The Different Realms of Existence and Karma

Understanding Rebirth in Life Forms Other Than Human or Animal

A topic that is often skipped over is that of the sufferings of the three lower realms, or the “three worse realms” as I prefer to call them. The Tibetan term is actually the “three bad realms,” but “bad” seems a bit heavy, so I call them worse. There’s no word that refers to these reals as “lower.”

Some people like to make a Dharma-Lite version of the worst realms, and in fact of the various six realms. We can accept that there are humans and animals, and some people might accept that there are ghosts or spirits. Other life forms however, are a bit difficult. The Dharma-Lite version says that the realms are really talking about psychological or mental states of humans. One aspect of the teachings points out that after rebirth in one of these realms there’ll remain a slight residue of that type of experience in a human rebirth, if it is a human rebirth that follows. So in fact there is something similar in a human experience, but this is not Real Thing six realms.

In Real Thing Dharma, everything is based on a mental continuum with no beginning or end. If we examine what is experienced in terms of sights, sounds, physical sensations, happiness and unhappiness and so on, we can see that there are many different parameters that affect and color our experience, interest, disinterest, attention and lack of it. For each of these parameters we’re talking about a whole spectrum that ranges from total interest to total disinterest, total attention to no attention at all, total anger to no anger whatsoever, and so on. We always experience everything on a spectrum like this.

This is the case with sight, for example, where there’s a whole spectrum of light and with our human hardware, we’re only able to perceive a certain amount of that spectrum. We can’t see infrared or ultraviolet light, but have to use mechanical hardware to perceive them. But the hardware of an owl, for instance, is able to perceive sights that we can’t, like in the dark.

With the hardware of a dog’s ears, a dog can hear sounds of higher frequency than the human ear can. A dog’s nose is far more sensitive to smells than our human noses. These points are quite clear. Just because the hardware of the human body can’t perceive a certain portion of a spectrum of sense information, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible for those portions beyond our borders to be perceived by others. Just because we can’t see ultraviolet and infrared, it doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. It just requires different hardware.

Levels of Pain and Pleasure beyond Our Human Limits

Our individual mental continuum is not restricted to having one particular type of hardware that is connected with one type of body, and our mental activity is capable of perceiving anything anywhere on the spectrums. If it’s the case with the spectrum of sights, sounds, smells and so on, is there any reason why this is also not the case with the spectrum of pleasure and pain, happiness and unhappiness? If we speak in terms of physical sensations, with our human hardware, when the pain becomes too strong, we automatically shut down and become unconscious. This doesn’t mean that greater amounts of pain don’t exist; it’s just that our hardware is incapable of perceiving them. It has a safety mechanism that shuts down.

We can also speak about the other side of the spectrum, pleasure. If we analyze it objectively, we similarly have a mechanism in our hardware that destroys or stops pleasure when it reaches a certain level. If you think of sexual pleasure, when it reaches a certain level we’re drawn to basically end it with an orgasm. It’s the same thing with an itch, which is not painful, but is actually intense pleasure. It’s so pleasurable that we have to destroy it by scratching it.

It’s not a joke actually! For a number of years I had a chronic itch, where my scalp and forehead itched violently a great deal of the time. Doctors could not figure out what was causing it. The only way to live with it was to recognize that it was pleasure and just relax and enjoy it. Although it required a tremendous amount of mindfulness and concentration, when I was able to do it, it was okay and I wasn’t disturbed by the itch. But normally, if we have a mosquito bite, then it’s too much and we have to destroy the sensation. The body automatically tries to shut it down.

Following this line of analysis, why can’t there be the hardware of a living being that is able to perceive and experience further on the spectrum of pain and further on the spectrum of pleasure. Why not? There is no logical reason why not. The same things applies to the spectrum of the mental factor of happiness and unhappiness, which we mustn’t confuse with pleasure and pain. Happiness or unhappiness can accompany any type of physical or mental experience. We can experience the pain of a strong massage with great happiness because it’s relieving the muscle. Even if it hurts, we’re happy: no pain, no gain! Happy and unhappy are a different parameter than pain and pleasure, even if the two sets are similar. Why? If we get really unhappy we get depressed. If we get really depressed, what do we do? Kill ourselves. So, there are limits to our hardware of how much unhappiness we can take. So, why can’t there be greater unhappiness and greater happiness on either side of the spectrum beyond which we human beings can tolerate?

If it is indeed the case that the further limits of the spectrums can be perceived by mental activity, then connected with that would be the appropriate body and hardware that would be able to perceive them. Our mental continuums have the capacity to experience any portion of the spectrums and to generate the appropriate hardware to be able to perceive them. As I said before, just because our human hardware isn’t able to experience extreme pain or pleasure, it doesn’t prove that other hardware can’t or doesn’t exist. Do these realms and their environments exist in reality? Sure – they exist just as much in reality as our human realm exists. It just means that we’re not able to perceive them, but so what?

Taking Rebirth in Different Realms Seriously

I’m explaining all of this from my own understanding. I haven’t heard anyone else explain it like this, but it makes sense to me and helps me to take more seriously these other realms. It makes sense because I’m looking at the mental continuum of mental activity and its capability of experiencing the entire spectrum of sight, sound, pleasure, pain, happiness, unhappiness and so on. It then follows that our mental continuum would need to have the appropriate physical hardware of a body that is able to perceive and withstand these further extremes of these spectrums of experience. With this understanding, meditation on the six realms is not just using “imagination” to visualize feeling extreme pain. We need to take their existence and the possibility of our experiencing them seriously.

I hope this is a helpful way of thinking of these different realms. Understanding and accepting their existence is a consequence of really taking refuge or safe direction. If we’re really convinced that Buddha was not deluded and that everything he said was meaningful for helping others overcome suffering and not stupid or irrelevant, then that means that we need to take everything we find in the teachings seriously. If we don’t understand something, then we try to figure out what in the world it could all mean. When Buddha spoke about these different realms, he wasn’t speaking just symbolically. In terms of the initial scope of Real Thing Dharma, we really have to take them seriously, because we don’t want to experience rebirth in them. A lot depends, then, on our understanding of individual mental activity going on forever. It’s not an easy pill to swallow, I know.

Building Up Causes for a Better Rebirth

Here we begin our discussion of karma, even if we won’t go into the great complexities of it. Instead we’ll look at it on a practical level. I’ll use myself as an example since I’ve already talked a bit about how I’ve related to this material, and the initial scope is difficult! I’ve been making this enormous website of Dharma material, and part of my motivation is to benefit others who might read it. But I must admit that part of my motivation is for my own benefit because I think that if I put enough energy into it, then in future lifetimes I’m going to be instinctively drawn to it as a child, if I’m fortunate enough to be born again as a human being. So I’m trying to prepare for my future lives by doing something that will help to draw me back to the Dharma at a very early age.

Perhaps I am building up the causes for reconnecting quickly with the Dharma when I have another precious human rebirth, but am I actually building up the causes for the precious human rebirth itself? Am I fooling myself? Am I doing a slight Dharma-Lite version of the initial scope? We always have to examine ourselves throughout the three scopes. Are we leaving out parts? To be a person of any of the scopes, it needs to be something that affects our whole attitude toward life.

The Causes for a Better Rebirth: Ethical Self-Discipline

The teachings express very clearly what the causes are for a precious human rebirth. The main cause is ethical self-discipline, where we refrain from acting destructively. It also implies engaging in constructive activities like meditation, helping others and so on. Here we’ll talk specifically about not acting destructively, as we have a list of the ten destructive actions. These are the most significant ones, but obviously there are plenty more:

  • Taking a life
  • Taking what has not been given to us
  • Engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior
  • Lying
  • Speaking divisively
  • Speaking harshly
  • Chattering meaninglessly
  • Thinking covetously
  • Thinking with malice
  • Thinking distortedly with antagonism.

How seriously should we avoid these actions? We’re not talking about becoming a fanatic and being so stuff that we never do anything destructive whatsoever and imagine that we have to be a saint. We’re not at that level yet. We do, however, need to develop an ability to observe what we’re doing, so that when we start to act destructively we notice it and can recognize the disadvantages of it, namely that it will bring unhappiness and suffering to “me.” There’s no guarantee of what the effect will be on someone else, but we can guarantee that the effect on ourselves in the future will be unhappiness. Because we don’t want to experience this, we refrain from acting destructively.

What would stop us from not refraining? Basically, if we’re not convinced on a deep level that unhappiness and suffering result from acting destructively, and that the unhappiness, suffering and pain we now experience result from having previously acted destructively, then we won’t care. But if we don’t want to continue experiencing these difficulties,, we will refrain from any further destructive behavior. We need to be convinced of the causal relationship between destructive behavior and unhappiness, and between constructive behavior and happiness. This isn’t easy, but this confidence is the key factor for really becoming a person of the initial scope. Then of course there's laziness, etc., even if we are convinced. But that’s another story.

The Validity of the Teaching on Karma

The way to gain conviction and valid inferential understanding of karma as explained in the texts is to rely on authority. In other words, if we follow what Buddha said about developing concentration and an understanding of voidness, it will eliminate our disturbing emotions. From our own personal experience we can see that this works. We can actually gain an understanding through experience that the teachings bring about an end to disturbing emotions. If what Buddha taught about these things are true, and the reason why Buddha was able to become enlightened and teach was due to his compassion and wish to benefit others, there’s no reason why he would lie to us about karma. Therefore, we regard Buddha as a valid source of information, and thus we infer that he is a valid source of information about karma.

I don’t know about you, but even if I can understand the logic here, it doesn’t really convince me on a very deep level. I’d like to understand a little bit better so it helps me become convinced in terms of the traditional textual explanation. It’s clear that just through regular inference based on logic, one cannot prove that unhappiness results from destructive behavior. It says this very specifically in the texts. But since we’re not able to see how karma works with bare or straightforward perception, that means that we have to investigate more deeply to get more information, to try and understand the relationship between destructive behavior and unhappiness. How can we connect the two? His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says we need to approach this like scientists.

The Causal Connection between Destructive Behavior and Unhappiness

We have the abhidharma (special topics of knowledge) teachings, of which there are different versions in different schools of Indian Buddhism. There’s a text by Vasubandhu from the Vaibhashika school, a Hinayana tradition. Then we have a Mahayana version by Asanga, as well as a Theravada one by Anuruddha, which is also Hinayana. When we investigate destructive behavior in each of these textual traditions, how is it defined?

We’ll be nonsectarian about this, with the approach that each of the different analyses sheds light on the topic. They are not contradictory. In each, we find lists of mental factors that always accompany destructive behavior. If we look at these mental factors, we can see ourselves whether it’s a happy or unhappy state of mind.

The Mental Factors That Accompany Destructive Behavior

I’ll go through some of the main features on the list of mental factors that are present with destructive behavior, which will provide a clearer picture of what we’re talking about. We’re not just talking about the destructive actions themselves, but the actual state of mind that goes along with them. In other words, what makes an action destructive? It may be destructive, but it’s not simply the action that produces unhappiness. There are various mental factors connected with it, too.

Some accompanying mental factors are:

  • No sense of values – a lack of respect for positive qualities or people possessing them. We can understand this, because we’ve all seen people who have no respect for the law or anything positive, or for people who are doing good; they clearly don’t value any of this.
  • No scruples – a lack of restraint from being brazenly or openly negative. Basically, it means “I don’t care what I do.” Is this a happy or unhappy state of mind? If we have this type of attitude, we’re probably not very happy people.
  • Naivety – not knowing or not accepting that gross suffering and unhappiness follow from acting destructively. We think we can act as destructively as we want and there will be no consequences.
  • Attachment or hostility, but they don’t necessarily need to be present. We know that when we’re very attached it’s not a terribly happy state of mind, and nor are we happy when we’re very angry or hostile. “I can’t live without this!” and “I hate you!” are not very happy states of mind.
  • No sense of moral self-dignity – no sense of self-pride and, instead, low self-esteem. We find this in sociology too. If you tell someone that they’re no good and never allow them to develop a sense of self-pride or self-dignity, then they might feel they can become suicide bombers because they don’t value themselves. They’ve been convinced that they’re a piece of crap. The worst thing you can do to an oppressed people is to take away their sense of self-dignity. It’s not hard to imagine that when we have no sense of pride, we think we’re worthless, and that is by no means a happy state of mind.
  • Not caring for how our actions reflect on others – this might be a very Asian mentality, to think that if we act poorly it reflects on our family, our caste, our gender, our social group and so on. We don’t care about any of this and this attitude accompanies acting destructively.
  • Restlessness – another factor added by Anuruddha, the opposite of being content and at peace with ourselves. Our mental state is unsettled and uneasy. When we’re engaging in destructive behavior, we’re not at ease.

If we learn about these different types of mental factors that could accompany destructive behavior, we’ll see more clearly the relationship between destructive behavior, generally characterized by these mental factors, and unhappiness. Although I still can’t logically infer that unhappiness results from it, the association makes it make much more sense. Then, I’ll go back to what’s given in the text, more confident that Buddha is a valid source of information about the relationship.

The Mental Factors That Accompany Constructive Behavior

Now we can look at the mental factors that might accompany constructive type of behavior, to see its relationship with happiness. The list is longer than the one above, when we put together the information from the three different abhidharma sources:

  • Belief in fact – a belief that happiness comes from refraining from destructive behavior, and that unhappiness comes from destructive behavior and from a stubborn, contentious state of mind that doesn’t believe anything when presented with the facts. If we’re presented with something that is true, we believe it.
  • Care about the consequences of our behavior on ourselves and others
  • A sense of fitness – feeling good about ourselves, so that we’re able to refrain from hurting others, for example. A good feeling of self-control is a happier state of mind than one that is completely out of control. It’s like when we’re completely full and there’s that extra slice of cake and, when we have no control, we eat it. Afterwards we feel a bit bad and unhappy about ourselves, “I’m really stuffed now, I don’t feel very well.” But if we were able to refrain from eating that extra piece of cake, then we actually feel pretty good about ourselves, “Yes! I was able to control myself and not be like a pig!”
  • Serenity – a state of mind free from flightiness and dullness. When we’re refraining from acting destructively and shouting at someone, our mind is not wandering all over the place. It’s not dull so we don’t know what we’re doing. The mind is clear and serene, and we know what we’re doing.
  • A sense of values and respect – admiring and looking up to those who have positive qualities and to positive qualities in general
  • Scruples – we care about what we do, so will refrain from acting negatively.
  • Detachment – we’re not attached to having to give our unwanted opinion and say something stupid and meaningless, or having to yell or having to do something destructive.
  • Lack of hostility
  • Non-violence
  • Courageous vigor – being strong and persevering in acting constructively, which means that no matter how hard it is not to eat that last piece of cake, we are not going to eat it!

All of these give us a flavor of a happy state of mind, don’t they?

Anuruddha presents even more mental factors:

  • Balance of mind – the emotional maturity and stability that sets us free from attachment and repulsion
  • Mindfulness – the mental glue that keeps us from losing a certain state of mind
  • Calmness
  • Buoyancy – the opposite of being foggy-minded or sleepy
  • Flexibility – the opposite of stubbornness and arrogance, it removes stiffness. An example of what it removes would be, “It doesn’t matter that it’s going to hurt your feelings, but I have to say what an ugly dress you’re wearing.” That’s being stubborn and arrogant. The opposite of this is to be flexible.
  • Serviceability – a fitness and readiness to be able to apply ourselves to something beneficial. It’s the opposite of having mental or emotional blocks. We’re ready to do whatever has to be done, like, “I’m ready to put my hand in the toilet even if it’s dirty, in order to take out the fly that’s drowning in there. I don’t have any mental blocks about that.” This is what we’re talking about. When we don’t have mental or emotional blocks, we have a much happier state of mind. If we have them, then we’re afraid and insecure, which is not a happy state of mind. If we have serviceability, we’ll think, “What’s the big deal with the toilet being dirty? I can wash my hand afterwards. The life of this fly is more important.”

Another example of a mental block could be that someone has drowned and we need to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but the person is the same gender as we are or we think they’re really ugly, or whatever. If we have a mental block against putting out mouth against theirs, it would prevent us from helping them. If we had no mental block, then we would help them straight away. This is the feeling of being fit and ready to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to whoever needs it. Two final factors are:

  • A sense of proficiency – the opposite of a lack of confidence
  • Uprightness – we’re honest, not hypocritical, and don’t pretend to have qualities we don’t have, nor do we hide our weak points.

We can understand that if we’re calm, self-confident, fit, without mental blocks, care about what we do, and have a sense of values, we’ll certainly have a happier state of mind. It is by having confidence in this that we’ll have more and more confidence in the most basic law of karma, which is that destructive behavior leads to unhappiness and constructive behavior leads to happiness. This causal connection is not this way because Buddha created everything and made the law like this. Moreover, happiness is not a reward for acting constructively, and unhappiness is not a punishment for acting destructively. Instead, we understand in a much more reasonable fashion the connection between the type of behavior that we have and our experience of happiness and unhappiness.

When we understand the mechanism whereby the karmic aftermath, tendencies and potentials from our behavior can carry on into future lives, we’ll realize that the way we behave in this lifetime is going to affect what we experience in future lifetimes.

Summary of the Initial Scope of Motivation

We can see that to really transform into a person of the initial scope is no small accomplishment. With this accomplishment, we are fully convinced that our mental continuum will continue on with no end, lifetime to lifetime. We’re fully convinced that the way we behave now will affect our future experiences. We realize that we have this precious human rebirth where our behavior is not ruled entirely by instinct like a carnivorous animal drawn to kill, or a dog in heat that just jumps up on anything. We have the human ability of intelligence to be able to discriminate between what is beneficial and what is harmful, and the ability to act on this. We also know that this opportunity will not last forever, but will be lost when we die.

After we die, we will continue to exist. We could exist based on destructive behavior in life forms where we don’t have the capacity to discriminate between what’s helpful and harmful, and would act instinctively destructively again and again. This would create further unhappiness and suffering. Instead, we have a safe direction that’s indicated by the true stoppings and true pathways of the mind, a direction that gets rid of all suffering and its causes. Therefore, we have to ensure that we continue to have precious human rebirths.

Although we aim to get rid of disturbing emotions and unawareness and so on, the tendencies are still there on our mental continuums. Although we aim to achieve a true stopping of them, nevertheless since at this point we can’t entirely get rid of greed and anger and so on, at least there is this initial step we can take. This step is that when, for instance, anger and the feeling to yell at someone comes up, we discriminate between what’s helpful and what isn’t, and see that it will be a cause for us to experience unhappiness. Therefore we refrain from acting it out.

This is the basic mental framework of a person of the initial scope. If we want to add on top of this the various causes for completing the conditions of having a precious human rebirth, then as various texts state, we need to be generous, patient, persevering and so on. Also, having a strong connection with our spiritual teachers and the Dharma will create tendencies for this to ripen and happen again when we’re fortunate enough to have a precious human rebirth.

In addition, we have prayer. This is talking about a dedication of positive force, which we want to direct toward this goal of attaining a precious human rebirth. There are plenty of these prayers, for instance: “May I be protected and safeguarded by precious gurus in all my lifetimes.” This is where these fit in.

If, in this lifetime we actually achieve being a person of the initial scope, we’ll have made tremendous spiritual progress on the Buddhist path. We shouldn’t think that it’s a trivial, easy thing, because we’re talking about a sincere, heartfelt understanding and conviction. It’s a great accomplishment and, as we saw earlier, we are the main witness to judge and evaluate if we’re sincerely like this, or whether we’re just kidding ourselves.


It’s easy to brush off the idea of different realms as some sort of fantasy, but if we are to make progress on the Buddhist path, it’s important for us to take them seriously. We can use easy-to-understand reasoning to see that there are beings out there who can see further than us and hear better than us, and there is no reason as to why there are not beings out there who can feel more pleasure than us, and feel more pain than we can.

Once we understand this, and also become convinced of the validity of karma, we are bound to naturally avoid destructive emotions. Not only this, but we’ll delight in engaging in constructive actions that bring us happiness and better future rebirths.