Six Realms of Existence

According to traditional Buddhist cosmology, there are six realms of karmic existence; these are (in ascending order of “niceness”).

  • hell
  • ghosts
  • animals
  • humans
  • asura
  • heaven

Rebirth in hell, or as a ghost or an animal is considered “unfortunate,” not only due to the hardships one must endure in such incarnations, but also because it is very hard to escape the cycle of samsara in those realms, or even simply obtain a better rebirth in the future.

Although rebirth in heaven as one of the celestial beings is considered highly desirable for many people, it too has drawbacks. Despite living in luxury and ease, the celestial ones know when they will die, and are often overcome with anxiety and despair as their time of death approaches.

If you want to escape samsara, a human birth is ideal, though far from necessary. Buddhist writings often characterize those in the “lower realms” as too consumed with suffering to attend to their spirituality, while the celestial beings are too distracted to worry about anything much at all.

3 thoughts on “Six Realms of Existence

  1. By “ghost” do you think that refers to astral beings, like living a life on the astral as opposed to physical reality?

    One of the theories I’ve reached is that spirits aren’t necessarily liberated from samsara, which is what I used to think. I think they’re bound to the wheel and the astral is a part of that wheel. So I’m fascinated that you mentioned ghosts as a realm of incarnation.

    1. “Ghost” seems to generally refer to *malignant* spirits. I don’t know what orthodox Buddhist teaching would be about the astral realms, since I’ve never had that conversation with a teacher, but a lot of the things I’ve read make me believe that yes, the astral realm is DEFINITELY part of samsara.

      1. It is pretty reassuring to think of the astral as part of samsara, given how becoming a spirit-worker SHOOK UP all my naive ideas about how enlightened spirits are. It’s also hugely helped with my duality vs non-duality conundrum which was confusing me. The astral has spirits who form identities. So the fae think of themselves as fae, the divine nagas think of themselves as nagas, the elves think of themselves as elves, etc. So they have an identity that they are attached to, therefore they have an ego-self, therefore they can’t actually be liberated from samsara. And when I put it that way, I felt like my mind was blown.

        (And that’s interesting about ghosts being purely malignant spirits, by the way – immediately made me think about the Intranquil Spirit Spell in conjure work and how the spell basically summons up a tormented soul from hell.)

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