The Six Realms of Samsara

Hungry Ghost OMPFrom A Brief Description of the Bardo
by Thrangu Rinponche, Geshe Lharampa 

Chapter One
An Introduction to the Bardo Teachings

It is said that human beings have a body, speech and mind. The body consists of flesh and blood while he mind is a collection of the eight consciousnesses and speech, a conjunction of the body and mind, is the creation of sound to communicate with others. Body and the mechanisms for speech are created in the mother’s womb, greatly develop at birth, and cease at death. The mind, however, is not created in the mother’s womb; it does not disappear like the body after death. Throughout beginningless time the mind has been habituated to its karmic tendencies. Through the force of grasping to a self, the mind enters the physical form in the mother womb at conception and this process is called “name and form’ in the twelve steps of interdependent origination. “Name” refers to sensations, identification, mental events and the consciousnesses, the four mental aggregates. “Form” refers to the first aggregate of form.

So there is the combination of name and form. The mind by clinging to a self adopts the “name and form” link of interdependent origination in the mother’s womb. The consciousness of the fetus itself comes from the second link called samskara which is the accumulation of actions performed in the previous existence. Due to this accumulation, the consciousness takes on a new form in a specific new life. The consciousness of this specific life that begins in the womb comes from a previous lifetime based on the actions performed then.

From the moment of life until death the mind and body are united and they are separated again at death. Then the body becomes a corpse, and the mind begins to experience newsensations or appearances. The time between a previous life to the time of conception in a womb is called the bardo, or the “intermediate state” in English.

What is the consciousness in the bardo like? It is said that if we were blind or deaf during life, we will be able to see and hear during the bardo, i.e., all sensory faculties will be complete. There is no blindness, no lameness, no sensory deficiencies in bardo. In the Abhidharma a being in the bardo has miraculous
power of activity in that he or she can go anywhere, which causes a great problem for individuals. During life the mind can be very distracted because it can think of various things, going here and there while being in a solid body. We can think of anything we like while the body stays where it is. During bardo, on the other hand, the mind thinks of a certain place and we are automatically there. When we arrive, we think of another place and are immediately there. In bardo there is no stability whatsoever; it is impossible to find a place where one can definitely remain; we are in a state described as being like a
feather blown about by the wind. This state causes great confusion and suffering for us.

What will benefit the individual at the time of death? If a practitioner while alive has been able to gain some understanding of the nature of the mind by developing mindfulness and awareness and has been able to see how the mind works and is able to establish mental stability, it will be very beneficial during the bardo. In the bardo mindfulness and awareness of the mind’s activities is important and what brings
about stability of mind is very beneficial for bardo. When the mind is separated from the body during the bardo, it experiences a quality of naked awareness. Without meditation practice, we will not be able to recognize what is happening to us nor understand the arising appearances. With the development of stable meditation of shamatha and insight of vipashyana meditation, we will be able to recognize what is occurring through clarity of the mind. We can then enter into a state of meditation at death. When great practitioners die, they are able to enter the state called thug-dam and consequently have control over death. In this state of meditation the body remains warm and the cells of the body don’t start to dissolve. These are signs that a great practitioner has entered a slate of meditation at death and is able to voluntarily remain in that state.

If we recognize the nature of the mind at death, we will not be frightened when unknown appearances confront us, but will know that death has set in and will be able to recognize all manifestations of death. Without recognition of death and its arising appearances, we will be frightened and have no control of the mind, which then runs wild and cannot be pacified. We therefore practice meditation in this life to be able to control the mind then.

Having cultivated meditation practice during life, one can enter into the state of deep meditation or samadhi at the time of death. Without practice one falls into an unconscious state and awakes to the experience of various delusions, which are manifestations of the one hundred peaceful and wrathful deities within oneself. Forty-two peaceful deities are in the heart center, fifty wrathful deities in the crown center and eight semiwrathful deities, called vidyadharas, in the throat center. They are latent in the subtle channels and cakras during life but aren’t seen while we are alive.

At death, when the mind has separated from the body, all deities manifest. First the peaceful deities of the heart center appear very brightly and clearly, remaining for a long time. Without meditation practice we will not be able to recognize the peaceful deities for what they are and will be annoyed by their bright light. But with meditation practice we will recognize the deities and can enter their respective bright lights without fear. After the peaceful deities have appeared, the wrathful deities manifest for a brief period of time.

The six realms of samsara (Tib. rikdruk)
These are the possible types of rebirths for beings in samsara.

God (Skt. deva, Tib. lha)

Sanskrit for god. These are more highly evolved beings who is still part of samsara and therefore in need of Dharma teachings to reach enlightenment.

Jealous gods (Skt. asura, Tib. lha ma yin)

These beings are very jealous of the gods and are often depicted as cutting down the wish-fulfilling trees of the gods.

Human

This is the world of human beings and is considered the best realm to be born in because it is the realm which has the best possibility of reaching enlightenment. Even in the god realm, the gods are so involved in their pleasures that they don’t seek enlightenment.

Hungry ghosts (Skt. preta, Tib. yadik)

A type of being who is always starving and thirsty. This is the result of excessive greed in previous lifetimes and are depicted as having an enormous stomachs and a thin throat. See the six realms of samsara.

Animal

This is the realm of animals who have the main obstacle of stupidity. Even though they may want to reach happiness, as all sentient being do, they do not have the intellectual capacity to understand how to do so.

Hell

In this realm there is much suffering with one being either extremely hot or extremely cold with there being no end of the feeling. The beings of these realms are consumed with anger or aggression.

In the Chenresig practice when we say the mantra OM MANI PEDME HUM, the OM is to liberate beings in the god realm, MA to liberate those in the jealous god realm, PE for the animal realm, ME for the hungry ghosts, and HUNG for those in the hell realms.

Namo Buddha Publications (c) 1999

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4 thoughts on “The Six Realms of Samsara

  1. Julianne Victoria April 19, 2013 at 2:38 pm Reply

    Does Asura translate as jealous god, not as demons, or is that considered the same thing?

  2. thesevenminds April 19, 2013 at 9:36 pm Reply

    Interesting question. My understanding is that the sentient beings above the human realm are gods and demi-gods. I would deem the asuras (or titans) demigods. They are usually portrayed as less ‘enlightened’ than the devas, as they are jealous of them and are said to continually wage war on them. They cannot reach liberation because of their intense jealousy. Jealous demi-gods. (But the words of a Rinpoche take precedent over mine. So jealous gods they are.)
    Does that make them demons? Not in Buddhism. The rakshasas seem to reside in the intermediate state, and are able to ‘shape-shift’. Into what? Good question… Namaste.

  3. Julianne Victoria April 20, 2013 at 2:56 pm Reply

    Namaste _/l\_

  4. thesevenminds June 26, 2013 at 7:19 pm Reply

    The Tibetan book of death showed asuras as warring demigods. And I stuck with the literal text of the Geshe. But…looking at the word itself, it is a-sura. Which in the Gita are said to be demons. They are not-suras, not-gods but still powerful. I like the Tibetan book of the dead, but I will side with the Gita on this one. I happen to find it very important to not mix up gods and demons. Just a note to self for when I get around to finishing this post. 😀 Namaste.

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