More people than ever are flocking to some form of Buddhism to help them understand and cope with the complexity of the Information Age. I find it interesting that much of the symbolism from Buddhist roots in the East have so much relevance in the West more than two thousand years later.
Ten Buddhist Realms
Buddhism named Ten Realms—mental or psychological states or life conditions that many of us experience in everyday life, bouncing from one to another while interacting with our environment and others around us. We all have the potential to experience all ten realms, from the depths of our own Hell, to heights of Buddhahood.
The Ten Realms in ascending order are: Hell, Hunger, Animality, Anger, Humanity, Heaven, Learning, Realization, Bodhisattva and Buddhahood. Accessing an awareness of the past and present realms through chanting Namu-myoho-renge-kyo, Nichiren Buddhism teaches that rather than being at the mercy of our environment we can cultivate our ability to set our own direction and spend more of our lives in the higher states.
Each of us tends to orbit around a particular set of thoughts, emotions and reactions, and if this belongs one of the lower realms, great suffering to ourselves and others usually results. By becoming aware of and rising up through the various realms, we bring more understanding, compassion and happiness into our lives and the lives of others.
Here is a brief description of each of the realms:
The six states from Hell to Heaven are called the six paths or six lower worlds. Any happiness or satisfaction to be gained in these states depends totally upon circumstances and is therefore transient and subject to change. In these six lower worlds, we base our entire happiness, indeed our whole identity, on externals.
Realm of Hell: The state of suffering and despair in which we believe we have no freedom to act. It is learned helplessness. It is characterized by the urge to destroy ourselves and everything around us.
Realm of Hunger: The state of being subject to, or even enslaved by, insatiable desire for money, power, status, sex, food, substance abuse, etc. While desires are part of every realm, in this state we are overpowered by our cravings and cannot control them from running our lives.
Realm of Animality: In this state, we are ruled by instinct with neither reason nor moral sense nor the ability to make long-range judgments. We operate by the law of the jungle and will not hesitate to take advantage of those weaker than ourselves and fawn on those who are stronger.
Realm of Anger: In this state, a needy, selfish, greedy, distorted ego emerges, determined to rise in the ranks, even while holding others down. The angry ego is really a scared ego, seeing everything as a potential threat to itself. In this state we value only ourselves and tend to hold others in contempt. There is good news—anger can be used to propel one upwards to higher realms, if used to one’s advantage.
Realm of Tranquility (also called Realm of Humanity): Characterized by passivity, apathy, or cynicism, this state is a flat, passive world view, from which we can easily slip into the lower four realms. While we may generally don’t act badly while inhabiting this realm, we are susceptible to being acted upon by many destructive influences.
Realm of Rapture (or the Realm of Heaven): This is a state of joy stemming, from the satisfaction of some worthy desire. Rapture is a temporary sense of physical well-being, or inner contentment. Though intense, the joy experienced in the realm of rapture is short-lived and vulnerable to attack from external influences.
The next two realms arise when we realize that everything positive or negative experienced in the lower realms is fleeting, and we begin to seek some lasting truth. Unlike the six lower realms, which result from impulsive reaction to our environment, the four higher realms are achieved through effort.
Realm of Learning: In this realm, we highly value and seek understanding through studying the teachings or experience of others. The drive to learn can be consume our waking hours and even dreams. We can be susceptible to cults and gurus to excess in this state. It is important to know that learning is a means, not an end in itself.
Realm of Realization: In this realm, we begin to find our own voice and authority. Our learning becomes wisdom and begins to bear fruit. Learning does not end for those inhabiting this realm, but here is where learning gives back to the world.
The next two realms complete the journey from destruction to true living. People inhabiting these realms consume less and give more by their nature.
Realm of Bodhisattva: Bodhisattvas are those who seek enlightenment while living to help all other beings to do the same. Keenly aware of destructive and life-giving forces, those inhabiting this realm deeply feel that happiness, experienced alone, is incomplete, so they devote themselves to alleviating the suffering of others. Bodhisattvas create more joy by creating and sharing joy.
Realm of Buddhahood: Buddhahood is enlightenment. It is not freedom from pain, but it is the freedom from attachment and suffering. It the state where one can be perfectly happy without being happy. It is high indifference. In Buddhahood, all of the seeming contradictions of the lower nine realms are resolved, atoned for, forgiven, accepted as they are. This is a rare state indeed.