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The Six Realms of Existence

I remember years ago, I think when I was in high school, I was asked by a school friend, who knew I was Buddhist, whether we have heaven or hell like in Christianity.

I honestly didn’t know the answer. I asked our minister, and he calmly answered, “We don’t have just heaven and hell, we have six realms of existence.” I thought, “Huh? Six realms?” In time, I came to learn about this in more detail, and over the years, I have found it to be a most meaningful and relevant teaching of Buddhism.

First of all, Buddhism looks at the world from two perspectives, the perspective of ignorance or delusion, which is called “samsara,” and the second, the perspective of truth or enlightenment, called “nirvana.” The six realms of existence explain the first perspective, which is samsara, the world of delusion that we live in.

The six realms, are as follows. There is the realm of heaven, human, animal, fighting demon, hungry ghost, and hell. Prior to Shakyamuni Buddha, people in India believed in these realms literally.

For example, if you didn’t live a good life as a human being, in your next life you could fall to a lower realm, like an animal or fighting demon realm. Shakyamuni Buddha, in his insight and wisdom, reinterpreted this view of the world. Shakyamuni Buddha did not see these realms as geographical places of existence. Instead, he saw them as psychological states of being. When looked at in that manner, the teaching of the six realms really comes alive, and we begin to see the world around us, and within us, as nothing but the six realms.

Taken metaphorically, the heavenly realm represents temporary euphoria, like going on a cruise or a vacation to Hawaii. For two weeks, you are in heaven, but then your vacation ends and you fall back to reality, work, and traffic, again.

The human realm is actually the hardest to understand, because it challenges us to ask the question: What does it really mean to be a human being?

The animal realm is the realm of instinct, or ignorance. When you are hungry, you eat. When you are sleepy, you sleep. In English, when someone is rude or vulgar, we even have the expression, “That guy’s an animal!”

The fighting demon realm is the realm of anger. We fight with people at work. We fight with family members. We fight with traffic. Look at the world around us? Wars, conflicts, and strife abound. They are all actions of fighting demons, not human beings.

The hungry ghost realm is the realm of greed, never being satisfied. We see this realm in our present day reflected in the world of drug addiction. A person on drugs is never satisfied, and is always looking for their next fix. We can fall into this realm easily as well, wanting a newer car, a bigger house, or a higher salary, never being satisfied with what we have.

The final realm, the realm of hell, is the world of intense suffering. Who hasn’t fallen into this realm at some point of your life? You lose a dear loved one, or your spouse leaves you for someone else. Maybe you lose your job, or face a serious illness. Personal conflicts in human relationships can be hellish realms as well.

Buddhism is trying to awaken us, first to the fact that we are living in these six realms constantly in our life. We could touch two or three realms even in one hour. That is why we need the teachings. That is why we need the Dharma, to show us the way we are living our lives, going around and around this vicious cycle, like a squirrel running on a revolving wheel, but never getting anywhere.


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