It’s easy to know about the animal realm because we can see many types of animal and their suffering is easy to understand. But in addition to humans and animals there are many other types of living being, such as pretas.9
Preta is a Sanskrit term and is sometimes translated as hungry ghost. Their most common sufferings are those of hunger and thirst, which is a result of their karma, actions they created in previous lives. They can’t find even a small drop of water for eons and their lives pass with the constant suffering of thirst. And no matter how much they search, they also can’t find even a tiny bit of food and experience great hunger. And they have many other kinds of suffering. First, even though they see a beautiful lake of water they are prevented from reaching it by fearful, karmically created protectors - mental visions, manifestations of the pretas’ previously created karma. These protectors have terrifying bodies such as those we might see in a nightmare, which is also karmically created. So even though the pretas think they’ve finally found some water, they are unable to reach it.
Some pretas don’t encounter protectors but when they reach the place where they saw the water from afar it either disappears completely or turns into a filthy pond of pus, blood and excrement that even pretas can’t ingest.
Even if this doesn’t happen and a preta manages to get a drop of water into its mouth, because of its previous karma, actions created out of delusion, its mouth becomes toxic and the water just disappears. Also because of their karma, many pretas’ mouths are very tiny, like the eye of a small needle, so it’s even hard to get anything into their mouth let alone their stomach. And even should some food or drink reach a preta’s stomach, it bursts into flames, like oil thrown on a fire, and burns it badly. So pretas have much suffering of not finding food or drink or encountering these various obstacles and are always hungry and thirsty as a result. And their bodies look awful - very ugly, shriveled and dry, with very thin arms and legs, tiny necks and a huge, distended stomach.
Many hungry ghosts, such as those who live on smell and others who search for food in various places, live in the human realm. Yogis - advanced meditators who have achieved higher realizations and have certain mental powers - and even ordinary people who have the right karma have told many stories of preta sightings at different locations on this earth.
These days we see pictures of starving children in Africa, for example, where their abdomens are very distended, their limbs very skinny and their skin discolored and dry. Although their suffering is very minor compared to that of the pretas, we can see it as a reflection of what hungry ghosts must endure. Of course, the pretas undergo many other sufferings as well.
Then there are the hell (Skt: narak) beings. As a result of negative karma created out of delusion, they have to experience extremes of heat and cold, such as constant and repeated incineration on redhot iron ground. Hell realm beings don’t need parents like we do; they are just born there spontaneously. For example, if a person creates the cause to be reborn in hell in his next life, right after he dies, because the potential to be reborn there is ripe, his mind goes straight to the intermediate state of a hell being and then, without needing parents, spontaneously gets reborn in that realm, in a way similar to that in which we go into a dream after we fall sleep. But unlike the hell described in the Christian bible, this is not a permanent state; nevertheless, the person has to remain in great suffering there for a long time, until the result of his previous actions finishes. When the karmically determined time for suffering in that realm is up, that being’s mind takes birth in another realm, according to its previous karma. So it all depends on karma, but it’s not as if once you’re reborn in hell you have to stay there forever.
The beings in the hot hells have to endure a wide variety of dreadful sufferings. They have to live on red-hot, burning iron ground while fearful-looking, karmically created protectors chop them into pieces, or they spontaneously find themselves trapped in an oven-like red-hot burning house with no doors or windows and have to experience terrible suffering until the karma created by their previous actions is expended. Or they can find themselves in a huge pot of boiling water, cooked like rice. And when these sufferings finish the beings are suddenly born on ground covered with swords such that they cannot step anywhere without cutting their feet and legs.
When we dream of being in a certain country or a beautiful house or a suffering, dirty place, it’s not that somebody has created these places for us; it’s a karmic vision of our own mind. It’s the same with the experiences of the hell beings: the red-hot ground, the windowless houses, the pots of boiling water and so forth are all karmic visions that are the result of actions created out of delusion in previous lives.
So the main hell sufferings are those of hot and cold; in addition to the hot sufferings briefly mentioned above, there are also unbearable sufferings in the cold hells. After life as an animal or a human, a being with the karma to be reborn in a cold hell dies and is suddenly reborn in a completely dark place full of ice mountains with a body that becomes oneness with ice, like meat in a freezer. There is incredible suffering: the body cannot move because it’s stuck within ice crevices or underneath the ice mountains, it splits and develops thousands of cracks, turns red and blue and becomes infested with many insects that eat it from the inside, while many other karmically created sentient beings, such as certain type of birds with very long beaks, come to peck and eat the body from the outside. So the suffering is incredible.
However, whatever the suffering place, all these conditions have not been made or arranged by others; they are creations of that being’s mind. What kind of mind is it that creates such suffering places in which beings get born there and suffer, then die and again the place changes and becomes another suffering place? That kind of mind is the negative, non-virtuous mind - the mind of ignorance, anger, attachment, pride, jealousy and other delusions; such suffering places are created by the negative mind.
The animal realm
Then there are the animal sufferings. Animals that are kept by people can have slightly better lives, depending on people who take care of them; such animals are generally a little more fortunate than those who live in the wild. Animals who live in oceans and forests experience much suffering, the most common being that of being eaten by others.
Even tiny creatures that are hard to see with the naked eye have other insects that eat them, just as larger animals such as elephants and tigers or those in the ocean, like whales and sharks, are attacked and eaten by others. And in earlier times there were even huger animals that lived on land and in the sea that were attacked and eaten by smaller ones getting into their bodies and eating them from within. So even big animals can be killed by small ones; every animal has its natural enemy that can kill and eat it.
On top of that they are also susceptible to the general sufferings of hunger and thirst and heat and cold. In addition, each animal has its own specific suffering according to the kind of animal it is.
So all those sentient beings - animals, pretas and hell beings - are not free like humans are; human beings have much more freedom than do the sentient beings in the lower realms. The animals that live in forests or in the ocean are always afraid - they don’t enjoy human freedoms and don’t have the methods to enjoy life as humans can. That’s why the lower realms, the realms of the animals, pretas and hell beings, are called evil destinies [Tib: ngän-song]; those are the suffering realms.
The upper realms
With respect to the upper realms, there’s not only the human realm; there are also the realms of the suras and asuras, whose enjoyments are much greater than those of humans. Their abodes, food, clothing and everything else are much richer, more pure than those of humans; beyond compare, in fact. However, those beings’ minds are so dominated by attachment to sense objects that they don’t have a chance of seeing suffering the way humans do.
There are all kinds of human being: we can see some who have much enjoyment, others who have much suffering. Suras don’t have the opportunity that we do to develop the wisdom understanding the nature of suffering because they are surrounded by fabulous enjoyments and possessions, have many hundreds of friends and experience very few problems in their lives. So because of their great attachment and inability to see suffering or realize its nature, they have no chance to practice Dharma.
Asuras’ lives are in many ways similar to those of the suras in that they enjoy the same riches, but they are more mischievous in nature and their minds are more foolish than those of the suras. There are also other types of sura, or long-life god, in the formless realm, where again, they don’t have a chance to practice Dharma because they’re unconscious from birth to death.
So in the three lower realms and in the sura and asura realms the beings have no chance to practice Dharma. It’s only the human realm that gives us that chance, where it’s relatively easy to practice Dharma, receive the whole path and quickly attain enlightenment.
The perfect human rebirth
However, just being born human isn’t enough; one needs a perfect human rebirth, with eight freedoms and ten richnesses, which is extremely difficult to find but once found is highly meaningful. For instance, one needs to encounter the teachings, possess perfect physical senses and follow the path to enlightenment.
Therefore our present human rebirth is highly meaningful, not meaningless, because we have met the Dharma, through which we can completely free ourselves from the bondage of suffering and receive everlasting happiness. With this perfect human rebirth we can also attain enlightenment - in this lifetime or the next, or in a lifetime beyond those, and then release other sentient beings from all their life problems and suffering and also lead them into the most sublime happiness of enlightenment.
Since this present human rebirth is so highly meaningful in these various ways, not to use it to fulfill its purpose and achieve these higher goals is a huge waste, the greatest possible loss. Having met the teachings and a spiritual friend to explain them and then not to practice will make it extremely difficult, virtually impossible, to meet the teachings and a teacher again in future lives. Therefore, while we have this chance, we should try as hard as we can to get closer and closer to enlightenment, day by day, month by month, year by year, by following the teachings.
The main path, the principal method, that brings us closer to enlightenment is cultivating bodhicitta, training our mind in the pure thought of bodhicitta as much as possible. In order to receive the highly beneficial thought of enlightenment, bodhicitta, we need the prerequisite realization of impartial compassion - equal compassion for all sentient beings. That depends on seeing all sentient beings in beauty, and that depends on understanding how extremely kind all sentient beings have been to us.
So what we therefore need to do is to equalize the discriminating thought that differentiates between sentient beings as enemy and friend. When we identify certain beings as “enemy,” hatred arises and we create negative karma by fighting with them. And when we identify others as “friend,” the delusion of attachment arises and by acting under its control we again create more negative karma.
So to see all sentient beings equally in beauty, just as a mother sees her only child - as so beautiful, as most dear, as her own heart - we need to realize their kindness, and before that we need to equalize the thought that discriminates others as friends and enemies. If we don’t, we’ll always see others in that way and as a result create negative actions out of attachment and hatred.
The equilibrium meditation
At present, the only beings we see in beauty are our friends. Since we don’t see those who harm us in the same way, we don’t have love for them. As long as we feel like that, there’s no way we can receive bodhicitta and obviously no way we can attain enlightenment. Therefore we must first equalize the thought that sees other sentient beings as friend or enemy, but we don’t do that by running ads in the paper or on TV asking, “Please everybody, equalize yourselves as friend and enemy”! Instead, what we do is a very important meditation called the equilibrium meditation.10
The equilibrium meditation is especially important at times like this, when there’s much violence and unhappiness in the world and people so strongly differentiate between friends and enemies and then act upon these distinctions to get rid of enemies by denouncing, harming and destroying them. This is no way to put an end to enemies. In fact, it only creates more. The more enemies you destroy, the more you make. Such methods simply ensure an endless supply of enemies.
However, what we believe to be friends and enemies are mere conceptions. We just think friends are real friends and enemies are real enemies. They are just projections of our own mind. There is no such thing as a real friend or a real enemy out there, existing without depending on our mind.
The thing is, the way we believe others to be absolute friends and absolute enemies is completely wrong; our view is totally mistaken. The evolution of such discriminations is as follows.
First of all, I am attached to myself, my own “I,” and my body, my possessions and my happiness. Then, when somebody disturbs my happiness or my possessions, I get angry and discriminate that person as an enemy. On the other hand, when somebody supports my happiness, attachment arises and I call that person a friend. Furthermore, I believe that person to be an absolute, real friend - qualities that exist nowhere.
But that’s how friends and enemies arise. When somebody gives me something, benefits me a little or helps my happiness, I see that person as a friend; when somebody harms my pleasure, my anger sees that person as an enemy. I give people different names according to their actions - friend and enemy do not come from their own side; there’s no such thing. First I project a person as a friend or enemy and then I believe it to be real, coming from that person’s side.
So the equilibrium meditation, in which we equalize others as friend and enemy, is practiced on the basis of understanding how we discriminate others according to their actions of helping or harming.
Begin by visualizing all sentient beings, as infinite as space, surrounding you. Your mother is to your left, your father to your right; your worst enemy is in front of you, your most cherished friend is behind.
Now look at your enemy in front of you and ask yourself why you dislike that person. See what reasons come up. Perhaps he beat, cheated, criticized or harmed you in some other way. Then look at your friend and think how that person also harmed you in the same way in the past. So, if that person harmed you in the past just as your present enemy did, why do you now consider that person a friend? See what reasons come up - it’s because that person helped you in some way. Then think how your enemy also helped you in the same way in the past. So since they have both harmed and helped you in the past, why do you now consider one to be a friend and the other an enemy?
If you think that your enemy has harmed you more than your friend has, if that conception arises, if you see that in this life your enemy has harmed you more than your friend has, then remember that this life is just one in a beginningless continuity for all beings, including your enemy and friend, and that therefore this enemy has helped you numberless times in previous lives and this friend has harmed you numberless times in previous lives - so the reasons to discriminate one as friend and the other as enemy are equal. In other words, the enemy in front of you has harmed and helped you numberless times in previous lives and is therefore equal in having been enemy and friend. And the friend behind you has also helped and harmed you numberless times in previous lives and is therefore also equal in having been friend and enemy.
So the feeling you should get from applying the logic of this evolution to your present enemy and friend when you look at them is one of equanimity, as if you’re looking at strangers: no attachment to your friend and no aversion to your enemy. When you see these two as equal, there’s a feeling of peace in your mind. No violent thoughts, no uptightness, just a feeling of relaxation.
So after you have equalized enemy and friend, you do the same thing with your father and mother - equalize their being friend and enemy. Then, after you have equalized these four people, equalize all sentient beings as having equally helped and given harm numberless times from beginningless previous lifetimes until now. Therefore all sentient beings are exactly equal in having been friend and enemy. Then, whenever you get the strong feeling of equanimity with respect to all sentient beings, just concentrate on that; when your mind reaches that point, hold it for as long as you can.
There are many different ways to do this meditation but what I’ve just described is the very basic, simple technique of equalizing all sentient beings as friend and enemy. If you train your mind in this meditation - especially when you receive the realization - whenever somebody harms you or somebody praises you or gives you gifts and so forth, because you have equalized your discriminating thought, you don’t discriminate such people as enemy or friend, you have a feeling of equanimity for all, no matter what they do to or for you. If somebody bothers you, disturbs your pleasure or possessions, the delusion of anger does not arise; if somebody praises you, the delusion of attachment does not arise. Your mind is constantly at peace.
No matter where you go, wherever you travel, even if you’re with a group of cruel, violent people, your mind doesn’t change; your mind is unaffected by the conditions. Therefore you don’t create any more negative actions, don’t make others unhappy or cause them suffering; you don’t create any more negative karma. Therefore you don’t have to experience the suffering results that are caused by delusion and negative karma; you avoid all the future life problems that come from such causes.
However, this meditation is extremely helpful in your quickly realizing bodhicitta and attaining enlightenment and is extremely important in helping bring peace to the world and to your family and relationships. Disharmony and fighting come from the discriminating thought that differentiates between enemies and friends: “She helped me; she’s my friend. He hurt me; he’s my enemy, I’m going to destroy him.”
Therefore the practice of this meditation is extremely beneficial and as you practice it, you yourself become a psychiatrist, you yourself become a psychologist - and that’s the best way to solve problems: to work within your own mind.
9 See The Great Treatise or Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand for details of the different kinds of being in samsara. [Return to text]
10 See Lama Yeshe’s Ego, Attachment and Liberation, Appendix 1, free from the LYWA, for Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s equilibrium meditation. Also on line at www.LamaYeshe.com. [Return to text]