BUDDHIST WHEEL OF EXISTENCE
The Psychology of Confusion and the Path of Liberation

The Six Realms of Existence

The Six Realms of Existence are not external locations, but are conditioned experiences which manifest as a lifetime in a particular body, in a particular realm. The development of these conditions are described in the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination. The six realms have varying duration, and may be experienced for just a moment, for a limited duration, or for one or several lifetimes. In the human realm we can experience the range of emotions that cause such experiences and existences.

1

Gods
(devas - The Shining Ones)

Image:
A god, absorbed in contemplation, playing a string instrument, surrounded by attendants.
The setting is a magnificent garden with trees and fruits suggesting paradise, and the experience of sensual delights.
Symbolism:
The temporal paradise depicted is achieved by good deeds. The gods are enjoying continual pleasures and sensual delights, but this eternity is an illusion. Eventually they are subject to old age and death, and experience excruciating desperation as they realise they will fall into the lower realms. Psychological cause and experience: This particular style of confusion is that of self-absorption, self-satisfied pride which may vary in degrees and subtlety, from the highest absorptions of meditative bliss, to mere sensual pleasure.

2

Demi-Gods
(asuras - The Joyless Ones)

Image: The powerful asura, sitting on his throne in front of his palace that is similar to the god's palace, receives a delegation of his soldiers. The wishgranting tree grows in the realm of the asuras, but the crown and fruits grow into the realm of the gods, who enjoy the fruit without ever having attended to the tree. So the asuras wage a perpetual war, which they can never win.
Symbolism:
The asuras' insatiable ambition and jealousy never allows them to be content. No matter how much they already have, they always want more. They deeply resent the gods' apparently never ending happiness, and they live a life of war and misery. Others' happiness is their frustration.
Psychological causes:
This realm of confusion is characterised by jealousy, comparing oneself with others, and fixating on the superiority of others.

3 Humans
(manushyas - The Potentially Aware Ones)

Image: Humans going about their ordinary lives – giving birth, burying the dead, working, ploughing the fields.
Symbolism:
Humans are ruled by passion, and are subject to the four great waves of suffering: birth, old age, sickness, and death. Although they are no less confused than the other realms – and experience all the various sufferings of samsara – because they have the capacity for reasoning, this realm is uniquely favourable to pursue the path of awakening, given that there has been a fully awakened teacher, and the teaching has remained.
Psychological causes:
Human confusion is distinguished by thought and passion, as well as the entire variety of destructive emotions.
4 Animals
(tiriakas - The Ignorant Ones)

Image: Animals live in fear, oppression, and confusion. All energy is directed towards satisfaction of physical needs and self-preservation, and they have no ability to remedy their situation.
Symbolism: Animals embody the principle of ignorance in that animals abide in set, predictable ways. They believe in their senses, and rarely deviate from simple agendas pertaining to eating, procreating, and survival.
Psychological causes: The psychology of the animal realm is the gullible adherence to what the senses and desires crave. It is lacking perspective, ignoring and refusing to go new ways.
5 Hell Beings
(narakas - The Angry Ones)

Image: Yama the Lord of Death presides over a landscape in which the inhabitants are being tortured by heat or cold, or by a variety of painful conditions.
Symbolism:
The hot and cold hells feature pain, torment, torture and constant suffering inflicted by furious, vengeful hell beings. All this suffering is a result of anger and hatred, and lasts until the original unwholesome condition has been exhausted.
Psychological causes: The psychology of hell is that of intense and self-perpetuating hatred and paranoia. There are no external factors imposing this pain, it is the creation of the hateful mind.
6 Hungry Ghosts
(pretas - The Insatiable Ones)

Image: Human-like creatures with bloated bellies and thin arms and necks that populate a barren landscape. They can go for hundreds of years without finding nourishment, and they mistreat each other in various terrible ways.
Symbolism:
Pretas are driven by an insatiable greedy hunger and thirst that can never be satisfied or quenched. Nothing appeases desire for more. Their small mouths and long and narrow legs frustrate them and their hunger and thirst becomes even greater.
Psychological causes:
Preta existence is that of miserliness and the related fixation on the experience of poverty. It can also be experienced in the context of plenty, in which nothing ever satisfies.