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Verse 20-2: The lower realms

Verse 20-2: The lower realms

Part of a series of talks on the 41 Prayers to Cultivate Bodhicitta from the Avatamsaka Sutra (the Flower Ornament Sutra).

  • Buddhist and Judeo-Christian lower realms
  • All realms as manifestations of mind
  • Psychological states vs. realms of samsara
  • Lower realms are effects, not punishments
  • Impermanence, karma, and rebirth
  • Importance of remembering Buddhist viewpoint

41 Prayers to cultivate bodhicitta: Verse 20-2 (download)

We’re going to continue, we were on Verse 20:

“May I sever the stream of the lower forms of life for all beings.”
This is the prayer of the bodhisattva when going downhill.

We started talking about the lower forms of life yesterday. Those are the hell realms, the hungry ghost realm, and the animal realm. Many people in the west have difficulty accepting these realms. Part of it, I think, is because of the Judaic-Christian background where we heard about hell realms, and Christianity, and it was a punishment, and it was eternal, and all these vivid descriptions which were really quite frightening, especially when you were a little kid. Not liking all of that, it’s difficult to hear about these realms in Buddhism.

The way that I came to understand these is that imagine your mind, let’s say, in a state of so much paranoia, and suspicion, and hatred, and fear. Imagine that mind manifesting as the environment that you’re in. When that mind manifests that environment, it seems really real to you. The same way with describing the hungry ghost realm. Take that mind of greed, and dissatisfaction, and neediness, get in touch with that needy mind. I don’t know if you guys have it, but I have this really needy, needy mind. Think of your needy mind manifesting as the environment and the body that you’re born into. Or think of your lazy mind that just doesn’t want to think, doesn’t want to do anything, just wants to sleep all day and tune out, and not take responsibility and just forget it all. And imagine that mind manifesting as your body and as the environment. Then you have the animal realm.

Now somebody’s going to say, “Does that mean that those realms are just psychological states?” Well, asking that implies that when you’re born in those realms, they are less real than our present life is. And here we come back to our grasping at true existence, which makes understanding anything but who we are and what we are right now very difficult.

When you’re born in any of those other realms—or even you’re born in the god realms where there’s so much pleasure and bliss and delight—when you’re born there it is as real as our realm is to us. It’s funny, isn’t it, how we always start on the basis of here I am, I’m solid, I’m real, everything else is a psychological state. [laughter] But I’m real and my identity is real. Well, when you’re born in those other states, the appearance is as real as our appearance now, and the grasping is as strong as our grasping is now. So I think we need to remember that.

We also need to remember that in Buddhism these kinds of rebirths are not punishment. Nobody is punishing us, nobody is sending us to a lower rebirth. If the Buddha could abolish the lower realms, Buddha would definitely do this. And this is how Tara got born, because Chenrezig started shedding tears because he rescued all these beings from the lower realms and then more were born there the next day. It’s not because of the Buddha or because anybody’s punishing us. Our ignorance, anger, and attachment create the karma that create these realms. So they’re not punishment, they’re just the facts of our own mental state. That’s the second thing to remember.

Third thing to remember is these things are not eternal. These rebirths are not eternal. Due to some negative actions in which we have all the four component parts—the object, the intention, the action, and the completion of the action—when all of those are complete it creates that causal energy for that kind of rebirth. It takes other conditions to make that karma arise, so it’s a dependent arising, dependent on many causes and conditions. And when that causal energy finishes, that rebirth also finishes. Just as our precious human life right now is temporary, so too rebirth in all these other realms, whether they’re the god realms where you have great pleasures or the lower realms where there’s great misery. All these rebirths are impermanent. In the four seals when the Buddha said all conditioned phenomena are impermanent, this is what he’s referring to.

It’s very important when we think about the lower realms from the Buddhist viewpoint that we understand that Buddhist viewpoint and we don’t bring the understanding from the Christian thing and our reaction as a child against the Christian thing into Buddhism when we’re trying to understand Buddhism. It’s really important to do this.

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.