The Six Realms of Samsāra

There are the Six Realms for reality. In this Buddhist cosmic view, every sentient being is born, dead, and reborn, repeating the cycle of birth and death endlessly, called Samsāra. Nobody can get out of this cycle unless one gets enlightened, leaping to the state of Nirvāna.

In the Fourth Noble Truths, life is suffering because of self-consciousness, which is craving anything around one’s self. And this greedy life does not end in one single life alone. As long as we identify ourselves as we are, the life suffering never ends but continues even in the next life, and the next, and the next. Depending on how we live, the next life would become higher or lower. Karma is not within a series of one single lifetime we live but throughout the seemingly endless birth and death process.

We will face the consequence of our speech, mind, act, not within our single life, but throughout the entire Samsāra. 

Even if we are humans now, depending on how we speak, think, and act, our next lives would change – either elevated or lowered. Given this doctrine, the Buddhist cosmology provides the main six realms as follows.

  1. Gods’ realm
  2. Human realm
  3. Demigods’ realm
  4. Animal realm
  5. Hungry ghost realm
  6. Hell realm

Depending on how we speak, think, and act, our next realm would change. However, we should also note that whichever the following realm could be, our self-consciousness remains; hence, our ego controls us.

Throughout all six realms, our cravings do exist. They indulge and bother us. In every realm, we can never get rid of the pain and pleasure dilemma. We seek and suffer. We suffer and seek. We are in the prison of the entire Saṃsāra prison, which consists of such a six-story building. 

Human Realm

In the human realm, we are supposed to know our reality very well. In this realm, we keep asking ourselves, “Who am I?” We make tremendous efforts to answer this question throughout our lifetime. Thus, anthropologically, We call ourselves various names such as the man of wisdom, the man of tools, the man of languages, the man of reason, even the man of playfulness, etc. 

Perhaps, this kind of endless self-inquiry could be the very definition that we are the residents of this human realm. Despite these efforts or because of them, we are still in the prison of the pain and pleasure dilemma. Life is suffering because of (or despite) our endeavors to seek happiness. 

Demigods’ Realm

What is the demigods’ realm? Mythically, it is the domain where half-human and half-god figures reside. Based on the Hindu cosmology prior to the Buddhism’s, such a warrior-like model as Asura is one of the typical demigods. Because of their fighting nature, we consider them guardian angels, divine protectors, and the like. They can protect gods and us from various kinds of evils and threats.

However, as being the one layer beneath the human realm, the implication is rather harmful and destructive. Those residents in the demigods’ realm (or we should say the Asura realm due to the key figure) are always angry and ready for fighting. For them, life is to fight. It is their battlefield.

Have you met anyone who is always angry, irritated, and considering everyone and everything as his or her enemies? Perhaps, various types of Mafia worldwide could be the people in this realm. The view of the critical theory and dialectical materialism like class war, cancel culture, and the like could be compatible with this realm, too. It is the idea of “the war of all against all” (Bellum omnium contra ones.)

Animal Realm

If we go down to the next lower layer, we would be the residents in the animal realm. We are like animals – living and acting like them, only the primitive instincts control our behaviors, attitudes, and mindsets. We, like animals, don’t know anything about ideals, virtues, and reasons. Our best priory is to follow instincts.

We should also note that animals and other creatures don’t have any problems following their instincts. In doing so, they are perfectly harmonious with mother nature. We can’t blame any predators hunting preys as cruel behavior. That is the way they are, just like the demigods are to fight.

From the perspective of the six realms, however, it is undoubtedly one of the lower domains. We can’t call ourselves “harmonious” just by following lower instincts.

Hungry Ghosts Realm

Still, there is one lower level, called the hungry ghost realm. Like the demigods, the hungry ghosts are mythical or archetypal figures who suffer endlessly from extreme cravings.

For animals, demigods, and humans, at least they can satisfy their desire to some extent. For hungry ghosts, however, they can never achieve any satisfaction. When they try to eat something out of hunger, anything they hold becomes fire and vanishes itself. Thus, they are miserably and insanely starving for all types of desire.

It reminds us of the story of King Midas. When God told the king to provide anything he wanted, the king requested that anything he touches becomes gold and gain an unlimited amount of gold. The result was, however, disastrous. The king died in starvation since every food he puts on his mount became gold as well. We call it the Midas Touch. Indeed, King Midas suffered in the hungry ghost realm because of his limitless, endless greediness.

Hell Realm

Is there any realm lower than the hungry ghost realm? Yes, that is what we call hell. 

In the hell realm, we inevitably witness anything demonic. Those residents in hell are the totality of all the lower evil domains with a complete lack of conscience. For their desires, cravings, and instincts, they never hesitate to destroy anything and kill anyone. It is the world of sociopathic, psychopathic criminals.

At least for demigods, they fight for what they think of right. Humans have a sense of guilt, animals are harmonious with nature, and hungry ghosts are crying for help, but the residents in the hell realm are in total darkness. They never know the light shines in darkness. It is the world of nihilistic, devilish genocide.

Can we kill millions of people without any hesitation? If we can, we are in the hell realm. We have experienced such hell in our bloody history of this world as the name of totalitarianism and the like. In it, everyone blames and kills everyone else because of one another’s ideology and indoctrination.

All Realms Coexist

As we notice, the six realms are not necessarily the mythical symbols of the birth and death karmic cycle. It is indeed the reality of the entire Samsāra, where we live here and now. We are experiencing the six realms intersubjectively in one way or another. These six domains coexist within us, depending on how we speak, think, and act. 

That is why when some people call this world hell, they are the residents of the hell realm. Others believe that life is a battle. They are in the demigods’ realm. We also know some who are like animals or hungry ghosts. Even King Midas lived in the reality of hungry ghosts despite his fame, power, and prosperity.

We thought we were just humans living in the human realm. No, we are not. We suffer a lot from the reality of the different types of the lower worlds right now and here because of how we speak, think, and act.

Gods’ Realm

Lastly, how can we go up to the gods’ realm? As mentioned above, we can do so based on how we speak, think, and act. More specifically, as Buddha suggested, we can aim at the higher layer by practicing the Noble Eightfold Paths. 

  1. Right View
  2. Right Resolve or Intention
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Conduct or Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Efforts
  7. Right Sati or Mindfulness
  8. Right Samadhi or Concentration 

But then, we have to note that the gods’ realm is not the state of Nirvāna. Even in this realm, we are not free from self-consciousness and various selfish desires at all. Those residents in the gods’ realm only know how to handle them moderately in the middle path.

According to the doctrine, if we are in this higher layer of the entire Samsāra building, we can fly in the sky. We are like the angels in the sayings of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the muddy pond of selfishness, our cloth never gets dirty. The dress of angles is always shining white. 

The residents in the gods’ realm can fly because they don’t get their selves heavily. Their clothes are always fresh because any specks of dirt don’t affect them. We can recall the words of GK Chesterton. 

Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.

GK Chesterton

While angels can fly, they are still in the prison of the Saṃsāra reality. As long as they think they can fly, they are not free from the act of flying. Self-consciousness is still apparent, just like any other lower realms. All six realms are coexisting inter-subjectively. 

The State of Non-self

The ultimate goal is to get out of this prison of the Saṃsāra cycle and attain the state of, let’s say, Moksha, Nirvāna, Enlightenment, Liberation, and so on. There are various names to signify this state of emancipation. The bottom line is that there would be no longer any sense of self or self-consciousness. We are back to the Garden of Eden, not innocently but with sins forgiven through repentance. It is the state of non-self (anattā in Pali, or anātman in Sanskrit).

The world we see would varnish itself only when we varnish ourselves. So do the six realms of Saṃsāra. While the kingdom of heaven is at hand, we can’t see it as long as we are full of ourselves. Repentance is the way to surrender ourselves to God; we are nothing and non-self. God is everything as He alone is.

Image by jplenio

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