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The six realms

This week let’s look at the outer segments which represent the six realms of existence according to Buddhist cosmology.  Traditionally these are seen as distinct places where consciousness can take rebirth after death. As such none of them are permanent, as having taken birth there for a period of time consciousness will move on. One can also see them as psychological states and as such one may enter several during the course of a day or dwell in one for some part of one’s life and then another.

The realms are:

Human: our world, or on a psychological level the state of being able to think clearly with logic and reason, living a meaningful life in accordance with our ethics and ideals. This is connected to the prefrontal cortex, the last part of the brain to evolve which gives us the ability to reason, reflect and contain some of our  emotional instincts which if acted on might cause harm to others.

Animal: in Buddhism all living creature have consciousness and this consciousness can evolve over time. Animals are seen as distance from humans as they have less ability to reason and communicate but they still have consciousness and intelligence as such deserve to be treated well.  Psychologically its the state of mind that looks only at meeting its basic drives from the older part of the brain: food, shelter, territory, belonging to a group, sex. None of these drives are wrong, but war and conflict often arise when there is an unthinking acting out of the desire to posses, own and look out only for oneself or ones group.

The realm of the Hungry Ghosts: This is said to be inhabited by beings who are surrounded by food and drink but who can never enjoy it as it turns to ash in their mouths. Psychologically this is the state of wanting but never being satisfied, always desiring more but feeling unnourished by what one already has.

Then there is the hell realm. This is said to be where consciousness goes if there have been many unskillful actions perfumed. It is not permanent and at some point when the misdeeds have been paid for a being in hell will be reborn into one of the other realms again. This can also be seen as the state of mental suffering and anguish we inhabit when we are suffering, when nothing around us can give us joy.

Heaven in contrast is said to be where consciousness goes at death if a person has led a noble and ethical life dedicated to others and the cultivation of refined sates of meditation. This is not a permanent state and when the good actions that led to rebirth here are exhausted then a being in heaven will take rebirth again in one of the other realms. This can also be seen as the state of mind of feeling happy, having a clear conscience, feeling love and contentment. This is not traditionally seen as an ideal place to be born as the life of comfort and ease can blind beings here to the suffering of others and make them complacent, thereby delaying their eventual release into Nibbana – the unborn and uncreated state of peace and bliss.

Finally there is the realm of the Titans.  These being are motivated by envy, hate and jealousy. They are like the beings of the heaven realm but are their opposite. Whereas the gods rest in a state of ease and joy, the Titans are always struggling for power. This might be the state of those who are successful and have all they need but are not able to enjoy it and instead fight to get more and destroy their rivals.

Modern brain research and Buddhist teachings

How does this connect with modern research into how the brain works?  In The Chimp Paradox Dr Steve Peters talks about how the brain can be divided into two main areas – the chimp brain and the human brain.  The chimp brain is the older and more dominant part of the brain and is concerned with powerful core drives: belonging to a troop, ego, shelter, territory, food, power (our place in the troop), sex, security. The human brain – the prefrontal cortex which was the last part of the brain to evolve and which is the reasoning and rational area of the brain is oriented to logical thought, reasoned debate, compassion, honesty, conscience, self-control, a sense of purpose and self-control. Dr Peters talks of the need to get to know our chimp, to see what its character is, which drives are most important to it and to learn when to listen tour chimp and learn from its emotional and instinctive way or understanding the world and when to contain the chimp and cultivate the human.

So from one perspective one could say meditation practice is about learning to be truly human whilst owning and acknowledging the other drives that might pull us away from this. Accepting that at times we will be pulled away and being kind, patient and compassionate to ourselves rather than judgemental and critical – “what got into me”, “why was I so stupid”, “how could I have done that?” Very likely it was an out of control chimp!  This does not give an excuse for behaving badly – oh sorry that was my chimp hitting you. As Dr Peters says, we are not to blame for our chimp’s drives but, just as if we owned a ferocious dog, we are responsible for learning how to manage it. And that is what we do through mindfulness and Loving Kindness.

Buddhism: life, the universe and everything, in one picture

With all that is happening in the world right now it feels hard to know quite what to say.  So for today I am going to look at a Buddhist teaching on what drives living beings.

The Buddhist teachings on “life, the universe and everything” were given pictorial representation in what is known as the Tibetan Wheel of Life. When I first encountered Buddhism I went on a study course that explored the meaning of this diagram and I found it to be a fascinating way of understanding myself and others.

What is it depicting? In the middle are the three ‘poisons’ the root emotions that keep us in a place of suffering: greed (cock), hatred (snake) and delusion  (pig). It is taught that these are the root unwholesome emotions that keep us trapped in a place of suffering:

greed – the desire to acquire for ourselves rather than to share. The desire to consume, hoard, and posses. The feeling that we never have enough, that we have to acquire more in order to be happy – but never reaching a point where what we have seems to be sufficient.

hatred – the belief that we are in competition with others and have to define a person or group as an enemy against which we fight as an individual or a group.  We are consumed in thoughts of self-protection or revenge.

delusion – in the Buddhist teaching this is ignorance of how the world works and an inability to see that we are part of a whole. Rather than seeing ourselves as part of an interconnected and ever-changing process we believe in being a separate and unchanging self. As a result of this lack of experiencing ourselves as whole and perfect we come into conflict with others who are perceived as a threat to our own personal and individual ability to own, posses and accumulate.

Surrounding this is a white and black segment, representing a life of ever increasing happiness and joy as a result of ones actions or of descending into ever greater depths of fear and pain. The more we are motivated by the root poisons, the more we descend into pain.  We move between these paths as we are motivated by different emotions and intentions.

Buddhism does not say that this is all we are or that we need an external source to provide salvation.  We save ourselves thorough our actions. Each poison has an antidote.  From this perspective it is more that we are ill and can be cured and on being cured we come back to our true nature.  For Buddhism our essential nature is not that we are evil, but that we are pure, but have lost sight of this as a consequence of the poisons.

The antidote to greed is applied as we learn to cultivate generosity and contentment. Being happy with what we own, giving help to others through charity or generous actions, being willing to share what we have with others.

The antidote to hatred is applied as we learn to cultivate loving-kindness, compassion, patience, and forgiveness.

The antidote to delusion is applied as we cultivate wisdom, insight, and right understanding. What is this? In the Buddhist approach it is learning to see that all things are interdependent and interconnected. That everything in existence is impermanent and insubstantial so there is nothing to hold on to as me or mine, and so nothing to fight over. We are energy, a flow of life that has come to identify with a temporary body that is itself only in existence for a few seconds in terms of cosmic time. It is said the ultimate objective of spiritual practice to is to realise that there is no permanent self and instead to be in the ever present Now – a state that is said to be both still and ever changing, full of bliss and a sense of being whole whilst also being fully present to being interconnected with all life. For us who are on the way to this realisation it can simply mean reflecting that all things are impermanent, that life is a process of change and from this cultivating a greater sense of equanimity.

The outer segments depict the different worlds that according to Buddhist teaching it is possible to take birth in as one passes from one life to another. I’ll talk about those next week.

Thus mindfulness and Loving Kindness are a means of applying the antidotes to the poisons that afflict us and of learning to contain impulses and instincts which may cause harm to others, of making amends when we have acted out of greed and hatred through a process of apology, reconciliation and forgiveness.

To read more about the Wheel of Life click here

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