When the Buddha finished speaking, the Group of Five were delighted by the scope and the clarity of his teaching. Now during the course of this talk, there arose in Venerable Kondañña the clear and pure seeing of the Dhamma “that whatever has the nature to arise, has the nature to cease.” This does not mean that he had a spectacular vision. Here, the view of wisdom is summed up in the simple phrase, “whatever has the nature to arise also has the nature to cease.” That’s the way it dawned upon Kondañña.
His realization was not just a mimicking of what the Buddha said; it is not to be realized through the logic of words but only by putting into practice what has been said about dukkha, attachment and desire. This is why Kondañña’s utterance is profound; he insightfully, gnostically saw the holding onto the world wherein dukkha is conditioned and is let go of. In order to recognize that everything—even the very thoughts and emotions that one has—just comes and goes means that there is dispassion and detachment, a clear seeing of how things work. Attachment means that we give thoughts or feelings a significance that they would not have if they were seen as passing phenomena. With attachment there is no independence from the immediate circumstances, no space to see things objectively. So we go up with the ups and down with the downs, falling into despair about being depressed, and we then languish in that mood.
Or, perhaps, we try to deny our depression. If we manage to deny and bury it, that depression can become embedded in the psyche and manifest as a negative or cynical view of life. If we try to blot out the dark side of our feelings with forced highs, we may end up frantically grasping at the sensory world in order to distract ourselves and prevent more depression. If we fail to notice that the highs, the gains and the happiness are impermanent, we feel disappointed when they end. Our heavens condition our hells, and our hells are strengthened by the memory or the possibility of heaven somewhere out of reach. To know in the heart that sadness and pain are impermanent is a profound relief from the suffering they bring and from the kamma of trying to avoid that suffering.
Such was Kondañña’s insight. Also instead of grasping and assuming, “I thought that, this is my idea, what a great insight!” he recognized that those very thoughts and perceptions arise, mature, wane and end. So there’s no attachment to the insight—even the emotional delight is, after all, something that arises and ceases. This coolness leaves the mind very clear and free from preoccupation or statements about “me having attained” something. Its lasting value is that it brings us to liberation from self-view.
This painting attempts to make a little more out of that cool insight, “whatever has the nature to arise has the nature to pass away.” The theme depicted in the center of the picture is the changing nature of all phenomena. To be more fully conscious of the phenomenal world involves a deepening of the mind’s receptivity. This leads to a deepening of awareness rather than an increase in the analytical framework by which one classifies (and remains separate from) phenomena. In the course of exploring consciousness, a huge amount of psychological and emotional conditioning comes to light. It is the result (vipaka) of kamma in the near or remote past. This conditioning so much affects our experience of the world that it can no longer be separated from that experience. Kamma and its results define our personal “world”—the realm of conscious experience. This world is called loka in Pali to distinguish it from the objective world, called jagati. The catalysts of time and place and particular events tend to trigger off experiences of elation, despair, contentment or inferiority, whose roots are in the kamma-saturated consciousness. Those who begin to investigate the mind can often experience this whole range of moods and feelings while apparently “doing” nothing special.
In the practice of insight, we see that the felt quality of an experience is variable: one person can react to another as menacing, a second would find that person charming. Our feelings and perceptions of the world fluctuate not only between different beings, but also within ourselves. Whatever change we perceive in the external world is small compared to the minute-by-minute—or even faster—way that the realms of mental perception and mood can change. Processes within consciousness are in a constant state of arising and ceasing to generate new forms. The very complexity and variety of that flow of phenomena is mesmerizing; it keeps us from noticing that it has the nature to arise and cease. However, although it changes, the world as an experience in mental consciousness can be contemplated and understood clearly as a number of “realms.” The world of ordinary consciousness—that which is affected by sense desire—can be classified as sixfold, and appearing within a larger world system (or galaxy) of birth and death. This galaxy includes everything that has the will to become something, to exist as a self—even including those beings who seek out formless realms of jhana.¹ However, this painting is limited to the presentation of the worlds within the sensory sphere (material sphere) in which we can take birth. It is called the Six Realms of Existence.
Traditionally, these Six Realms are painted encircled by the twelve links of Dependent Origination, which I explained in the Second Noble Truth. The tradition dates back to the time of the Buddha when one of his chief disciples, Maha Moggallana Thera, who was a specialist in psychic powers, made frequent visits to the various heaven and hell realms. The story goes that he employed supernormal powers in order to learn how the beings in each of those realms experienced states of happiness or anguish dependent upon their actions in a previous life. They had to stay there until the vipaka (effect) was exhausted, whereupon they would take birth in another plane. Even the happy realms presented a tenuous security from the restless movement of the whole cycle of existence or samsara. He explained all that he had seen, and it was felt that people should be informed about this. So it was suggested that a picture be made, and copies hung up in the entrance of every monastery for all to see.
Generally the painting shows Yama, Ruler of the Dead, holding up a mirror. In the reflection of this mirror, we see the Six Realms. It’s to be understood that Yama is very fair. When people die, they go to see Yama, and he asks if they paid heed to the messengers that he had sent to the realm of humans to warn them about mortality—old age, sickness and death. He then asks them to recall any of their good deeds and these are written down; then the bad deeds are recounted. He rejoices when someone has lived skillfully and made good kamma. They are then conducted to the fortunate realms while those who lived in bad ways go to the unfortunate realms.
People who are near death say their whole life flashes in front of their eyes; it seems that Yama is present in our minds. We judge ourselves. Who could know us better? Actually, the Six Realms are not about Divine Judgement; they portray the laws of kamma operating in the sensory realm—a map of causes and then inevitable effects. Cosmology, like myth, is a convention. It depicts broad and immutable truths that are beyond our power to affect. We can create good kamma or bad kamma; but all kamma is going to have its effect, (vipaka), and all of it conies up for review. In fact, we create so much kamma that Yama visits us while we’re alive, and we are temporarily despatched to heaven and hell accordingly. Yama stops visiting when, through insight, we stop creating kamma through no longer basing our actions on the “me and mine” of self-view.
If you give up looking at yourselves as a soul [as a fixed and special identity], then you will have given yourselves a way to go beyond death. (Sutta Nipata: 1119; trans. Saddhatissa)
I’ve modified the traditional picture to accommodate this section of the Sutta. Here, I use the image to depict birth into mind states in this life. In the center is Kondañña, reminding us that the realms can only be realized and understood as impermanent by those who are centered in themselves and hence, also at the center of the realms. He is sitting right in the middle of it all—looking rather haggard it is true; but actually recognizing all this stuff, and, seeing it as conditioned phenomena, he lets it arise and pass away.
The other four of the Group of Five monks are looking outwards, thinking: “Oh, that was a really good teaching!” They may be gladdened and respectful, worshipping it all, but they haven’t actually seen it in themselves—it’s still out there. To them, perhaps the concept of change refers to the realm of Nature, the four seasons, symbolized by the changing state of the plant life in the four quadrants of the picture. To see change in such a way is a useful reflection; it reminds us that our bodies too must go through seasons. However, understanding the change of Nature doesn’t have the same impact as the insight that the realms of our perceptions and feelings are bound to change. This insight brings the experience of transiency into this moment and into what we take ourselves to be. And when we experience who we are as a constant flux, the sense of identification with any phase or aspect of that flux is undermined.
Maintain in being … the perception of impermanence for the purpose of eliminating the self-view; for when one perceives impermanence, the perception of non-self becomes established; and when one perceives not-self, one arrives at the elimination of the self-view, and that is Nibbana here and now. (Udana: [IV], (i); Anguttara Nikaya: [IV], Nines, 1)
The lowest realm, the pits, is the bottom left-hand side of the wheel. According to tradition, there are eight major hells, each with sixteen auxiliary hells, each of which has innumerable minor hells. They range from the most pleasant and commodious hell, Sanjiva—where beings are killed and then brought back to life in a continual cycle—down through hells of “black rope,” of “crushing and smashing,” of “screaming,” of “great screaming,” of “fires,” of “great fires,” to the lowest of them all, Avici Hell. This is the realm where matricides, patricides, murderers of Arahants, those who cause schism in the Sangha, those who have raped a nun and those who have shed the blood of a Buddha spend incalculable periods of time. It defies description. Anyway the kind of person who is humble enough to take guidance from this book isn’t liable to go there, and anyone who is due for a spell there probably wouldn’t heed the warning. Avici is the realm of suffering without respite. Other hells offer you a moment’s break, like the space between having one shovel of blazing coal tipped down your throat and the next. It’s hardly a vacation, but if you’ve just come out of Avici, in a lesser hell you’d probably feel that things were coming up roses. That’s how bad Avici is. So I haven’t attempted to paint Avici, just one of the ordinary hells—a river of fire symbolizing what it feels like when you’re really burning up with anger or violent hatred or pain.
Opinions differ as to the next realm of decreasing order of misfortune. Some say it’s the animal realm. Perhaps it isn’t a neatly stacked system. Anyway, the next one that I’ll deal with is the realm of the Hungry Ghosts (peta). Abiding as a hungry ghost is like being in a barren desert craving food and water. They have great fat bellies, but very skinny necks, which makes it impossible for them to get enough to eat. They’re always in a state of craving. That’s the place for swindlers, cheapskates, people who oppressed the poor and totally selfish beings. If you’re addicted to drugs or liquor, this realm is the place you’re headed for. The telltale signs of the petaloka start to manifest for those who are even psychologically dependent on drink or drugs. In that “hungry ghost” realm of addiction, there’s a lot of coarse selfishness, squalor and neglect of the body, and a mind that inclines to self-pity. The reflection here is that if you’re always thinking about yourself, it usually degenerates into whining about the bad deal you got and feeling hard-done by. There’s a lot of that complaining in the human mind anyway, especially wherever material values are prevalent. It doesn’t take much to tumble into the realm of the Hungry Ghosts. Conversely, when we expect little and bring forth our inner strength and resources from ourselves, we feel very full.
The animal realm is also an unfortunate one. For those who are fond of (some) animals or regard them as pure and innocent, reference to the animal realm as a lesser abiding can seem unfair. I’m not condemning animals—in fact, the Bodhisatta took many animal births and lived skillfully within those limitations. However, animal life involves severe limitations. Most animals spend their time in a realm of fear—they fear death and starvation. They are bound to a particular habitat which they cannot farm or improve very much. They are at the mercy of the weather, the forces of nature and human beings as well as predators. And they are constrained by territorial and breeding instincts which put them through all kinds of trials. Some can latch onto finer or more comfortable modes of existence and ways of living skillfully, either through their own conduct or as a result of association with human beings. Yet, this association can be utterly wretched as when animals are kept for food, or are treated as passive objects of someone’s moods and whims. In the context of the Six Realms, the animal world symbolizes the volition that is associated with reproduction, eating and killing. Animal kamma is, more or less, what you have to practice with in having a physical body. However, the kamma is not always so severe: selfless and kind actions seem to be possible in some animals. It’s a bit gross at times, but it’s not an unworkable position.
A slightly more fortunate realm is depicted at the top right. This is the realm of the asuras or Jealous Titans. They once lived in a lower heaven until Inda, the devata king of the lower heavens, threw them out for being so rowdy. Now they are at the bottom of Mount Meru (in the background) while most of the devata are in palaces up on the hill. Although some of the Titans have palaces and pleasure parks, they are jealous of the greater splendor of the deva realms and the blissful, carefree lives of the devata; so they war on them. It is actually only their envy, anger and aggression that deprive them of the happiness of the heavens. Humans can empathize with the asura realm: like asuras, humans can believe that it’s their right to have whatever they want, and become petulant when they feel that somebody else has got a better deal. The love of power is an asura trait; and a human one too—there are those who like to attack the innocent or the defenseless, because in some ways they are envious of that purity and hate to be reminded of it. Their relative good fortune manifests as a seeking something higher and more refined; their unhappiness comes from the way they try to attain it. We don’t have to wait for the death of the body—in this very life we can notice that acting on such impulses is a ticket to the asura state of being.
The world of humans comes next. As a venue for working out liberation, it is more fortunate than that of the asuras because Buddhas and their teaching arise there. It is the perfect place for enlightenment, though in sensory terms, it is less pleasant and refined than the next realm up. We’ll come back to it in a moment.
Above the world of human beings is the devaloka, the six “heavenly” realms of refined sense-pleasure. These range from the ones where the pleasure is mostly derived through living in places that are visually and physically delightful to a refined bliss that is largely of a mental nature. This vignette is a picture of a gandhabba, a heavenly musician. In the lower devaloka, gandhabba play to the devas (more formally known as devata) only when they are asked to do so and stop when not wanted (unlike musicians of the human realm). Deva means “shining one” and also applies to beings outside the devaloka. The “formless gods” or Brahmas are a kind of “superdeva,” belonging to a higher stratum of existence within the world system of birth and death. Special humans, such as Awakened Ones, and even kings and ministers (perhaps as a politic gesture) are referred to occasionally as “deva.” As in all states of being, the state of consciousness is the determinant, and that of the devata is more sublime and refined. It’s not so refined that it rules out quarrelling and arguments and jealousies in the devaloka, or the need to protect the realm against the asuras. And also, eventually, there is death. If you’ve noticed, human happiness and success have those characteristics too.
The human realm (center left) is the strangest of them all, the one that really stretches the imagination to believe in. The human realm is the most kamma-productive realm. The human mind can move between the Six Realms with relative ease. It is possible for a human to be fully established in a miserable or blissful realm by living either in depravity or in a kind and scrupulous manner. They have the choice. It takes a little time—during which the body has to die away—but nothing compared to the innumerable millennia it would take to get from a middling hell to a not even top-rate devaloka. The kammic potential of humans is so powerful that they can even get previews of the other realms, and assume the corresponding characteristics, just by inclining their intentions and activities within the life-span of the body. So humans are sometimes like hell beings, sometimes like hungry ghosts, sometimes like animals, sometimes like asuras and sometimes like the devata. No wonder human beings are so confused!
Perhaps it is due to this almost constant confusion that human beings have the urge to get beyond all these realms—unlike other beings. Humans can never become fixed in anything for too long. Even one of the nicer and least-demanding hell realms requires a tenancy of tens of millions of years; and the heavenly realms are of like duration (in the brahmaloka, the smallest unit of time is trillions of years). Human beings can have previews of all of these, and the opportunity to reflect on the possibilities of becoming anything in the light of impermanence. This is one aspect of Kondañña’s realization: that all the realms of becoming arise and pass away. And as they are impermanent states which offer no respite from becoming something else, they are unsatisfactory. That kind of perspective allows humans the opportunity to cultivate the very state of awareness which can notice and not be drawn into self-creative kamma; and in knowing that, be set free from all the restless delusion of becoming.
But the human realm is a strange one. It is here that Buddhas always arise and give most of their teachings. It is the perfect place for seeing the need to abandon all possibilities of becoming; yet most humans feel they just have the wrong blend. Yama constantly sends his messengers to remind humans of the limitations of becoming and that the human mind can experience the Six Realms readily. And yet … humans get stuck into being human. When they do, they don’t use their agile minds to contemplate the common characteristics of phenomena. Instead of cultivating the serenity and vision that frees them from samsara, they hatch out new permutations of semi-heavenly, semi-animal, semi-hellish experiences (such as power politics, sport, romance and entertainment) instead of abandoning becoming. This, then, is the drawback of all that kammic potential—humans don’t often consider the option of transforming it. They are always restlessly creating this, trying that, rejecting this with all the refined discrimination of a devata; then grabbing that with all the blind instinct of an animal; feeling the pitiful yearning of a hungry ghost; and yet, like an asura, rankled at the prospect of another human getting a better deal.
Perhaps the most important thing that Kondañña had to realize is that the True Life is one of being, not of becoming. This involves a profound letting go—the abandonment of identification with any aspect of the world of birth-and-death. However, after hearing this teaching, Kondañña only attained the first stage of enlightenment; his realization still needed to be developed. The Sutta doesn’t say what he had not let go of. Perhaps there was still an attachment to the sense of being the watcher, which appears changeless and could be mistaken for self. This may have been the case because soon after teaching this Sutta, the Buddha gave a teaching specifically on the characteristic of not-self. With that further elucidation of the Truth, all five of the Group attained liberation.
One might say that the first stage of enlightenment is the realization that there is no self within the sensory realm. If one also understands that there is no self outside of the sensory realm, then the abandonment goes a little deeper. There is nothing to become in the sense sphere or away from it. Just as there’s nothing to be found within it, none of it has to be rejected.
A man with nothing in him that he grasps at as his and nothing in him that he rejects as not his. (Sutta Nipata: 858)
The sage as the “watcher” of the Six Realms is only a position; it’s not self. The Six Realms are to be known without condescension, condemnation or denial. Condemnation is an aspect of self-view: we think that certain people really are evil, and we feel glad when they are punished. Awakened Ones, on the other hand, experience the sense of regret that people become deluded and generate so much suffering. But what they know is that all realms of becoming are impermanent. The Buddha commented that even Devadatta, who had tried to kill him and succeeded in drawing his blood, would, after languishing in the Avici Hell, eventually exhaust that vipaka and realize Buddhahood. He was just going through a bad patch.
Hence, the serenity of Buddhas is in the timeless present where nothing is rejected. The Awakened One experiences harmony in it all: there are the dark and the light, the positive and the negative sides of existence—all aspects of the way things are. The Buddha expounds a teaching that can fit all people and bring them out of their attachments; hence he is the bestower of blessings. The Blessed One puts sensory things in their right place; at the right time and in suitable ways, he teaches what is for the happiness and welfare of beings, and what actions and mind states are best avoided. This understanding applies to all the cycles of Nature—the rhythm of creation and destruction. One learns how to generate skillful states within the limitations of Nature. For our confused and conflicting world, this understanding is indeed a blessing.
In the letter “B” of Bhagava, I have drawn the Buddha with a giant cobra coiled around him. This alludes to the story that after his enlightenment the Buddha was encircled by a giant hooded snake, who protected him from severe weather. This signifies that the Awakened mind is protected from the violence of Nature when it has understood how to bring its own nature into balance. Those who live wisely and mindfully find themselves abiding in the most advantageous conditions that human and personal kamma will allow. From this, two possibilities arise—either complete liberation, or, if attachments still remain, birth in a fortunate realm. If you’re interested in birth and would like to know more about where the present kamma is leading to, the next few paintings may be helpful …
- i.e., resulting in birth in the brahmaloka. [return to text]