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Monday, July 02, 2007

Are the Six Realms of Buddhism Real?

I personally do not believe that the six realms are actual "places" that exist outside of ourselves. That being said, I do not know for sure that they do not exist outside ourselves but I'd rather focus on the here and now then what "might" happen. I see these "realms" as states of consciousness being in our present awareness created by the power of our deluded minds. After all we are not just reborn upon our physical death--we are reborn a new each moment of our lives in the here and now. It seems to me that the concept of these realms being "out there" somewhere is a bit unskillful. That is because this idea appears to fortify the unskillful view that there are "places" that are separate from our existence in the here and now. There is no "out there." It seems to simply create worry and trepidation of ending up in a "Hell" which spurs people to follow the Dharma for the wrong reasons--out of fear and desire.

That being said I'd like to move on to the actual "realms" and show how they are working right here and right now.

First I wish to address the "God realm." This is the state of a false sense of "getting it." It is a false reality because there is nothing "to get." We experience this "realm" when everything is going our way. We have everything we could ever want or need--we lack for nothing. We avoid anything that doesn't being us happiness and affirm our feeling of permanent greatness that is manufactured by our ego-mind. This breeds arrogance and pride. We cease to follow and practice the Dharma because we feel that we have "arrived" and thus no longer need to meditate, etc. However, eventually that "happiness" fades and we are left with nothing to show for our "wealth" because we are preoccupied with nothing but our personal satisfaction. We have done nothing to help others with our great blessings and that leaves us feeling empty, hallow and lonely inside. When this realization occurs we struggle to maintain our God-like state by grasping. Thus, inevitably the more we do this the more we suffer which of course leads to falling into the "lower states of being" and the cycle of samsara continues.

Next, there is the "Demi-God realm." This is the state of jealousy and paranoia. We experience this unfulfilling state of consciousness whenever we covet "things." We are jealous of our Dharma teachers. How many times have we said to ourselves that, "I'll be happy when I have this or that??" "I'll be happy in 5, 10 or 20 years" or "I'd surely be happier if I was that person." In this state of mind we compete to outdo others and be "number one." Therefore, before we know it our precious human birth comes to and end and we have wasted our opportunities to practice the Dharma. This leaves us physically and spiritually exhausted for we forget the Dharma's wonderful teachings of being happy with the present moment no matter our material state or position in the world.

Now we arrive at the "Human realm." This is the present moment. This is whenever we are aware of the Oneness of all things. When we are in this state of being we have the best chance to be aware of the Dharma and how skillful and important it is to our liberation. This is why being in this current moment is so important. It is in this state where we have the best chance of liberating ourselves for we have the most potential to study and practice with enough concentration to not only slow our karma but more importantly free ourselves from the cycle of samsara. In the other states of mind we are too preoccupied with less skillful actions to be bothered with practicing the Dharma.

This brings us to the "Animal realm." This is the state of pure ignorance. Wallowing in ignorance we stumble haphazardly through this precious moment of our humanity. We cease to be aware of our mind and give in to the cycle of suffering. We begin to believe that there is no point to anything. We end up following the crowd which can easily and does lead us off the proverbial cliff and into nothing but constant suffering. This is also a state of pure fear. We fear everything and everyone as potential enemies or live in scorn toward others as stupid and worthless--much like the predator/prey cycle of the animal kingdom.

The fifith realm is that of the "hungry ghost realm." We find ourselves in this state by constant craving--nothing satiates our out of control desire. This state of mind occurs whenever we long for the past and try to relive it or change things that can not be changed. Nothing brings us peace. It is also here where we find ourselves gorging on the sensual pleasures. Pleasure in and of itself isn't necessarily "bad." However, the attachment and pursuit of pleasure to the exclusion of everything else--especially the Dharma is what causes so much suffering. The more we indulge the more we suffer and therefore we indulge even more thinking that we can fill the hole of our dissatisfaction in our life through empty spiritual calories. :)

Finally we arrive at the "Hell realm." It is said that anger and hatred typify this state of consciousness and my experience has bore that out. When I am blinded by anger and hatred I live in state of pure suffering. Anger partially arises out of wanting to control things and people and when we can't do this we begin to hate them. These are also the moments when we hate ourselves thus if we hate ourselves how can we have any time for others let alone the Dharma?!! An additional emotion of this state of consciousness is excessive guilt. We attack ourselves for not being perfect--which of course is impossible because perfection is a delusion. If we were "perfect" then we would not be in this present human state. We'd have already reached liberation. It is also in this state where we find ourselves hating our lot in life. We somehow think that we shouldn't have to suffer and then in turn hate suffering itself--which of course creates even more suffering!!! It's total madness. Not only are we not following the middle path--we're not even on the path at all!!! Instead, we are out wandering around in the wilderness of spiritual insanity and risk being lost in moment after precious moment.

Well, that is my humble attempt at interpreting the six realms of existence. One interesting observation I have made upon meditating over these concepts is that I often experience all six of these states through one 24 hour period--sometimes I cycle through them more then once in that same time frame!!!

May this post help us all better understand what dangers to be aware of as we walk along the path of the middle way.

~Peace to all beings~

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Coyote said...

Hi James. Thanks for the interesting, thoughtful post. I've been getting all worked up over politics, and it's nice to be able to switch gears and think about something more important.

Years ago I went to a lecture given by a senior Chinese monk who was visiting my city (I think his name was Lin Yutang, but he wasn't the well-known translator of the same name). I asked him about the six realms and whether they were metaphorical or if they actually existed as described in the sutras. He answered both. Unfortunately I didn't take notes on the details of his response, but my understanding of the six realms is that they represent both psychological states we humans experience as well as actual physical states "out there" in other realms of existence, realms into which any of us can be reborn (if one accepts the theory of rebirth).

Perhaps a limitation of your analysis of the six realms is that it is a bit too human-centered. While I don't consider anything you said wrong, I'd ask you to consider the existence of the , crammed into a tiny cage, her beak cut off, forcibly starved for days or even weeks, living a short, utterly unnatural life of torture, pain, and misery, only to be brutally slaughtered and consumed. Is this not a real, physical hell realm in which that poor being exists? A realm into which any of us could be reborn?

Coyote said...

Whoops, sorry for that html mistake. Feel free to fix it.

They call him James Ure said...


Excellent point on the poor treatment of animals. I am very concerned with animal rights and have been a vegetarian for 3 years come August.

Thanks for bringing this to our attention. :)

I bow to the Buddha within you. _/I\_

Greenwoman said...

Sufis talk about these as states of consciousness, levels of trance if you which we can encounter certain aspects of ourselves and the universe/its inhabitants in a certain.

I have experienced many of these states of consciousness, but only fleetingly.

They call him James Ure said...


I adore the Sufi writings--esp those of Rumi. It is a beautiful faith.

Mac said...

Hi James,

Thanks for this post, it is very insightful. I too am of the belief that these realms are actually within our own mind, although Coyote has a good point in that there are other beings, human and non-human, that are in much worse off situations that we are physically, and I think that contributes to the mental realms. It's hard to see how people living in areas of the world where war and suffering are more common could experience anything other than the hell realm, it is something to meditate on.

dragonflyfilly said...

hi James,
thanks for stopping by. so nice to see you again.

yes, i agree with you that the "realms" are more of a state of mind than an actual place...

Happy Independence Day to you all...

well, when you do get to Vancouver for a visit i hope we can meet for coffee or lunch or something?


They call him James Ure said...


It is true that many human beings and animals literally live in the hell realm. As well as the Demi-God realm.

I believe this is why we need to be very compassionate to all beings but especially the mostly helpless animals.


Coffee or lunch sounds lovely. :)

pdxstudent said...

In your very first paragraph you run into a hang-up that I would have liked to see you work through by the end of the post, but you didn't. You start by saying you don't believe that the six-realms are actual places that exist outside of ourselves, though the very notion of there not being an outside still retains the structure of the inside/outside dualism that you imply is problematic.

You also point out that rebirth is not just a matter of what happens after/at biological death, but something we're always going through. This too retains the logic of outside and inside, in the form of subjective experience (the always-happening of rebirth) and the objective fact (rebirth that happens with/at biological death).

The right view would be neither that the six realms are states of consciousness or independent places. Those are equally partial views that unto themselves are unskillful. The middle way is between these views.

They call him James Ure said...


I do not disagree with you. I simply decided to use such language for the purpose of discussion. Absolutely the Middle Way is the solution to the dilemma and I thank-you for reminding us of that foundation.

Anonymous said...

I humbly agree with pdxstudent but at the same time am grateful for the Buddhist view of the Two Truths that allow people to speak the relative truth so that those of us less enlightened can find a way to the ultimate truth. I personally, even after years of trying to reside in the human realm, find myself flickering between all the realms almost daily.


They call him James Ure said...


I find myself cycling through those realms daily as well.

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about this. Yes, we may go through periods where it feels like we go through these certain realms over the course of a day, but I feel like the reason you may feel this way is because your energy may be in sync with another energy in a different dimension of existence. You have to think beyond the normal dimensions that we currently live in, beyond this universe and beyond the fourth dimension (duration of time). When you feel angry, perhaps you mind's energy is in sync with another mind's energy across another realm in space and time, maybe even a mind of a hell being's (what human knows what lays beyond this dimension). If such state is held in mind upon death, your energy will be clinging to this feeling of anger, therefore rebirth in the that literal state, with all similar energies. I think what I've been comprehending from Buddhism is that if you don't attach yourself to any type of feeling or state, you are realizing that there is no clear separation between this or that energy, that a God can even be reborn into a hell realm; it is just a matter of how you clung or craved that feeling. Remove yourself from ignorance and remove your actual self, and you are liberating yourself from the cycle of rebirth. They say there are 10 dimensions of space, which may also encompass many dimensions of time, I feel Buddha nature transcends this since it's aim is to transcend existence. The number one law of physics is that energy cannot be created nor destroyed, so when we die, where will the energy go? It will go to whatever was attracting that energy at the time; once you realize that energy does not own an ego or a certain positive or negative feeling, you realize that your energy is limitless, that YOU are everything. Get on a small enough scale, and the boundary between the body and the air we breathe is non existent. lol that is all

Surendra Sharma said...

All these realms are literal according to original buddhists text.Heavens are divided into many levels and their lifespans are given in buddhist texts.Same goes with hell.Treating these beavens and hells as states of mind is the invention of western Buddhists who left away their chritsian religion due to fear of hell.If heavens were state of mind then why is the lifespan measured in millions of years as recorded in the texts.They are real but not eternal.Their lifespan is so long that unenlightened gods considered heaven to be eternal.Whole pali canon revolves around stories of buddha ascending to heaven and teaching gods about their impermanence. Buddha was not just a commmon human or god,he was superior to both.He is known as teacher of humans and gods in theraveda tradition.

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