In classical Buddhist cosmology there are six realms into which we can be reborn. We all know the human realm but below it there are also the animal, hungry ghost and hell realms, and the realms of the fighting spirits (asuras) and gods or devas above. Most notably these are depicted in the beautiful wheel of life paintings, which I have to say, I always thought would make a great set of animations if anyone could manage to do it.
The image of the wheel of life is a striking one however, there’s one sticking point. The Buddha also said there is no separate, permanent self. So how could someone be reborn as an animal or a hungry ghost? It’s not until we bring these two teachings together that we have a useful tool that can lead to insight.
If we think of being born as something that happens to a baby and death happening when the body ceases to function then we’re taking a very limited and literal view. What we often miss is that for most of us we function quite happily throughout a lot of the day with very little or no sense of self arising. When we’re cooking or walking the dog, doing art or reading a book there is just the action and the experience present. But when we take a position towards or against something, either through a thought that’s arisen or a desire, then we identify as a ‘me’. At that moment we’re born. ‘We’ have political views, personal attachments, insecurities and worries, regrets and ‘what ifs’.
For those not fully awakened the sense of self might be waiting in the wings as a potential but it only becomes apparent when we take a position in relation to these arisings through identification with thoughts and perceptions as ‘mine’. When that occurs we’re born into that moment. To put it simply: only experiencing happening = 1 – undivided experiencing – unborn; whereas ‘my’ thoughts, sensation, perceptions = 2 – subject/object – born. We alternate between these two conditions throughout the day without really being aware of it as long as awakening has not led us beyond self view.
So from this viewpoint, a human being is born many times each day. The question is how are we born, or rather into what realm are we born?
If we allow the mind to become obsessed with regret, lost in remorse, torturing ourselves over past mistakes then we are in hell. We suffer over and over, reliving past events we’re powerless to change. Heedless of this moment, with no mindfulness we allow this human experience to be hijacked by memories we can’t reconcile and deeds we can never undo.
For those lost in lust or greed, it doesn’t matter how many times we satisfy our cravings, they keep coming back again and again. If we never take the time to see through these feelings of wanting we’re like a hungry ghost, lost in desire and unable to be fulfilled.
Some people see this world as animal kingdom, where the fittest survive and you have to grab what you want and take what you need. They learn the rules and try to carve out a safe life of plenty, controlling as much as they can, guarding their territory, defending their position. It’s a life of looking over your shoulder for the next threat, the next obstacle. Life becomes a battlefield where every day is a struggle and everyone you meet is only out for what they can get.
What a sad way to experience this life. When we get lost in any of these lower realms it’s easy to see how we suffer. I don’t imagine you can read this without thinking of at least one or two people who have a tendency to get lost in this way. But what about the higher realms, what do they have to offer?
For some, life isn’t a daily material struggle. For them it’s a mental battle. The read the news, keep up with current affairs or perhaps some field of study or interest, but they can’t take on board any of it without creating a strong set of views. They attach to these views like a dragon guarding its treasure, ready to fight off all comers. They use this beautiful gift of mind to constantly engage in battle, fighting to make sure their views prevail, arguing and listening to others only long enough to form a counter argument to their viewpoint.
They can’t change their mind and don’t see why they should. Even when proven wrong they will never appreciate the opportunity to learn because they’re lost in the defeat of a viewpoint they cherished and clung to. For such people this realm is one of ‘fighting spirits’ or asuras. Their battles are not material ones, they are battles of wits, fencing with words, posturing with etiquette and using custom, tradition and even clothing as weapons when it suits them in their fight to dominate.
But perhaps the most challenging realm to be lost in is the deva realm. For those whose material needs are met, not always to the extent of great luxury, life can become an endless cycle of distraction. There’s always some new amusement to indulge in, a new place to go, shopping to do, social media and other entertainments to keep up with. They surround themselves with colourful alternative versions of themselves and move around their circle of friends in a social dance as the years slip by.
They see the other realms without getting drawn into them, ostracising any who become too lost in one or another. Their realm is one of apathy where nothing means too much because why should it? They might play at being offended or representing some cause but their heart isn’t in it, because actually, they’re okay; their life is okay, so the world is okay. It’s a hard delusion to shake. The one thing they fear is death and on this subject they will not converse, it is taboo. That aside everything else is idle chit chat, a conversation to be had, not to learn some new thing but for the amusement of it. And so the years slip by represented by the monstrous lord of impermanence, Yama, waiting to devour all trapped within this cycle.
But what about the human realm, the one we missed out? Well, this is really the realm of balance, the one from which we can access all others but also the one from which we can find the Middle Way, the path that walks between them.
As we reflect on how we are born into each experience throughout the day we find traces of these realms, don’t we? Sometimes we get lost in one or perhaps we have a tendency towards one more than another. But we have a chance to see this, we have an opportunity to awaken from it and be mindfully aware of these tendencies, tendencies present in all human beings.
Where does the Buddha fit within the wheel of life? Well actually, he doesn’t. If you look at the picture you’ll see the Buddha stands beyond the edges of this cycle and points to the moon, also beyond it, representing Nibbana or awakening. The Buddha in this sense is the awakened presence within each human experience. Not a person, not a thing, not a state or an achievement but a potential for clarity; a potential for not being born into these realms.
When we don’t get lost in any of these conditions, when we’re mindfully awake, not taking a position, seeing through identification, then we’re freed from rebirth into any realm. This has nothing to do with babies or old age in the conventional sense, this is about the sense of self, or self-view as it’s called in Buddhism. As it says at the end of The Buddha’s Words on Loving Kindness:
‘By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense-desires,
Is not born again into this world.’