Early Buddhist writers created a system that explains the realms of existence; heaven, hell and everything in between.
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. When you can be so easily persuaded along the path of religious dogma, you are already dead to the world!
That’s not to say that reincarnation is not possible. The Laws of Thermodynamics suggest it is a strong possibility. But I am a realist. I honestly cannot say whether reincarnation is true or not. What’s more, the only benefit of having this belief is to life a moral life.
Morality is a good quality to have, of course, but the way religions push morality on people creates limiting beliefs. My duty is to help you snap out of the trap and live a fulfilling life you can enjoy. This article on the seven sins and seven virtues is as good a place to start as any.
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 wisely 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 not also a Buddhist philosophy; and it conflicts with the idea of reincarnation in the afterlife.
The six realms of existence in Buddhism relates to the psychological and emotional development of human beings as individuals.
Buddhism is essentially describing the six states of reality you live in from one life cycle to the next; from one day to the next; from one moment to the next.
You will know from experience that from time to time, your beliefs and feelings about the world change. You have probably experienced new things or acquired new information that changed the way you think, act and feel.
You could say then that in each cycle of life, your old values died and were reborn. Does this expression sound familiar? As you consciously become aware of new values, you adopt a broader view of the world.
But it is also true that when you suffer traumatic experiences or acquire new information that does not serve you, your views can become short-sighted and you 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 you 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 your true nature takes time and is complicated. But if you are not aware of how your inner world is influencing your outer reality, life will become impossible. What’s more, you will experience life in the lower realms.
The habitual mind, your little id and ego, are not your friends. These are your demons, and in the six realms of Buddhism, demons live in the lower realms of existence.
Life is about personal development so be prepared to learn. Moral values and self-discipline are how you reincarnate and ascend to higher realms of existence. A lack thereof, and you descend into the lower realms.
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; you shift from one to another at regular intervals, oftentimes from one day to the next. As you know, “life has its ups and downs.”
These shifts are attributed to karmic energy based on your dharma; your 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 you – 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 you 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.” You often see this concept brought to life in ancient iconography as gods fighting demons, the dual aspects of your personality.
Essentially, this is the duality of the sinner and the saint – the light and dark side of your character.
The angelic aspect of your character is when you consciously make sacrifices and do the right thing for others and for yourself.
The little devil is when you do things you shouldn’t, even when you know you 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 into the 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 say 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.”
Take the religious bullshit out of the crucifixion story and you get what Buddhists call a higher realm of existence which is the karmic result of good dharma.
The concept of reincarnation then relates to your current existence on Earth in THIS life. Death and rebirth is an essential part of life.
In 1 Corinthians 15:31 Paul says | “I die daily.”
What he means by this is he transforms his energy every day. In doing so he eventually has a moment of self-realisation and upgrades his subconscious programs. This is how you succeed at self-development.
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 your 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 yet attribute them to historical battles. These stories may have been inspired by real-life events, but they have a deeper meaning.
And this is the whole point of esoteric symbolism. The true meaning is disguised.
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.
Heaven in the Six Realms of Existence in Buddhism
Paradise. Eden. Nirvana. Perfection. Heaven doesn’t really need any introductions and we have all had a taste, but for most of you, it’s like a mental delicacy you don’t get to sample often enough.
The key question is how do you get to heaven?
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.
However, that is easier said than done and there’s more to it than recognising there is an electromagnetic field or united consciousness! Yes, this is how we are all connected, but experiencing unity and finding inner-peace requires you to collapse duality.
“The knowledge “I Am” is the greatest God, the Guru; be one with that, be intimate with it. That itself will bless you with all the knowledge relevant for you and in the proliferation of that knowledge it will lead you to the state which is eternal.” ~ Nigargadatta Maharaj, Prior to Consciousness
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 a state of “positive Samadhi” which is life in the heavenly realm all day, every day.
For the record, I have not yet reached absolute 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 all day, every day.
But that is the purpose of self-development. Pay special attention to the word “Self” here!
“By donating the Self you get the Brahman and when you donate the Brahman you get Parabrahman. You must have a deep, intense desire for Self-knowledge.” ~ ~ Nigargadatta Maharaj, Prior to Consciousness
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 your greatest test. It is only in this realm that you 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.
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 demonstrates how to overcome attachments to the material realm in the four noble truths.
Essentially, you have to live life in accordance with the universal laws of nature and the laws of the land. There is no escaping this, it is just something you 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.
“In his first Dharma talk at the Deer Park in Sarnath, the Buddha said, “Look deeply into the nature of suffering to see the causes of suffering and the way out.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh – Living Buddha Living Christ
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 Realm of the Asuras
The realm of the asuras is where the mind is infiltrated by the “demon kings” that inhabit the lower realms. These characters are the demi-gods, giants of men, and Titans of mythology.
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.
When you find yourself in the realm of the asuras, it is a key moment for you. Should you give in to 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 you create your own reality through thoughts, emotions and actions. It is up to you and you alone to take control of your life and master your emotions. You have to pay attention to your inner-world by observing the experiences in your outer world and being mindful of your thoughts.
“Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality. The difficultly is to keep the attention fixed upon the real situation and to prevent it returning surreptitiously to the self with consolations of self-pity, resentment, fantasy and despair.” ~ Katsuki Sekida, Zen Training
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 in Buddhism relate to the afterlife, go ahead. But for your own sanity, and for the sake others around you, don’t forget you reincarnate on a daily basis in this life as well. You may live on Earth but it is still possible to experience the realm of Heaven.
Symbolism can be used as a powerful tool to help guide you through life and make important decisions with confidence. Our self-development courses use esoteric symbolism to demonstrate how you can expand conscious awareness and improve the quality of your human experience just by observing your unconscious mind and understanding your true nature.