If you had to choose, would you say that right now you live in heaven, in hell, or somewhere in between? Well, Buddhism has a list for that (it has a lot of lists).
Buddhist cosmology says that at any given time, we live in one of six realms: the deva realm, asura realm, human realm, animal realm, preta realm, or hell realm. Some traditions talk about these realms literally, as distinct places with distinct populations, but often they’re used as more of a psychological model—in that framework, you might live in one of these realms today, another tomorrow; you might get stuck in one for years, or you might, over the course of a lifetime, occupy them all.
The first realm, the deva realm, is the realm of the gods. In this realm, your desires are met, so while there’s still suffering—everyone experiences suffering—it’s muted by comfort and relative security. It’s said that of all the beings in the universe, the ones who have the most difficulty realizing awakening are those in the deva realm. They’re so comfortable, they just don’t answer the questions that would lead to an experience of waking up. Many of us never really know this realm, but we might save up for a cruise, just to pretend for a while.
Adjacent to the deva realm is the realm of the asuras, the beings who, to put it simply, really want to be devas. They frame their lives in terms of struggle and competition and success, always trying to climb higher, never satisfied with what they have. Whereas a deva would take comfort for granted, an asura might have myriad comforts available and never really notice them, or at least, never pause to enjoy them. I’d guess that almost everyone, at some point in their professional career, has turned into an asura.
The next realm is the human realm. If you see this whole construct literally, then that’s where we are, all of us. If it’s a metaphor, though, then the human realm is where we land when we’re open, when we’re curious, when we aren’t stuck in just one mode. In Zen terms, it’s the land of not knowing, of “beginner’s mind.” Spiritual practice can steer someone to the human realm, but it’s a difficult place for many people to stay long term. The critical thing is this: according to this model, this is the only realm where awakening is truly possible. Everywhere else, we're just too stuck - by our circumstances, by our stories, or both.
From here, the realms become more difficult—and more difficult to get out of. I’ve heard the animal realm described in two ways. The first says that animals (for the purposes of this discussion) are beings that are driven by sense impulses—hunger, sexual desire, and so on. They confuse their wants for needs. The second explanation I’ve heard says that to be an “animal” is to be a being whose decisions are based primarily on fear, always alert, always anxious. Either way, it’s a myopic view, and the only real hindrance to escaping it is yourself.
The preta realm is the realm of hungry ghosts; in modern terms, it’s the realm of addicts. Hungry ghosts are depicted as beings with impossibly long, thin necks and huge stomachs, incapable of being satiated. Hungry ghosts are trapped by something, a thirst that they can’t control. I think we all have addictions, but some become an entire world.
The last realm is hell. This isn’t hell in the way we usually picture it, in which people suffer because they’re being punished. This is hell in the way that we say “war is hell.” This is poverty, chronic disease, war, lack of safety—circumstances so painful and all-consuming that it can feel almost impossible to see past them. To be in hell is to be held down by a situation beyond your control, to be so unable to breathe that you can’t imagine there could be anything else or any way of getting out. We need only look at the news for a second to see that by this definition, a lot of people are in hell.
What do we do with all this? Many times I have caught myself getting wrapped up in concerns about work, for example, and thought, I’m slipping into the asura realm. I’ve seen how, when I’m tired or sick or just fed up, I can drop into an animal mindset, leaving aside higher ideals for a kind of grumpy get-me-my-coffee attitude. And it’s helped me, in witnessing the suffering of loved ones with terrible, incurable illnesses, to recognize that they really are in a kind of hell.
But the real takeaway here is that for our lives to have possibility, we must not lose our maps to the human realm. Maybe it’s meditation that brings you to that open space, or mindfulness practice, or taking long walks—whatever it is, when the ground suddenly shifts beneath your feet and the walls start closing in, remember that thing. When things get really bad, you may forget the human realm altogether. It may feel like a fantasy. But that practice, that map, is proof that that other place—which is also this place—really does exist. As long as we don’t lose sight of that, we always have a way back.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.
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