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Barbara O'Brien

The Human Realm

By August 4, 2012

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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.

August 4, 2012 at 4:03 pm
(1) William Brownings says:

Is it the case that a person tends to occupy one of the realms mostly or exclusively, or that one might occupy several realms or move between them over a period, say over a day or a year?

August 4, 2012 at 4:33 pm
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

William — most of us move through more than one realm every day, although it does seem some people are stuck in one realm pretty exclusively.

August 9, 2012 at 9:53 pm
(3) George Deane says:

The human realm to me means the realm of relative (rather than absolute) existence. It is where the artist, the stevedore, the college professor and the criminal live. What they all have in common, regardless of moral or educational status is that they are bereft of any sense of the spiritual realm – the realm of the absolute. They live where the “small mind” prevails in which reality is viewed from the perspective of the ego, rather than the cosmic perspective of “big mind.” Otherwise stated, it is the realm of ordinary existence. That’s my idea.

August 9, 2012 at 10:20 pm
(4) Barbara O'Brien says:

George, you’ve got it backward, or at least you’ve got the traditional understanding backward. Traditionally, beings in any BUT the human realm are bereft of any sense of the spiritual. Only beings in the human realm are able to realize enlightenment.

August 10, 2012 at 11:16 am
(5) George Deane says:

Barbara – Thanks for the correction,, the Buddhist view of the human realm is no doubt what you have described. Perhaps I was looking at this level of existence too much from the more ordinary level of life and especially from the perspective of humanism, which negates absolutely any sense of non-physical reality. To the latter the human realm leaves no room for any type of spirituality. I leave no doubt where my own personal sympathies lie.

August 10, 2012 at 12:23 pm
(6) Barbara O'Brien says:

George — remember, we’re taking about a genuinely ancient cosmology here. Mixing up modern concepts of “humanism” into it isn’t even mixing apples and oranges; it’s more like mixing apples and cinder blocks. Utterly unrelated. If it helps to erase concepts of “humanism,” let’s use the Sanskrit for the human realm — Manusya-gati

All six of the realms might be thought of as “human,” in a biological sense. For example, privileged people for whom poverty is a remote abstraction live in the deva realm. Drug addicts live in the hungry ghost realm. The late Mr. Wade was, apparently, living in a hell realm. Lots of politicians and CEOs of big corporations live in the asura realm (or the deva realm, at the same time). But this isn’t about biology; it’s about perception. The realms are realities we create ourselves from our mental projections, and through the day we might be in more than one of them ourselves. They aren’t physical worlds (as I’m explaining them; some very conservative Buddhists might disagree); they aren’t part of anyone’s intrinsic nature. They are the samsaric worlds we create with our thoughts and karma.

Traditionally, what sets Manusya-gati apart from the other realms is that it is only within Manusya-gati that realization of enlightenment is possible. Only within Manusya-gati is it possible to see the “big picture” and understand that there are many realities, and they are all just projections. Those in the other realms cannot even imagine that. I find this fascinating, because if you observe people closely you might notice that when a person is pretty much stuck in one dominant realm he usually has no clue whatsoever that there’s any other way to perceive things than his.

February 10, 2014 at 9:40 pm
(7) Lex says:

But once we overcome or shortcomings, we will move on to another way after death right?
The hurdle is to overcome those things, and then we can go.
But in the Ghita it mentions that either through prayer and pious devotion or with great austerity will be break out. the austerity may be a whole lifetime of meditation, that’s how I understand it. But if your map is astrological this would mean after a Saturn return we would bypass the school of Saturn altogether by way of faith or I-don’t-know-what and simply dedicate our selves to what may be an unnatural way of life in order to compensate for any shortcomings. How can we achieve this exo-loop-ism? Can a passion for exiting be a downfall? What about all the things we have to learn? Is it possible to leave here without having mastered or current standing at all anyway? Is this a debate? Do we have answers, or is it all speculation. I think things should stop being interesting, obviously they are serious enough for them to become paths. paths to actually accomplish. We all have in this respect been here before, or long enough, but maybe a good way to go about it would be to definitely uncover or tap into our past consciousness so we can illuminate our actual undertakings in order to assess whether or not we are ready to go.

February 11, 2014 at 7:30 am
(8) Barbara O'Brien says:

Lex — This is a Buddhism site, not a Hinduism site, and so the Gita on the whole wouldn’t apply to the Realms. Hinduism and Buddhism differ on many doctrinal points. I’ve also never heard of anyone applying astronomy to this.

What is life and death? In Buddhism, ultimately there is no “self” to come and go. Birth and death are events in time with no self attached to them. Linear time is an illusion, so dividing reality up into “past” and “future” is futile. It’s all right here, right now. But what is it? That’s the question.

As long as your spiritual quest is about preserving or protecting your self, you’re going about it in the wrong way.

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