29 - Six Realms of Existence Part 1: Introduction and the Heaven Realm
31 - Six Realms of Existence Part 3: Hungry Ghost and Human Realms

 

In the first episode of this 3-part series, I introduced the teaching of the Six Realms, and the associated iconographic image of the Wheel of Life, and described the Heaven Realm. In this episode I’ll cover the Asura (fighting demigod), Beast, and Hell Realms. I’ll 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 1: Introduction and the Heaven Realm.

 

 

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
The Asura Realm Described
Significance of Rebirth in the Asura Realm
Practicing with the Asura Realm
The Beast Realm Described
Significance of Rebirth in the Beast Realm
Practicing with the Beast Realm
The Hell Realm Described
Significance of Rebirth in Hell
Practicing with Hell
Sources

 

The Asura Realm Described

If you’re looking at the Wheel of Life (click here for a full image), the Asura Realm is usually the section just to the right, and slightly below, the Heaven Realm, which occupies the top of the wheel.

According to the mythology, When a deva’s time in the Heaven Realm is ending, he or she is plagued by a subtle but growing sense of dissatisfaction.  The deva may react to this with fear of loss and subsequently begin to foster a sense of paranoia and jealousy.  From this point on, every loss is taken as a confirmation of the need for fear, and the good fortune of others is seens as a threat in a new realm where limited resources are the preeminent concern.  The deva then loses the Heaven Realm and is reborn in the Realm of the Asuras.

In Sanskrit, sura means “god” and a is negative, so asura means “non-god” (Trungpa p.219).  The asuras are defined by what they are not and are obsessed with what they do not have.  The wish-fulfilling tree from which the devas receive all they need is rooted in the Asura Realm but only bears fruit in Heaven.  The asuras are cursed with the ability to see into the Heaven Realm, which arouses their passionate envy.  Asuras attempt to chop down the wish-fulfilling tree and ceaselessly wage battle on the devas at the base of Mt. Meru.

In battles against the devas, the asuras have a terrible disadvantage.  After magically arouding their own aggression, the devas assemble, led by Indra.  Indra rides on an immense elephant names Supremely Steady (Patrul p.92).  The elephant has 33 heads; Indra rides on the central one, and his ministers ride on the other thirty-two.  The devas form an unimaginably large army and raise a mighty battle cry as they rain weapons down on the asuras – huge arrows, spears, thunderbolts and wheels.  The devas use their powers to pick up entire mountains and hurl them down on the asura army.  At times the devas may be driven back to the gates of the city of Lovely in the Heaven of the Thirty-three, but in the end the asuras are hopelessly outmatched.  Devas are seven times larger than humans, can only be killed when their heads are cut off, and can heal all of their other wounds with divine ambrosia.  Asuras, on the other hand, are smaller, and die as easily as humans.

Even when they are not battling the devas, the asuras fight amongst themselves.  The Asura Realm is blessed with pleasures and comforts rivaling those in the Heaven Realm, but the asuras are unable to enjoy anything except a sense of triumph over others.  They move with single-mindedness and speed as they strive to outwit and outcompete each other.  Asuras cannot trust anyone because they imagine that other beings are as self-serving and egotistical as they are.  Everyone is seen as an enemy, leaving each asura isolated in his or her own anxiety and fear.

Significance of Rebirth in the Asura Realm

Beings are reborn in this realm after they live a life of devotion (as a priest, monk, nun, or lay practitioner, for example) while secretly harboring resentment and jealousy.  Or they live fairly virtuous and noble lives, doing no overt harm, but still have a propensity for envy, quarreling, ambition and competition (Tatz 81).  The asuras are much too busy fighting and striving for territory to engage in spiritual practice, so this is also a realm in which it is difficult to achieve liberation.

The green buddha of this realm is wearing armor and carries a sword to remind the asuras of the virtues of moral restraint and order.  This buddha is “speaking the language of the asuras in an enlightened way” (Trungpa p.232).  The vast resources of the asuras is used for violence and wasted in their struggles, but those same resources could be used for self-discipline and to maintain order and justice for everyone.  If asuras manage to curb their envy and jealousy, they can calm down enough to realize that participation in the struggles of the asura realm is fruitless and painful.  They begin to feel gratitude for what they have, and trust that they need not be constantly on their guard.  Rebirth in the Heaven or Human Realms becomes possible.

Practicing with the Asura Realm

When we are in the Asura Realm, we are tormented by a pervasive and persistent sense of insecurity and transiency.  We form an intense determination to do something about this state of affairs; we feel challenged by life and believe that we must rely on our own strength and resources to survive.  When we outcompete someone else we experience a momentary sense of satisfaction, but not because we are happy to have done someone harm.  Rather, the way we see it, this is the way the world works, and for every winner there has to be a loser.  We may even feel pity for the misfortune of another, but we are unyielding in our conviction that our efforts at self-preservation are justified.

Because we live in a world of limited resources in the Asura Realm, we must constantly be on our guard.  We become instantly suspicious of the motives of others, even is theu appear to be acting with good will.  No one can truly communicate with us or touch us.  Our minds are full of anxiety about losing what we have or being limited in our efforts to acquire what we need or want, whether that is physical comfort, social connections, material wealth, opportunity, knowledge, power, ability, status or freedom.  We form a deep habit of being paranoid and reactive.  We are so busy protecting our territory and looking after our self-interest, we rarely have the time or energy to appreciate what we have.

At the core of our asura neurosis is a deep disappointment and sadness.  In order to be so jealous, we have to have tasted something of the pleasures of Heaven and then lost them or felt threatened by their loss.  We subsequently fall into several painful delusions: these pleasures are the best or only things to which beings can aspire; they are limited in supply and therefore require us to constantly strive for them; in the end, things are transient and despite our best efforts we will end up deprived of what we need; and the universe is, in essence, a cruel and unfair place.

Liberation from the Asura Realm can only come when we discipline ourselves to stop the cycle of envy and jealousy.  The buddha of this realm must slice through our delusion of insecurity, because it is self-perpetuating.  When we are in the Asura Realm, everything we encounter appears to confirm our need for fear and self-preservation.  Frequently, our aggressiveness triggers reactions in others that seem to prove our suspicions.  At an even deeper level, as asuras we are trapped because some of our assumptions are true: the attainments of beings are always relative to the non-attainments of other beings, and they are transient and easily lost.  Our salvation comes when we turn our attention to those things in our experience that cannot be said to be “attained,” such as generosity, compassion, benevolence and acceptance.  We realize that such things are never limited in quantity and can never be taken from us.  We taste the joy of profound acceptance and gratitude.  We begin to act as if the universe were actually rich and benevolent, and through trust and a cessation of our efforts at self-preservation, our experience is transformed.

The Beast Realm Described

(On your Wheel of Life, this found just below the Asura Realm.)

The beings in the Beast Realm are characterized by willful ignorance, self-absorption and subservience to instinctual and sensual desires and aversions.  Beasts are preoccupied with the basic concerns of survival: food, water, shelter, safety, and mating.  (In many respects this archetypal description of animals does not apply to the real, live animals we have as companions or respect in the wild; this realm is often called the Animal Realm, but perhaps can more accurately be called the Beast Realm.)

When acting, beasts move toward an object of desire, or away from an object of aversion, as if they have blinders on.  In this respect they ignore, or are ignorant of, everything around them except the object of their egocentric concern.  They may subsequently appear stupid, but they have their own keen intelligence that manifests as great cleverness and resourcefulness in their efforts to obtain the outcome they desire.  Beasts have little or no awareness of – and little concern about – the effects of their actions on others.  They feel no shame or empathy when they cause harm (or even death) to other beings.  After all, they must constantly be searching for other living beings to kill and eat, and must worry constantly that they themselves will be killed and eaten.  They also get eaten or enslaved by humans (the two realms overlap).

Beasts have no self-consciousness or ability to reflect on their own behavior.  Compassion, generosity, empathy and other virtues (except when directed toward one’s own offspring) are simply irrelevant to them.  On the other hand, deceit, aggression, violence, stealing, hoarding and even killing are fair techniques to be employed in this dog-eat-dog world.  Without the ability to reflect intelligently on their situation, beasts get trapped in habitual patterns that may bring great suffering to themselves and others.  The only options with which a beast is familiar are fight, flight or passivity.  Because they are always at the mercy of their needs, desires and fears, they are caught in a cycle of basic, instinctual self-maintenance and rarely get out of their deeply worn habit patterns.  They are involved in an obsession with “me and mine.”

There is a single-mindedness to the activities of beasts that may appear superficially to resemble mindful absorption in what is directly in front of them, or a lack of self-conscious posturing.  However, this arises through the narrowness of obsession and through a lack of perceived options, rather than a spacious simplicity.  When beasts are hungry, that is all they can think about; when they want to mate, they are obsessed with sex; when they are afraid, they are consumed with fear; when they have nothing to do they, they simply sleep.   They often encounter situations they do not understand, and can only react with confusion, aggression or fear.

Significance of Rebirth in the Beast Realm

Beings are reborn in the Beast Realm when they have acted as if there are no moral laws operating in the universe.  They have acted merely according to instinct or desire without concern for the consequences and without remorse or shame.  Beings are also reborn here when they kill or harm innocent beings through obliviousness or ignorance.  The basic theme is willful ignorance of the laws of karma (moral cause-and-effect).

The blue buddha of this realm holds a book of scriptures (Trungpa p.267).  Understanding the laws of karma, the benefits of self-discipline and the importance of ethical conduct and constraints can free the Beasts from being enslaved by their desires and aversions.  In order to even take in the teachings, Beasts need to momentarily give up their tunnel vision and obsession.  They have to let go of some of their stubborness in order to understand the book of knowledge that is offered by the buddha – they can’t just “rewrite it on the spot” to suit themselves (Trungpa p.267).  They need to take a wider view and allow a question to arise about whether there might be something beyond their own tiny sphere of experience.  Rebirth in the Human Realm is likely if this transformation is accomplished.

Practicing with the Beast Realm

When we live in the Beast Realm, our world seems very small.  We may be looking forward to the comforts and pleasures of home when we get done with work, or dreaming about the delicious meal we are going to have at our favorite restaurant, or filled with anxiety about whether we are going to be able to make our next rent payment.  In any case, we are basically preoccupied with our physical existence.  Whether we are concerned literally with survival or absorbed in a life of indulgence and hedonism, our experience is similar in that it is primarily self-centered and limited in scope.  We may or may not be obviously responsible for having ended up in our current situation, but it is unlikely that we often look up from our own experience to consider the needs of others or to question our approach to life.  Obviously, poverty or physically dangerous circumstances invite but in no way necessitate a descent into the Beast Realm.

Waking up from the Beast Realm can be difficult and slow.  We must gradually discover and make use of abilities and sensitivities within ourselves that we have long ignored.  We need to discipline ourselves to take up meditation or some practice that facilitates self-understanding and insight into cause-and-effect.  We need to develop our capacity to take a broader persepctive and be aware of the needs of others.  We benefit from discovering goals for ourselves that are more noble and inspiring.

When we look beyond our personal desires and fears, we find we have many more options than fight, flight or passivity.  While there is a certain nobility in how animals are “just themselves” and are not plagued by human doubts and self-consciousness, this is far from the “just being” of a buddha.  When we are completely caught in the Beast Realm we can’t help what we do and have no options.  A buddha has all kinds of choices (Trungpa p.271).

The Hell Realm Described

There is probably more written about the Buddhist Hell realm than all the other realms combined – even though damnation and the hell realm really don’t figure that prominently in Buddhism and Buddhist practice, it seems like people of all religious persuasions – Buddhist as well as Christian – have been fascinated by the prospect of hell and exactly how people end up having to eventually suffer for various bad deeds… (On your wheel of life, the Hell Realm, appropriately, is at the bottom.)

Yama is the lord and judge of the dead.  He has the face of a buffalo and rides one as well.  In his right hand he sometimes holds a club topped with a skull, and in his left he sometimes holds a noose.  Around him blazes a fire like the one that occurs at the end of an age.  A monkey faced demon beneath Yama holds a scale with which a being’s good and bad deeds are measured: on one side are white stones representing good deeds, and on the other are black stones representing bad deeds.

Yama is pictured holding the mirror that reflects the entire Wheel of Life, but he is also pictured holding court at the gate of hell where he holds the mirror for each being after their death and allows them to judge their own actions.  Based on this judgment, each being then heads to the appropriate realm for rebirth – dragged along by one of Yama’s demons (Tatz 74).

Those sentenced to Hell are sent to different levels depending on the nature of their past harmful deeds.  There are eighteen hells: 8 hot hells, 8 cold hells, the Surrounding Hells and the Ephemeral Hells.

Two themes are common to all of the hells.  First is the all-consuming nature of the torment.  In hell, there is no space (Trungpa p.283).  In the hot hells, everything has been transformed into heat: the ground is molten iron and the air itself is sweltering and filled with flames.  There is no coolness anywhere.  In the cold hells there is no warmth of any sort to be found.  The second theme is the repeated dashing of any hope for escape or cessation (at least until one’s karma is exhausted).  Murderers reborn in the hot Reviving Hell are tied to each other and fight to painful deaths, only to be revived by a wind so the process can begin again (Tatz 71).  Thieves reborn in the hot Black Thread Hell are cut into pieces with flaming knives along black lines that have been drawn all over their bodies.  Afterwards, their bodies spontaneously reassemble and get cut up again.  Perpetrators of sexual misconduct are reborn in the hot Crushing Hell, where they are repeatedly crushed between two mountains and then revived.

In other hells, beings are burnt with molten metal and pierced with spikes.  In the cold hells, beings guilty of hateful activity – especially against the Dharma from within community – are tormented by blisters, endlessly chattering teeth, and their skin splitting open.  Names of these hells are based on the characteristic cries of pain uttered by those suffering there – like the Crying Hu Hu Hell – or by size and severity of the sores that develop on their skin from exposure – like the Skin Splitting Open Like a Six-petaled Lotus Hell.

Around the hot and cold hells are a band of Surrounding Hells through which beings must pass to get out of the Hell Realm.  From afar these hells appear to offer sweet respite at long last, but as beings approach they are bitterly disappointed.  What appears to be a cool river from afar turns out to be a swamp full of stinking corpses; what appears to be a shady trench is actually a pit of embers; what appears to be a pleasant meadow is actually a plain of razors; and what appears to be a protective grove of trees turns out to be a forest of swords.

The Ephemeral Hells are custom-made for the beings that inhabit them, and can manifest anywhere.  In one case, a group of monks in a monastery lived mostly virtuous lives but would quarrel when they gathered for the daily communal meal.  They were all reborn together in a monastery where they lived peacefully during the night and most of the day, but whenever they would gather for the midday meal the monastery would transform into burningly hot metal, their bowls would turn into weapons, and they would attack one another viciously until mealtime was over (Patrul p.71).  Other Ephemeral Hells involve such things as being trapped in stones, or feeling such intense empathy with trees that whenever one has its limbs cut off, one feels as if one’s own limbs are being severed.  (Much lengthier and more vivid descriptions of the many Hells can be found in some of the sources in the reference section; describing Hell seems to have been as much a preoccupation with Buddhists as it was with Christians like Dante.)

Significance of Rebirth in Hell

Beings are reborn in Hell when they have allowed themselves to be overcome with hatred, anger and directed aggression.  There is a qualitative difference between this and the aggression that leads to the Beast Realm; Beast Realm aggression is rather blind, defensive, and instinctual, and springs more from ignorance (although it may be willful ignorance) than conscious choice.  Beings headed for the hell realm, in a sense, have said “yes” to the path of hatred and aggression, whether they are aware of it or not.  They have acted out their impulses on a practical level.  This is not to say that only perpetrators of physical violence end up in hell.  There are many other ways to act out hatred and aggression, such as deception, oppression, verbal abuse, slander and sexual misconduct.

The indigo buddha in this realm carries a vial of water, representing the cooling effect of patience and forgiveness.  He also carries a flame, symbolizing the fire of practice which can purify karma (Carlson 1989).  Only when a hell being is able to unconditionally let go of his or her anger and hatred can he or she become free of hell.  In theory, this is possible at any moment, but the beings in hell are usually depicted as being stuck there a very long time.  This is because afflictive emotions like anger are self-sustaining; once a being has created a hell realm for him or herself, he or she has many reasons to continue being angry.  Having poured anger and hatred into their environment for so long, hell beings find that anger and hatred come back at them even if they manage, for a moment, to cool off (Trungpa p.281).  Obviously, beings in Hell are too preoccupied to engage in spiritual practice, so this is not a realm in which ultimate liberation is likely.

Practicing with Hell

We do not end up in a Hell Realm because someone or something outside ourselves has judged our actions and inflicted a punishment.  Lord Yama is our own conscience, and the torments of Hell are the painful experiences of hatred and aggression in and of themselves.  Hatred is all-consuming; after time, we become conscious only of the object of our hatred and our afflictive, demanding emotions.  Everything becomes colored by hatred.  Because we are not actually separate from any other being, it is impossible for us to inflict harm on another without feeling it ourselves.  In the Buddhist view, even those who appear to escape any repercussions for their harmful actions – such as murderers who do not get caught – do not escape the karmic results.  The perpetrators of the harmful deeds may not even feel remorse, but at some level, sooner or later, they will experience the effect of having cut themselves off from other beings.

When we are in a Hell Realm, there is no space for anything other than hatred, anger or aggression.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to concentrate on spiritual practice.  Our mind turns relentlessly to the object of our anger.  We are caught in a horrible trap of negative thoughts, emotions and physical habits.  Just as the asuras transform their world into one of competition and jealousy, when we are in Hell our aggression is reflected back to us and the whole world seems to be a seething pit of hatred and violence.

We can work toward liberation from Hell only when we can convince ourselves to question the reality of this world of hatred and violence.  The only way for it to end is for us to spontaneously renounce the anger within ourselves.  When we are entirely caught up in our anger, to call a cease-fire seems like utter folly!  This is why it can take so long for us to liberate ourselves from Hell.

When we finally call hatred’s bluff, however, and simply drop our anger and aggression – usually without any guarantee of good will from the object of our fear – we are rewarded with an inner peace that makes the possibility of attack seem like a very small price to pay.  Letting go of anger is letting go of attachment to self, so insight into the inherent emptiness of self helps us let go of anger.  At the same time, letting go of anger and experiencing the subsequent ease is one of the most vivid experiential proofs of the emptiness of self.

Read/listen to the Six Realms of Existence Part 3: Hungry Ghost and Human Realms

 


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.

 

29 - Six Realms of Existence Part 1: Introduction and the Heaven Realm
31 - Six Realms of Existence Part 3: Hungry Ghost and Human Realms
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