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.