Questioner: Could you say a little more about how we perpetuate the realms we find ourselves in?
Ngakma Nor’dzin: Well let’s return to the simple example – if I drop litter in the street I am making a statement that I think it is acceptable to live in a world where people drop litter. If I am aggressive towards people, I am making a statement that I wish to live in a world where people are bullies. When I do not bother to take back the extra five pounds the shop assistant gave me by mistake, I am saying that I am happy to live in a world where people are dishonest. We justify our decisions in many weird and wonderful ways. We may say ‘It was such a dirty place anyway so my sweet wrapper did not make any difference’; ‘That guy was such a nerd – it was his fault that he irritated me so much’; ‘The shop is part of a huge chain. They can afford to lose a small sum.’ Such justification undermines a sense of honour and integrity and denies the possibility of liberation. It is opting for mediocrity and the easy way out.
Q: It sounds as though there’s no hope for beings in lower realms.
NN: There is hope. The vast potential of a moment of pure compassion or sparkling awareness cannot be underestimated. This spark can arise at any moment in any realm. Each moment is an opportunity to explode the limitations of our existence. These opportunities are facilitated more easily in the human realm than any other, but this does not deny the possibility of movement in other realms.
As Khandro Déchen once said,
There is a Buddha in every realm. A Buddha who works for the benefit of beings in those realms – even the perceptual states with the most intense suffering.
Through understanding the qualities of the realms, we can recognise when we are dwelling in one of the other five realms, and decide to let it go and arise as human. It is slightly artificial to talk about The Four Thoughts in isolation from each other. An aspect of the practice is to also remember impermanence—the second of The Four Thoughts—so that we understand that we can always spontaneously dissolve greed, anger, compulsion, jealousy, or disinterest. We can allow the next mind-moment to be one of choosing expansive openness and compassion. We can allow the next mind-moment to be human. We can recognise disinterest, selfishness, inflexibility, poverty of spirit, and fearful aggression – and decide to discriminate. We can choose not to dwell in these realms. We can invoke the potential of being human.
Q: This teaching seems to depend on a belief in rebirth.
NN: That is only true if you regard the realms as actual physical realities. To take rebirth does not necessarily mean having to die physically and be reborn physically. The realms are perceptual, and the teaching is relevant to a single life experience, as it fluctuates from moment to moment. We are continually dying to one realm and being reborn in another.
Q: I’m surprised rebirth is not part of your presentation of this teaching.
NN: Again this is because we cannot really separate the precious human rebirth teachings from the teachings on impermanence and death. You could say that the realms are the form, and impermanence is the emptiness, of the two parts of the teaching.
Q: Why didn’t you present the impermanence and death teachings first then?
NN: Because I felt it was important to follow the traditional format of most of the presentations I have studied, which puts The Four Thoughts in the order I give them here.
Q2: When you find yourself in a realm, how long does it take for that perceptual state to exhaust itself? It sounded like it would be an awful long time in the god realm, yet success can be rather fleeting.
NN: The time referred to here is perceptual time, rather than time you measure on a clock. Perceptual time is different in all the realms. I’m sure we’ve all had experiences of time appearing to move at a different speed in different circumstances. I remember being in a car crash once. I was coming down a main road and a car attempted to cross over it in front of me. They had misjudged the manœuvre and I realised that I was going to hit them – that I could not brake in time to avoid them and that they were not going to get across before I hit them. I had time to assess that I couldn’t swerve to the right or left without causing more of a problem. All I could do was brake. Those few seconds of hard braking before I finally ploughed into the side of the car seemed to go into slow motion. I was able to experience the car skidding slightly as I braked so hard. I can remember the sensation of floating gently, almost dreamily towards them, whilst at the same time being fully aware of the seriousness of the situation. Everything happened slowly and silently until the sudden sound and shock of the impact.
Q: Were you hurt?
NN: No, fortunately I had reacted quickly enough that the impact was fairly mild and none of us were injured.
So you see perceptual time is quite different to clock time. The patterns of a realm perpetuate themselves. The hell realm experience is fast and violent. The god realm experience is slow and expansive. Human realm experience is fairly fast, but it does offer space to become aware.