The Six Realms of Existence in Buddhism

Heaven and Hell in the Minds of Men

Early Buddhist writers created a system that explains the realms of existence; heaven, hell and everything in between.

Michael Angelo's Last Judgement
Michael Angelo’s Last Judgement

The concept has been interpreted literally by some commentators so that people become transfixed with the idea of reincarnation.

Yet this is a short-sighted view of people with little imagination or understanding of life. When you can be so easily persuaded along the path of religious dogma, you are already dead to the world!

But let’s not go there!

It is not for me to knock people for their beliefs, especially when there is clinical evidence to support reincarnation. Just because I haven’t had a past life regression, it does not mean I have not had a past life.

And I am open minded enough not to dismiss reincarnation. But my eyes are also open to how myths and concepts can be interpreted without stepping in religious dog-muck.

At this point in time – the present moment – it is more important for us to find our true nature in this life, not a past life, or a future life.

This is also a Buddhist philosophy; one that is in direct conflict with the idea of reincarnation in the afterlife.

Personal development

The six realms of existence described in Buddhism relate to the psychological and emotional development of human beings as individuals.

Buddhism is essentially describing the six states of reality we live in from one life cycle to the next, from one day to the next, and from one moment to the next.

We know from experience that from time to time, our beliefs and feelings about the world change. We have experiences or acquire new information that changes the way we think, act and feel all the time.

personal development

You could say then that in each cycle of life, old values die and are reborn as we become consciously aware of new values. At this point we adopt a broader view of the world.

But it is also true that when we suffer traumatic experiences or acquire new information that does not serve us, and our views can become short-sighted. It is therefore also possible for us to  adopt a narrower view of the world.

Of course, there is no telling how long each life cycle takes or which way the wheel will turn. That depends on your dharma and the resulting karma.

But there is no escaping the fact that we all have lessons to learn in life. The time it takes for you to learn these lessons will depend on whether you experience heaven or hell.

The realms in between are where you are tested and these occur in the minds of men every day. Life really is a challenge!

Discovering our true nature takes time and is complicated. But if you are not aware you even have a true nature, life becomes impossible and you will experience life in the lower realms.

Your habitual mind or your ego, are not your friends. The subconscious mind is where your demons hang out  and when you allow the ego to listen to demons you live in the lower realms of existence.

Life is about personal development so be prepared to learn. Moral values and self-discipline are how we reincarnate and ascend to higher realms of existence – or descend to lower realms of existence.

To Heaven and Hell and back

So Buddhists (and Hindus) say there are six realms of human existence. In other words, six states of mind we experience on Earth during the course of our lives.

There are three upper realms; heaven, human and asuras, and three lower realms; animals, hungry ghosts and Hell.

Life in each of these realms is not permanent; we shift from one to another at regular intervals, oftentimes from one day to the next. As we know, “life has its ups and downs.”

These shifts are attributed to karmic energy based on our dharma; our actions have a reaction which is karma; our daily experiences are the result of cause and effect.

So positive thoughts and actions – the ‘saintly’ gentile in us – delivers positive karma and you experience life in the upper realms.

On the flip side, delusional thoughts and actions, such as anger, greed and ill-feeling towards others, plummet you into the lower realms. Abusing the seven deadly sins will see you “go to hell” unless balanced with the seven heavenly virtues.

Good deeds and bad deeds. Heavenly bliss or suffer in Hell. How often do we hear expressions of this nature? Clichés are clichés for a reason.

Sinners and saints, life and death

Scholars believe the ancients were obsessed with duality – nothing can exist without a polar opposite.

Whilst this is true, the ancients were acutely aware that every polar opposite also has a centre and that balance is essential – an understanding that is often lost to modern day minds.

Buddha called this balance “The Middle Path” or “The Middle Way.” We often see this concept pictorialized in ancient iconography as gods fighting demons, the dual aspects of our personalities.

Essentially, this is the duality of the sinner and the saint in each of us – the light and dark side of our characters.

 

The angelic aspect of our characters is when we consciously make sacrifices in life and do the right thing for others and for ourselves.

duality

The little devil is when we do things we shouldn’t, even when we know we shouldn’t. The little inner voice that says, “Oh, it will be alright, one more won’t hurt.” Or sometimes, “Ah, sod it!”

For example, think of the times when you knew you shouldn’t have had another biscuit, cigarette, or pint of beer. But you did anyway.

This is caving in to craving. And being lured by temptation, as you well know, is associated with the Devil – and he lives in Hell! This is what the church tells us so it must be true…

On the other hand, when you make sacrifices – think Jesus on the cross – you are rewarded with good karmic energy and ascend to Heaven to be with “God.”

If we take the religious bullshit out of the crucifixion story we get to experience what Buddhists call a higher realm of existence which is the karmic result of good dharma.

The concept of reincarnation then relates to our current existence on Earth in THIS life. Death and rebirth is an essential part of life.

St. Francis of Assisi said, “I die daily.” But it seems he was taking transcendental drugs thus fast-tracking spiritual growth with a natural life hack.

Buddhist and Hindu cosmology

In Buddhist and Hindu cosmology, the six realms are symbolised by devas and asuras, or if you like, gods and demons.

In ancient scriptures and myths, the characters are clearly classified as gods and demons. And every character represents an aspect of our personality.

These stories are often retold on temple walls, such as the bas reliefs at Angkor Wat in Siam Reap, Cambodia.

Scholars admit these scenes are lifted from Hindu tales including the epic poem, Ramayana in which the God-like human, Rama battles against the Demon King, Ravana as you can see in the image below.

Ramayana Angkor Wat
The epic Ramayana at Angkor Wat

Yet scholars – at least mainstream scholars – do not acknowledge the battle scenes represent the struggles we have with ourselves. Instead, they attribute them to historical battles.

That is not to say battle scenes do not represent actual wars that took place in history – they do. But they also have a deeper symbolic meaning that relates to use as individuals and a species – hence why we find characters like Hanuman, the monkey at Angkor Wat and not depictions of actual humans.

And this is the whole point of esoteric symbolism. The true meaning is disguised. Ruling families know this and mock us with their supreme knowledge – which is easy to do when so many of us are ignorant.

Little wonder that misguided people unable to think for themselves, are so easily persuaded by religious dogma and pointless politics.

And I will even go as far as including the school education system as mis-informers with an esoteric agenda!

It’s time to wake up and see the truth for what it really is. I will explain this in greater detail using the six realms of existence as examples.

Heavenly realm

Paradise. Eden. Nirvana. Perfection. Heaven doesn’t really need any introductions and we have all had a taste, but for most of us it’s like a delicacy we don’t get to sample often enough.

The key question is how do we get to heaven?

Heavenly realm

Buddhists will tell you, the only way to experience heaven all the time is to reach absolute consciousness whereby you discover your true nature and realize we are all one.

But that is easier said than done!

Still, there are many accounts that describe living in perfect balance and harmony once you achieve self-realisation, so it is not impossible.

Most people have to practice intense meditation for years before they reach nirvana. Others are lucky and it comes to them in a flash once they understand dharma.

Upon reaching full enlightenment, you can live in “positive Samadhi” which is life in the heavenly realm all day, every day.

For the record I have not yet reached enlightenment, but I have had a taste so am consciously aware of its existence.

When meditating it is possible to reach this higher state of consciousness and experience positive Samadhi. But until you achieve absolute Samadhi it is difficult to continuously carry this feeling into everyday life.

But that is the purpose of self-development. Pay special attention to the word “Self” here!

You will not find true happiness, or “heaven” by looking outwards towards some religion-created God or idol, it comes from within you. The self!

You have to look at yourself and be honest about your weaknesses and what actions you did that caused things to go wrong.

The eight noble truths help with this. According to the Buddha, right, thoughts, right actions etc will be rewarded with good karma, after which you will enjoy the taste of “heaven” more often.

The human realm

Being human is our greatest test. It is only in this realm that we have the opportunity to become enlightened. Buddhism therefore considers the human realm to be the most auspicious for spiritual progression.

We should therefore be grateful for this opportunity and not waste it.

human realm

Sure, life can be tough at times. We have to earn a living and grinding out a day for the corporate machine is not always enjoyable. Gautama Buddha showed us how to do this in the four noble truths.

We have to live life in accordance with the laws of nature and the laws of the land. There is no escaping this, it is just something we have to accept. And sometimes life is hard.

But the lesson taught by the Buddha is ‘keep life simple.’ Don’t get lured into the materialistic world of desire. Where there is desire, there is suffering. And when you suffer you are in the lower realms of existence.

Controlling your desires of course is easier said than done, but this is our challenge. And as artist impressions on temple walls show us, we have to do battle with the demons of our personality and discover our true nature.

The black and white floor in the image above reflects the good and bad. The man dancing with a sword in his hands are thoughts and the women holding the child is the creation of male and female union. The women is holding her hand up towards the man to protect the baby. The enlightened Buddha watching on serves as a reminder to think and act the right way.

The realm of the asuras

The realm of the asuras is where the mind is infiltrated by the “demon kings” of the lower realms and has to be fended off by our demi-gods, or the giants of men, Titans.

In Hindu mythology, the asuras are characterised as part spiritual beings, part demonic beings, indicating the dual nature of man’s personality. The asuras are nagas, yaksas, gandharvas, kinnaras, garudas, and mahoragas.

You will probably know this realm and its characters pretty well – the overwhelming desire when you are being led into temptation. Here you have to summon the strength of the gods to overcome the demons.

When you are in this realm, you are constantly battling against your inner urges; the devil in one ear saying, “go on, it’s okay” and the angel in the other ear saying, “no, please don’t do it.”

But there are also times when you have to do something against your will for the betterment of somebody else. It can break your heart to tell a child or lover, no, but deep down you are acting in their best interests.

It is in the realm of the asuras where people overcome addiction. But it is the first step to self-realisation. They have at least dragged themselves out of the mire of the lower realms.

So do you see how the realms of existence relate to control of emotions and desires?

A good example of this realm in familiar religious texts is the story of Adam and Eve. When they fall to temptation by eating the forbidden fruit, they are banished from the Garden of Eden – or Heaven.

In the image below you see demigods trying to cure people with medication whilst others are being thrown into the fires of Hell for insubordination.

asuras

 

When you find yourself in the realm of the asuras, it is a key moment for you. Should you give into temptation, you fall into the lower realms – and karmic energy does not bring you nectar.

Make a sacrifice and you ascend to the upper realms where you can enjoy life and even experience bliss.

Animal realm

The first of the three lower realms is the animal realm, a reflection of man’s basic instincts. This is the realm we live in when we cannot control our desires experienced in the asura realm.

Humans are essentially beasts. We have urges and often act on impulse. Sex, food and sleep are instincts of all animals – and the same is true of human beings.

The difference between man and animal however, is that we have the opportunity to experience enlightenment. But to do that we have to learn how to control our basic instincts.

The animal realm can therefore be characterised with how animals are treated by man; hunted, worked, driven, slaughtered or wearing blinkers.

Essentially it is a realm of ignorance whereby we are not aware of higher states of consciousness. Sound familiar?

animal realm

 

Ancient iconography often shows characters that are half-man, half-beast and the image above shows how men need taming like animals. At he bottom we see the consequences of irresponsible sex – the man is struck by a “poisoned arrow.”

The realm of the hungry ghosts

The realm of the hungry ghosts is where the ego completely takes over and you are unable to resist temptation.

It is the realm typically experienced by addicts. The craving is so strong it takes over your life. Subsequently your true self becomes a ghost in the recesses of your mind.

Hungry ghosts are often portrayed as demonic creatures with fangs or gaping mouths. The concept here is that the depraved animal can never satisfy its hunger or craving.

Take note of the image below. What does the staff this demon is holding in his hand look like?

hungry ghost
The white stuff is strategically placed rice

When in the realm of the hungry ghost, you are controlled by your habitual mind. Your true-self has been ejected from your body and the auto-pilot switched on.

You are not in control!

It is a dangerous realm to be in because the ego is never satisfied. It is restless and always craving for something new. Our minds need to be occupied and our desires satisfied.

The capitalist society which promotes consumerism and materialism preys on this weakness. We are subsequently controlled by greed, lust and unhealthy competition which ultimately results in anger, jealousy and ill-feelings. Or worse.

Once you become trapped in the realm of hungry ghosts it is difficult to escape – especially when you are not consciously aware of dharma, karma or your true nature.

You will never find permanent satisfaction in this realm and unless you stand up to your demons, you will exist in the lower realms more than the upper realms.

Hell

The impression we have of Hell is fire and brimstone. But on a physical level, Hell is the realm we live in when we are dissatisfied with life.

Hell

 

People in this realm have no control over their mind or emotions. They are quick to anger and feel restless, irritable and depressed. They often complain about having ‘bad luck.’

But we create our own reality through thoughts, emotions and actions. It is up to us and us alone to take control of our lives and master our emotions.

Purely from a psychological level, a calm mind is a peaceful mind which in turn means you live in a peaceful environment. Your mood affects everyone around you and people that live in Hell can destroy a peaceful atmosphere in a flash.

So if you want to believe the six realms of existence relate to the afterlife, go ahead. But for your own sake and that of others around you, don’t forget we reincarnate on a daily basis in this life as well.

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