I want to say a bit more about Koun Franz's post on the Six Realms at Nyoho Zen. I particularly like this post because it is one of the clearest descriptions of the Six Realms I have ever read. He writes,
"As I understand it, this teaching is about choices. Each realm is a description of a particular personal narrative, a self-limiting story about who we are, what is possible, and what we need or deserve. A deva has no compelling reason to seek a different way of being. An asura has the same problem -- you can't convince an asura that what he's seeking is not in his best interest. An animal's story is all about me and my and mine. A hungry ghost is trapped in her own story of powerlessness and insatiability. And a hell being is so enveloped by the flames of this moment that she imagines that the whole world is on fire and that it will never, ever rain."
So what is the distinguishing characteristic of the human realm?
Often it is said that human-realm dwellers are marked by curiosity, and that it is only from the human realm that one may be liberated from samsara. In the Trungpa and Freemantle translation of the Bardo Thodol (yes, I finally found it), Trunpa writes that human realm dwellers feel great passion, but they are also "cunning, shifty and slippery." Well, that may be, but I'm not sure this explanation is terribly helpful. You can say the same thing about asuras, for example.
Koun Franz writes that humans are beings with the capacity to break out of the loop; to "upset their patterns." When one is living in the hell realm or deva realm or any other realm, one cannot imagine any other way to be. That realm is their only reality. But human-realm dwellers at least suspect there is something else. It is "the place of not knowing," Koun Franz says.
I don't know if this explanation helps anyone else, but it is very clarifying to me.
Of course, sometimes one's stay in the human realm is very fleeting. We can get a glimpse or sense of the something else and then fall right back into our old patterns and projections. Most of us do that every day, I suspect. But when we see that our biases, predilections and addictions are unreal, and not who we are, the door to enlightenment opens.