Karma and the 6 Realms of Existence in Buddhism

Buddhists believe in reincarnation. Does that mean you just come back as another human? Or perhaps humans and animals? Buddhist philosophy actually discusses there being 6 realms of existence. I’ll talk a bit more about them in this post.

Before I discuss the 6 realms of existence, I need to first discuss the nature of karma. Karma is action. Every cause in the universe has an effect. Nothing happens in a vacuum. When you act in the world, it has a consequence on you and your future

Particularly important is your motivation for actions as well. You might donate large sums of money to charity, but if your motives are selfish, such as gaining a reputation as a philanthropist, this is the wrong motivation. You should be moved to action through genuine compassion and care to help others.

The laws of causality, karma, and consequence are complicated. In fact, our limited human brains cannot understand their infinite nature. All of the people in your life are linked to you via karma. Life situations are related to karma. But the most important thing, your next life, is most linked to your karma and your last thoughts before death. This is why many buddhist monks actually die in a meditative state. It helps them to better be conscious in the process of dying to be liberated.

Below are the 6 different realms for living beings to be reborn to:

The worst of the realms are the hells. Anger, hatred, rage, and violence dominates this realm. Beings here want to be filled with anger, constantly fighting each other. You will not find compassion or any other positive characteristics of beings here. To be reincarnated into the hells is a terrible thing. Usually if you live a life full of anger and hatred, violence and revenge, your karma may bring you here. Beings here are in too much suffering to be able to truly hear the good teachings. They are consumed by their suffering. However, once your negative karma has been used up, you will have the chance to be reborn into another realm.

Hungry Ghosts
This realm is characterized by greed, want, insatiable desire, and gluttony. Beings in this realm are focused only on their wants and desires, not on anything else. They can never have their desires sated, always wanting more, and never being able to satisfy their want. If a being lived a life full of greed, always looking outside him or herself for satisfaction, they may be reborn here. So we must be diligent not to let our desires consume us in this life, or face the next with addiction and obsession.

The animal realm is as we see it – survival of the fittest. Beings in this realm have limited capacity. They can only feel basic emotions and have limited intelligence. Ignorance and unwillingness to learn marks this realm. Beings who lived lives of apathy and complacency, merely fulfilling sensual desires and basic emotions may find themselves destined for here.

This realm is considered to be more blissful than human existence. However, beings here are generally marked by jealousy and competitiveness with each other. They seek to attain more for themselves, and mark their own self-worth against those of others.

Heaven/Pure Land/Gods
Considered the most blissful of lives, beings here have no suffering at all. You could think of it like the Christian heaven. However, in Buddhist philosophy, beings do not live forever. The bliss will eventually end. Beings here live in perfect peace. In some Buddhist traditions, it may be called the Pure Land, full of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. You would think this may be the ideal realm for beings to attain enlightenment; however, without suffering, beings have little motivation to seek liberation from samsara. They face the potential of becoming attached to their pleasures and being reborn in another realm.

So now we get to our realm. To be human is actually the most precious existence of all in Buddhist philosophy. The human life is the middle life, or the middle way, something very important in Buddhism. Humans have all of the realms mixed into one – we have anger, suffering, greed, jealousy, bliss, and ignorance.

I suppose there’s a seventh realm. This is to become freed from the cycle of birth, death, and suffering. This is the topic to be discussed later.


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