Most of the time I'm rather dismissive of Buddhist and Hindu cosmology, most of it seems as absurd to me as when Christian theologians mapped out the heavens, hell and assigned names and hierarchies to the inhabitants of those places. One always wonders where such insight and knowledge came from, what special divination do these folks have access to that the rest of us don't? So it is then that I have never really taken the whole Buddhist wheel of life too seriously; it talks of the world of Devas who are always warring with demi-gods, of a realm of hungry ghosts, hell, and it populates these realms with the same kind of fantastic beings. While I was in Bhutan though something our guide said made me take a second look at the diagram.
A Buddhist Wheel of Life
The problem with hyperbole and analogy is that people love mysticism and magic and will take something that is meant as an illustration and take it as a proposal for reality. Thus when someone like the Buddha makes a fairly rational case for how to live life, it over the years becomes dressed up with the trappings of animism, Hinduism, and some all new social constructs that tell the stories of celestial struggles beyond human perception. Apparently though these wheels were first introduced by the Buddha himself as a way to explain his concepts to simple illiterate people. The symbolism is quite rich, and though today some may argue that the wheel depicts some actual realms of existence, I'd be willing to bet that they all originally were meant to represent different conditions here on earth.
While we were looking at one of these wheels outside a monastery at some dzong, our guide related a story that his Buddhist teacher had told him. The worldly realms are divided into six parts; the human realm, the deva realm, demi-god realm, animal realm, hungry ghosts, and hell. His teacher had said how the devas live long comfortable lives but because they don't like to deal with death when they are about to die they often die alone or with people they don't really know that they were left with. while the lives of these beings was comfortable and without much physical suffering it was difficult for them to reach enlightenment because their insulation from the reality of being produced a tremendous amount of ignorance. His teacher had said, this is like living in America or the West. In the drawing there is a tree that grows in the land of the demi-gods whose fruit ripens and is only available up in the land of the devas. It is said that the demi-gods are not very attractive and their beautiful woman flock to the devas. The demi-gods are thus in perpetual war making mode with the devas because they resent them for taking their fruit and woman. His teacher had related how the demi-gods were like those in the middle east and the tree was like oil. I think the case could also be made that much of Asia which manufactures what the west consumes but enjoys very little the fruits of what they produce could be a similar analogy- and it works better with the woman too. The best place to practice the Buddhist Dharma it was said is in the human realm which the teacher had said was similar to Buddhist kingdoms like Bhutan, Nepal, and such. The realms of the hungry ghosts were places like Ethiopia and African nations that constantly struggled to meet the needs of the people who lived there.
While I could go on at length about this analogy, it did occur to me that while we enjoy much comfort and freedom from what the suffering that has plagued human kind through the centuries in the West, does this somehow cloud our view of what the human condition entails. Are we looking out over the masses of the planet and declaring, "let them eat cake!" Does our comfort and "easy" (easy is relative most Americans work harder and longer hours than any people on the planet that I have encountered) way of living get in the way of our appreciation of what life entails? My short answer would be- yeah, kind of.
First we don't have much appreciation for death. In the west if you don't make it to 85 years old we act like the person was cheated. We don't have any exposure to it, even our meat comes in neat little styrofoam packs and our wars are fought overseas far from home soil with an increasingly small segment of society. When people do die at home we all shake our heads in disbelief that this could actually happen HERE, like we're not susceptible to what the rest of humanity suffers. Look at our reaction to 9/11 for instance, it was a horrible tragedy but our confusion and explanations following it were certainly a culmination of our collective ignorance. We basically accepted the idea that people came all the way to our country to kill themselves and a bunch of us because we are awesome and free. Now all the blame rests on the nuts who hijacked the plane and the absurdity of a religious system that would justify the acts, but to not understand that their motivation went beyond hating our awesomeness and had something more to do with what they perceived as our meddling in their affairs and helping to oppress people in their region of the world is a little lacking in vision.
The difficulty in living in relative comfort without a reality check every once in a while is that we can form very bad habits and never notice anything wrong with it because we almost never see the consequences, but when reality rears its ugly head we are dumbfounded and respond in much the same way as children who just had their favorite blanky snatched from them. Because that isn't supposed to happen here...I shouldn't have to put up with this....this is so unfair...how could anyone do something like this...I'm not supposed to hurt, I live in the land of the Devas. In Buddhism, and I think in life, there are consequences for all of our actions and the consequences of ignorance are some of the most grave.