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In Buddhism, there are six realms of existence and each realm has its own sort of misery. The curious thing is that in Buddhism the very highest realm, the God realm, is where the most painful suffering of all is experienced. The six realms (from lowest to highest) are the hells, the unhappy ghosts, animal realm, human realm, the Asuras or Titans or Demi-gods, and then finally the God realm (there are actually three separate God realms; however, it is most often just referred to as the God realm or simply the Gods). A being is reincarnated into a specific realm based on their karma, or ratio of good to bad deeds. It’s pretty close to many world religions where the bad go to hell, and the very good go to heaven, and the in-between get shuffled somewhere in the middle like purgatory. The suffering of the hell realms in Buddhism is either extreme heat or cold (and is described much like the Christian hell). The suffering of the unhappy ghosts (the hungry and thirsty ghosts respectively) is characterized by either being constantly hungry (yet unable to eat) or constantly thirsty (yet unable to drink). The suffering of the animal realm is to live a life in constant fear of being eaten. The suffering of the human realm is unique. It is the middle and is recognized as the only realm with just enough suffering to make a person strive for enlightenment and get off the wheel of existence and just enough joy and pleasure to not be wholly preoccupied with intense pain (as in the case with the animal, ghost, and hell realms). The suffering of the Titans is constant jealousy and war, as they are right underneath the God realm and hunger for its splendor. Hence, the Titans dedicate their whole lives to war and seek to conquer the Gods. However, they can’t because the Gods are far too superior, and every Titan dies on the battlefield a loser. Lastly, the suffering of the Gods is death, and that is the suffering I want to focus on with this essay.
It may seem odd, but in Buddhism, the greatest suffering of all is when a God has to face his death. For us humans, while we mourn our loved ones and often fear our demise, many would still choose death over the torture and agony of hell. In fact, we often put our pets to sleep to end their suffering—viewing physical pain as far worse than death. However, throughout the Buddhist canon, it is repeated that the greatest suffering is when gods have to face their deaths—it is a crushing ‘the party’s over’ moment. “As the Stations of the Mindfulness Sutra says, ‘They fall downward, lamenting, ‘Alas, O chariots and groves. Alas, O lakes and rivers. Alas, O beloved gods of the realm of consciousness.’ The same sutra tells us that all the physical pain experienced by sinful beings in the flames of Avici Hell does not equal even a sixteenth of the mental anguish experienced by a god when he approaches death.” (The Three Levels of Spiritual Perception by Deshung Rinpoche, English translation by Jared Rhoton, 1995, Wisdom Publications)
Let’s break the whole God realm situation down a bit. First, only people who achieved a very high level of merit can be reincarnated into the God Realm. Merit is usually attributed to a high level of generosity towards the poor, weak, and suffering. Gods live the longest of all of the other beings. They live a life of splendor, pleasure, and possess stunning, radiant beauty (the radiance of a God is said to be seen up to eight miles away). Gods enjoy perpetual good health, and yes, tons of partying, feasting, dancing, and any other possible material awesomeness you can imagine. They also are equipped with a huge array of supernatural powers and can peer into all of the other realms beneath them. Now, with all this non-stop party time that lasts longer than any other existence (it can be millions and millions of years) is that they really lose track of both time and well, the importance of seeking enlightenment. Buddha was very clear—all sentient beings will suffer. Suffering only ends when you cut through the delusions of material existence.
When a God’s time is up: “These signs were described by Arya Nagarjuna in this way: ‘The body’s color turns ugly, a god no longer likes the throne on which he is seated, his flower garlands wither, odors cling to his garments, and sweat appears on his body where none appeared before.’” (The Three Levels of Spiritual Perception by Deshung Rinpoche, English translation by Jared Rhoton, 1995, Wisdom Publications) Additionally, as the God is becoming unattractive and fading, they become more like lower beings; water sticks to their skin, and they blink their eyelids (Gods are made of light—not gross flesh—they are akin to rainbows and death is a fading like the fading of a rainbow in the sky). Lastly, their friends and fellow gods abandon them as they are too foul to be near. Now, for us humans this plight seems bad, but is it worse than getting eaten by a shark, or never able to eat or drink, or being constantly tortured in hell? Yes, absolutely. Gods live in perfection for so long they are not prepared to experience it disappearing. Also, because gods have been seeking pleasure and partying for millions and millions of years, they have forgotten about generosity, or achieving merit through compassion and kindness which means hell will most likely be their next stop. Consequently, when they start fading and smelling, they can see where their gross lack of good deeds is sending them (straight to hell).
It is clear that the six realms of existence are not so far from the classes of people on earth. We have people in gruesome prisons for doing gruesome crimes (hell realms). We have people hampered by wanting wanting wanting—so much so that they can never have enough and lose touch with life in their hunger (unhappy ghosts). We have people that live in a perpetual state of fear of being attacked or hated or abandoned. Hence, they often become attackers themselves (animal realm). We have people who have a lot of suffering but a lot of joy too and try to seek ways to end suffering and heighten joy (human realm). We have powerful people who have wealth, health, and intelligence yet still are filled with greed, hatred, and jealousy (Titans). And we have people who live lives of great health, beauty, wealth, and can enjoy anything they desire (the Gods). One can also see the importance of insisting that the worse suffering of all is the suffering of the Gods. In Buddhist practice, one is supposed to contemplate the suffering of the Gods. If even the most beautiful, rich, powerful, and popular people in the world will come crashing down and that fall will suck more than being an animal always in fear of being eaten or a demon getting tortured in hell then really, we should reconsider our priorities regarding our life goals. Maybe, striving to become super beautiful, rich and famous is a super stupid thing to do? Maybe, your ordinary good one day, bad the next, human realm is not so bad?