August 04, 2010

The Six Realms, Reincarnation, and Confusing Your Friends

Upon hearing that I am a Buddhist, people often ask me about reincarnation, as if merely having taken refuge somehow makes me an authority (it doesn't).  The most common question is whether or not I "believe in it", which is a question I am not particularly fond of.  My response is usually something intentionally vague and non-committal, beginning with phrases like "Buddhism teaches that there is no solid individual self, only ever-changing aggregates that create an illusion of a self, and in later teachings it said that even those aggregates are empty of inherent nature, so therefore (and so on)," or "Before examining whether a mind can be reincarnated, you first need to fully examine what mind actually is, which isn't what you think (etc)."  Basically, they don't get the simple "yes" or "no" they are hoping for out of me and, ideally, are left somewhat frustrated. The only benefit that I see coming from this line of questioning is if I can leave them "contemplatin' stuff."

After the "Do you or don't you" question, the second-most common question is "How does it all work?" and often the more specific "Do humans always come back as humans?" (people seem particularly invested in this one). I find these questions much more interesting. I explain, as best I can, that according to Tibetan Buddhist cosmology, all unenlightened beings continually cycle through the six realms of existence (the hell, hungry ghost, animal, human, jealous god, and god realms) and therefore, that the answer is "No, humans can come back as anything in between shrieking writhing hell beasts and gloriously magnificent sky gods, and you've already been both, countless times." Because these questioners often have no idea that Buddhism isn't always purely atheistic and that there is in fact room for gods and demons in some Buddhist traditions, saying things like, "Oh yeah, gods exist, they're just imperfect, confused, and eventually die just like the rest of us" is a statement that can definitely throw a monotheist for a loop from time to time.

Nevertheless, awkward and entertaining twists of inter-religious dialogue aside, it is important to note that while many people believe the six realms to be literal and absolutely real, there are others that view them as strictly symbolic.  When viewed as symbolism, the six realms are psychological states that we continually cycle through throughout our lives.  The times when we are in the most pain and are completely trapped in our confusion are our "lifetimes in hell" and the times when we are on top of the world and utterly content with our existence are our "lifetimes as gods," and so on.  In this way, reincarnation is something that takes place many times within a single lifetime.  As stated earlier, the dharma teaches us that we don't have any solid individual self, only constantly changing aggregates that create an illusion of a self, and it is this illusion that is perpetually reincarnated into different realms.

Acharya Reggie Ray on the Human realm:

The human realm (nara-loka) is the first of the three "higher realms" and stands between the higher realms of the gods and jealous gods and the lower realms of the animals, hungry ghosts, and hell beings. The human birth is considered the most auspicious one for spiritual development because of its intermediate location. As mentioned, there is enough pain to motivate one to practice on the path, but not so much that one is wholly preoccupied with suffering and paralyzed by it.

-Reginald A. Ray, Indestructible Truth, p268

*6 realms side-note: to read about the "Hungry Ghost Festival" in Hong Kong that will take place in less than two weeks, click here. (

Image 1: Wheel of Life, Collection of the Rubin Museum of Art (HAR 591)

Image 2: via timothysketchpad

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bodhicheetah's picture

I so appreciate the attitude of having humor and wit while relating to trying to discuss such a complex subject. One that has always been fascinating to me. Perhaps too fascinating at times, even. I do feel it is tremendously worthwhile, essential even, to contemplate the realms if one is to further their understanding of the dharma. And yet to do so without getting lost in intellectual rigidity, solidification, or general spaced-outedness, of course.
It really is interesting to think of the six realms as both actual places where "one" could be born, and, simply as psychological states experienced in everyday life. If indeed "we" have cycled through these realms since the dawn of eternity and beyond, it would make perfect sense that the pattern of cycling would manifest in our daily/current lives. Like a fractal pattern that is the same (or similar) from near, as it is from far. The present lifetime, day, hour, thought... being the near, and the succession of rebirths, lifetimes, and realms... being the far. Cutting through the habitual cycle of the 12 Nidanas (the process that keeps us endlessly ping-ponging through this pattern) being the source/beginning of liberation at any point within the journey. Or more specifically, if memory serves, at the point between craving and appropriation. Just when you're about to grab that cookie...or even thinking about it...mmmm
Pretty difficult stuff to talk about in casual conversation! And in most cases, probably better not to :)

vijay's picture

I think that Bhuddhism is great atleat if nothing person who belives it might want to follow the righteous way which will help him & others aroud him.


Kenneth Elder's picture

There is an analogy used in Theravada Buddhism to illustrate rebirth. When a candle flame is used to light another candle you cannot say that it is absolutely the same flame that passes from candle to candle nor can you say that is absolutely a different flame from candle to candle. It is a relative process that includes continuity and discontinuity. Likewise you cannot say that it is the absolute same consciousness that goes from body to body in rebirth nor can you say that it is a absolutely different consciousness. When asked about reincarnation and Buddhism I always point out that the incarnation part refers to some supposedly eternal individual spiritual body that is reborn again and that Buddhism teaches that all levels of existence are temporary. No individual thing can exist by itself, no self essence. Science has proven that if you took all the particle-waves of the Universe away leaving one subatomic particle-wave that is could not exist by itself. It only has existence in relation to other particle waves. Buddha taught rebirth not reincarnation, that there is a mental process that flows from body to body until the force of craving is cut and the karmic stream of mind reaches the Peace of Timeless Infinite Nirvana and thus no more rebirth. When one reaches the First Path moment of the Stream-entry level of Nirvana one clearly sees this conditional process and the Unconditioned Unity beyond it.

Rebecca's picture

Thanks so much for this!

Morning Star Dhamma's picture

"Go, friend, to a good bourn,
To the fellowship of humans.
On becoming human acquire faith
Unsurpassed in the true Dhamma."

Fiona's picture

I often get asked about "angels and ascended masters" and find it hard to explain the difference between what I interpret as deities, guides or other beings, call them what you will, and the very ingrained view of what a spirit guide is. Any suggestions??

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Anthony C.'s picture

I've run into an interesting question twice in a row now. "Well Buddha is like your Jesus right?" (No) "But if you are Buddhist you believe everything he said right?"

I've had an interesting time trying to answer this... suggesting the Buddha didn't demand to be believed but rather said we all need to explore and discover the truth for ourselves. (People looking for definitive lines to draw contrast between our traditions aren't happy with this.) Anyone else run into this?

Monty McKeever's picture

thanks everybody

Indeed John, I have definitely had a few of those encounters as well.

toonmonk's picture

Best way a Rinpoche explained it is that once you are enlightened you were EVERYONE in your past life.. past present & future..

Yang's picture

I love your post. Thank you for your clear and wonderful explanation, full with humor and meaning. Quote "six realms are psychological states that we continually cycle through throughout our lives", is something that I definitely can agree with.

00pelican00's picture

I enjoyed this blog entry.

John's picture

I am amazed that your first question/comment isn't "Well, you still believe in God? Right?" or "So where does Jesus fit in?"

Both I hear most often when people hear that I am Buddhist. These explainations are the tough ones when I simply state that neither god nor jesus play a prominent role in my practice.

I was even told once that it was very bad "karma" to not listen to Jesus.