The Ups and Downs of Samsara: The Six Realms of Existence

Unlocking the Six Realms of Samsara in Tibetan Buddhism - Discover how these realms shape your life and create obstacles to liberation.

In Tibetan Buddhism, there’s a concept called Samsara – the cycle of death and rebirth to which life in the material world is bound. It involves six different realms that represent the karmic consequences of our actions. These realms are split into two categories: lower realms and upper realms.

The lower realms are the Animal, Hungry Ghost, and Hell realms. These realms are all about suffering and affliction. On the other hand, the upper realms are the Human, Demi-god, and God realms. These realms offer greater pleasure and abundance.

These realms aren’t actual physical places. They’re just in our minds, creating obstacles to our liberation. But, we can move in and out of these mental states because we’re born human, giving us the key to free ourselves from our self-constructed prisons and liberate ourselves from Samsara altogether.

Understanding the six realms of Samsara can deepen our understanding of our afflictions and consequent behaviors. We can also learn to appreciate what others are going through, have compassion for them, and handle them better.

Bhavachakra describing the cycle of saṃsāra: illustrated in the wheel are six realms of existence in which a sentient being can reincarnate, according to the rebirth doctrine of Buddhism. Yama, the god of death, is at the top of the outer rim. The outer rim shows the Twelve Nidānas doctrine.
Bhavachakra describing the cycle of saṃsāra: illustrated in the wheel are six realms of existence in which a sentient being can reincarnate, according to the rebirth doctrine of Buddhism. Yama, the god of death, is at the top of the outer rim. The outer rim shows the Twelve Nidānas doctrine.

Further Reading:

Heavenly Realm: The God Realm

The God Realm (Deva in Sanskrit) represents pride and luxury. It’s a place where people with good karma from past lives go to experience earthly pleasures and material comforts. They revel in everything they could ever want, from expensive possessions to lavish lifestyles.

However, living an effortless existence can lead to laziness and attachment. Beings in the God Realm often indulge in everything without effort. They use meditation and prayer as just another way to chase pleasure rather than fully engaging in spiritual practices. They prefer to show off their resources by traveling to exotic meditation retreats rather than practicing the dharma.

Unfortunately, their indulgence hinders spiritual growth, causing a distraction from dharma practice. They waste a rare opportunity to gather good karma and instead accumulate negative karma.

The Devas are unaware of the sadness that awaits them when life’s inevitable changes occur, such as losing money, social status, loved ones, youth, and health. 

As the end nears, Devas realize they’re unprepared to face rebirth and often end up in lower realms.

The Dual Realm: Demi-gods’ Domain

The Mahadevi combatting the asura army (right), folio from the Devi Mahatmya
The Mahadevi combatting the asura army (right), folio from the Devi Mahatmya

The realm of demi-gods (Asuras in Sanskrit) is a world of jealousy, anger, and an insatiable thirst for power. It’s a place where beings are consumed by the pursuit of authority and status, leading to both happiness and suffering.

The Asura realm is a dark and foreboding place where peace and harmony are hard to come by. Although they have everything they could ever want, their constant envy and strife create endless pain and injury.

Demi-gods battle fiercely against each other, fighting for control and resources. They even go to war against those in the god realm, but it’s futile since the god realm beings are too powerful for them.

They vent their frustration about losing to the gods, causing trouble and sorrow in the human realm.

The Realm of Balance: Human Existence

In the human realm (Manuṣya in Sanskrit) lies a unique opportunity for spiritual growth. This realm strikes a good balance between suffering and comfort, unlike the Devas, completely distracted by pleasure, or the lower realms, defined by pain and suffering.

Our desires and attachment create suffering in this realm. We go beyond material possessions and build a false persona around our ego. We prioritize and protect this persona and strive to fulfill its desires.

Although humans possess ignorance, it does not define us like the delusions that dominate animal life. We have intelligence, which enables us to make wiser choices and overcome destructive patterns. We are not innately bound to unhealthy habits but have the potential to awaken to the pure awareness obscured by ignorance.

The suffering it offers is just enough to push us toward spiritual growth and self-realization. At the same time, the comforts give us relief and reward. Therefore, the human realm is considered the most suitable for practicing dharma.

The Realm of Instinct: Animal Existence

The animal realm (Tiryagyoni in Sanskrit) is the first of the lower realms where beings live in ignorance. Although animals have great qualities and the same Buddha nature as humans, their circumstances limit their ability to recognize and embrace them.

Animals are entirely driven by instinct and self-preservation, unable to explore their true nature fully. In this realm, animals prey on one another and endure suffering driven by impulses and instincts.

Humans can also find themselves trapped in a similar state. Examples are moments when cravings, desires, or the fight-or-flight response have driven us. Domesticated animals experience exploitation by humans, who may overwork or slaughter them for food. In contrast, wild animals suffer from fear and predation.

By understanding the struggles and limitations of the animal realm, we can better appreciate the opportunities for growth and self-realization that the human realm provides.

The Realm of Unquenchable Cravings: Hungry Ghosts

Hungry ghosts in Burmese representation, but it refers to dogs.
Hungry ghosts in Burmese representation, but it refers to dogs.

Hungry Ghost (Preta in Sanskrit) beings are plagued by a never-ending hunger and thirst that they can never satisfy. It’s like being stuck in a never-ending race to the finish line, always wanting more but never feeling content.

But the Hungry Ghost realm is more than just a metaphor for our worldly desires. It’s a stark warning of the dangers of human greed. When we focus only on personal gain and become obsessed with accumulating more and more, we risk losing sight of what truly matters. The consequences can be dire and have long-lasting effects that we may never be able to shake.

Our modern consumer culture only fuels the fire, leading us on a never-ending quest for the latest and greatest. But the truth is, it will always leave us wanting more, forever disappointed, and never truly fulfilled. 

The Hell Realm: A World of Anger and Suffering

19th century Burmese temple painting. Tempura-like paint on cotton.
19th century Burmese temple painting. Tempura-like paint on cotton.

The Hell Realm (Naraka in Sanskrit) is a place of intense anger and suffering where the worst of the worst end up. It is considered the lowest level of existence, characterized by the most intense suffering imaginable.

People who end up in this realm suffer extreme pain caused by their negative actions, like lying, stealing, and betraying others. Imagine being so angry that you couldn’t think straight and saying or doing something hurtful. In the Hell Realm, they always feel that way, trapped in a cycle of retribution and penance.

The Hell Realm is a stark reminder of the power of destructive emotions and actions. We can relate to this realm by recalling moments when anger consumed us, leading us to cause harm to others.

Various texts describe different hellish regions, each with its unique form of suffering. Some beings suffer from constant hunger and thirst, while others endure unbearable heat or cold. The agony is always excruciating and never-ending, making it almost impossible for those trapped there to recognize their true potential and break free.


Recognizing the realms in Buddhism shows us the mental traps that keep us stuck in Samsara. Witnessing the agony that beings in these realms endure makes us value our human life and its chance for spiritual growth.

Realizing we can escape our suffering fills us with hope and power. We hold the key to liberating ourselves and living purposefully and kindly.

But with this great power comes great responsibility. We must use our opportunity wisely and focus on freeing ourselves and others from Samsara. Let’s unite and work towards a world of liberation, compassion, and joy.

A dynamic personality with years of experience in the software industry and professional mainstream broadcasting. Now, he is dedicated to sharing his experiences about life, faith, and relationships to help others enable themselves to live a better life.


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