Planes of Reality in Buddhism


Some writings about Buddism refer to six or seven planes of reality which people may occupy.

            At the lowest level, there is a plane of reality or world dominated by violence and by the will to destroy. Some call this the hell world. Next comes the world of the “hungry ghosts.” Then the world of the animals. (Many Buddhists, like Hindus, believe people can be reincarnated as animals, and vice-versa.) Then our world. Then the world of the “demigods.” Then the world of the “gods.” Finally comes the plane of nirvana, which sometimes is not included as a plane of existence, because some view it as a plane of nonexistence.

            John Hawks has recently written a compelling series of science fiction novels which really bring this concept to life. (The Traveler, the Dark River, …) They remind some people of “the Matrix” movie (or the Terminator movies), which are silly and oversimplified in many ways. They are  still quite energizing and worth reading, for those who are mature enough not to take them too literally.  

Years ago, in Japan, I saw a board game on sale which tried to popularize the same concept. The board was divided up into seven tiers, and players would try to move their marker over a very complex network to get to the top – “nirvana,” the object of the game.

How much truth is there in this concept of the seven worlds?

Buddhist writings also complain about how difficult it is to teach the real fundamental truth in “degenerate” or “decayed” eras of history. In such eras, the best that a teacher can do is to offer the student a simplified truth, not enough to take him to the top, but enough to rise just one level higher, after much effort. This concept also appears in many, many writings. For example, in Japan, there are “Pure Land” schools of Buddhism which encourage repetitive prayers and worship in a form which seems no more enlightened or powerful than the lowest grade of fundamentalism or idolatry one can find elsewhere in the world. Yet these schools say very clearly and openly that they have oversimplified the true teachings of Buddhism, in order to provide some kind of moral compass for those who are not yet ready enough, or evolved enough, for the true thing.

Perhaps, then, the John Hawks novels fit in as an useful but early stage of Buddhist teaching.

Of course, there are great perils in propagating “simplified stories for the masses.” These perils are a very serious difficulty in philosophy and science and mysticism, as well as organized religion. In fact, they are a difficulty in organizing these web pages! It is terrible when simplified stories take on a life of their own, as tools of manipulative people who go on to restrict people’s access to a more complete story. The worst damage is done when these simplified stories are disconnected from the larger truth, and manipulative people treat other people as “masses” without respecting their right to learn more.