The Six Realms

By George Draffan from:

Driven By Desire - Why The Global Economy Won’t Satisfy Us
Ultimately, it’s not greed or aggression that’s the problem: it’s ignoring, not feeling or understanding, the effects of that greed and aggression. We think some self-indulgent action is going to make us happy, so we do it, and we believe we’ve gotten away with it, so we do it a few more times. All the while, our inappropriate behavior undermines our happiness. Somehow, we never make that connection, and so we keep doing this thing that isn’t making us happy; we do it even harder, faster.

But if we can extricate ourselves from that cycle even for a little while, we begin to see that it isn’t making us happy. The problem then is that the impacts of our behavior are so shocking and horrifying, we immediately go into denial again to numb ourselves. On a personal level, we turn away from homeless people — or never even see them at all, standing there dying. On the economic level, we buy and consume vegetables grown with pesticides because they’re cheaper.

Jensen: I’ve known you for a while, and it’s pretty clear to me that your perspective has been deeply influenced by Buddhism.

Draffan: Yes, what we’re really talking about here is awareness, and Buddhism is all about awareness. It’s about becoming more aware of suffering: that other people suffer; that I suffer. It’s about recognizing that happiness is an elusive — and illusive — goal that we keep striving to reach. And out of that awareness comes a desire for something deeper, a willingness to slow down and start paying attention to what is actually happening, instead of being so focused on getting what I believe will make me happy. When I stop long enough to see what is actually happening — both externally and internally — that clarity enables me to take effective action commensurate with what I and other people really need. Buddhist meditation can be a tool for dismantling habitual behavior and projections.

Jensen: What sort of "projections"?

Draffan: We often project our emotional states onto the world, and this prevents us from seeing it clearly. The ancient Buddhists — and, before them, the Hindus — had a different way of describing this. They believed the world is divided into six realms of being, of which the human is only one. The others are the realms of hungry ghosts, hell beings, animals, gods, and jealous gods. To the ancients, these were literally different realms. To a modern person, it might be more helpful to see them as worlds we project onto this one when in the grip of certain emotional obsessions. Buddhist teacher Ken McLeod has done some excellent work on making these ancient contemplative practices relevant to us today.

The hungry-ghost realm, for example, is projected when you are habitually overcome by grasping and greed. The hungry ghosts have huge stomachs and tiny mouths and necks, so they can never get enough to eat, and whatever they do eat turns to fire. If you’re a hungry ghost, you live in a world rich in resources — like the earth — but as far as you’re concerned, you’re wandering in a desert. Nothing satisfies. Sound familiar?

Of course, normal human desire is not as strong as the grasping greed of the hungry ghosts. In the human realm, you actually get some enjoyment out of the things you acquire or consume, but the satisfaction doesn’t last very long. Once I have dinner, I want dessert. Once I have dessert, I want seconds. Humans’ endless desires lead to constant busyness — always working, always trying to achieve more, always driven by a desire that we can never quite satisfy. A thousand-year-old Tibetan text describes the human realm as one of "incessant activity and constant frustration," a never-ending sense that things are not quite right.

The animal realm is based on instinct. According to this cosmology, animals are very efficient and clever, very suited to their world, but they’re locked into certain instincts. Humans enter the animal realm when we’re locked into our instinctual way of thinking and doing.

The hell-beings realm is where everything is seen as opposition. Everyone is attacking everyone else. It’s a realm of aggression, paranoia, hate, and fighting.

Then there’s the god realm, where you feel complete satisfaction to the point of being self-absorbed. The gods live for thousands of years in total comfort, but at some point their time runs out. As they realize they’re going to die, they suffer even more than the beings in the lower realms, because they’d believed this pleasurable state would last forever.

The jealous-god realm is based, obviously, on jealousy, and also on competition. The jealous gods see how comfortable the gods are, and they want that comfort, too, and will do anything to get it. They constantly attack the god realm, but they always lose.

Even if you don’t believe that these realms exist, you might recognize these same emotional states in yourself. The hungry ghosts, for example, might remind you of the desire to have something that, once you get your hands on it, turns out not to be what you want. We need to notice when this happens and understand what the end result of these obsessions is: being stuck in a projected world where everything is viewed through those emotions.

The basis of Buddhist mindfulness meditation is to slow down and focus your attention on something neutral, such as your breath, because it helps us to see through the projections.

Jensen: You once explained to me the First Noble Truth of Buddhism, "Life is suffering," in a way that helped me to understand its meaning — something I’d never been able to do before.

Draffan: The difficulty is in the translation. I’m not sure suffering is the right word. The word in Sanskrit is dukha, which literally means "a wheel with the axle hole off-center." Dukha means that things never seem quite right, and it encompasses everything from vague existential angst, to excruciating mental and physical torture, to inescapable old age, sickness, and death. Even when we find something that gives us pleasure, these pleasures are never permanent; in the back of our mind is the belief that we should be happy all the time. We’re never completely satisfied. One of the first steps to awareness, I think, is to realize that, although we’re pursuing happiness, we’re actually suffering. We’ve been pursuing something that not only doesn’t satisfy, but doesn’t even exist. As Ken McLeod puts it, "We’ve been barking up a tree that isn’t there."

One traditional metaphor is that we’re licking honey from a knife: We keep tasting that sweetness, but we also feel the pain. So we focus on the honey and keep licking, thinking if we do it carefully enough or fast enough, or get a better knife, we’ll escape the pain.

In the phrase "Life is suffering," the Sanskrit word that’s commonly translated as "life" is samsara, which really means "round and round." It describes a circular way of thinking and behaving: going round and round grasping for things that don’t exist and therefore can’t actually bring you happiness. So, of course, "samsara is dukha," because it’s painful to go round and round trying to get something that’s not real.

The First Noble Truth could be translated as "Your reactive emotions and habitual projections cause you to suffer." Because of our delusions, and because we are controlled by the parts of us that are never satisfied, we turn everything to suffering; we are incapable of enjoying real pleasure, of letting it come and go. The problem isn’t that "life is suffering." The problem is that we are stuck in mental delusions and emotional obsessions.

Jensen: How do you link all this to our economic system?

Draffan: Well, the system is driven by our endless desire, and suffering is the result of our habitual ways of seeing and thinking and doing. I once read about a Canadian lumberman who said, "When I look at trees, I see dollar bills." Before we could deforest a mountain, we had to change the way we perceived it. Before the trees could be cut, they had to be redefined as property, and then as private property.

Once that projection and objectification has taken place — from living being to property, from trees to dollar bills — and once you identify possession of that object as your source of happiness, then everything else falls into place. The forest has been privatized, and the landslides and species extinctions are all externalized.


Jensen: What will it take for us to survive?

Draffan: Attention to and care for the world. No matter where you are, or what you’re trying to do — whether it’s in your personal life or in the political realm — slow down, pay attention, and take careful responsibility for everything you do.