All sentient beings have been our parents and brothers and sisters

We hope to see you at the temple on Sunday, October 19, 2014, at 9:30 a.m. for our annual Pet and Plant Memorial Service, during which we show our gratitude for the animals and plants that bring joy and beauty into our lives. The pets, gardens, houseplants, and cut flowers that we care for teach us that kindness is shared not only between people, but can be felt deeply between people and animals and plants.

Buddhist teachings reflect a traditional Indian worldview that describes six realms of existence, or samsara, through which sentient beings continuously cycle lifetime after lifetime. Studying these six realms of existence can help us to better understand the way our thoughts and feelings change moment to moment. Below is a very brief summary of the six realms described by Genshin (942-1017) in the Essentials for Birth (Ojo Yoshu):

(Descriptions of hells adapted from the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism


Genshin lists the following eight hells into which beings may be born: 1) The hell of repetition of painful life, 2) The hell of black iron chains, 3) The hell of being crushed between two falling mountains, 4) The hell of screaming, 5) The hell of great screaming, 6) The scorching hot hell, 7) The extremely scorching hot hell, 8) The hell of uninterrupted misery. In Buddhism, a hell is not a place to which a person is permanently doomed according to the judgment of a divine being. Rather, hell is the unhappiness that results from hateful and violent living. As with all six realms, life in a hell realm is not permanent and will eventually give way to birth in yet another realm.

Hungry ghosts

Hungry ghosts have insatiable appetites, but any food or beverage they try to enjoy bursts into flames the minute it touches their lips. They are often depicted with tiny necks and large pot bellies. Some hungry ghosts dwell in the realm of humans and devas. Birth as a hungry ghost generally occurs as the result of greed, as in a case where a person receives something good but fails to appreciate it because they want something even better.


To dwell in the animal realm is to be shameless, unconcerned with the results of one’s foolish behavior. One who dwells in the animal realm is ruled by fear of punishment and the desire to be rewarded. Some animals live as predators and prey in the wild; others are subjected to lives of servitude and grueling labor. Birth as an animal occurs when foolishness and ignorance rule one’s mind.

Asuras (Fighting Titans)

Asuras are constantly competing, envious of those who appear to have better things than they do, especially the devas. Life among Asuras is essentially divided into winners and losers, and they suffer from the terror of being surrounded by enemies and the wounds of battle. Asuras are able to hear the teachings of the Buddha, which expresses the truth that healthy competition can provide opportunities for learning. Nevertheless, it is all too easy for Asuras to lose sight of the values of generosity and compassion in their quest for victory.


Genshin describes three characteristics of human life: 1) Impurity: the human body is subject to disease and decay in all its parts, 2) Suffering: human life is characterized by suffering, and 3) Impermanence: all human life comes to an end. Nevertheless, human birth is most favorable among the six realms because it is an ideal circumstance for hearing the Dharma and breaking free from the cycle of death and rebirth. In the words of the Threefold Refuge, “Hard is it to receive a human form, now we have received it. Difficult is it to hear the Buddha Dharma. Now we hear it. If we do not receive awakening in this life, in what life shall we do so?” Human birth is to be cherished and great effort should be made to save lives and assure quality of life for all.

Devas (Heavenly beings)

Devas lead lives of power, pleasure, and satisfied desire. However, at the end of their lives, devas experience the same suffering of separation and death shared by all beings in the six realms. As the lives of devas focus on the enjoyment of various pleasures, many devas can not face the realities of suffering and impermanence. As their death approaches, devas may find themselves rejected by their companions, cast out of their heavenly palaces to die alone. Following death as a deva, any manner of rebirth may occur, even into the lowest hell of uninterrupted misery.


This life in the human realm is impermanent and at any moment we may find ourselves born into one of the other realms. Indeed we have passed through all six realms countless times up to the present moment. Therefore, we do not think of ourselves as superior to, or even separate from, those who are dwelling in the other realms. The purpose of the Buddha’s teachings is not to dwell permanently in the human realm, but to break out of the cycle of samsara all together. A Buddha is one who has broken out of samsara and works to guide all beings to awakening. In Chapter 5 of the A Record in Lament of Divergences (Tannisho), we find the following words expressing Shinran’s deep feeling of kinship with all beings in the six realms: “ . . . all sentient beings, without exception, have been our parents and brothers and sisters in the course of countless lives in the many states of existence. On attaining Buddhahood after this present life, we can save every one of them.”

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 664)


In gassho,