Articles

Practical Companion – 20

Deva

We have finally reached the best state of existence in Samsara. The deva realms are higher states of existence because their characteristic is happiness. An equivalent vocabulary used outside of Buddhism is heaven or paradise. However, this can lead to some misunderstanding of the deva realm as described by Buddhism.

Foremost, the deva realms are not an eternal state of existence. Beings who are reborn there will also face the impermanence of existence. Therefore, a deva can “pass away” from heaven and be reborn in other states of existence after a long period of time.

In Buddhism, we believe there is more than 1 heaven. The lower heavens are subjected to harassment and war with the Asura. The higher heavens are purer and free from such strife. Beings with higher mental purity will be born into higher heavens. 

Therefore, the basis on which Buddhism classifies the heavens into different levels is in accordance with the purity of the inhabitants’ mental state. The higher heavens are without physical forms and thus they do not experience the destruction of the physical universe. Another characteristic is the absence of gender. The highest level of the heavens are known as the formless heavens.

Inhabitants of formless heavens spent their entire life in a state of deep meditative bliss and “pass away” when their karmic energy wane or expire. According to some Buddhist texts, the torment experienced by these inhabitants during their “passing away” is an extremely painful mental torture. This is because they had misunderstood their deep meditative absorption as eternal happiness or the Ultimate Truth or the Ultimate Divine, etc. Therefore, when their karmic energy waned, they felt betrayed by their previous conviction/faith that they were freed from suffering. Instantaneously, doubt will assault their minds. It’s like discovering that their entire existence or the meaning of their existence was nothing but a fabricated lie. In that split moment, anger will inevitably arise. That karmic energy makes things worse and thus, they usually fall into a lower realm. If we ponder deeply, we will realize that such mental pain and trauma can be experienced by us too. Imagine believing something deeply and building the meaning/purpose of our life around that belief; Then discovering that it is nothing but a lie. Our entire world will feel like it is crushing down upon us. Most of us will feel angry and will “lash” out involuntarily, right? In their situation, it is worse.

On the other hand, the lower heavens get to enjoy all forms of pleasures but are subjected to wars with the Asura and will experience the catastrophe of a Universe’s destruction. The beings here can foretell their time of “passing away” because it is similar to “aging”. Their radiance begins to fade and they begin to have “lowly” experiences such as sweating and having body odour.   Fellow inhabitants begin to avoid them. Similarly, they experience suffering at that point in time because they know that their “good time” is up. To imagine their pain, we can think about how it feels if we were to know that we are going to lose all our assets and enjoyments in life soon.

The only exception to the above-mentioned faults is the heaven of non-returner. Non-returners are beings who have gained the 3rd stage of enlightenment. In this case, the heaven of a non-returner is like a pitstop before full enlightenment.

In general, the heavens are states of existence that are filled with enjoyment and happiness. Due to that favorable situations, inhabitants of the heavens are “lost” in enjoyment. In that manner, they are not really inclined with creating good karma. This is what we would call, “taking things for granted”. It inevitably results in bankrupting good karma and thus, an inevitable downfall from the heavens. 

Therefore, when we contemplate the heavens, it is important for us to acknowledge that life in the heavens is like a temporary situation that causes us to stop our spiritual progress and ultimately, results in us falling back to the lower realms.

In that manner, we should be weary and not be delighted with it. Nor should we seek it as our ultimate goal. This concludes the 6 realms of existence as taught in Buddhism and how we should contemplate these existences as imperfect and full of potential for suffering.

May all be well and happy.

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