In this episode, part 1 of 3, I explain the Buddhist teaching of the Six Realms of Existence, also known as the Wheel of Life, or the Wheel of Samsara. I share the rich mythology and imagery of this teaching while explaining how it can be a useful teaching for everyday life independent of a belief in literal rebirth. In this first episode I introduce the overall teaching and talk about the Heaven Realm. In the second episode, I’ll talk about the Asura (fighting demigod), Beast and Hell Realms, and then in the 3rd, I’ll finish up with the Hungry Ghost and Human Realms.
Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
My Approach to the Six Realms [1:32]
The Wheel of Life [4:17]
The Three Poisons [7:50]
Dependent Origination [8:20]
The Heaven Realm [13:00]
The Significant of Rebirth in Heaven [22:53]
Practicing with the Heaven Realm [25:16]
The ancient teaching of the Six Realms can be found in all forms of Buddhism and to some extent even predates Buddhism, but it was most highly developed in the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition. It basically describes a cosmology in which beings reside in one of six realms of existence – Heaven, Hell, or the Asura, Beast, Hungry Ghost, and Human Realms – and after death, beings are reborn in a particular realm of existence based on their past actions. Each realm is characterized by certain rewards or sufferings, and there is a particular way to liberate yourself from each realm and get to a better on – or even to transcend the Six Realms completely. More on that later.
My Approach to the Six Realms
In Zen, we typically use the Six Realms as metaphors for states of mind or being. It isn’t at all necessary to believe in literal rebirth, reincarnation, or even in the Six Realms cosmology in other to benefit from this teaching. After all, in this sense we have all inhabited every one of the realms at one time or another – and we may even occupy more than one “realm” in the course of a day! We can use the characteristics of each realm, and the recommended ways to achieve liberation from them, to identify and deal with our karmic patterns and mind states.
In these podcasts I attempt to describe the Six Realms teachings in enough detail that practitioners can use them as a practice tool. I imagine there is a great deal of information on these teachings in Tibetan and other languages, but all I had available to me were a handful of mostly secondary sources, each of which provided only a part of the picture.
In each account of a Realm, I included a fairly complete explanation and description of the iconography and mythology associated with the Realm. (One exception is the Hell Realm, because the vivid descriptions of the levels of Hell are almost as long as the descriptions for all other realms combined. For more information on Hell see the Vajrayana text The Jewel Ornament of Liberation.) Iconography and mythology contain many levels of teaching, some of it beyond verbal description or interpretation. Different sources present different images and interpretations; I have presented what appears to be the most typical or acceptable ones. I have not complicated the podcast by presenting alternative terms, images or stories to the ones I have chosen to use. I encourage you to turn to the sources listed in the references on the zenstudiespodcast.com website if you find yourself inspired to go more deeply into these teachings.
At the end of the description of each realm, I suggest ways to use the imagery of the realm to understand our own daily experiences and change our negative karmic patterns.
The Wheel of Life
The Wheel of Life and its associated teachings is one of the most vivid and useful Buddhist concepts. This is a highly visual teaching, depicted in its entirety using a complicated iconographic image. (See image on this page, and click here for a larger version for reference; also look up “wheel of life” online and see the many images that appear.)
A fearsome creature, Yama, lord of the dead, holds a large round mirror in which the phenomenal world of samsara is reflected (Carlson 1989). Samsara refers specifically to the cycle of existences to which beings are doomed through the process of rebirth. The world reflected in the mirror consists of Six Realms (generally starting from the top and going clockwise, although sometimes the order is slightly different):
Heaven, the Asura (jealous demigod) Realm, the Beast Realm, Hell, the Hungry Ghost Realm, and the Human Realm. Beings are never permanently trapped in one realm; their actions determine where they will be reborn in their next life. This is why the whole picture is called the “Wheel of Life” – beings constantly go around and around in it.
The worldview that beings are “doomed” to cycle endlessly through the Six Realms in a state of dissatisfaction is may appear to be negative, but in each of the Six Realms there is a buddha that teaches the specific way to achieve liberation from that realm. We may never get to rest, but we are also never permanently stuck. There is no judgment associated with rebirth in a particular realm; in the Buddhist view, moral and karmic laws operate impersonally, like gravity and other physical laws. Our actions themselves cause our rebirth in a particular realm.
Significantly, the goal of Buddhist practice is not to get to the Heaven Realm (because even that is conditional and temporary), but to get off the wheel completely – that is, to stop the cycle and achieve peace. Beings do this through Buddhist practice. “Mere” virtue, good deeds or meditative powers earn rebirth in the Heaven Realm but do not suffice to liberate one from samsara.
The Three Poisons
At the center of the wheel of life one finds three animals – a pig, a snake and a rooster. The pig symbolizes blindness or delusion, the snake symbolizes hatred and the rooster symbolizes greed. The emotions of the three stem from ignorance of our fundamentally pure and empty nature. These three poisons represent the root causes that keep the Wheel of Life turning (Tenzin Gyatso p.4).
Around the edges of the “wheel” are a series of images representing the twelve links in the chain of Dependent Origination, which explains how all of the activity on the Wheel of Life arises (Tenzin Gyatso p. 8);
I have slightly changed the names of some of the steps). It’s not important to understand or believe in the details of this teaching of Dependent Origination in order to use the teaching of the Six Realms… Suffice to say: our actions have consequences (the law of karma), and if they are done in ignorance, one thing leads to another and the result is suffering – and more ignorance.
I’ll explain the imagery here, though, just in case you’re curious. Images sometimes vary…
First, a being is in a state of fundamental ignorance as to the true nature of beings and other phenomena (symbolized by a blind person stumbling along with a cane). When the being subsequently performs an action, it is action based on ignorance (symbolized by a potter making a pot). The performance of this action creates a predisposition within consciousness (symbolized by a monkey); this predisposition is a cause which ripens into an effect: the taking of rebirth.
A new life begins when the being assumes name and form, the mental and physical components of a living being (symbolized by a person in a boat). From this develops the sense spheres (symbolized by an empty house with six windows); because of the ability to sense, contact occurs between the being and its environment (symbolized by a woman and a man touching). The result of this is feeling (symbolized by a person with an arrow or stick in their eye), which allows attachment (symbolized by a group of people having a party) and then grasping to develop (symbolized by a monkey grabbing at a piece of fruit hanging from a tree). The result of these, karmic existence, is a fully developed karmic potentiality out of a which another rebirth can come (symbolized by a man and woman having sex).
In this state the being provides the circumstances for rebirth. (This is symbolized by a woman giving birth. In this cosmological system, after death a being remains without form until it finds a couple copulating, is drawn to one of the couple, and subsequently inhabits a resulting embryo. This link in the chain seems to be the point at which someone provides the raw material for continuing the process of rebirth for another being – a process he or she will then undergo after death.) The final link is the inevitable disintegration of a being’s “name and form,” which then requires rebirth: aging and death (symbolized by adults carrying burdens).
I won’t go into the Hell realm at this point, but just to finish our tour of the Wheel of Life, notice that Yama appears again in the hell realm, holding up a mirror in which the dead see their life’s actions reflected. The dead then judge themselves, and take rebirth in the appropriate realm.
The Heaven Realm
Now on the juicy bits of the Six Realms teaching – the descriptions of the realms themselves. Keep in mind, these are mythologies that can be seen as vivid metaphors for states of mind or being that have a momentum and internal coherence, and that tend to repeat…
According to the mythology, then, Heaven is a blissful realm populated by devas, or gods. Devas are not omniscient or omnipotent creators, but they are very powerful and live for countless ages. They enjoy perfect health, happiness, wealth and good fortune all of their lives, and any needs they may have are met by a wish-fulfilling tree. A deva’s body shines with a brilliant light that is visible for miles, and he or she does not sweat or feel any discomfort. His or her clothes and flower garlands never fade or get dirty, no matter how long they are worn. Devas can be killed only by decapitation; any other wounds they receive can be healed by divine ambrosia (Patrul p.92).
There are three realms of Heaven: the Desire Realm, the Realm of Form, and the Formless Realm. In these, beings enjoy pleasures from the most sensual and material to the most subtle and spiritual. Heaven is located on Mt. Meru, some of the surrounding mountains, and in the skies above these. Devas in the Desire Realm remain somewhat aware of events in the human realm, and will occasionally intercede there. For example, Mara is lord of the Desire Realm and attempted to prevent Shakyamuni’s enlightenment by plaguing the developing Buddha with distractions, doubts and temptations. On the other hand, after his enlightenment the Buddha considered not trying to teach anyone what he had learned out of a sense of despair that anyone would be able to understand. The devas Indra and Brahma pleaded with him to teach for the good of the world, and the Buddha did so (Conze p. 52).
The Desire Realm is the lowest portion of Heaven and consists of six levels. The lowest of these is the Heaven of the Four Great Kings, which is located on the slopes of Mt. Meru and on the seven chains of surrounding mountains (Tatz p.96). The devas here enjoy great pleasure and delight. They indulge in leisure activities, enjoying baths, pools, music, food, companionship and love. Females give birth spontaneously, without the troubles of menstruation, pregnancy, labor or nursing; children simply appear at about five years of age, sitting on their mother’s knee, and the nearby devas think, “Ah, this is my child.” Parenthood is collective. Yet, however pleasant their lives, the devas in the Desire Realm are responsible for regulating the mundane affairs of the entire Heaven Realm. They guard the higher levels of heaven from attack by the asuras, or demigods, who are consumed with envy for the good fortune of the devas (see the chapter on the Asura Realm).
The next level in the Desire Realm is called the Heaven of the Thirty-three, so named for the 33 principle devas who reside there. The devas in this realm are many times larger than human beings and possess magical powers and supernatural senses (Tatz p.98). They reside in a golden city called “Lovely” where the soft ground yields to the foot and then springs back into place (Tharchin p.97). A splendid magnolia tree covers many square miles with its branches, flowers and fragrance, and its shade is the perfect place for music and love. The city is surrounded by a golden wall with 999 gates, each with 500 guards. When the armies of the Four Great Kings are unable to defeat an attack by the asuras, the devas in the Heaven of the Thirty-three have to join the battle. Their leader, Indra, commands the devas into the Forest of Aggression (Patrul p.96). This is because the devas are usually happy and peaceful, so they must use the magical influence of this forest to rouse themselves for battle. (See the chapter on the Asura Realm for a description of the ensuing battles.)
In the four higher levels within the Realm of Desire, devas are free from concern about mundane affairs. These realms are located in the sky above Mt. Meru, like clouds. The first of these is the Heaven Without Fighting. The next is Joyful (Tushita) Heaven, which is covered in jewels and is the most beautiful of all the deva realms. Above this is Delighting in Emanations, where the devas are so detached from the material realm they have no need for desirable objects to actually be present in front of them: their wishes become reality. The highest heaven in the Realm of Desire is Ruling the Emanations of Others (Tatz p.103), where devas need no longer even need to emanate objects of desire from their own minds. Rather, their needs and wishes are anticipated and emanated by other classes of devas for their benefit. Here, sexual desire is aroused and fulfilled by a mere glance.
Most Desire Realm devas spend their existence in a state not unlike slumber, aware of their true circumstances only when they are first reborn in Heaven and then when they are approaching death (Kelsang Gyatso p.125). The Desire Realm is jealously watched over by its lord, Mara. Mara does not want anyone to escape his power by being reborn in the Form or Formless Realms or, even worse, by complete liberation from the samsaric cycle. He endeavors to keep beings – devas, humans, asuras and others – distracted from spiritual practice that would lead to those outcomes (Tatz p.103). An example of a being completely within Mara’s grasp is a disciple of Shariputra, a doctor named Kumara. Kumara was reborn in the Desire Realm because of his great devotion as a Buddhist practitioner: in his human life, he had, without fail, gotten down from his elephant and paid homage to Shariputra whenever the two happened to meet. Shariputra went to visit his former disciple in heaven to see if he could continue instructing him in the Dharma. Kumara saw his teacher coming from afar, gave him a quick wave, and then withdrew from sight with the female devas who were his playmates (Kelsang Gyatso p.125).
After leading a long, carefree life, Desire Realm devas receive a number of signs that their time in Heaven is ending. Their bodies become dim and capable of producing sweat; they become able to feel uncomfortable and ill-at-ease; their flower garlands fade and their clothing becomes dirty and begins to smell. With their divine eye, they are able to see the circumstances of their future death and rebirth in a lower realm. They are tormented by the thought of losing the bliss of Heaven and are engulfed in sorrow (Patrul p.97). This misery and fear is comparable to the torments suffered by beings in the Hell Realm, and can continue for 300-1000 human years.
Above the Realm of Sense Desire is the Realm of Form, and even higher than that is the Formless Realm. The devas in these heavens have achieved a high level of spiritual discipline (Tatz p. 107-110), and are reborn here through “immovable” karma that is neither good nor bad. Because of their lack of attachment to material existence, they inhabit an ethereal bodies that are not subject to physical or mental suffering. The levels within these Heaven Realms correspond to progressively more advanced stages of meditation. In the Realm of Form, meditative experience in the lowest level involves concentration on a single thought. A being’s experience in higher levels increases in subtlety: the physical pleasure of meditation gives way to pure equanimity and happiness; any sense of pleasure disappears, leaving only equanimity; and finally, beings in the highest level are totally thoughtless (Tatz 107). Beings in the Formless Realm have transcended consciousness itself, and the Heaven itself is located wherever a being enters this meditative state (Tatz 109). Devas in the Realm of Form and the Formless Realm are spared the misery of anticipating their own deaths (Patrul p.93).
The Significant of Rebirth in Heaven
To be reborn in the heaven realm, beings have performed meritorious and charitable deeds and lived virtuous lives. For example, to be reborn in the Heaven Without Fighting, beings have developed self-control and avoided conflict. To be reborn in Delighting in Emanations, beings have developed “sublime moral refinement and intense generosity” (Tatz p.102). In past lives the devas may have dedicated themselves to spiritual practices and achieved a high degree of mastery of them, but without fully releasing attachment to experience itself.
Rebirth in Heaven is not the final goal of a spiritual seeker because even the bliss of Heaven is conditioned and will end when a deva’s positive karma has been exhausted. Though devas do not do any direct harm to other beings, the thought of enlightenment does not occur to them even for an instant (Patrul p.93). It is especially true that devas in the Realm of Form and the Formless Realm are unlikely to engage in spiritual practices that lead to true liberation. This is because they mistake their meditative states for Nirvana (Tatz p.108-110). However sublime their meditation, though, these devas retain a subtle separation between the experiencer and the experienced. Eventually their positive karma runs out and they are reborn in a lower realm. Their tranquility also is very solitary and provides no opportunity for arousing compassion for others and subsequent Bodhicitta (the thought of enlightenment to save all beings; Kelsang Gyatso p.125).
The white buddha of the Heaven Realm plays a musical instrument. He relates with the absorption of the devas in their various pursuits, and patiently plays music to gently draw them out of their distractions (Trungpa p.287). Inevitably, the devas will descend from the Heaven Realm and continue around the Wheel of Life. However, if they are able to receive some Dharma from the white buddha as they are losing Heaven, they may be able to avoid falling into the intense jealousy that would lead them into the Asura Realm, or the rage and despair that would lead them into one of the lower realms.
Practicing with the Heaven Realm
The Heaven Realm represents the highest attainments of living beings. The different realms and levels within Heaven are symbolic of the many different types of attainment, including wealth, virtue, merit from generous actions, inner and outer peace, spiritual discipline, control of one’s mind, influence over others, intimacy with others, “supernatural” powers and profound meditative states.
There is nothing wrong with Heaven. We attain heavenly states through sincere effort. We mean well, and do not obtain the joys of the Heaven Realm by harming beings. We are genuinely happy in Heaven. The profound and radical Buddhist teaching is that there is something even “higher” and more noble to which we can aspire: complete liberation from the samsaric cycle, along with an aspiration to free all beings from suffering. This “attainment” is not part of the Heaven Realm because it is not something we “attain.” Anything we attain we can also lose. The ultimate goal of Buddhist practice falls outside the realm of attainment and non-attainment, and is therefore not even portrayed on the Wheel of Life.
Although it does not make sense to speak of “liberation” from Heaven, the Heaven Realm is viewed as a less desirable realm in which to live than the Human Realm. This is because, in the Buddhist view, suffering is our true spiritual friend because it keeps the question present in our minds: “What else needs to be done?” In Heaven we are free from suffering and have no motivation to practice, to delve deeper. There is also a tendency for us to get wrapped up in our own joyful, pleasant, peaceful or profound experiences and forget about the countless beings suffering in other realms.
Eventually our karma changes, our heavenly experience comes to an end, and the loss of our joy, peace and happiness can be extremely painful. If we can cultivate deep acceptance of and gratitude for our lives – no matter what form they are taking – this transition can be smoother. We may be able to accept what is happening with a minimum of regret, bitterness and envy toward those who still enjoy the Heaven Realm. To avoid the trap of grasping, jealousy and fear involves a powerful act of letting go. We wholeheartedly enjoy good fortune when it comes our way, but do not become entangled in a desperate and futile effort to prevent change.
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