Talk on the six realms by Shishin Roshi
In the Heaven Realm, there is a tendency to become complacent because we think we’re in some kind of wonderful place, but that can easily change. In the Realm of the Fighting Spirits, or Asuras, we become possessed with all kinds of anger, envy, and jealousy. In the Human Realm we’re obsessed with all kinds of desires. In the Animal Realm we become indifferent to the sufferings of others. Then there’s the Hungry Ghost Realm, which means we’re hungry all the time—greedy, never satisfied. The Realm of Hell, which we create in our minds, is a realm of torment. All of us have visited these realms, but some of us arewe can be more familiar with some of them than others because we spend more time in those.
We fall into the six realms primarily because of our self-grasping consciousness, our ego centered awareness. How we decide to protect our image of ourselves determines which of the worlds we fall into. Due to our personality and karma, we may be more familiar with one or the other of them. Basic ignorance of the true reality of things gives rise to the birth in the six realms of existence.
If you do not see things clearly while being thrust into an uncertain, panic-provoking situation, and you try to manage the situation while maintaining ego or self-image, you’ll try to grab something, anything, in order to find some security. Whenever we grab, we grab the wrong thing. It’s this bewilderment and desperation that causes birth in the six realms. Each realm has its own strategy for maintaining continuity and a constant image of self or ego. There’s always a resistance to open up to the spaciousness of one’s own being where dualistic clinging no longer applies. It takes a great deal of effort to maintain this delusive image or projection. Yet, we keep holding on to it and grasping after it for fear of falling into an abyss, which we create in our own minds. We’d rather run back to our prison cell than step into an unknown space that is without limit. Confusion, self-righteousness, pride, aggression, and submission provide a ground of being that is familiar and comfortable. These attributes and the situations that give rise to them are all grist for the mill and provide content for our zazen practice. If you think you can bypass these worlds — think again.
Quite often when we come to zazen practice, we think we can jump right over the six worlds into some state where everything is sweet and lovely. Sometimes I wonder if the modern pace of life gives us that idea. In ancient times people traveled by foot and it took a long time to reach your destination, but now you can jump in a jet airplane and be halfway around the world in one day. Soup used to be cooked over a wood fire; there were no microwaves. We want everything faster — including salvation and enlightenment. So, if we sold enlightenment indulgences as a fund raiser at the Zen Center, I’m sure we’d have a very brisk business.
One way to deal with confusion and irritation that arises in the six worlds is to cultivate patience. When we are truly patient, nothing can bother us. That’s why patience is one of the paramitas, which are the aspects of an enlightened person. Resting undisturbed, the mind is one. Then, nothing can bother you, and if it doesn’t bother you, it’s no longer an obstacle.
Let’s start by talking about the God Realm, or the Heaven Realm. In the God Realm, there are many blissful and transcendent experiences that arise from the discipline and effort of our meditative practice. Some of you may be experienced in them. When I first started to sit, I had a lot of pain and misery. When I went to sesshin, there were just a few moments of clarity where I felt spacious, where the pain in my legs would disappear. That hooked me and it was enough to encourage me to come back and do it again.
These experiences do not last because we use them to reinforce our ego-grasping consciousness. Most of our preparation, most of our practice, is used to gain meditative experiences that maintain the ego – not to become independent of the self. So instead of experiencing limitless space, we experience the self-absorption of limitless space, the self-absorption of limitless consciousness, the self-absorption of non-dwelling, and the self-absorption of complete emptiness. We turn these states of realization into definite things that we can recognize, manipulate, and adore. What start out as the most satisfactory experiences easily transform into an indulgence. Our task here is to transform indulgence into spaciousness where wisdom can arise.
So where are these blissful states? Can you find bliss as you step in a pile of dog shit? Or can you find bliss while you’re rolling in the mud with a pig? We have an important koan about the pitfalls of the God Realm in The Book of Equanimity. Case 11 says,
Attention! Great Master Unmon said, ’When the light doesn’t penetrate completely, there are two kinds of sickness. When you’re not quite clear and there are things in front of you, that is one sickness. Even though you thoroughly penetrate the emptiness of all Dharmas there still somehow seems to be something. In this also, the light has not penetrated completely.
In one of our chants, The Identity of Relative and Absolute, one of the lines says, “To encounter the absolute is not yet enlightenment.” Somehow the thought arises of knowing something is out there. We objectify the absolute. We try to put it in our conceptual mind somehow. There is an expression that “even if a hair remains in the empty sky, it keeps expanding anew.” All you need is a binary system, zero and one, and we can create everything as long as the rules are clear. That’s what distinguishes humans from computers – the rules are never clear for humans. Case 11 continues,
Again, there are two kinds of sicknesses in the Dharmakaya. [The dharmakaya is the body of the Dharma. Sometimes it’s a synonym for Buddha-nature or the absolute.] Though you reach the Dharmakaya, because Dharma-attachment is not forgotten and the view of self still persists, you plummet into the Dharmakaya side—this is one sickness. Though you penetrate through this, if you are negligent, it’s still no good. Even after a minute examination, when the question “what inadequacy can there be?”—this is also a sickness.
This is referring to being stuck in an awakened state. This happens in the God Realm – people get stuck in a blissful state. In our practice, we call it the stink of Zen. Master Hakuin wrote in his autobiography when he had his first existential experience, “Nobody has ever had an awakening experience as great as mine.” The master Shoju beat that out of him. He called him a bed-wetting imp.
If you ask the question, “What inadequacy can there be,” right there it shows that you are holding onto self. Even in Unmon’s time, students wanted to find peace by bypassing and ignoring their fixed images of themselves, as this dialog indicates. One time a student asked Unmon, “What is most urgent for me?” Unmon responded, “The very you that is afraid he doesn’t know.” You just need to get in touch with whatever is going on.
Some of us take pride in having the greatest delusion experience. “Nobody has a more active mind than mine! Nobody is a worse sitter than me!” Being totally confused is not a problem for a great person. What is a great person? Someone who is not worried about being confused. That’s what Unmon is touching on.
There is this self-conscious element in meditative practice such as, “I am experiencing emptiness.” That is what leads to the Realm of the Gods, to the Heaven Realm, which is the ego’s version of spirituality. That kind of spirituality is based on hope and fear. Hope that we’ll maintain it forever, and fear that we won’t. Fear that we will fall. We desperately hope that we can reach this realm of pleasure rather than just enjoying pleasure. The realm of the Gods is mostly blissful and self-satisfying. But, the most painful part is thinking that you achieved something, and you want to dwell in it.
Then the bliss begins to disintegrate. When this happens, anger arises. Anger at the person who started you on this path. Anger at yourself for putting so much time and effort into this path that is dissolving before your very eyes. At that point, if we don’t have confidence and faith in ourselves we fall right into the realm of the Asuras, the fighting spirits. Having had the meditative absorption of the realm of the Gods, sudden disappointment comes about – the disappointment that you’ve been cheated, that this is not a permanent experience at all. This leads to envy and jealousy of those who seem to have something you don’t have, and then anger. The thought had arisen, that you have achieved the ultimate freedom of spiritual absorption. The problem is thinking that your idea of bliss is the blissful state. Then you do not recognize bliss when it’s staring you in the face.
There is the famous expression of Unmon where he says, “Every day is a good day.” Maeizumi Roshi extrapolated on that by stating, “Even having difficulties, every day is a good day.”
There is a loss of faith trying to make sense of this lost bliss. The person in the Realm of the Fighting Spirits is very speedy and wants results quickly but without making the necessary preparation. It’s like wanting to go on an ocean voyage and forgetting to lay out the provisions, so when you’re a hundred miles out to sea and want to make a meal, you need to have the food on hand. You cannot just drive to the neighborhood grocery store. There is a strange kind of logic at work in the Asura Realm. It’s like being paranoid, but in an extremely proficient and accurate paranoia.
When I was a young teenager, my father was the superintendent of the state mental hospital in Arizona. Since we lived on the hospital grounds, my playmates where the inmates in the hospital. They had a wide range of mental and physical ailments, including schizophrenia. Like the logic in the Asura Realm, the logic in the schizophrenia realm is very precise, but it’s also very delusive.
That logic is all based on narcissism. A narcissist does not just mean somebody who is constantly looking at his or her reflection in the mirror. A broader meaning of narcissism is that one always relates everyone else’s actions and everything else to oneself. A narcissist takes everything personally. A good example is the story of Job in the Bible.
Someone once quipped that the problem with Job was that he took everything personally. According to the biblical text, he was the pawn in the game between God and the devil. What’s personal about that? The devil claimed Job was devout because he had a good life, and that if he suffered he would lose his faith. So, God allowed the devil to subject Job to all these calamities and disasters in his life. According to the Bible, Job and his associates, his friends, tried to justify his sufferings based entirely on a narcissistic mindset. In this mindset, the narcissist believes that nobody does anything casually or innocently. They always have an intention that relates to “me.”
Narcissism is like a schizophrenic state. If you want to help somebody in the Asura Realm, they interpret your actions as laying a heavy trip on them, and they do not want to be helped. If you do not try to help them, it just reaffirms you do not care about them and only care about your own comfort. If you present several options to them as solutions to their problem, then they conclude you’re playing games with them. It is a very intelligent sense of mind. It’s a split mind that does not grasp the whole picture because the attachment to self is so big that nothing can be seen around it.
The Asuras are also fighters. They have to defeat anyone and everyone who challenges their position. In that realm, it is almost impossible to learn from another person. There is so much pride, as well as fear of failure. Then, if by some chance a precious teaching penetrates the armor, it’s considered almost too precious to accept. The paranoid schizophrenic attitude arises. When the Asuras develop a blockage to communication, it prevents any warm loving compassionate exchanges. The Asura Realm is like a cold, windy, high plain; it is bleak, like the Scottish Highlands in the winter. It’s no wonder there are so many alcoholics there.
Like in the Heaven Realm, or the Realm of the Gods, there arises a point where the Asuras begin to feel a lot of confusion about their position. The problem is that they want certainty. They want to have the same position of aloofness, pride, and dominance all the time, and it’s not possible. Uncertainty arises when they cannot defend their position and doubt seeps in. That doubt is the very seed of change.
The desire to be somebody is strong in this realm. You want to find your own style or your own position. Then there is the realization that you are in the Asura Realm. Since we’ve developed a term for it, and we see it’s a Samsaric realm, a realm of suffering, you’re willing to let go of the comfort that being in that state affords you. You have to be willing to step into a confused state and forgo the security of having your own identity. It’s very hard to let go. That is where effort and patience come in. Non-judgmental awareness is always essential.
As I said before, there is a clever logic in each of these realms. The question might arise, “Who is being aware?” With that, you’re back in the God Realm of self-absorbed awareness. Just as there can be thoughts without a thinker, there can be awareness without a “one” who is being aware. You just need to move to a new dimension. The mind is good for thinking and awareness, but how can you be aware without grasping the mind? You need the right tools and the right skills for the job.
Consider a grappling hook. It’s good for throwing bales of hay or landing a large fish in a boat or lugging around sides of beef; but it is no good for playing an oboe or throwing a curve ball or caressing your beloved. What are the skills and tools necessary to be aware without being self-absorbed? Consider these words of Master Bankei,
You people try to stop your thoughts of clinging and craving from arising, and then by stopping them you divide one mind into two. The original clinging thoughts that you were able to stop may have come to an end, but the subsequent thoughts concerned with your stopping them won’t ever cease. Well, you might wonder, what can I do to stop them? Just let them come. Don’t develop them any further. Don’t attach to them. Without concerning yourself about whether to stop your rising thoughts or not to stop them, just don’t bother with them. And then there’s nothing else they can do but vanish. You can’t have an argument with a fence. When there’s no one there to fight with, things can’t help but simply come to an end of themselves.
The same instruction from Master Bankei applies to thoughts of awareness.
Let’s move on to the Human Realm. The Human Realm is often considered to be the most advantageous realm to be in because there is the potential of realizing Buddhahood in this realm. We have the capacity to function intelligently and make choices that allow us to change our karmic situations as we evolve. The entire personal evolution is informed by our meditative practice.
There is another aspect of the Human Realm, which is the psychological state associated with the Human Realm as part of the six realms. In the extreme, this psychological state is the chaos created by obsession/passion which is associated with grasping, which tries to recreate past pleasures, and which reinforces solid ego. There is a dualistic split between the desire for pleasure and the fear that one is inadequate to create the circumstances to manifest the pleasure. The result is a critical, judging mind that sees everyone and everything, including one’s self, as imperfect. The goal of perfection is impossible to achieve since it’s based on the delusion. There is a constant striving for this impossible goal in the Human Realm.
The Human Realm represents the wisdom of discriminating awareness at its best. At it’s worst, the Human Realm represents blind passion, blind obsession, or grasping. Through practice, the intense desire of passion is transmuted into an attention to the fine quality of each and every detail of our life. In the Human Realm, we are always comparing ourselves with others. We have an ideal that we admire and strive to emulate.
Often when we are school children, we have an assignment to write – a short paper or to give a talk in the classroom about the person we admire the most. The assignment pushes us along the road to setting up an ideal person who we can never emulate but we continue to try, nonetheless. As a teenager, my ideal person was Albert Einstein. I wanted to study physics, and he was the epitome of the profession. I was fourteen years old when he died in 1955. I recall feeling the loss at the time. I went forward with a career in physics to carry on the tradition, including a PhD. The problem was that Einstein made all these discoveries by the age of twenty-five, and when I reached twenty-five without making any great discoveries, my mind told me that my career in physics was inadequate. So, if I could not be Einstein, I’d better look around and see if there’s another superior being whom I could identify with. At the age of twenty-five, I decided I would be the Buddha. And that’s a never ending story.