Ep. 040: Character Types and the Six Realms of Being

Buddhist cosmology--and human psychology

Unfortunates in a hell-hall at Daxingshan Temple, Xi’an

Buddhist cosmology teaches something like the western idea of a "chain" of beings. We're going to take a look at each of the six levels of being in Buddhist cosmology and, more importantly, learn how they line up with various character or personality types found amongst our fellow humans.

So much excitement in this episode of


Western philosophy once taught something called the "Great Chain of Being," with God at the top, then angels, humans, animals, plants, and minerals. (I don't remember where politicians were placed, but I'm sure they were in there somewhere!)

Bhavachakra ("Wheel of Life") sculpture in Baodingshan Grottoes, Dazu, Chongqing

Buddhist cosmology postulates a similar idea, with some significant variations. Here, there are six types of beings inhabiting six realms, each with its own hell. The idea is that merit (good karma) causes one to move up the scale in the next birth; bad karma takes you down. There can also be micro-changes, gaining one a better or worse berth within a realm.

While all the Bodhisattvas help wherever they can, it is Dizang (Kshitigarbha) who vows to save all beings from their respective hells; the six levels are symbolized by the six rings on his staff.

Dizang with his six-ringed staff (visible to the left of his neck) has vowed to save the beings in the hells of all Six Realms. Daxingshan Temple, Xi’an

The Six Types of Beings in Buddhist Cosmology

Briefly, the Six Types of Beings are:

  1. devas (gods): Though dwelling in "heaven," the devas are subject to rebirth the same as all other beings.

  2. asuras (demi-gods or titans): These are somewhat god-like beings known for their warlike, jealous nature.

  3. humans: They say that being born human is the most fortunate of all. The devas are too busy being happy to seek Enlightenment, and the asuras are too busy "studying war." The beings in the lower realms are either too miserable, or lack the capacity, to seek Enlightenment. That makes us the only ones eligible.

  4. animals: More subject to impulse and instinct than we are, they suffer from their "eat-or-be-eaten" lifestyle.

  5. pretas (hungry ghosts): They landed at this level due to excessive cravings in previous lives, so they're born here with large, ravenous bellies, but necks too narrow to allow them to get full. These are the beings fed in the well-known "Ghost Festival" of the seventh lunar month (usually August for us).

  6. hell-beings: These are dwellers in a place most like our concept of hell, a place of punishment for such transgressions as murder, theft, and adultery. Still, like the devas, eventually their (in this case, evil) karma runs out, they die, and they're reborn in another realm.

The Tibetan-style Bhavachakra shows the Six Realms in the third ring from the center. These will be looked at more closely below.

It's important to note that all of these creatures are at some point reborn to another realm, or sometimes within the same realm. There is no concept of an eternal heaven or hell, just a constant round of rebirth, moving up and down the scale. This is the system that the Buddha was trying to "game" by teaching us how to attain nirvana and get off the wheel. In his thinking, eternal rebirth--no matter the level--meant eternal suffering.

A Practical Application

Now, if you've been reading the Newsletter or listening to the Podcast for long, you probably know that I'm not too big on the "supernatural" aspects of Buddhism (or any "religion"). Instead, I strive to seek out the practical implications and applications of the teachings. The miracle stories of Guanyin (Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva), for example, teach us something about the virtue of compassion; the events of the Buddha's life (historical or legendary) teach us about the path to wisdom; and so on.

Looking at the list of beings, it's pretty easy to deal with the presence of humans and animals, but the other four--gods, demi-gods, hungry ghosts, and hell-beings--are a little harder to swallow, especially for those of us who didn't grow up in that tradition.

This is where modern psychology comes in handy.

It's not my place to pass judgement on those who believe in the literal existence of these realms and their denizens. But for me, it's of great help to examine the underlying ideas behind each realm.

So here we go.

A tree grows from the asura realm into the deva realm, up which they climb to do battle. Note the Buddha on the upper-right.

devas (gods): A primary characteristic of the gods is--as you might expect--bliss. Things in this realm are just so danged good that the beings there have no need to seek out self improvement. "Don't worry, be happy." "Hakuna Matata." And this attitude leads to a kind of complacency--or stagnation.

One cannot help but think of the comfortable, upper-middle to upper-class person whose life has seen little in the way of struggle. Sure, they suffer in the same ways all of us do. But a silver spoon is no motivator. Further, while many in these classes have sympathy for "the other half," the less fortunate, many others have an "I got mine, go get your own" attitude. This latter group could be characterized as very much like the devas.

In contrast to this attitude, by the way, is what the great Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, inspired by the work of a number of 20th-century Chinese Buddhist reformers, calls "engaged Buddhism," which seeks ways "to apply insights from meditation practice and dharma teachings to situations of social, political, environmental and economic suffering and injustice." (Wikipedia)

But that's a hard sell for those who "have it made." Until they've walked a mile in another's shoes, they may not see the urgency of helping others. But for some, a hardship hits--like the devas being reborn in another realm--and it's like a wake-up call to the service of others.

The militant asuras. Note that the Buddha is here, too.

asuras (demi-gods or titans): I must confess, I sometimes have a hard time grasping the concept of the asura. They're not angels, who hold their place in Christian cosmology (between gods and humans). And they're not exactly demons either. My own confusion is reflected in the fact that, in some traditions, they are placed not just above, but just below humans, only a step above animals.

Perhaps one handle we can hold onto is that they regularly war with the devas, and those conflicts are sparked by envy. Is this, perhaps, analogous to the rebellion of Lucifer and his angels?

Anyway, envy or jealousy is one of their primary traits, along with wrath and pride, and a scrappy, war-like nature. In the human realm, I can't help but compare them to "social climbers," the people who see those who are better off than themselves and want what they have.

Lila and I recently saw Vanity Fair, a 2018 historical miniseries based on Thackeray's book. The main character, Becky Sharp, would be the perfect human asura, always striving to better her social and financial position, and never worrying about who she has to step on to climb to the top. She has been called an anti-heroine in the same way that the asuras are not just demi-gods but actual anti-gods, the dark shadow of divinities. Some of them, like the tempter Mara, go so low as to be considered demons; people like Becky, too, have their demonic side.

In the scale of the Six Realms, humans belong here. But--with good reason--I'll wait to discuss their psychological characteristics until the end of the Episode.

The placid animal realm has a Buddha, in the upper right.

animals: I needn't explain to you what an animal is. But the characteristics ascribed to animals in the Buddhist cosmological system could use some clarification.

In essence, animals are ignorant, and ignorance is one of the "three poisons" of Buddhism, though there's no moral element to this ignorance. Animals aren't generally known (with rare but notable exceptions) for their use of logic, relying on instinct rather than on decision-making.

We can readily imagine people like this. Some call them "sheeple." In the Indian system of power-centers called chakras, they would be operating at the three below the heart, focused (from the bottom) on food (or money), sex, and social power.

The hungry ghosts have big bellies and skinny necks.

pretas (hungry ghosts): The image of the big-bellied, choke-necked hungry ghost is self explanatory: they just can't get enough. Their overwhelming drive is desire, thirst, craving, to the exclusion of all other thoughts or feelings.

These are the greedy, the avaricious, the money-hungry, those whose love is "the root of all evil." They experience a sort of solipsism, unable to even perceive the existence of anyone or anything except in terms of how it serves their needs.

The naraka or hell-beings realm is disproportionately large in the Wheel illustration, the better to show all the torments. I have had to shrink it here, mercifully sparing you the sight. Still, there’s a Buddha.

hell-beings: Finally, we come to the actual dwellers in a hell-world (though each realm of the Buddhist cosmology has a hell of its own). I have seen some truly ghastly images in the hell-halls of temples: people being sawed in half, having their eyes poked out, being crushed in a kind of press, being lashed while chained to a mast--every kind of horrible, Dante-esque torture imaginable: "souls" (if Buddhism believed in souls) in torment.

And don't we know people like this? Blinded by guilt, preoccupied by the pain of past mistakes, unable to move on?

The mundane human world--in which the animals participate (as the asuras do with the devas). Buddha? Check! And more than one, because is he both transcendent as in the other realms, and immanent (in the halls, teaching).

humans: On that cheery note, let me return to the human realm. Remember my proposition: that all six of the Buddhist realms are actually subsumed in the human. And so, amongst humans, we have:

  • the deva-type, blissfully unaware of the suffering of others, and unmotivated to improve things for others or themselves

  • the asura-type, so engaged in the struggle of life, the envy of others, that they cannot focus on what's virtuous

  • the animal-type, driven by lower motivations and unable to reason their way to a better state

  • the hungry ghost-type, whose greed prevents them from living a fuller life

  • and the hell-being-type, tormented by the past and unable to move toward the future.

The human among all these types is the one who is not blissfully unaware, not envious to the point of open conflict, not ignorant and instinct-driven, not blinded by greed, and not stuck in the past. The human is the one who has cleared the way to engage in what has come to be called in the last couple of decades "human flourishing" (I love that phrase!)

And so, the Buddhist teaching says, it is those in the human realm--for us, the human-types--who have a chance to seize Enlightenment (whatever that is), who can dedicate their efforts to the practice of compassion for others and the development of wisdom in themselves.

And rare it is, they say, to be born with such a chance. Fortunate it is to be born human! One story says: Imagine a vast, virtually limitless ocean. There is a wooden ring floating on it, maybe a foot or so across. In that ocean lives a turtle who comes up for air once in a thousand years. The chances of being born human--for a being stuck in the cycle of rebirth--are the same as that of the turtle ascending and passing his head through the ring!

And so let us not waste the chance. Let us clear whatever the obstructions are, and engage in a practice that brings us to maximum human flourishing!


Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!

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In the next episode: Come visit the mountain resort of the Qing emperors and the stunning Tibetan and Chinese blend of styles at the truly spectacular Puning Temple.