Exploring the Six Realms of Samsara: A Journey Through Buddhist Cosmology
In my book series: 'Legends of the East' you are introduced to the concept of Samsara, or cyclic existence and I thought a brief explanation might be helpful:
The Wheel of Life is a visual presentation of the idea that all beings are reborn into one of six realms according to their actions in the present life. Each realm is defined by a dominant emotion: Pride, Jealousy, Greed, Hatred, Ignorance, Passion and has its own type of suffering.
In Tibet, this painting is at the doorway of every monastery or temple. It's a sort of teaching aid for everyone who enters. Apparently designed by the Buddha himself.
The image describes how people become trapped in an endless cycle of cause and effect that inevitably leads to suffering.
How each of us - not God - are the authors of our own destiny.
And lest you think that this leads to a fairly depressing world view, just think about the previous line. We are the authors of our future experience. The wheel of life is an instruction. It's not just a description of our current situation, but of how we can reverse the process that leads to suffering.
The idea is that by vividly illustrating the causes behind our situation, the wheel of life reveals how, through practicing antidotes to these causes, we can overcome the painful and limiting situations that are their effects.
It shows why an attitude of selfless compassion should be the guide for all our actions. Not just because we have been instructed - commanded - to be 'good', but because such an attitude is a reflection of the true nature of reality itself.
The Wheel of Life shows how selfishness IS the bars on the cage and that Selflessness is the key to unlock them.
In a previous post I described the inner most parts of the Wheel. We shall explore the Six Realms, each representing different levels of suffering and existence.
The God Realm (Deva-loka):
The God Realm is the highest of the six realms and is inhabited by celestial beings known as Devas. These beings enjoy a life of luxury, abundance, and pleasure. However, their existence is not without suffering, as they are still bound to the cycle of Samsara. The primary form of suffering in the God Realm is the inevitable decline and loss of their privileged status, as even gods must eventually die and be reborn into a lower realm. This realm serves as a reminder that even the highest states of existence are impermanent and subject to change.
The Demi-God (or Titans) Realm (Asura-loka):
The Demi-God Realm is populated by powerful beings known as Asuras. These beings possess strength and influence but are plagued by jealousy and envy towards the gods in the God Realm. Their existence is characterized by constant conflict and struggle, as they seek to overthrow the gods and take their place. The Demi-God Realm illustrates the suffering that arises from envy, competition, and the never-ending quest for power.
The Human Realm (Manusya-loka):
The Human Realm is considered the most balanced of the six realms, as it is marked by both suffering and the potential for spiritual growth. Human beings have the unique opportunity to learn, practice, and follow the teachings of the Buddha, which can ultimately lead to enlightenment and liberation from Samsara. However, the human experience is also characterized by suffering, such as old age, illness, and death. The Human Realm underscores the importance of using our precious human life to engage in spiritual practice and cultivate wisdom and compassion.
The Animal Realm (Tiryak-loka):
In the Animal Realm, beings experience the suffering of ignorance, predation, and survival instincts. Creatures in this realm are driven primarily by basic needs and desires, such as hunger, thirst, and reproduction. They are often subject to being hunted, enslaved, or abused by other beings. The Animal Realm serves as a reminder of the consequences of ignorance and the importance of developing awareness and understanding.
The Hungry Ghost Realm (Preta-loka):
The Hungry Ghost Realm is inhabited by beings called Pretas, who suffer from insatiable hunger and thirst. These beings are tormented by unfulfilled desires and cravings, which can never be satisfied. Their existence is a metaphor for the suffering that arises from attachment, greed, and addiction. The Hungry Ghost Realm emphasizes the importance of cultivating contentment and letting goof our attachments to achieve true happiness and spiritual progress.
The Hell Realm (Naraka-loka):
The Hell Realm is the lowest of the six realms and is marked by intense suffering and torment. Beings in this realm experience unimaginable pain, both physical and mental, as a result of their negative actions and destructive emotions, such as anger, hatred, and cruelty. There are various levels of hell, each corresponding to the severity of one's negative deeds. However, even hell is not permanent, and beings can eventually be reborn into higher realms. The Hell Realm serves as a stark reminder of the consequences of harmful actions and the importance of ethical conduct and cultivating positive mental states.
The six realms of Samsara offer a profound understanding of the various forms of suffering experienced by sentient beings. They illustrate the consequences of our actions and mental states, emphasizing the importance of spiritual practice, ethical conduct, and the cultivation of wisdom and compassion. The idea is that by understanding the nature of these realms, we can gain insight into our own existence and take steps toward enlightenment and liberation from the cycle of Samsara.