Theme #4: The Six Realms and the Wheel of Life
One of the most vivid and useful Buddhist teachings for children is the cosmology of the wheel of life and the six realms. In this worldview, the universe is divided into six realms: heaven, hell, animals, hungry ghosts, asuras (jealous gods), and humans. A being is never trapped in one realm; their actions determine where they will be reborn in the next life. The six realms are visually presented as parts of a circle, which is called the “Wheel of Life” because beings constantly go round and round on it. Though this may appear to be a negative worldview, in each of the six realms there is a Buddha that teaches the specific way to achieve liberation from that realm. Significantly, the goal of Buddhist practice is not to get to the heaven realm (because even that is conditional and temporary), but to get off the wheel completely – that is, to stop the cycle and achieve peace. We primarily use each realm as a metaphor for particular states of mind, and describe how we can find ourselves in one of the realms in one moment and in another realm the next. Children are asked to imagine examples from everyday life that might feel like the realm that is being discussed. For example, the heaven realm might feel like a really fun vacation with family, and the hell realm might feel like a day at school when everyone is being mean to you and you feel like no one on earth cares about you. As described earlier (“Is It True?”), we hold this imagery lightly, and do not teach the children to fear getting stranded in a flaming hell that exists deep underground, or to believe hungry ghosts wander the earth. We have not had any problems with kids understanding the teachings this way.
Buddhist cosmology: the world of samsara, divided into six realms: (clockwise from top) heaven, realm of the fighting asuras, realm of the beasts, hell, realm of the hungry ghosts, and the human realm.
At the center of the wheel of life one finds three animals — a pig, a snake and a rooster. The pig symbolizes blindness or delusion, the snake symbolizes hatred and the rooster symbolizes greed. The emotions of the three stem from ignorance of our fundamentally pure and empty nature. Together, the triad represents the root cause that keeps the wheel of life turning. Around the edges of the wheel are a series of images representing the twelve steps of dependent origination, which explain how all of the activity on the wheel of life arises from ignorance (of our true nature) through action, consciousness, and so on, through grasping, existence, birth, old age and death. We do not attempt to explore this subtle and complex teaching with children. Rather, we find that the six realms imagery can stand on its own and provides plenty of material for a year of classes.
Heaven is blissful and populated by devas, or gods. Devas are not omniscient or omnipotent creators, but they are very powerful and live for countless ages. They are seven times larger than humans, their bodies shine with a brilliant light and everything around them stays fresh and beautiful. Some reign over celestial kingdoms, while most live in delightful happiness and splendor. Most of the devas relax in a palace in the clouds. They gather around a musician, dancing, in a pavilion decorated with banners. Some devas float through the sky, while others play musical instruments in the garden or swim in a refreshing pool. A wish-fulfilling tree which is rooted in the asura realm bears fruit in the heaven realm, and some of the devas staff a celestial army to protect heaven from marauding asuras. However, the happiness of the devas is not simply a matter of sensual pleasure derived from material things, though the devas certainly do not lack such pleasure. Rather, the beings in heaven have mastery of desire, control of themselves, joy