Jizo - the six realms

Traditionally Jizo is guardian of and guide to the underworld and the intermediate state between births, especially benefiting those in the hell realms. As friend to those in hell, Jizo loyally stands by and comforts the tortured, the wretched, and the afflicted. But along with his sojourns in hell, Jizo is also ever present in the other five of the six realms or worldly destinies that are delineated in Buddhist cosmology. These realms are described as the physical situations in which beings are incarnated during the endless rounds of rebirth due to the implacable cause and effect of the workings of karma. But the six realms are also a major Mahayana psychological teaching, and can be understood as the basic mental states that might be experienced by any of us during the course of a week or even a day. Since Jizo does bodhisattva work to help beings in all six of the realms, I will describe these six as the locus of Jizo’s practice.

The six realms are: the heavenly beings; the titans or angry, ambitious deities; humans, considered the most auspicious realm for practice and realization of awakening; animals; hungry ghosts; and the hell realms. These realms are not permanent, eternal destinies, as in the Western concepts of heaven and hell, although some beings may remain in the Buddhist hell realm for a very long time indeed.

The heavenly beings (devas in Sanskrit) have a delight, carefree existence in their home among the clouds in the sky. But since they are constantly being entertained with pleasures and are spared pain and hardships, it is very difficult for these devas to awaken to spiritual practice for the benefit of others. We might relate this state to our own experiences of bliss, the glimpses of the ecstatic we may fondly recall. The heavenly beings have long, pleasant life spans. However, they are still subject to the consequences of worldly cause and effect, and eventually a day comes when they look in the mirror and see a gray hair. This sign of the onslaught of aging is a tragic calamity, signaling the imminent demise of the heavenly beings. Their resulting destiny may well be the hell realms, since the loss of their pleasant existence is likely to cause great resistance and desperate, futile clutching to hold on to their heavenly status. Such a mentality paves the road to hell. However, there are also sincere devotees who are said to abide for a time in the heavenly realms in order to help prepare themselves for deeper spiritual practice and to return to the other realms with bodhisattvic intention and commitment. This is the original idea behind the popular desire for rebirth in the Western Paradise of Amitabha Buddha in Pure Land schools.

The second realm is that of angry, Whetting deities (ashuras in Sanskrit), powerful but ambitious titanic characters who are jealous of those in more lofty heavens above them. We may liken this state to that of a successful wealthy executive who can only think of having even more power and material possessions, too engrossed in business conquests to enjoy the simple wonders of just being alive.
The human realm, the third, is considered highly auspicious because it is the most likely domain from which to set out on the path of spiritual awakening. Thanks to Jizo’s aid and intervention, some beings from the other five realms also have a chance of awakening to spiritual practice. Humans are subject to greed, anger, and confusion, to dissatisfaction, dis-ease, and restlessness, and we humans frequently have a vague nagging sense of nausea and anxiety. Although aware of suffering, humans are not so beleaguered with misery as those in the three lower realms. Thus they may more readily arouse concern for all beings and act to help others. It is as rare and auspicious to be born as a human being as it would be for a sea turtle who sticks his head up into the air from the ocean depths once every hundred years to accidentally put his head through a life preserver that has been Coating on the surface of the ocean. To be truly and simply human is the ultimate worldly goal.

Animals, in the fourth realm, live in a swirl of appetite and fear. We can recognize this beast-like state in those people who alternate between craving and satisfaction and in their What're responses to perceived physical threats.

Hungry ghosts (pretas in Sanskrit), the fifth realm, are restless spirits in a miserable state of constant hunger. They are depicted as frustrated beings with large stomachs and tiny, needlelike throats, who can never swallow enough food. They are shown eating excrement, and it is said that for them water tastes like pus. We may recognize an element of such desperate hunger and hopeless dissatisfaction in North American consumerist culture. To the extent that an economy is predicated on the cancerous necessity for boundless growth, people may become conditioned by television commercials and many other artful stimuli to want more and more, to go out and buy the latest model or the newest fashion or toy. This may be likened to the mind-set of hungry ghosts. East Asian ceremonies featuring Jizo are dedicated to feeding and finally satisfying the hungry spirits in order to pacify them and to encourage them to take up awakening practice for all.

The sixth, or hell, realm contains many beings tortured in various grim settings. Some medieval Japanese images of the Buddhist hells resemble medieval European depictions of fire and brimstone. Hellish horned demons push the afflcited into fiery pits or cauldrons. Other hell precincts within the sixth realm are icy cold, or show those residing there being shredded by sharp swords. But sometimes Jizo is also shown in hell, saving those who suffer In the Sutra of the Past Vows of Kshitigarbha Bodhisattva, Jizo speaks knowingly of eighteen great hells and five hundred secondary ones, with another hundred thousand hells, each with distinct names, all arranged inside a ring of mountains, reminiscent of the strata of hells found in Dante’s Inferno. Jizo also graphically describes the agonizing torments of occupants of the various hells. For example, “Iron eagles peck at the offenders’ eyes…. Long nails are driven into all their limbs. Their tongues are pulled out and plowed through. Their guts are pulled out, sawed, and chopped apart. Molten brass is poured into their mouths.”1 Such tortures continue, since their subjects are restored to a state where they must experience the same or another hell realm anew.
One system of Buddhist cosmology describes eight burning hells, eight freezing hells, and three isolated hells, including Avichi, the (nearly) endless hell reserved for self-serving perverters of Buddhist teaching and destroyers of spiritual community. Like the other five realms, hell is both a destiny where beings may be reborn in other lives, and also a psychological state that we can arrive at in this life as a consequence of our unwholesome actions. Jizo particularly studies these hells, working tirelessly to release beings from such suffering

Many stories and parables in Buddhist folklore describe the different realms both as actual destinies we should fear, and as psychological states that are always available to us.

The great seventeenth-century Japanese Rinzai Zen master Hakuin was once approached by a samurai warrior who asked Hakuin to explain heaven and hell to him.

Hakuin looked up at the samurai and asked disdainfully, “How could a stupid ignoramus like you possibly understand such things?”

The samurai started to draw his sword and Hakuin chided, “So, you have a sword. It’s probably as dull as your head!”

In a rage, the proud warrior pulled out his sword intending to cut off Hakuin’s head.

Hakuin stated calmly, “This is the gateway to hell.”

The startled samurai stopped and, with appreciation for Hakuin’s cool demeanor, sheathed his sword.

“This is the gateway to heaven,” said Hakuin softly.

A popular fable describes hell as a room in which a bunch of angry, emaciated people sit around a banquet table. On the round banquet table is piled a wonderful feast, with many platters of the most delicious-smelling foods that one can imagine. Strapped to the forearms of the famished people sitting around this table in hell are four-foot-long forks and spoons, so no matter how they try, they cannot get any food into their mouths.

Heaven, on the other hand, is room in which jovial, well-fed people sit around a banquet table that is piled high with a wonderful feast, with many platters of the most delicious-smelling foods that one can imagine. Strapped to the forearms of the happy people sitting around this table in heaven are four-foot-long forks and spoons—and the people are feeding one another across the table.