afar, but it takes them a long, painful time to get there because their joints are so fragile.  When they finally arrive, the water has dried up.  Similarly, they sometimes see an orchard of trees but arrive to find the fruit has dried up and withered.  They may see an abundance of food and drink somewhere, but when they approach it, they are driven away by men who attack them with weapons.  Everything is agony for them, and if someone from another realm comes near, the desire of the ghosts produces a fever in the traveler (Patrul p.72).

Ghosts with internal obstacles have gigantic bellies that it is impossible to fill, necks as thin as a hair, and mouths no bigger than the eye of a needle.  No matter how much water these ghosts find to drink, by the time it gets down their tiny throats the heat from their breath has evaporated it.  They can never force enough food through their tiny mouths to satisfy them, and even if the food reaches their stomachs it bursts into flames.   Theses ghosts can hardly move because their bellies are huge but their limbs are as thin as grass.

Ghosts with specific obstacles have various kind of experiences, depending on the nature of their previous deeds.  Some are powerful, intelligent, wealthy or have supernatural powers with which they can either help or harm beings.  A classic Vajrayana tale (found in Words of My Perfect Teacher by Patrul Rinpoche) is told about four ghosts with specific obstacles.  Each was chained to the four legs of throne that belonged to an unusual, beautiful female ghost.

A traveler from the human realm named Shrona happened by as the woman was leaving for a period of time.  She offered Shrona food but told him not to share any of it with the ghosts chained to the throne.  When she was gone, however, the ghosts begged Shrona and he took pity on them.  He gave the ghosts food, but when the first one tried to eat it, the food turned into chaff.  For the next ghost it turned into a lump of iron, for the next a lump of flesh, and for the last ghost the food turned into pus mixed with blood.

When the woman returned she admonished Shrona, saying, “Do you really think you are more compassionate than I am?  These four ghosts were people I knew my past life, and they have all been reborn here because of their stinginess and greed.  The first was my husband.  When one of the Buddha’s disciples came on his alms round, I offered him food.  Thinking my husband would like to share in this opportunity, I suggested he also make an offering.  My husband yelled at me, saying, ‘What are you doing offering food to that worthless monk?  You should save it for your own family, and stuff his mouth with chaff!’  My son reacted that same way, saying, ‘You should feed that bald-head lumps of iron.’  Later, my parents sent me some delicacies to eat, and my daughter-in-law ate the best parts before she gave them to me.  When I asked her about it, she said, ‘I would rather eat my own flesh than take something meant for you!’  The fourth ghost was my servant, who ate a meal I was sending to my family.  She denied it, saying, ‘I would rather eat pus and blood than steal from you.’”

Shrona asked the woman why she was in the hungry ghost realm.  “I vowed to be reborn where I could see what fate awaited these four as a result of their actions,” she replied.

Hungry ghosts who move through space are similarly varied in their sufferings (Patrul p.75).  These spirits may periodically relive their death through sickness or violence.  The remain bound by their past karma and try to inflict suffering on others.  They may be able to visit relatives living in other realms, but only bring misery to them.

For example, a monk was once out walking when he encountered a hungry ghost (Kelsang Gyatso p.184).  He started to run away when the ghost called out, “Wait!  Wait!  I am your mother!”  Indeed, the monk’s mother had been living as hungry ghost for 25 years due to her past stinginess.  In the time, she had not once found a trace of food or drink despite her intense hunger and thirst.  She told her son to ask the Buddha to help her.  The Buddha prayed on her behalf but, because her karma was so strong, she was born again into the Hungry Ghost realm.  This time, however, she was a little better off.  She was born wealthy and thus had an opportunity to practice generosity.  Still she could not share anything, so the son practiced generosity on her behalf and presented the Buddha ith some beautiful cloth.  In her miserliness his mother could not understand this act, so she stole the cloth and brought it back to her son.  The monk gave it to the Buddha again and again, and six more times the mother stole it back.

Significance of Rebirth in the Hungry Ghost Realm

Beings are reborn in the hungry ghost realm because they have acted with extreme selfishness and greed, and refused to share their blessings with the less fortunate.  This greed is feverish, angst-ridden and passionate, whereas the greed of the Beast Realm is more immediate, basic and instinctual.  To become a hungry ghost a being had to be more conscious about their greed, often manipulating, scheming, lying and withholding in order to obtain (or keep) what they wanted.

The compulsion of a hungry ghost differs from the compulsion of an asura, although both are afflicted with a profound sense that there is not enough (of whatever is desired) to go around.  Asuras are not overwhelmed by the sense of pervasive poverty that torments hungry ghosts; asuras have a sense that there are many resources available and are obsessed with obtaining more of them than their neighbors have.  Hungry ghosts are fixated on their own intense hunger and thirst and despair that it can ever be satisfied.  Even when hungry ghosts receive some rare nourishment, their hunger and thirst simply increase a moment later.

The red buddha of this realm carries a container filled with celestial nourishment and teaches the virtue of generosity and sacrifice.   Hungry ghosts can get free of this realm by turning toward these activities.  They may be inspired and encouraged by religious offerings dedicated especially to them, which is the only way they are able to take in any nourishment.  In some Buddhist traditions there are annual ceremonies for feeding the hungry ghosts.  In Soto Zen, ritual boundaries are drawn when the ghosts are invited to “come” partake of offerings, so they don’t wreak havoc in the Human Realm, but it is hoped that they will find some resolution of their suffering due to the generosity and care shown toward them.

Practicing with the Hungry Ghost Realm

When we are in the Hungry Ghost Realm, the world looks bleak and barren.  We try to grasp anything that might relieve our longing – wealth, opportunity, comfort, sex, adoration, respect, relationships, education, entertainment – but the thing which would surely satisfy us seems to shrink from our touch, leaving us alone and in extreme spiritual poverty.  We may even try to acquire spirituality, or perform virtuous deeds with a deadly serious hope that doing so will make us happy or appreciated.

Our intense, anguished need is like a bottomless pit.  Any and all offerings simply fall into the pit and disappear from sight as if they had never been.  Everything seems tasteless and lacking.  We may have things that other beings long for or are even willing to die for, but they count as nothing to us.

Experiences and activities that would have made us happy in the past hardly cause a flicker of joy in us anymore.  There seems to be no alternative to trying to recreate past enjoyable experiences, so we do so repeatedly – long after things have ceased being enjoyable or nourishing in any way.  In desperation we turn back to the drug, the person, the experience that gave us that rush of satisfaction once upon a time.  We know it isn’t working, but we don’t know what to do about it.

As hungry ghosts we often plague others, pulling at their sleeves and begging for them to do something for us.  We ask for their constant attention, or for an endless explanation of how we are, in actuality, OK.  At this point it is like the ghosts who see food from afar: we catch a glimpse of something that might make us feel better, but it never does for long.  Most people tire of us and begin to avoid us, which only makes us more desperate.

We feel as justified in our efforts to satisfy our hunger as the asuras do in their efforts to satisfy their ambitions.  This can lead to self-absorption, greediness, stinginess, and even deceptiveness and stealing.  It is not that we enjoy mischief for its own sake.  It just seems to us that if we stop, we will be consumed by our own longing.

We create our own Hungry Ghost Realm by adopting a worldview based on lack.  When we have this view, we truly are living in a barren universe devoid of anything meaningful and nourishing.  Our thoughts become our reality, and we can point to countless examples of lack all around us: see, people never really love me, or see, things never turn out for me.  However, if someone asks us what would satisfy us, if we are honest with ourselves, we have to answer: nothing.

There is no inherently real cause for the lack we feel as hungry ghosts, just as there is no inherently real cause for the asura’s insecurity or the hell being’s anger.  We may experience a sensation of lack, but if we deeply question this lack, we can trace the thread of our need down to its base… and trace, and trace, and trace… until it finally occurs to us that there is no base.  It is just neediness itself, plus our belief in it.

We can begin transforming our sense of lack with small acts of generosity and letting go.  In an experimental fashion, we can give something away or not act on our perceived need for something, and then watch the results.  How do we feel?  Chances are, we will notice that at some level we feel like the world has just gotten a little bit fuller and brighter.  We might even feel a bit richer ourselves, or note with surprise that something has spontaneously come forward to meet some part of our need.  We slowly begin acting like the universe will provide, and, miraculously, it does – although perhaps not in the way we expected.

The Human Realm Described

Human Realm Section of the Six RealmsThe human realm, as most of us realize, is the quintessential “mixed bag.”  This, in itself, is the source of the difficulty in the human realm.  Here, beings experience some aspects of all of the other five realms: sorrow at losing pleasure, envy, jealousy, obliviousness, stupidity, ignorance, aggression, hatred, anger, greed, stinginess, hunger and thirst.  They also experience spiritual growth, bliss, delight, love, equanimity, generosity, wisdom, patience and satisfaction, among many other things.  The human realm is defined by constant change, which is the source of much suffering.  Just as the devas feel intense grief as they realize they are inevitably descending from heaven, human suffering springs as much from the loss of wonderful things as it does from the presence of terrible things.  The eight uniquely human kinds of suffering are said to be: birth (or any beginning, which is often marked by awkwardness and stress), old age, illness, death, being separated from those dear to us, meeting those who are not dear to us, and having to guard our possessions.

In particular, (archetypal) humans long for the intimacy of possession and of being possessed, particularly with respect to sexuality (Trungpa p.27), and therefore embroil themselves in situation after situation in which their initial joy gives way to misery, the closeness to separation, the ideal to disappointment, the vitality to degeneration and death.  At the same time, this type of existence contains much in the way of happiness, enjoyment, love, learning and basically rich experience, so humans are loathe to give it up.  In addition, they don’t know any alternative.  In a sense, they go round and round on the wheel of samsara while remaining entirely within the Human Realm.

Life as a human being can be just as futile as life in any other realm.  The uniquely human neurosis is a kind of pervasive existential angst.  This is a reaction to the constant change in this realm and results in the beings here flitting from distraction to distraction, never quite sure what they should do next.  In the midst of this flux, humans have an intuition that they should be getting something more out of life, but what?  Some humans will try to create their own ideology, or their own little world, within which things are dependable and meaningful.  They may protect their creations fiercely, and if things crack or crumble anyway, they face depression or a sense of failure.

Significance of Rebirth in the Human Realm

The beings reborn as humans have pasts that are similarly a mixed bag – some merits, some shortcomings.  Ironically, though technically the “highest” and most pleasant rebirth is as a deva in the heaven realm, a human rebirth is considered to be by far the most fortunate.  This is because the ideal is to get off the Wheel of Life, not to keep playing the game and simply try to end up in the Heaven Realm as often as possible.  In the Heaven Realm one is easily lulled into complacency, and eventually even a deva’s good fortune runs out and he or she is reborn in a different realm.  In the Human Realm, on the other hand, there is just enough difficulty to inspire us to devote ourselves to spiritual practice, but not so much strife or suffering that we have no energy, time or inclination to practice.

This is why the yellow buddha of this realm holds a begging bowl, symbolizing spiritual practice and renunciation.  Humans have the opportunity to renounce all self-serving activities, including the effort to get reborn in the Heaven Realm.  They can practice the virtues of generosity, self-discipline, patience, forgiveness, zeal and concentration that will serve them well should they be reborn in a different realm.  They can train in wisdom in order to see that everything is impermanent and there is no inherent self to which they must cling.  They have the potential to achieve the ultimate peace and liberation of stepping off the Wheel of Life.

Practicing with the Human Realm

As humans we work very hard to make our lives and experience the way we think they should be.  Each of us has our own unique set of expectations: our lives should be meaningful, virtuous, exciting, full of loving relationships, productive, peaceful, noble or some combination of such characteristics.  It is as if we have some distant memory of Heaven but it is beyond our reach – which both Buddhism and the Abrahamic faiths suggest is the case.  Because of this, our view is wider than that of beasts, but this often seems to bring us more grief than solace.

When we are acting like very Human Realm humans, we spend most of our time trying to figure out how to draw life toward us.  We work at being beautiful, sexy, intelligent, educated, wealthy, important, funny or indispensable so we can seduce life and being it into our sphere of experience.  We long to become one with that elusive perfection that gets reflected here, then there, then over there.  Sometimes we achieve this, just for a moment – but then things change, and we must begin the process of seduction anew.   Or perhaps we despair that we will ever achieve our list of prerequisites, and sink into depression or anxiety, certain that we will always be isolated from what really matters.

The grasping present in the Human Realm is different than that in the Asura Realm.  Asuras strive to own things simply for the satisfaction of owning them, while humans strive for a more personal and sensual relationship to objects of desire.  It is almost as if the asuras, having recently been devas, are able to take for granted their self-worth, but humans are more lost.  We search for our identity in relationship to people, things, and experiences.

Relieving our Human Realm suffering by “stepping off the Wheel of Life” may sound like removing ourselves from this flawed existence by becoming more or less dead: without desires or cares, without any efforts to protect or create, without any investment in the world (because anything invested will eventually be lost).  This, fortunately, is a misunderstanding of the teaching, at least from a Mahayana point of view.

The Mahayana ideal is the bodhisattva, who practices vigorously to give up attachment to self and to the world and indeed could step off the wheel if he or she chose, but who stays in the world to help other beings.  The world, with all of its suffering, is called “the bodhisattva’s playground.”  The experience of the bodhisattva is one of deep engagement, boundless energy, bright joy and profound gratitude – even as he or she empathizes completely with the suffering of other beings.  That is because the bodhisattva has realized that the ultimate liberation from self-concern was not to achieve peace for herself by getting off the wheel, but by renouncing even that peace.  Ironically, by that very act the peace is attained.

A Note on Emptiness and Karma

Each of the Six Realms contains specific karmic obstacles, and there are particular practices for overcoming – or at least learning to manage – these obstacles.  The buddha of the Human Realm is the only one explicity advocating renunciation of our attachment to self, but in truth this is the key to liberation from any and all of the realms.  We give up our attachment to self by noticing how empty this “self” is of any inherently existing, permanent, independent reality.  We also notice how everything else – envy, greed, anger, craving, loneliness – is similarily empty.  In an instant, we can see through the illusion of solidity all of these things tend to have, and they cease to have such a hold over us.

Part of the beauty of the Six Realms, however, is that it does not simply teach us to wait until we have personal experience of this emptiness before we start work on our negative karmic patterns.  After all, when we are caught in any of the realms we are too distracted, embroiled, self-absorbed, emotional and feverish to be able to settle into the deep spiritual calm that is necessary before we can embrace emptiness.  When we are stuck in one of the Six Realms, working directly with our karma is our spiritual practice.

Spiritual insight helps us work with our karma, and working with our karma helps us develop spiritual insight.

 


Sources

Carlson, Kyogen.  Zen Roots. Dharma Rain Zen Center: Portland, Oregon, 1989.
Conze, Edward, trans.  Buddhist Scriptures. Penguin Books: London, 1959.
Guenther, Herbert V., trans.  The Jewel Ornament of Liberation.  Berkeley: Shambala, 1971.
Gyatso, Geshe Kelsang.  Joyful Path of Good Fortune. London: Tharpa Publications, 1996.
Gyatso, Tenzin (The Fourteenth Dalai Lama) and Jeffrey Hopkins.  The Meaning of Life: Buddhist Perspectives on Cause and Effect. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000.
Patrul Rinpoche.  The Words of My Perfect Teacher.  San Francisco and London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994.
Tatz, Mark and Jody Kent.  Rebirth: The Tibetan Game of Liberation.  Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1977.
Tharchin, Sermey Geshe Lobsang.  King Udrayana and the Wheel of Life.  Howell, New Jersey: Mahayana Sutra and Tantra Press, 1984.
Trungpa, Chögyam.  Transcending Madness: The Experience of the Six Bardos.  Boston: Shambala Publications, 1992.

 

30 - Six Realms of Existence Part 2: Asura, Beast, and Hell Realms
32 - The Practice of Not-Knowing: Relief, Intimacy, and Ground for Effective Action
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