Buddhist thinking considers the whole of existence to be six dimensional in space-time, but it might be misleading to perceive these dimensions as physical ones.
On the other hand, this doesn’t mean these dimensions are not real. Buddhists define the universe with these six dimensions (realms) and call it the Wheel of Life. The Wheel of Life refers to six phases of consciousness that apply to all human beings.
The phases of consciousness and the relationship between time and the places we live in turn each of these six dimensions into a real place and time. In other words, these dimensions are not real on their own, yet they become real by interacting with the subjective experiences of people who also experience these dimensions.
To give an example, assume the temperature is 95F (35C) and there is a dimension that we call “Too Hot.” In reality, this dimension of “Too Hot” doesn’t mean anything when the weather temperature is 95F. Because the dimension of “Too Hot” doesn’t affect healthy people when the temperature is 95F, they will not even realize this dimension. However, when you become sick and experience a high body temperature, the weather temperature (95F/35C) connects with your physical and mental discomfort, turning into an unbearable sense of excessive temperature. This makes the dimension of “Too Hot” real. In this sense, the six dimensions of existence in Buddhism, namely the Wheel of Life, are real dimensions (realms).
As well as being subjective, these dimensions are also objective because all human beings live in these dimensions one way or another. In Buddhism, these dimensions are believed to affect us even more strongly after death. Although they are not defined in the same way, we see very similar dimensions (realms), such as Heaven and Hell, in other doctrines.
We cannot know for sure that there is life after death, but a dying mind may perceive its last seconds before brain death as millions of years in a subjective way of perceiving time. All doctrines believe that death will be much like life itself. Therefore, a person who orients his life around one specific dimension, such as the theme of Hell, may perceive his or her last 10 seconds of life as if it was millions of years. Although this torturous time only lasts for 10 seconds, the human mind may transform it into a long, unbearable, and arduous period, such as millions of years, because of the shift in reference points. For this reason, doctrines try to develop ways to step out of the six realms (the Wheel of Life) during our lifetimes, and the point beyond these realms is called Nirvana by Buddhists.
The six realms of existence were inevitable for Buddha, as well as us, because they are directly related to the human spirit and psychology.
According to the Buddhist point of view, the Wheel of Life is formed by the following six realms of existence.
The Hell Realm (Rage and Hatred)
A tortured scene resembling the classical images of Hell portrays the Hell Realm. On one hand, you see boiling oil and people being tortured, as well as distressing conditions such as freezing cold, famine, and so on. According to psychology, this realm clearly symbolizes emotions like rage and anxiety. In this scene, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who will rescue us from this realm, is seen with a mirror or a purifying flame in his hand. He describes how the pain within this realm can only disappear on seeing the unwanted emotions in the mirror.
Hatred and rage can only be compared with the pain of hell flames. This situation envelops all of us, because hatred and rage have their own glamour. It is a kind of searing fire with a unique characteristic, and these unwanted emotions make this pain increase. You can see massive fear behind rage, as well as tendency to put undesirable things against the desirable. When people need to move toward the things they desire, they also try to stay away from undesirable emotions, but unfortunately they cannot control this sufficiently. The effort to become a better person triggers an opposite emotion that grows increasingly stronger.
The only way to escape this realm is to observe our emotions objectively. Emotions can only come alive when we stand by their side and become party to them. We can discuss two types of consciousness here: Samsara and Nirvana. Samsara is the consciousness that filters, separates, selects, and makes preferences and judgments. Alternatively, Nirvana is neutral, integrated, and open. It doesn’t separate or judge, but it comprehends instead. The way to escape the Hell Realm is to switch your consciousness from Samsara to Nirvana. Improving your objective awareness is also an effective method, and this is why there are helpful exercises, namely meditation, in every doctrine. Well-known forms of meditations include Zazen, Viphasana, Dyhana, Concentration on Emptiness, and even the technique of Free Association that was developed by Freud for modern psychology.
The Animal Realm (Ignorance)
This realm is typified by satisfying instinctive senses such as hunger and sexual desire, and it is symbolized by stupidity. The Bodhisattva, who helps us escape this realm, stands with a book in his hand. This image represents the need to think, speak, and understand the things that are lacking in animal nature.
Another source of pain concerns the satisfaction of desires. All of us continue suffering while our desires are unfulfilled, yet our desires are so infinite that it is impossible to fulfill them. We can understand how pathetic this situation is when we consider the amount of time most people spend thinking about their wishes and desires, such as sex, hunger, and material wealth. The only way to nullify the effects of this realm is to develop a true way of understanding our wishes and desires. The suffering will disappear by itself once we determine the basic requirements to continue our lives. We then understand the other desires are only fantasies that cause us to suffer in their absence, even though they never really existed.
The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts (Unsatisfied Wishes)
Hungry spirits chase their pasts and unsatisfied wishes in this realm. Their ghostly appearances represent how they are stuck in the past. They cannot satisfy their hungers in their current time, and they don’t understand that their desires are only fantasies that make them suffer constantly. In this realm, the Bodhisattva of Compassion is shown holding a bowl full of different items that represent nourishment for the soul. The clear message here is that food and drink will never satisfy their hunger. The only thing that can satisfy this hunger and thirst is the nonjudgmental awareness presented by the Buddhas.
This realm of existence that is symbolized by hungry souls resembles the animal realm at first. However, unlike our animalistic desires, the desires of this realm come from the past. With their skinny, dry throats and bloated bellies, the entities of this realm look like ghostly creatures that have lived in a desert for hundreds of years. They constantly suffer from hunger and thirst, yet the tiniest piece of food will cause incredible pain in their throats and painful gas in their stomachs. These creatures suffer because their desires haven’t come true, yet they also suffer pain when their desires do come true.
It is just like a boy who had a perfect motherly figure in his past. The same boy suffers in adulthood because he cannot find a woman who resembles his mother. His mental image of a perfect mother is so unrealistic that he can never find a real person that fulfils this expectation. On meeting someone who resembles this mental picture, he soon realizes it’s not a good enough match, and this makes him suffer even more. In other words, both the desire itself and the satisfaction of that desire are causing a vicious circle involving great pain. Again, the only way to eliminate this pain is to gain an awareness that doesn’t judge, and this is symbolized by the enlightened entities.
The Realm of God (Sensual Well-Being and Pleasure)
This realm is symbolized by dancing creatures with perfect bodies that never get sick. It resembles the Peak experiences defined by Gestalt, such as the moment of orgasm or the satisfaction of hunger. In many spiritual doctrines, people are cautioned against lingering at this stage because they sometimes use the pleasure of religious experiences as an escape. The Bodhisattva of Compassion is symbolized with a flute in his hand in this realm. This represents the musical pleasure of this realm and the sound that will wake the creatures from their trances and show them the knowledge of reality.
There are two themes in this realm: taking pleasure by staying away from unwanted things and taking pleasure by uniting with wanted things, such as being united with your beloved, children, and friends. However, this state of union could be considered selfish because it clashes with the wishes of others. For example, people who cannot relax during childhood because of their overbearing parents are unable to clear away the limits of their egos during an orgasm when they are adults. Because they are unaware of this tension, they cannot understand their constant feelings of loneliness and isolation either.
After realizing the existence of these realms, as well as their deadlock, many of us start pursuing spiritual doctrines in search of the deeper meaning of life, or we start consuming more if our awarenesses are not sophisticated enough. We then get carried away to a new realm of pain called the Realm of God. The realm of God is comprised of sensual well-being, pleasure, and enjoyment. In this realm, people try to find a solution to the pain that occurs with pleasure following the satisfaction of desires. To achieve this, they try to avoid unwanted things and be near to wanted things. However, at this stage, our wishes and desires will always conflict with the wishes and desires of other people, and satisfaction itself turns into dissatisfaction. Desires arise from the ego, whereas satisfaction includes being united with the thing desired, in other words removing the limits of the ego.
As long as the limits of the ego remain, the person finds himself in constant loneliness and isolation, preventing him from uniting. He is in a state of trance where there is a subconscious struggle to unite with the desired object. The most significant example of this state is the moments of peak experience in spiritual doctrines. Such moments come, and the person following the spiritual doctrine finds himself in a peak experience that could be described as “a unification with everything.” However, this experience is brief, and after a while, the consciousness returns to feelings of separation, disconnection, and solitude. The person then struggles harder to make this peak experience constant and uninterrupted, but it is only possible if the ego disappears completely. Because the ego never disappears completely, the pain goes on constantly.
The Realm of Jealous Gods (Jealousy and Aggression)
The creatures of this world become jealous and constantly want the fruits of the gods. They strive to overcome their disappointment, change the current situation, and unite with a new experience. They try to reach the Realm of God this way, but they don’t possess the necessary qualifications to satisfy the pleasure, so they show offensive and aggressive behavior. Here, the Bodhisattva of Compassion is symbolized with a sword of flame that represents the state of alertness and the ability to distinguish and understand the difference. In this realm, the aggressive nature of ego is not regarded as a problem. On the contrary, it is believed to be necessary during one’s spiritual journey, yet in this realm, desire is something undesirable that can lead to disappointment. The Bodhisattva of Compassion guides the creatures here to use their aggression against their lack of awareness.
This level of existence could be explained by the story of Prometheus, a human being who becomes jealous of the gods and wishes to possess their knowledge and become a god himself. The creatures here believe that others possess what they believe they need for a happy life. They want to be like them, but they find themselves in agony. For example, they want to reach Nirvana, but because they lack the spiritual qualifications to experience that state of mind, they can never achieve this goal, so they become jealous and suffer in agony.
Any situation where we believe that others have what we want can be considered as being in the Realm of Jealous Gods. Everything we want to possess to be happy that belongs to someone else—whether it be money, a good spouse, a powerful social status, a healthy body, or a particular spiritual state—causes pain inside us. The aggressive jealousy felt at this stage is also a means to escape this stage of existence. If aggression can be turned into a sort of discipline that enables a person to eliminate this continuous agony, then it might be possible to end the dominance of the Realm of Jealous Gods.
The Human Realm (Ego)
Creatures in the human realm take themselves too seriously, and they hide from themselves. For a growing child to learn to love, he should also learn to hate, because opposing emotions are essential. However, it is necessary to clear away the ego in order to reach the point of real happiness. If the animal realm is related to desire and the Realm of God is related to clearing away the ego, then the human realm is all about ego. Individuals search for themselves in this realm, and it is a narcissistic situation.
The Bodhisattva of this realm is the ancient Buddha, a human being in search of his identity. This realm is based on the fact that we, as human beings, do not know who we really are. In this realm, children make up fake personalities or identities to get in touch with others, and these persist throughout our lives. However, this realm is not just about fake, faulty identities—it also includes possibilities to allow us beyond our fake identities and realize our true natures, whereas our real identity is nothing but emptiness.
Beginning in childhood, people try to develop personalities because these are the only things that give meaning to their existence in this realm. While they develop these personalities, they adopt the approvals and disapprovals of their environments as a basis. For instance, if a boy’s natural behavior is not approved of by others, the boy will adopt a behavior that is approved of, even if he doesn’t truly believe in it. A child might want to scream and jump around, but his parents, after a tiresome day at work, will not like this way of acting. As a result, the child often prefers the approved behavior, such as sitting quietly and reading his book. In time, the boy becomes a man, but he still prefers to hide his real wishes and only act in ways that are accepted and approved of by others.
A man who is very fond of art and enjoys laughing with others may turn into a person who is always quiet, has no fun, and only talks about academic subjects. These habits, or behavioral patterns, make up his personality, yet this personality doesn’t stand on a solid foundation, so it will tend to crack and break into pieces. At this point, the man faces one of the greatest agonies of his lifetime: to become meaningless. Today, this is one of the greatest problems affecting most of humanity. Whether people have ordinary jobs or deal with a spiritual discipline, the questions of many people today are, “Who am I? What is my role in this life? What is the meaning of my existence?”
This fear of becoming meaningless is so substantial that people become depressed when their false structures, namely their personalities, fall to pieces and there is nothing to replace them. At this point, a psychiatrist comes and repairs the fake ego with various treatments, enabling the patient to function once more with this fake ego. Unfortunately, the disciplines of today’s world are unable to declare that the fake structure should fall down, and it should reemerge as a real ego with the support of relevant professionals. The story of Buddha is a good example of this situation.
The Story of Buddha
Just as these realms apply to all of us, they applied to Buddha as well. Born as a prince to a small kingdom in India, Buddha was raised by his family away from any kind of pain or agony. He didn’t even see a sick person or a wilted flower until he grew up. Imagine a child being overprotected by his parents like this in today’s world. The child would undoubtedly live his life psychologically wounded.
When Buddha reached a certain age, he decided one day to take a stroll outside the palace gardens. During his stroll, he met an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and an enlightened man. With the help of his servant, he learned that old age, sickness, and death were inevitable for everyone. He further realized that the only way to go beyond these pains was to become enlightened. After returning to his palace, he then left his secure lifestyle behind, as we all have to do in different ways during our spiritual or psychological journeys, and started living on the streets as an ordinary person.
He started to live through the six realms of existence. On the streets, he lived some stages of existence that he had experienced previously. After experiencing asceticism and religious ecstasy, he concluded that he wouldn’t be able to solve his problems unless he walked on a moderate path, so he adopted a moderate way of living. He ultimately sat under a fig tree and experienced all the realms of existence one by one. During this experience, he understood that the real problem was not the forms of perception characterized by these realms but rather the way he clung to those forms of existence. When he realized it was an illusion caused by his mind clinging to these forms rather than himself, he succeeded in freeing his mind. This freedom led him to Nirvana. On reaching Nirvana, he was able to clear his fake ego away and replace it with his real ego. He explained it like this:
It was very painful to be born again and again.
You made me construct this building (desires, clinging, mind)
I can see you now.
You won’t be able to make me construct a new building again.
Your girders have fallen down.
Your beams have collapsed.
Now my mind has reached infinite freedom.
And my pains are over now.
The bitter truth in people’s lives is when they consider themselves alone, separated, and detached from the rest of the universe. The cause of this is the fake ego we have developed. Although every doctrine offers its own methods to clear away the fake ego, these methods are all essentially similar. In this article, I prefer to call the feeling of unity as God. Although I don’t use this name in a theological sense here, I am well aware that it would convey a similar meaning even if I did.
God is absolutely inconceivable because it doesn’t have a relative value. If we want to speak of something, we first need to explain it in terms of something else. For example, if I want to talk about my height, I need someone or something taller or shorter than me to compare with, or alternatively, a well-understood system of measurement. In the absence of these things, it would be impossible to talk about my height, and how tall or short I was would never be clearly known.
As God’s nature is absolute, it cannot be compared to anything. In addition, because the consciousness of God refers to pure consciousness, it doesn’t have a typical consciousness as we would imagine it. In this sense, it is impossible to speak about God itself, yet we can speak about the consciousness of God (or the integrated consciousness) as an impression in the Human Realm. This is comparable to not being able to speak about deep sleep while sleeping, yet we can define this state of consciousness as soothing and happy once we wake up.
We could call God a state of consciousness and sketch an image of the state of pure consciousness, namely God, as follows:
Existence follows a sequence from consciousness to spirit and from spirit to substance. A consciousness that tours around the core skin goes through various different experiences. The consciousness of an individual that remains at a single point around the sphere accepts itself as being isolated from the rest, and this causes its miserable drama. All spiritual doctrines give us a single advice to avoid this situation: Know Yourself!
We can observe this in doctrines from Gnostic philosophy to eastern philosophy and from shamanism to Sufism. Yunus Emre, a well-known Sufi, points this out in his following verse:
Knowledge means to know yourself, heart and soul
If you have failed to understand yourself
Then all of your reading has missed its call.
The Quran, holy book of Islam, tells us the same thing about the nature of God as well:
“Allah is so close to you, even closer than your jugular vein”
The jugular vein in this text represents the line between life and death, existence and annihilation, so God, or the absolute consciousness, is linked to us in some way beyond life and death or existence and annihilation. All doctrines tell us that the ultimate consciousness of God is at the very centre of us. Therefore, our own centre of existence is God or in other words, the ultimate consciousness itself.
It is possible to explain the meaning of the structure of the universe and existence by the drawing above. Permeation in the form of an infinite line begins from the point that we call God or absolute consciousness, which in other words, is the middle space in the drawing above. God, or the absolute consciousness, starts creating from itself. During this process, each and every line passes through the centre, and the centre of each line, namely the middle point, becomes God or the absolute consciousness.
Each doctrine begins from the skin covering the core, namely the stage with regard to body and soul, in order to educate its believers. At this stage, God is perceived as an absolute body and worshipped. This stage is basically necessary to clear away the emotion of fear triggered by loneliness. In a way, you surrender yourself to new, mighty parents and start recalling the heavenly pleasure of feeling secure.
The first step to achieve it is to follow the experiences. We generally focus on the thing being experienced rather than the person who lives the experience, but we need to experience the experiencer, see the observer, and hear the listener to reach our inner centre. This is also the stage where consciousness gains consciousness. At this stage, we stop identifying ourselves with the experiencer and start watching the experience itself. When we manage to do this, we become a spectator rather than an actor in the cosmic drama we live in. This stage is also where the delusion of ego starts to disappear. For many people, as soon as they face the consciousness of God, they perceive this experience with their own positive emotions, such as love, happiness, and so on. These positive emotions are generally the opposite of our negative ones. At this stage, there is a major danger for people who encounter the consciousness of God. When people have this experience before clearing away the delusion of flesh, they may consider themselves the unity of God or messiahs.
At this stage, significant coincidences and archetypes take place quite frequently, and you feel like the universe is collaborating with you. However, you should pay attention here to your subjective emotions and find their equivalents in the practical world. Otherwise, delusion becomes inevitable. Carl Gustav Jung, a very well-known psychiatrist, is a very good example of this. Jung had an inner teacher or spiritual guide that he called Philemon, and these were Jung’s words about the subject:
“Philamon and other imaginative creatures in my mind helped me gain an inner vision. They taught me there are other things in my mind which do not belong to my imagination. They created themselves, and they have their unique way of living.”
As we can understand from his words, Jung was speaking of a situation that he could prove with objective evidence. These archetypes are extremely important for us to comprehend the universe and gain the consciousness of God. All the gods and mythological creatures of past times are archetypes that help define the multifaceted structure of God.
And at the End…
Consciousness can be found at the final stage of improvement. At the realm of consciousness, the fear of death and the feeling of being finite disappear. Nothing dies, because nothing is born either. This is hell itself. Individuals who are completely free of the delusion of their egos understand that they themselves have the same consciousness as God. This is also where God’s essence in us becomes conscious and experiences its consciousness with its own parts.
The wise, holy, and enlightened people, as well as immortals, are those who have reached this consciousness. However, the fact that these creatures are completely free of their egos doesn’t necessarily mean they will disappear from this world. On the contrary, in this particular realm of existence, they keep on watching the consciousness of this world. Their flesh is merely a means for them to be conscious of their consciousness. At this point, they have the power to stop by the consciousness of God in a conscious way.
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