Tibetan Buddhists view our experience in a variety of ways that I, as a Westerner, have found very difficult to accept. In fact, the first time I heard about the “6 Realms,” I thought the teacher was joking around or being metaphoric, and when I realized he was quite serious, I was outraged and insulted. How could he expect me, an adult woman, to believe in such “fairy-tale-like” settings, characters and circumstances as “Hell Realms,” “Hungry Ghosts,” “Demi-Gods” and “Gods”? I could understand and accept the “Human” and “Animal” realms just fine; here we are. Not so sure about their being two separate “realms,” but I could let that be. The rest were much harder to believe, especially since most humans can’t see or visit these supposed realms or their inhabitants.
In subsequent years, I read and heard teachings about the 6 Realms in which some teachers did explain the metaphoric nature of the experiences of beings in these realms, without renouncing their actual existence. I could live with that. I certainly have direct experience, myself, with individuals’ or my own experiences corresponding exactly to those of the creatures who inhabit each of the lesser-known 4 realms listed above.
Contemplation of the experiences and circumstances of beings in all 6 Realms, particularly those that are painful, difficult, frightening or desperate, both for purposes of developing an understanding of others’ feelings and situations as well as to generate compassion toward, or at least acceptance of those very different from our own is key to Tibetan Buddhist practice. Through this intense contemplation and using our imagination to attempt to inhabit the very bodies and minds of these beings in their extremes of circumstances, we are therefore led to understand the impermanence of all who live on this 6-Realms- samsaric wheel of life, to pray for ourselves and all beings to attain liberation from it. That all beings, including ourselves, attain freedom from endlessly being reincarnated into one Realm or another with ceaseless suffering and no chance of liberation of our minds or bodies from this suffering, which is the definition of samsara, is the primary goal of Buddhist practice.
For the first portion of my retreat, this is the contemplation and these are the goals I am attempting to accomplish.
Starting with the “God” Realm, which is distinguished by its lush, extremely easy and comfortable circumstances, providing its inhabitants with abundant riches and resources, all that they could wish for in material goods, food, and luxuries, more than anyone could ever need or want, I immediately see that I live in what many in our world would consider a God Realm. I may personally not live at its pinnacle, but I know people who do and I live very close to having complete autonomy, which is in itself a God realm experience. I spend these days noticing the riches, the freedoms, the leisure I have and that many around me have.
I am grateful, appreciating deeply how differently I could be living, how those right near me are actually living with fewer resources and having more difficulties than I, even though I very much need to find another job (unemployed, again), have particular aches and pains and never enough money. I have the riches of dharma, unmatched by any material goods.
This is the perfect time, these are the perfect teachings, I have the perfect teacher, I am part of the perfect sangha (assembly of masters and student practitioners), these are the perfect circumstances. I could not be more fortunate. May all beings benefit.