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Yup, Pretty Much Everything Is Possible: A Quick Skate Through Tibetan Buddhist Cosmology

Author: Donnalee Dermady-Minney
Posted: November 30th. 2008
Times Viewed: 2,956

I was Pagan for maybe eighteen years before becoming intimately involved with Tibetan Buddhism in 1999. After some serious years of practice, I was delighted to find that they work excellently together, with some crucial differences (Tibetan Buddhism has an emphasis on complete liberation from being stuck in any form, which is discussed a bit below, whereas sometimes that has not been the thrust for some folks I have met in the Pagan or otherkin communities, etc.) , but the elements of earth, air, fire, water, and space (as the fifth element in the case of Tibetan Buddhism) ; emphasis on masculine and feminine polarities; sacredness of body, speech, and mind, meaning *all forms, all sound, all thoughts* in Tibetan Buddhism; and 'reincarnation' or rebirth from one of four forms (from the body of the mother, from an egg, from moisture, and through spontaneous embodiment) , are there, along with an enormous range of life forms, and realms, and world systems, etc., in which beings are born or otherwise take form.

I thought that some readers might enjoy hearing a little non-academic chat about the variety of life forms that are completely traditional to Tibetan Buddhism, and which frankly include pretty much every "mythological" form that we may have heard of, dreamt of, feel we have a past life as, or saw in films. It seems like people might find it heartening that at least one other big religious tradition accepts everything--

The big "divider" into two main categories of being in Tibetan Buddhism is 1) "sentient beings" who are not enlightened, and 2) those who are "enlightened", who are called "buddhas" (which just refers to that perfection of wisdom, compassion, and skillful means which they have recognized in their own nature, and the nature of all) . The belief is that all beings have this buddha nature within them, and that the basic "poisons" of ignorance/denial, anger/hatred/aversion/prejudice, and attachment/clinging/greed/lust (along with pride and jealousy) blind them to this true nature in themselves and others.

The whole point of Buddhism is to clear up the misconceptions and delusions that we have, so that we can see relative and absolute reality clearly. It does NOT mean that we want to "transcend" this world, or "escape" from earth or life, but FROM THE DELUSIONS AND UNNECESSARY SUFFERINGS THAT OCCUR WHEN WE ARE NOT ENLIGHTENED, WHEN WE ARE STILL SEEING THINGS THROUGH LIMITED EGO-VIEW.

To me, that is a vital difference: living with the view of a buddha, or enlightened view encompassing wisdom, compassion, and skillful means, means that yes, you can be alive, enjoy life and love and company and food and sex and drink and nature and computer games, *because you understand their basic nature*, which is "empty" ("of inherent existence" is the traditional language) , meaning having infinite potential and not being permanently what it appears to be, and hence always changing due to the arising of causes and conditions. This is a very complex and subtle concept, but vital, and so it is being introduced, however fleetingly.

We see this ourselves day to day, instant to instant: food on the stove burns: that's due to "causes and conditions", including the way fire and convection etc., happen on earth, plus if you're busy smooching somebody or yelling at someone on the phone or cleaning up after a pet, and forget to check the stove, etc. In another instance, I might think that person is attractive, whereas you don't: that's because we each have different causes and conditions within our individual-seeming make-up and our karma (our chain of habits) , and hence see things subjectively, and only partially, because we're not enlightened.

All of this leads up to the belief that, because there are infinite ever-changing causes and conditions, pretty much everything is possible. This "pretty much everything" is generally lumped into six main realms, plus the Buddha lands, plus the "bardos" after death, which includes infinite universes and world systems.

I personally have heard teachings which refer to "humans that look like tree trunks [here] and humans from another system that look like carpets, and we each think we are funny-looking" (Tai Situpa Rinpoche) , and reference to certain teachings "existing currently in fourteen world systems including this one" (Namkhai Norbu) /

Let's take a quick look:

The six main realms are hell realms, hungry ghost (or "pretas") realm, animal realm, human realm, demi-gods/jealous gods/asuras realm, and the god realm. In this cosmology, the gods are not necessarily enlightened (although any being can be enlightened and taking a form that looks not-enlightened to the casual observer, to benefit beings--if you're enlightened, and go on forever in one form or another, the main attractions would seem to me to enjoy yourself and to help others, right?) : they just have gotten themselves into a fairly good-looking situation through their own karma, but that will eventually change, although their lives are tremendously long by human standards. What results in this life for them is pride as their main feature.

The demi-gods fit entirely with the cosmologies of Celtic, Roman, Norse, Greek, etc. beliefs, with the same longer life spans, the same contentious nature (hence the term "jealous gods": they generally vie with the gods, and each other, for position and privileges which they want or have lost, or believe to be theirs by right, etc.etc.etc. ad infinitum) . They came to be demi-gods because of their jealous natures.

The humans are what you see, and became so because of their desirous nature. This is not to be confused with "OH, I want something", or "Oh, I have sexual desire, and that is somehow bad", but is clinging, attachment, refusal to flush the potty and move on.

The animal realm we see a lot of, in animals and many insects and a lot of sea life, but most of us do not see the nagas, who are sort of serpent-beings, generally not super-western-dragon-looking so much as mermaidy in appearance, although they can manifest as half-human, half-fish-looking. Some of them are helpful, some unhelpful, some enlightened, and some will kill you in an instant. To me, this fits with many of the stories in many cosmologies. The animals came to be in that realm in that life by their ignorance, denial, and obtuseness.

The hungry ghosts are those beings who never get enough, and are unable to appreciate what is right in front of them. Their bodies often are unable to take nourishment, with tiny mouths or swollen stomachs, or the drink and food in front of them turns to vile liquids, which they cannot get real benefit from. I find that a lot of demons, and vampiric forms, are in this category (although often demons are hell realm beings or not demons at all but different non-dead forms) . They come to this state by being unable to appreciate what is present, and are often addicts in this lifetime.

Hell realm beings are like the poor gentleman in the end of that film "One", with Jet Li endlessly fighting and killing and harming, and endlessly trying to defend him from those doing the same. One gets here by the habit of anger, brutal prejudice, aversion, rage, abusive ways of being, tantrums, and belligerent ego.

The clever reader can see that we experience variants on these realms every day, ever-changing, and it is believed that our karma, our habit, is what causes the actual lives in these realms. If I, for example, spend my life having fits of rage in traffic, tantrums at my spouse, flaming people on the Internet, and kicking things, what am I likely to do at the moment of my death? I would likely freak out, get enraged, try to blame someone, and have a crappy, crummy, unpeaceful transition into whatever comes next.

In Tibetan Buddhist cosmology, what comes next are several bardos, transition phases, in which we can either *get* it, really recognize the true nature of being and be liberated from our partial view, and hence have a lot of control over what happens next, or we simply have created the karmic pattern (habits, really, of body, speech, and mind) that cause us to fly into whatever dysfunctional gig we customarily use, and then have a scary-feeling landing in some realm, and body, not of our choosing.

As always, the choice is ours.

Every instant, the choice is ours. That is the crucial point to understand, that whatever our circumstances, we can always choose *how to view them*: that is the whole point of Buddhism which works excellently with any other system of belief that is open to it.

Indeed, that is the main key main point: since everything changes, especially in "samsara" or deluded worldview-worlds (just like they say in thermodynamics, really) , it really behooves people/beings to become enlightened, to come to understand the simple facts that everything always changes, that we only generally see partial truths and those highly subjective due to having physical form which generally colours and limits our perceptions (but which can be worked with through meditation and other practices) , because then, while the incarnations still happen, we can choose what to be, where to go, how best to benefit beings, everything, and how to enjoy and help others. To me, who recalls lots and lots of death experiences, which were Less Than Pleasant (and, bluntly, very few that were otherwise) that sounds completely worthwhile to learn.

So, I hope that this extremely brief and non-academic skate through Tibetan Buddhist cosmology has contributed to a little understanding on the parts of the readers, and I will most likely write more articles based on specific areas of practice if there is interest.

Since Tibetan Buddhism holds that this coming-to-awareness as the key to everything, there are many practices which are engaged in, up to and including lucid dreaming and death preparation, practices which enable past life recall, many special powers, increased wisdom and compassion, travel through realms and meetings with beings in many realms, both enlightened and unenlightened, and the activities described in the meditation instructional book entitled "Walking Through Walls" (just a tip: don't skip to the good parts, or it might not work for you--!) .

Many of these concepts may be beneficial to those who, like all Buddhists, want to develop wisdom, compassion, and skillful means within themselves. May all benefit--


Donnalee Dermady-Minney

Location: New York, New York

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