Understanding people’s actions can be difficult. Sometimes we can’t help but feel disbelief, judgment, or disgust toward people based on how they respond to the suffering of others – particularly regarding the problems we’re facing as a society such as the climate and ecological emergency, the serious undermining of democracy, continued racial injustice, an ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. The Buddhist teaching about the Six Realms of existence can help us understand people’s mind states and motivations, hopefully leading us to greater patience, less judgment, and – most importantly – insight into what might work best to get through to people and help them change.
- Why do some of us respond to the issues in our world today with a sense of concern, empathy, and personal responsibility to help?
- Why do some of us find it difficult even to pay attention to the problems?
- Why do some of us target and blame others and do anything we can to cause strife?
- Why are some of us so fixated on obtaining more wealth and power that we seem to have forsaken the simplest of human values like compassion?
- Why do some of us spend most of our time moving from pleasant distraction to pleasant distraction, trying to ignore what’s going on around us?
This episode involves interpreting the Six Realms teachings in a particular way, in terms of how they’re reflected in our modern societies, whether we’re talking about individuals, or groups of people with similar circumstances and attitudes
Introducing the Six Realms Teaching
Even heaven isn’t permanent once good karma runs out, but then hell isn’t permanent either
Goal is not to get to heaven, but to get unstuck from any realm at all – in each realm is a buddha offering the way out
Buddhist cosmology, based in Indian religious/social tradition before Buddhism (a particular version of it)
Not central to Buddhist teaching and practice in the sense that our practice is dependent on believing it; it’s like Buddhism arising in a Judeo-Christian context and assuming God exists.
Particularly: Six different karmic situations, leading to very different mind states, motivations, behaviors, delusions, possibilities for learning, growth, liberation
Like “personality types” and stuff like that, boundaries between types/realms not actually hard and fixed, but the teaching does point pretty uncannily to a cluster of features that we can experience over the course of our lives, or even over the course of day.
Fundamentalist Versus Realistic Views of Karma
First, a note on karma, or the law of cause and effect as it applies to conscious, willful human behavior. This is relevant because as I discuss the Six Realms as a way to understand the actions and mindsets of people around you, I want to make it clear this isn’t about stereotyping, dehumanizing categorization, or dwelling on blame.
Some Buddhists – in ancient times and even today – believe everything that happens to you is due to your karma. That is, the effects arising from the causes of your past actions of body speech and mind (in this life, or in a previous life)
This means you’re responsible for everything that happens to you, including your illnesses, apparent bad luck, the abuses of others, etc.
It’s a pretty grim view, closely related to the ancient (and to some extent, modern) Indian ideas supporting the caste system
But on the other hand, you might look at it as a human-centric, wishful-thinking view (you have control over everything that happens to you in the future)
You might say this is a fundamentalist view of karma. It’s also possible – and I would argue, much more rational, reasonable, and compassionate – to have a more realistic – nuanced, complex – view of karma
Your current circumstances are due to innumerable causes: Physical, biological, societal… the big bang, the formation of the earth, evolution.
- The choices of your ancestors in terms of mates, lifestyles, emigration.
- The results of occurrences that intersected with your ancestors they had little or nothing to do with, like storms, accidents, and wars.
- The evolution of our larger society and culture, which is the result of choices of an uncountable number of people.
- The forces of greed, hate, and delusion, which are active within every human heart and certainly within our communities, societies, and nations.
Certainly your past choices and behaviors have had a profound effect on who you are and your circumstances – where you live, whether you’re married or have kids, whether you have a lot of education or a lucrative job, whether you have a lots of bad habits or a strong moral bent, whether you have an overall positive attitude about life, or get stuck in depression, whether you’ve taken care of yourself physically or suffer from health problems stemming from a bad diet or inactivity.
Yet even considering our karmic situation, things get complicated.
- Do you have a genetic disposition toward depression, or optimism, or a particular illness, or robust good health?
- Did your early family experiences have a profound effect on your personality and lifestyle habits?
- Did you experience trauma at some point that has affected you ever since?
- Are you part of a group of people who have been marginalized or oppressed in our society, limiting the options and opportunities you’ve had?
The list goes on. In short, we end up who we are and where we are due to causes and conditions. Many of those – perhaps most of those – we had little or nothing to do with. We don’t have complete control over the future.
But human choices do make a really big difference – our own, those of our families, our society, our nation, and our global community. You could call this personal karma, family karma, social karma, national karma, and human karma.
Karma is about willful behavior – conscious choices we make that often have helpful or harmful consequences. Karma matters. A lot. It’s also the only element in this big equation of causes and conditions we can do anything about.
Six Realms: Where Do We Go from Here?
Buddhism is about what we do from here on out, not about trying to untangle karmic causes and assign blame. The Buddha said there are a small handful of things that will drive you crazy if you think about them too much, and trying to figure out the exact workings of karma is one of them.
So, as we consider the Six Realms, try to think about them in terms of helping understand the experience and motivations of the beings in those realms (including ourselves), their particular challenges, and how beings stuck in those realms can free themselves. (And therefore, how we might skillfully assist them in that, how we might speak to them, get through to them, what we might expect of them)
Not going to dwell much on how beings got to each realm or on the imagery or mythology associated with each realm, that’s available in my other podcasts on the topic.
Understanding People’s Actions When They’re in the Hell Realm
Starting with the three “lower” realms (pictured as a wheel, heaven at top, hell at bottom, three more fortunate realms, three lower)
Hell Realm: Beings have said “yes” to hatred and anger. They have enacted aggression and intentionally hurt other, whether physically, verbally, or otherwise. Having gone down that path, their habits and mind states are overcome with hatred, anger, aggression, fear of being similarly attacked.
This is an incredibly difficult state to break free from. Everything you encounter seems to reinforce your view of the world, in which you are under attack and you need to become the aggressor in order to save yourself. Even if other people aren’t trying to physically or personally attack you, they are a threat due to their position or choices. Anger and hatred beget anger and hatred in others, and the resulting conflict only strengthens the hell-beings’ attitudes.
Those in our society who are likely in the hell realm: Those who commit violence, aggression, knowingly hurt others; those who dwell in resentment and hatred for other groups of people, like QAnon against liberals, the incel association against women, overt racists, those who advocate oppression and inhumane treatment of immigrants, Muslims, Jews, transgender people, etc.
The buddha in the hell 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 – taking responsibility for one’s own actions of body, speech, and mind, and practicing with them to break free of hell. 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. This is extremely difficult to do, even though, in theory, it is possible at any given moment.
What does the Six Realms teaching tell us about hell-beings? They are very, very stuck. And they are in hell. This isn’t meant to make us feel sorry for them or excuse their behavior, but it gives us perspective. If they’re in hell, perhaps we can find a way to help them glimpse what it’s like not to be in hell. To give up hatred and aggression no matter what.
Understanding People’s Actions When They’re in the Beast Realm
Beings here, for one reason or another, have succumbed to laziness and the most basic level of self-interest. Again, this isn’t about blame. It’s easy to end up here when our circumstances are very difficult – when we’re struggling with poverty, or stress, or ill-health, etc.
Beasts/animals care only about sleeping, eating, basic physical safety, pleasure, and sex.
They sink into dullness, oblivion. Engage in willful ignorance, tuning out anything except for their small realm of egocentric concern. Often harm others – or themselves – through their actions, ignoring karmic consequences – stealing, hoarding, deceit – but this is done with an unwillingness or inability to reflect on or take responsibility for – or care about – the consequences, as opposed to the willful aggression of hell-beings.
Beasts are disinterested in self-awareness, reflection. Virtues like compassion, generosity, moral restraint, are just irrelevant to them. Always at the mercy of their desires and fears, focused on “me and mine.” When some particular desire is being thwarted, that becomes the focus of their obsession.
Buddha of this realm: book of scriptures. Way out = knowledge, understanding (particular the laws of karma), the value of moral conduct and self-restraint, self-discipline. Beings in beast realm have to look up from tunnel vision of self-interest, consider effects of their actions and the experiences of others, take a wider view of life.
What does the Six Realms teaching tell us about how to relate to beings in the Beast realm? Patience? Gentleness? Encouragement to expand thinking and concern just a little bit? Probably not expect them to suddenly embrace a grand concern for all living beings and a willingness to make sacrifices on their behalf!
This isn’t to sound patronizing but realistic. If you witness someone who seems utterly shameless in their self-interest and small-minded in the scope of their concerns, it helps to recognize what state of mind this being is probably in. You’re definitely not going to get through to them by trying to attack or shame them, they don’t operate by the same values you do. We should take the approach of the Beast Realm’s Buddha and patiently try to educate, perhaps seeking to increase empathy without seeming to threaten the person’s well-being.
Understanding People’s Actions When They’re in the Hungry Ghost Realm
Hungry ghosts are also very self-concerned, but they are focused on a sense of lack. This leads to compulsive stinginess and grasping. The desires of a beast are fairly easily met, but the desires of a hungry ghost can never be met. There’s never enough, and whatever they perceive as potentially filling the gaping hole of their desire they will constantly try to get more of – perhaps through manipulation, scheming, selfish behavior, hoarding…
This realm often associated with addictions, to many different kinds of things – but to things that give a rush of satisfaction, not to things than numb you out (like beasts would like). Hungry ghosts go from one thing to another… (social interaction, acquisition of new stuff, pleasurable/exciting experiences, food, alcohol, drugs…)
Never satisfied… need can become anguished, feel empty…
People in the world today? (including us in each of this examples, of course): Certainly addicts of various substances and things… Enacting materialism, always living in the future when they’ll get this, achieve that, experience this, go for that vacation… even in small ways, when dependent on relatively simple pleasures for happiness, but in the meantime self-absorbed or stingy, or feeling empty inside, like need to keep busy, keep moving, keep entertained, or the sadness will overwhelm
Difficult not to sound judgmental… but surely we’re in the Hungry Ghost realm when drive by homeless camps on our way to get a new toy at a black Friday sale?
Buddha: Vial of celestial nourishment, teaches virtue of generosity and sacrifice. Idea is that the only thing that will truly satisfy is the Dharma, is the truth, but we keep “looking for love in all the wrong places.”
What does the Six Realms teaching tell us about dealing with Hungry Ghosts? Sympathy with the longing, encouraging curiosity about fulfill that longing in other ways… with spiritual practice, acts of generosity, sacrifice, simplicity, being satisfied with simpler things, learning to see this life as sufficient. Compassion instead of judgment, again.
Understanding People’s Actions When They’re in the Asura Realm
One of the higher, more fortunate realms
Fairly fortunate, but can see base of the wish-fulfilling tree and the heaven realm
Driven by resentment, jealousy and competition (a means not, sura means god)
Similar to hungry ghosts, never satisfied, but they actually have all they need and even want, but are obsessed by what others have compared to them, or are afraid what they have will be taken away
Envy, quarreling, ambition – too busy for spiritual practice. Tormented by paranoia, insecurity. Limited resources, there are winners and losers, and we’re going to make sure we’re not the losers! It’s a dog-eat-dog world and you can’t trust anyone.
In our world: Many of the folks behind Wall Street? Those behind the political and economic machinery that places profit over life, based only on competition? Those who brandish guns at BLM protestors from inside their mansions? Those with reasonably comfortable lives who refuse asylum to suffering, starving, oppressed people from other countries and feel better knowing those undocumented immigrants are locked up just for crossing the border?
Like Beasts, Asuras look out for numero uno, but their appetites are more ambitious, their paranoia farther reaching, their actions cleverer and more treacherous, their impact greater because of their greater power.
Buddha: Armor and sword, teaches virtues of moral restraint and order
Trungpa: This buddha is “speaking the language of the asuras in an enlightened way” (Trungpa p.232).
Recognize acquisition, hoarding, defending territory is ultimately fruitless and wasteful, there will always be someone with more, and always a risk you will lose what you have.
Instead use strength and fortune and energy for good, for others, for justice for all – and justice for others also means a greater sense of safety for you
Step outside selfishness
Sword slices through cycle of envy, jealousy, self-perpetuating delusion of insecurity. Realize “the best things in life are free.” Recognize our good fortune, cultivate gratitude.
What does the Six Realms teaching tell us about dealing with Asuras? Again, understanding the inner turmoil, the constrained and fearful perspective, of an asura can help us generate compassion instead of judgment or fear. Hopefully they can be encouraged to question whether greed and paranoia is the way they want to live, and to experiment with the rewards of trust and sharing.
In the meantime, we can constrain asuras with laws, to at least get them acting with restraint and order even when their hearts aren’t there yet…
Understanding People’s Actions When They’re in the Heaven Realm
Get here through good, moral behavior, spiritual practice (and luck?)
Have needs met, pleasant, peaceful, untroubled. Beings are happy, satisfied, don’t suffer, don’t see any need for spiritual practice.
Eventually, though, good karma runs out and their time in heaven draws to a close, they can see it coming and it’s like torture…
In the meantime, though, heavenly beings (devas) enjoy themselves and it seems like their good fortune will last forever
In our world: This describes me pretty well, at least at times, and many of the people I know. It certainly seems to describe the many people of privilege in developed countries who are caught up enjoying their lives while countless beings suffer and die around them, and the planet’s natural life support systems are breaking down. Those of us with privilege who seem deaf and dumb, sometimes, to the experiences of marginalized groups. It isn’t that we’re without a conscience, or without compassion, it’s just that life is lovely and the terrible things are mostly happening off in other realms…
Buddha in this realm plays a stringed musical instrument… patiently waiting until the sound gently draws the devas away from their distractions (perhaps when they see the end is near)
Beings may be able to learn a little something as they descend, avoid the asura realm or one of the lower realms
What does the Six Realms teaching tell us about dealing with beings (us?) in the heaven realm?
Clearly Heaven Realm beings need to become aware of the suffering in the world. Their pleasant bubble needs to be burst, for their own sake as well as for the sake of others. At the same time, how is a deva going to respond if you’re too aggressive with the bad news, especially if you try to shame them for their previous inattention? The deva will probably withdraw even further into their realm of pleasure. So, getting heaven realm beings to help beings in other realms, and also to prepare themselves for the fact they won’t always be in heaven, means getting a little tough with them but also being skillful…
Understanding People’s Actions When They’re in the Human Realm
Mixed bag, always changing – like a little bit of all the other realms, constantly shifting circumstances
Pleasure and pain, peace and strife, gain and loss, bliss and horror, etc.
Suffer from loss, anticipation of the suffering to come
Longing for intimacy, belonging, related to sexuality and a desire for things to keep going as they are
Should be something more…
Considered ideal realm for spiritual practice – like the middle-sized chair for goldilocks
We don’t have to imagine what it means to be a human in our world, we know; but maybe we could say it’s those of us who cycle through each of the other realms regularly
Buddha in human realm holds a begging bowl, teaches spiritual practice and renunciation of whatever leads to suffering.
What does the Six Realms teaching tell us about dealing with beings (us?) in the human realm?
Express: Greatest, lasting peace and satisfaction come not from changing after things we love or enjoy, or trying to hold on to them, but in accepting impermanence, spiritual practice, letting go of that which leads to suffering.
Greatest intimacy, peace, etc. – not found in pursuing conditional things. Perhaps mostly teach by example, and do our best to give help when asked?
Next time you encounter someone, hear about someone, speaking or acting in some negative or harmful way you just don’t understand – or you find yourself reacting with judgment, disgust, frustration, horror –
Try reflecting on what “realm” they might be operating in at the time. Again, this isn’t meant to encourage judgment or arrogance, as if we can guess what another person’s inner experience is, and then consign them to a dismissive category. This is meant to make you curious, to imagine what someone else might be going through, what their perspective at the time might be.
Beings suffer in all six realms, and it is possible to get unstuck from any one of the realms. Buddhas and bodhisattvas practice compassion and skillfulness in order to free living beings from the different realms of existence – and even if we’re not quite ready to venture into other realms and try to rescue people from their hatred, ignorance, fear, greed, longing, or complacency, at least the six realms teaching can help us understand and be more patient with beings, including ourselves.