In Buddhist cosmology, one of the three realms of existence is the desire realm. Sentient beings manifest in these classes or realms by means of one of the four types of birth. In the discourses of the Buddha, as well as the commentaries, an emphasis is placed on the cause of rebirth being tied to one’s actions–the law of karma.
Different texts subdivide the sentient beings of the desire realm into either five or six sub-realms or classes. Some early Indian Buddhist schools counted only five classes as they counted the asuras as members of the god realm. In the Tibetan tradition, over time it has become more common to list six classes of sentient beings.
The Six Classes
- Hell beings
- Pretas (starving spirits or hungry ghosts)
- Asuras (Demi-gods)
- Desire realm gods.
The Buddha taught about the six realms in various discourses, including in the Saleyyaka Sutta in the Pali Canon. In the commentarial tradition, the 4th-5th century CE Abhidharmakośabhāsya1Vasubandhu; Lodrö Sangpo; La Vallée Poussin, Louis de (2012). Abhidharmakośa-Bhāṣya of Vasubandhu: the treasury of the Abhidharma and its (Auto) commentary. Delhi, India. contains the most detailed presentation. In this text, the first three classes are described as the three lower realms, and the latter three are known as the higher realms.
The Three Lower Realms
1. Hell Realm (Sanskrit Naraka)
In traditional cosmology, there are four major divisions of hells. Each of those is then subdivided into additional classes. The four main divisions are:
- Hot hells (8 individual levels)
- Cold hells (8 individual levels)
- Neighboring hells
- Ephemeral or diverse hells
Rebirth in the hells is said to come about as an experience of negative deeds committed due to anger or hatred. Alternatively, accumulating many negative actions of body, speech, and mind can also result in rebirth in hell. Discourses, such as the Devaduta Sutta, offer extensive explanations of the suffering encountered in the hell realms. In that teaching, the Buddha explained typical punishments experienced there:
Then the hell-wardens torture [the evil-doer] with what’s called a five-fold imprisonment. They drive a red-hot iron stake through one hand, they drive a red-hot iron stake through the other hand, they drive a red-hot iron stake through one foot, they drive a red-hot iron stake through the other foot, they drive a red-hot iron stake through the middle of his chest. There he feels painful, racking, piercing feelings, yet he does not die as long as his evil kamma is not exhausted.Devaduta Sutta, MN130
The hot hells are so-called because beings there suffer from punishing heat. Likewise, the cold hells feature environments of extreme cold. Some texts describe the location of the hot hells as being below Mount Meru (Mount Sumeru), a sacred mountain in Indian cosmology that does not correspond to any known geophysical location. According to some Tibetan explanations, the cold hells are located below the sacred Lake Manasarovar, near Mount Kailash.
Neighboring and ephemeral hells can be experienced in diverse locations and beings inhabiting them experience a wide variety of suffering. Despite the fact that these locations are clearly stated in the texts, in the Mahayana teachings, the hell realms (like all the other realms) are understood to be mindstates that are characterized by a particular type of suffering, rather than actual physical locations.
2. Preta Realm (Starving Spirit)
Just as there are many types of hells, according to the Mahāyāna Saddharmasmṛtyupasthānasūtra (The Noble Application of Mindfulness of the Sacred Dharma), there are 36 different types of pretas:
The monk who has knowledge of the ripening of karmic effects will then ask himself how many realms of starving spirits there are. As he examines this matter by means of knowledge derived from hearing, he will understand that there are, in brief, thirty-six types of such realms. While birth in those realms is always caused by envy and stinginess, the realms are distinguished by distinct ways of thinking, as well as distinct modes of suffering, intention, sustenance, movement, and dwelling. All beings therein are, moreover, physically tormented by hunger and thirst… there are thirty-six classes of starving spirits in all. On a vast scale, one may enumerate infinitely many, in consideration of their distinct forms of intended actions and their different mentalities.Āryasaddharmasmṛtyupasthāna (The Noble Application of Mindfulness of the Sacred Dharma), 2.1284-2.1285
Some pretas live below the earth or in the human realm and interact significantly with human beings. There are also pretas who “move through space” and do not inhabit fixed abodes.2Patrul Rinpoche, The Words of My Perfect Teacher (Boston: Shambhala, Revised edition, 1998), pages 72-75. In Tibetan explanations, the worldly preta spirits include the fearsome female mamos, which bring disease and warfare into the human realm. Other types of preta include jungpos, which cause droughts and can cause mental disorders in humans.
Pretas can suffer from external, internal, or specific obscurations due to their previous habits of stinginess and desire. They are often described as emaciated beings with scrawny limbs and immense bellies. They may not have heard even the mention of water for eons, and are consumed by burning pangs of hunger and thirst. In addition, they are tormented by harm from others as well as their own mental anguish.
Pretas that suffer from internal obscurations search constantly for food and drink. If they receive even the tiniest bit of food or drink, it bursts into flames when they consume it scorching their internal organs. Or it may poison them immediately upon tasting.
3. Animal Realm
Sentient beings are reborn into the animal realm due to ignorance, specifically to past actions of stupidity, close-mindedness, prejudice, and apathy or indifference. Among the specific causes for rebirth as an animal are telling lies, gossiping, hearsay, breaking precepts, and killing animals.
Animals live in oceans or other bodies of water, on the earth, in trees, in the air, and also in realms of the gods (“scattered animals”). Humans and animals are considered to be separate realms, although they see and interact with each other because their realms overlap. Animals experience the suffering of being slaughtered, enslaved, or beaten. The animal realm is dominated by fear, especially that of being attacked or eaten by other animals or humans.
In The Noble Application of Mindfulness of the Sacred Dharma, the suffering of animals is described:
Those who are born in the animal realm
Are aggressive to each other,
And they catch, kill, and eat one another.
Therefore, get rid of dullness.
A mind harmed by dullness
Will give up spiritual discipline and generosity.
Childish beings fooled by craving
Will be born in the realm of the animals.
Outsiders do not know right from wrong,
What to eat from what not to eat,
Or how to tell the meaningful from the meaningless.
Such people mix up Dharma and non-Dharma.
Since their five senses are dumb and obscured,Āryasaddharmasmṛtyupasthāna (The Noble Application of Mindfulness of the Sacred Dharma), 3.32-3.35
Such humans will travel to the animal realm.
The Three Higher Realms
Humans and the asuras (demi-gods) and gods are described as the three higher realms. As mentioned above, some texts describe only five realms, and in those, there are only two higher realms–those of humans and gods.
4. Human Realm
Human beings are described as living on the four major continents and the eight subcontinents according to classic Indian cosmology. Rebirth in the human realm is a result of virtuous karma and is said to be extremely rare. The human realm is also said to be the most ideal for the practice of the Buddhadharma. This is because generally there is a mixture of suffering and happiness that allows for reflection, inquiry, and eventual practice of the path leading out of the six realms, or samsara.
In the Limits of Life Sutra (Sanskrit Āyuḥparyantasūtra), the Buddha provided information on the lifespans of beings in each realm. He explained in vivid detail the stages of human life that illustrate the vagaries of this existence. This presentation assumed a maximum lifespan of one hundred years. He taught:
Monks, during a lifespan of one hundred years, people undergo ten stages. At the first stage, they are infants, feeble and lying on their back. At the second stage, they are children, disposed to playing. At the third stage, as youths, they chase after pleasure. At the fourth stage, they are endowed with physical strength and strong enthusiasm. At the fifth stage, they possess prudence and self-confidence. At the sixth stage, they are experienced and more given to reflection. At the seventh stage, they practice religion with all their heart. At the eighth stage, they are venerable and people of distinction. At the ninth stage, they are old, fragile, and weakened by age. At the tenth stage, life is exhausted and only death remains. Monks, in a hundred years, their lives undergo those ten stages.Āyuḥparyanta (The Limits of Life)
5. Asura (Demi-god or jealous god) Realm
Indian cosmology situates the asura, or demi-god realms within caverns on the aforementioned central Mount Meru. The demi-gods living above the water line that surrounds the mountain are sometimes counted as animals. This class includes important chieftains such as Rahu who appear in many Buddhist texts. According to the Application of Mindfulness, there are two main types of asuras. Some belong to the class of starving spirits while others belong to the animal realm.3The Application of Mindfulness: “Those that belong to starving spirits are, moreover, either starving spirits of the māra class or starving spirits with great magical powers.
The principal cause of rebirth as an asura is jealousy and past actions motivated by envy, paranoia, grudges, and resentment. Asuras are preoccupied with fighting and quarreling among themselves and with the gods, whose superiority and luxuries they crave.
The status of asuras is not consistent across all texts. Some earlier Indian Buddhist schools included asuras within the god realm. And texts such as the Karmavibhaṅganāmadharmagrantha (The Dharma Scripture “Transformation of Karma”) differ by including the asuras in the lower realms.4Karmavibhaṅganāmadharmagrantha (The Dharma Scripture “Transformation of Karma”) 1.6.
6. God Realm
Within the desire realm, there are six different sub-classes of gods or deities. Two of these sub-classes are described as terrestrial, meaning they are said to be located within the universe atop Mount Meru. The gods in the Heaven of the Thirty-three live at the top of Mount Meru and regularly engage in war with the asuras. The gods in the Abode of the Four Great Kings, the guardians of the four directions, reside on four terraces atop Mount Meru, and atop the seven golden mountain ranges.
The other four god realms are described as celestial abodes located In the sky above Mount Meru. These are delightful realms free of combat with the asuras. The most well-known of these realms is Tuṣita (‘Joyous’), (Tib. Ganden). According to the scriptures, the Buddha remained in Tuṣita heaven until the time was ripe for him to be reborn in the human realm.
Rebirth in the god realm is the result of past wholesome actions. In the Application of Mindfulness (Satipatthana) sutta, the Buddha reminds his listeners that the desire realm gods are not free of suffering due to their intense craving and when their karma is exhausted they will be reborn in the lower realms. The Buddha said:
One must also develop compassion for the six classes of gods in the desire realm. The gods may experience indescribably rich and diverse heavenly pleasures amid their mountains, flatlands, woodlands, and parks, and they may revel in hundreds of thousands of delights together with their divine ladies in lotus ponds and forests, yet, once their karmic actions are exhausted, they suffer the pain of dying, and after that comes life in the realms of hell beings, starving spirits, and animals. Thus, the gods are beings who engage in flawed conduct within cyclic existence. Since they are bound by the extremely tight chains of craving, they are continuously pulled along without ever pursuing the genuine path. As one observes the painful deaths of the gods, one develops compassion for them.Āryasaddharmasmṛtyupasthāna (The Noble Application of Mindfulness of the Sacred Dharma), 4.C.2706 4.C.2706
The cycle of existence has the nature of suffering, regardless of the realm in which one takes rebirth. In some realms, the suffering may be more intense than in others, but all are dissatisfactory. The Tibetan master Patrul Rinpoche commented, “Yet all beings bound to the realms of saṃsāra by their desire and attachments, with never a moment’s remorse, will have to undergo still more sufferings in this endless circle.”5Patrul Rinpoche, The Words of My Perfect Teacher, Padmakara Translations, Altamira Press, 1998, p. 62 In his classic text, the Kunzang Lamé Shyalung (Words of My Perfect Teacher), Patrul Rinpoche offers detailed descriptions of the unsatisfactory nature of each realm. Buddhist teachers emphasize these shortcomings in order to inspire students to turn their minds toward the Dharma as a refuge. When one understands the defects of saṃsāra, renunciation is easily kindled.