I was recently in Boulder, Colorado for work. I love visiting Boulder – it’s really beautiful, and I have many friends from work and from the Zen scene, so I always have a nice time when I’m in town. When I was in Boulder last, I visited the newly expanded Whole Foods. If you know Boulder, and if you know Whole Foods, then you know that the two demographics are a perfect match. The old Whole Foods was pretty nice, but the new one just really knocked my socks off. Aisles and aisles of gorgeous organic food. All sorts of delicious and healthy prepared foods. A food court with anything you might want. A bakery with hearty fresh-baked, whole-grain breads and tempting cookies and cakes. Fresh chocolates. Perfect organic produce. It was really impressive. And the people! Everyone there seemed to be young, healthy, athletic, and good-looking. Even the music was fantastic (they were playing the new Paul Simon album). Pretty much, wherever you looked, there was something pleasing to look at. Everything smelled wonderful. You were surrounded by pleasing sounds. Every sense organ was being pleasured simultaneously! It seemed like a place designed to ensure that no one – at least in the rather limited demographic of Boulder – could possibly be unhappy. How could you be? Everything you might want is arrayed before you! This is the realm of the gods or the devas, where everything is bliss. It’s very nice!
Of course this reminded me of the story of the Buddha who, as a child, was sheltered from anything that could cause him unhappiness. He was surrounded by wonderful foods, beautiful people, and pretty sounds. We know how this turned out. Shakyamuni’s parents couldn’t keep old age, sickness, and death at bay forever, and the young Shakyamuni eventually saw that life isn’t just about surrounding yourself with pleasing sensations. When he realized that everyone will grow old, get sick, and die, he dedicated himself to understanding the nature of suffering, and we still practice in the way that he taught 2500 years ago.
But I picked up another feeling at the Whole Foods in Boulder, an underlying tension, a sense of grasping, almost a sense of desperation in the midst of all the beauty. Many of the people in Boulder are extremely accomplished. It’s home to some of the world’s top athletes and scientists (many of the top athletes in Boulder are the top scientists, too), people who have worked very very hard to get where they are. So some of this feeling seemed to be an intense level of competitiveness to get ahead and powerful grasping to keep what had been achieved. This is the realm of the Asuras, or Jealous Gods.
Do you know about the Six Realms of Existence in Buddhist cosmology? These are traditionally presented in terms of things like gods and demigods and ghosts, but they really are about different states of mind that we experience. I have found them to be a remarkably useful framework for thinking about my own life and the different ways we all experience our lives and our practice. I have described the first two realms. In the realm of the gods, life is so good and blissful, we may not feel much need to practice Buddhism. Why bother when life is so good? Unfortunately, everything is impermanent, even the realm of the gods, so eventually we will fall from this blissful state into one of the lower states. In the realm of the Asuras, life is pretty fantastic, but we’re always a little paranoid, a little freaked out, that we are going to lose what we have. I’ll come back to this one in a bit, but I want to at least summarize the other realms. Each one is well worth studying.
We can be in any of the six realms, but the human realm, the next on the list, is where most of us are most of the time. Here, life is quite variable and it is considered the ideal place to practice the Dharma. In the human realm we are suffering and grasping, no doubt, but we are not so wracked with misery that we can’t practice. In the human realm, practicing the Dharma is considered to be especially efficacious. We have just enough difficulty so that our practice can gain some traction. Then there’s the animal realm. Here we are driven primarily by instinct, or even by addiction. There’s very little opportunity to practice here because there is simply no space between impulse and response.
Just below the animal realm is a very important state called the realm of the Pretas or Hungry Ghosts. This is a very important realm in our modern society. The hungry ghosts are beings who suffer from intense hunger and thirst that can never be satisfied. Traditionally they are drawn as beings with enormous bellies and very narrow necks. They are tormented by desire and are unable to do anything to soothe themselves. This idea of the Hungry Ghosts does not just apply to physical hunger or thirst, of course. It also refers to the whole variety of ways in which we are unsatisfied and simply can’t get our desires met. In a world filled with advertising, we’re all always in touch with this realm, at least in the West. We crave wealth, we crave love, we crave attention, but no matter what happens externally, we can never fill our bellies, we’re never satisfied. It’s a very sad state, and it’s one that is all too familiar to many of us.
Finally, there is the hell realm. It’s not quite the same as the idea of hell in the western tradition. This is a state based on longstanding, deep-rooted hatred. Hatred of another, of oneself, the world, society. Practice is probably not really possible as an option here, but the good news is that, like all of the other states, it too is impermanent, so there is at least the possibility of some space or gap in the hatred into which the thought of enlightenment may arise.
Now that we have laid out the six realms, I wanted to go back a bit to the realm of the Asuras because it’s one that I think is important in our society and it doesn’t get a lot of attention. America is a nation of immigrants: someone in our family, a grandparent, a great-grandparent, or maybe even ourselves, left their home in another country to seek a better life. So many of our ancestors came to America, worked hard, and managed to get ahead. They were able to make a life for their children that was better than what they had experienced in their native homes. This was the American dream. But the downside to the American dream was the problem of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. Sure, we have plenty, but our neighbors maybe have just a bit more. So instead of feeling satisfied with our efforts and with the nice life we have created, we get anxious that we’re not keeping up. This is the anxiety of the Asuras. It’s the anxiety that we’re going to lose what we have worked so hard for, and it’s endemic in American life.
Henry David Thoreau describes this anxiety beautifully in his classic book, Walden:
The incessant anxiety and strain of some is a well-nigh incurable form of disease. We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do; and yet how much is not done by us! or, what if we had been taken sick? How vigilant we are! determined not to live by faith if we can avoid it; all the day long on the alert, at night we unwillingly say our prayers and commit ourselves to uncertainties. So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change.
We Asuras are committed to taking care of things through our own power. We have been so successful in getting what we want through our own efforts that we have very little capacity to let go and allow events to develop.
But there’s always been a strain of American thought that has suggested a better way, a way in which, rather than giving in to habitual, continued striving, to simply let go. Thoreau talked about this in the 19th century and after the Second World War, the Beatniks and then the hippies talked about something similar. And this was the context into which Zen was introduced in the late 50s and early 60s. In the realm of the Asuras, our suffering is caused by the very striving that helped us to get where we are. To a point, such striving can be effective, but beyond that point, it can create a lot of suffering. Many people, from the time of the Buddha through Thoreau and into the present time have decided to step away from their privilege and seek a different kind of success, a different kind of freedom, the freedom that comes from letting go of striving.
I will conclude again with Thoreau, beautifully describing this in a way that sounds a lot like zazen:
Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on the rails. Let us rise early and fast, or break fast, gently and without perturbation; let company come and let company go, let the bells ring and the children cry — determined to make a day of it. Why should we knock under and go with the stream? Let us not be upset and overwhelmed in that terrible rapid and whirlpool called a dinner, situated in the meridian shallows. Weather this danger and you are safe, for the rest of the way is down hill. With unrelaxed nerves, with morning vigor, sail by it, looking another way, tied to the mast like Ulysses. If the engine whistles, let it whistle till it is hoarse for its pains. If the bell rings, why should we run? We will consider what kind of music they are like. Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through Church and State, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake; and then begin, having a point d’appui (point of support) below freshet and frost and fire, a place where you might found a wall or a state, or set a lamp-post safely, or perhaps a gauge, not a Nilometer, but a Realometer, that future ages might know how deep a freshet of shams and appearances had gathered from time to time. If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a scimitar, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.
So as we go forth this week, let’s try to spend at least a little time every day taking up Thoreau’s invitation to let company come and let it go, to let the bells ring and to let the children cry. If we can open up a little space for this in our lives, then maybe we can begin to let go of the anxiety of the Asuras.