Last issue, we began to examine the Buddha’s teaching on the six realms of existence as a useful metaphor for our various states of mind, and how to relate with them so we may truly wake up and be free of all the unending tortures and attachments to pleasure associated with these “realms.” For a summation of the three lower realms of hell beings, hungry ghosts and animals-each trapped in their gross fixation on aggression, desire and bewilderment, respectively.
We continue our study now with the three higher realms-gods, jealous gods and human beings. Though these realms are also fueled by kleshas (clay-shas: neuroses; or torturous emotions), we are operating at a higher level, relatively speaking-that is, a more intelligent and pleasurable existence than in the three lower realms. From the point of view of the Buddha’s unconditional freedom, all three are still quite deluded; but from the perspective of the three lower realms, there’s much to be said for them!
The highest of the higher realms is the god realm. The gods live in a realm saturated in pleasure. This pleasure can be material or spiritual. It can be a Beverly Hills, yuppie lifestyle of wealth and luxury, or it can be a spiritual practice or cult that promises endless love n’light without any sacrifice or discomfort. The god realm is based upon pride in the attainment of this pleasurable life. This pride, interestingly, is identified by the Buddha as a subtle kind of ignorance. Our self-satisfaction in being members of such an exclusive club causes us to ignore all the subtle messages that this world of pleasure we are dwelling on is not genuine-that it is not going to last forever.
You may recall the life of the Buddha himself. Siddhartha was born into an environment that was as close to the god realm as any human being of his era could have attained. He experienced great luxury throughout his youth inside the walls of his father’s palace. He had, as they say, all the advantages: wealth, youth, companionship. Kept inside the palace grounds at all times, he was insulated and protected from the truth of suffering-that all beings are born, grow old, get sick and eventually die. Of course Siddhartha’s family was hardly immune to such experiences-but these harder aspects of life were deliberately hidden from the pampered young prince.
His awakening began when he ventured out and saw for the first time how the other 99.9 percent lived. He was utterly shocked. And because of his own immense potential for compassion and intelligence, he recognized that he actually needed to find out more about these discoveries, rather than ignore them. When he asked his father, the king, “Can you protect me from these things?” and received his reluctant but honest answer, the future Buddha soon left the palace for good, in order to find his own answers.
It is also said in the tradition that there are god realms attained by people who have subtle and profound meditation experiences. You can perfect your fixation upon the meditation experiences of bliss, clarity or non-thought so flawlessly that you are reborn as a god in realms of desire, form or formlessness. You mistake these powerful but nevertheless conditioned experiences for the awakened state of the Buddha. It’s a very high-level dead-end. In his own path, the Buddha encountered many such meditation “trips” and mastered them, but kept searching because he was convinced they were not his ultimate destination.
From our more mundane point of view, it’s the dream of ease and luxury, the determination to maintain it and the good fortune to be able to pull it off that characterizes the god realm. Clearly, it’s a compelling dream. The whole world wants to live it! The lifestyles of the rich and famous are alluring because they sit with seeming invulnerable satisfaction atop the food chain of consumption. The tabloids will always be in business, because they prey upon our envy of these gods-and our delight at news of any fall from grace.
Next there is the jealous god realm-those who want to be gods but can’t quite get there. They become so engrossed by the competition they have with each other over getting to the god realm that the striving itself becomes their realm. The energizing qualities here are ambition, paranoia, competitiveness, jealousy and envy. It’s a constant game of one-upmanship. It’s the game of Washington, D.C. (instead of Beverly Hills). It’s the game of skillful, scheming Machiavellian intrigues. It’s a game where everyone else is regarded as a potential threat, a competitor to be bested or an obstacle you must outmaneuver. As for those who are not playing your game, you regard them with disinterest or contempt. It is much more sophisticated than the hell realm. Though based on the same underlying quality of aggression, it is far subtler, more politically correct. Whereas the hell realm is just bluntly out there with its hatred or violence in a way that is completely tortured, stupid and gross, the jealous gods mask and rationalize their fundamental arrogance and unfriendliness (until the right time to strike the enemy presents itself).
In the jealous god realm the hatred has been transformed into diplomacy. It’s an endless, fickle game of who’s in and who’s out. The jealous gods prize privileged information and access to power, whether social, financial or political. In the jealous god realm, compassion is regarded merely as another strategy. In The Prince, Machiavelli writes that the great ruler should not really possess the qualities of wisdom and compassion, but he should seem to, particularly if and when it will further his own ends. If it will not, he should simply abandon such qualities right on the spot.
Want to delve deeper into the art of jealous god thinking? Read Machiavelli. The Italian city-states of the 15th century played jealous god games with ruthless enthusiasm. Machiavelli wrote the classic “How to Succeed” manual for all these cunning, heartless beings-and none more so than the Popes, who hid the iron fist of worldly power inside the velvet glove of ceremonial piety.
Finally, there is the human realm. The main characteristics of the human realm are said to be desire, disappointment and the resourceful ability to create a world that is reasonably comfortable. The human realm has relentless inquisitiveness about how things are, and how things work. Human beings are driven by an intelligent passion. We want to make the world better. We want to understand how it works. We want to go beyond our isolation and connect with others. We want to create a good world. We want to be happy. We want, we want, we want…and to a greater or lesser degree, we are able to get what we want for a while-until we lose it or don’t want it anymore. It is not the hungry ghost level of blind, insatiable wanting. And…we know we are mortal, which haunts all our longing and grins ironically behind the seriousness and seeming importance of all our projects and desires-like the skull beneath the skin. It is this seemingly irresolvable tension between desire and limitation in human life that prompted Sartre to write bitterly: “Man is a useless passion.”
Perhaps the most eloquent description of this poignant, creative existential tension that fuels the human realm is to be found in a speech by Hamlet. The Prince of Denmark is the quintessential Renaissance man and Western tragic hero, who confronts his father’s murder, his mother’s faithlessness, and his uncle’s treachery in a brutal, deceptive world he never asked to be born into:
What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving, how express and admirable! In action, how like an angel! In apprehension, how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me….
Piece of work, indeed. As for the immutable fact of mortality, Hamlet contemplates the skull of the courtier Yorick, upon whose knee he played as a child, and muses to his friend Horatio about the Great Leveler, Death:
To what base uses we may return, Horatio. Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, ‘til he find it stopping a bung-hole?…Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay, Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
But the Buddha-more cheerful than Sartre and more profound even than Shakespeare-taught that it is the human realm alone where the possibility of a break in the fixation of the tumultuous kleshas is such that we could actually free ourselves from confusion. The longing, disappointment and intelligence of the human realm have enough self-reflection in them to begin to see through the ways we imprison ourselves.
The human realm has the ideal balance of pain and pleasure. If there is too much of either, we cannot connect with the Dharma. The gods, for example, are having much too good a time to hear the truth, while hungry ghosts are too tormented by their endless addiction to fulfillment to hear it.
It’s only in the human realm that the relentlessly repetitive five skandhas-the process by which we mistakenly solidify our everchanging reality-can be exposed. And in deconstructing this process, we can experience an alternative to the claustrophobia of all the realms. Finally, we can glimpse the fundamental openness that we lost with the first skandha. We can begin to relate to our projections with more skepticism and less gullibility. It takes time to dismantle our “virtual reality,” but it is possible to do this in the human realm precisely because the quality of emotional fixation is not overwhelming. Our curiosity, our sense of humor and irony are our saving grace.
It is humbling to consider that, according to the Buddha, if we are not working to free ourselves of the prison of the kleshas, and if we are not exerting ourselves in the cultivation of awareness and compassion as the aim of our everyday lives-then we are not fully human! We are wasting our lives in trivial pursuits. We are walking around in a human form, but our consciousness is held hostage by another realm. It’s the Dharmic version of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
But how, then, do we wake up from the virtual reality of the realms? It is through the practice of meditative awareness that we begin to break their spell, and move toward the inner freedom of the Buddha for ourselves. In the next article, we will look more closely at how this happens.