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Unsatisfactoriness of god realms

The unsatisfactory experiences of the demi-gods and gods

Part of a series of teachings based on the The Gradual Path to Enlightenment (Lamrim) given at Dharma Friendship Foundation in Seattle, Washington, from 1991-1994.

  • God and demi-god realms
  • Reevaluating our desires
  • Why we study these realms
  • Dedicating merit for upper rebirths or for enlightenment
  • General disadvantages of samsara

LR 048: First noble truth (download)

We have talked about the human realm, meaning human life and what we have now. We also talked about the lower realms. Now we are going to talk about the unsatisfactory conditions of the realms that are higher than human beings. The Sanskrit term for these is “suras” and “asuras,” which is sometimes translated as “gods” and “demi-gods,” or “gods” and “titans.” They are also called “celestial beings.” There are different ways of translating these terms.

God and demi-god realms

The term “gods” sometimes refers to the desire realm gods that experience super duper sense pleasures, but it can also refer to the gods in the form and formless realm who are born there by the power of their concentration. (The desire realms are all the realms where you are involved with your senses, where you have lots of desire for sense pleasures.) Therefore the word “god” includes both the gods that have a lot of attachment to sensual things and the gods in the form and formless realm.

These beings are said to be higher than human beings not in the sense of their opportunity to practice the Dharma, because actually they have less opportunity than we do to practice. The celestial beings in the desire realm are higher in the sense that they have higher sense pleasures than we do. Those in the form and formless realms are considered higher because they have abandoned the attachment to the desire realm. They have temporarily suppressed those desires, but they have not gotten rid of all attachments. They still have attachment to the bliss of their concentration. Nevertheless, this is still called a higher realm from the point of view we are talking about here.

According to ancient Indian cosmology, we have Mount Meru in the center and the four continents around it. Human beings live in the continents and the gods and the demi-gods live on Mount Meru. There are some layers of settlements on the lower part of Mount Meru and some settlements on the top part. As usual, the ones on the top that have the better view have more status [laughter]. The ones on the lower part are the demi-gods and do not have quite as high status as the gods so they are incredibly jealous.

Jealousy and quarreling

The god and the demi-god realms are like the people who live in Beverly Hills and the people who live around Beverly Hills. Beverly Hills is like the god realm and the others wish they could be up there but are not. So, they are very jealous and compete a lot. The gods and the demi-gods spend a lot of time fighting and quarreling. A lot of these fights are instigated by the demi-gods because they are so jealous. Of course they have very good reasons for this. Trees grow in the god realms and bear incredibly delicious fruit but the roots are lower on Mount Meru and in the land owned by the demi-gods. So the demi-gods say, “Look, the roots are in our place. We should get part of the fruit.” The gods answer, “Forget it. The fruit grows in our place, so it is ours. Take us to court if you want.” [laughter]

Thus the demi-gods spend a good deal of their life quarreling. The gods do not suffer quite as much from the quarreling because they have a better vantage point on the top of the mountain. But the demi-gods, even though they are in the upper realm and have so much more sense pleasure than we do, they are not as good as the gods and cannot even enjoy what they have, they just kind of burn with the fire of jealousy all the time.

Can you find that part of you that is a demi-god, the part that is just so jealous of everybody and everything, the kind of incredible jealousy that says, “They are more talented; they have a higher status; they get paid more money; they have a nicer house; they are more beautiful; they are more athletic.” No matter how good things are, the demi-god part of you cannot enjoy it and you are always quarreling with other people. Even though it is nice, the reason why we do not want to seek rebirth in a demi-god realm is that you are completely permeated by jealousy and though you have good things, you cannot enjoy them. You just have so much pain from the jealousy.


The demi-gods suffer from jealousy and constant warfare, battle and bitterness. By sending their young people off to fight for the fruits of the trees that are higher up Mount Meru they, of course, get killed. The gods on the upper part of Mount Meru, they spend a lot of time fighting with the demi-gods too. Then as you go further up, eventually there are certain god realms that are above Mount Meru, that float in space. These are like the people who live in the locked communities. Nobody can get to them and cause them problems. So, according to your level of good karma and your prayers, you get born either on the upper levels of Mount Meru, or in these god realms that float in space where they are not bothered by the obnoxious asuras who are always fighting.

Complete sense pleasure

They say that you have complete sense pleasure in the god realms. What everybody in America is trying to get, they already have in the god realms, except they have it better. There are beautiful parks and meadows and things like that. Food grows on the trees and is automatically prepared. The ground is made of jewels with golden sidewalks and everything is glittery, beautiful and harmonious. The wind blows through the trees and you hear beautiful music. Beauty is everywhere you walk and all the people are beautiful. Nobody is deformed. Nobody is handicapped. Nobody is ugly. Nobody has to dye his or her hair and nobody has to go to the gym [laughter]. Everybody is just completely beautiful.

It is just all wonderful in the god realms and they say you can have all the girlfriends and boyfriends you want. Nobody is going to write an article in the newspaper if you sleep with somebody else’s husband or wife. Everything is just wonderful and everybody looks great. They have long life spans too. Nobody has to take lots of vitamins [laughter] to stay young.

Seven days before death

The problem is, while it is wonderful while you are alive, seven days before you die, everything all of a sudden starts to deteriorate. You live this incredibly long life where everything is magnificent and perfect and then in the last seven days, they say that the mental pain experienced by the gods is worse than the experience in hells. Imagine living in this wonderful lush way, then seven days before you die your body starts to deteriorate. All of a sudden you get old and wrinkled and your hair turns colors and falls out. Your body starts to smell and you are laying in bed totally ugly. All these people who love you so much, who thought you were so marvelous and fantastic and wanted to be around you, all of a sudden they do not want to come within two feet of you. It is too frightening and too scary for them.

You experience a sense of isolation from the people you were close to. All of a sudden you are cut off when you are dying and need them the most. So you experience the mental pain of rejection and the pain of watching your own body decay. Your own body that you are so attached to because it was so wonderful, it all of a sudden decays and you experience the mental pain that brings.

Rebirth visions

Then you have karmic visions of your next rebirth. Since you spent a whole life in perfection, the next rebirth is not so good. Imagine going from a perfect life, then seeing that in a few days you are going to be reborn as a pig, it just totally freaks you out. They say the pain from all these things such as the rejection from others, the deterioration of the body and the karmic vision of one’s future rebirth is worse than being born in the hells. And all of this happens simply because of how one lived one’s whole life.

Reevaluating our desires

I find this really helpful and something to consider whenever our mind gets dissatisfied and we start wanting a god realm in our human realm now. I am speaking about the mind that says, “If only I had a nicer house … if only I had a nicer car … if only I had a nicer bike … if only I had a nicer boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, and cat.” This is the mind that is always wanting more sense pleasure.

We might think about having been born in the god realm before, not just once but many times. Imagine this incredible place with its surroundings and think about how you must have felt, then think about the incredible suffering at the end of life in these realms and how it all just ends with a crash. That can really wake our mind up and make us question, “What am I doing craving all these things anyway? Even if I get them in this life, they aren”t nearly as wonderful as in the god realm. I’m going to have something like a mini god realm death when I separate from these things or when people ostracize me after I lose them. Then I will look back at my life with regret about how I spent it because I have an intuition about my next rebirth and it isn”t good.”

Why we study these realms

Thinking about this helps to cure a very craving mind. It also helps when our mind sometimes wants just a better rebirth in samsara and is content just with that, “I want to be reborn in the god realm. That would be O.K., I will aim for that.” Seeing the disadvantages of these realms helps us to generate the wish to be free even from those upper rebirths. That is very important.

Going through all the different sufferings and unsatisfactory circumstances in all these different realms helps us see that no matter where we might get reborn in samsara, there is no lasting happiness. By eliminating one realm after another as a possible haven and a possible desirable place to be reborn, eventually we come to the conclusion that there is no desirable place. Therefore, we want to get out of cyclic existence. We want to determine to free ourselves from this mess, because wherever we are reborn, it is very unsatisfactory. It is the pits.

Dedicating merit for upper rebirths or for enlightenment

It might seem funny to you that people who are doing a lot of virtuous things, why in the world would they want to be reborn in the god realm, why would they not just aim for full enlightenment to start with? But look at our minds, look what we usually pray for and look at what we usually want. When are our most sincere prayers? They are when we are sick, or poor [laughter], or when something rotten is happening at work and so on. Then, all of a sudden, our prayers become really powerful. This is because our minds are still very worldly. We have to completely see through that facade and not dedicate merit just for upper rebirths, but rather dedicate it for full enlightenment. If we dedicate it for full enlightenment, then a good rebirth where we can practice the Dharma will come along as part of the package. This is important to think about.

General disadvantages of samsara

We have also talked a little bit about the different levels of concentration, the four dhyanas, or concentration, or form realms and then the four formless concentrations. The beings there might have a lot of concentration and in the lower form realms they also have bodies of light and it is all very beautiful and so on. Still, you are born in that kind of situation as long as you have the good karma but when the karma is exhausted, where do you go? You most likely get reborn in the lower realm again.

This is going back to what we were talking about with the general disadvantages of samsara: changing status, going up and going down, going up and going down. Even though in these concentration realms you may have bliss, or equanimity, or whatever, still in the end it does not last long. Your mind is still under the influence of karma and afflictions1 and you crash down again after you die. Understanding this, we will not be content with just a good rebirth, but to really determine to free ourselves from cyclic existence.

  1. “Afflictions” is the translation that Venerable Chodron now uses in place of “disturbing attitudes” or “delusions.” 

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.