This book by one of Chogyam Trungpa’s students gives a very relevant interpretation of the six realms of existence which is a major part of Buddhist pilosophy. Traditionally these were seen as different physical realms within which we could be reborn, depending on the kind of karma we created in our life. However when Chogyan Trungpa, the first Tibetan Lama to teach in the west and learn English – back in the 60s and 70s – taught western students, he made it clear that these were essentially mental states. David Nichtern takes this aspect of the six realms and shows how they are relevant to us in our daily life, how we can cycle through these mental states and get trapped in one or another of them for periods at a time.
He describes the qualitites of each state so we can recognise them as well as the factors that lead us into such a state. For example, competitiveness will lead us into a jealous god mindstate/realm. Readers will recognise these states, for we have probably all been in them at one time or another if only for a few moments. The idea is that if we can recognise that we’ve fallen into such a state, we will be more able to get ourselves out of it, or at least have the desire to find someone to help us get out. That angle leads to a large section on finding a teacher in which he gives a lot of good advice (similar to my own blog post on finding a teacher).
I see books such as this, written by students of the great teachers from old Tibet, as a second wave of translation of the Buddhist teachings. The first wave was from those who translated word for word, so we could get the exact meaning, but the traditional teachings do have a cultural bias. They were aimed at uneducated nomads and monks , whereas most students of dharma in the west are lay practictioners – ordinary men and women living ordinary lives – and we are all highly educated, and so another layer of translation is necessary before the teachings will appeal to a broader population. This second wave of translation are the teachings reinterpreted in a way that directly applies to western students of this time whilst remaning true to the teachings the author received from their teacher.
Though the emotional aspect is not ignored in the traditional teachings, the emphasis is on the realms as physical places. I suspect that most westerners wouldn’t believe in the existence of such realms until presented with scientific evidence, in the same way that they likely don’t believe that demons and other spirits are physical entities. This may lead some western students to skip over these teachings as not relevant to them. Therefore, for students to get the benefit of these teachings, they need to be reinterpreted to emphasis the aspect that is of most use to westerners and that’s the pychological aspect. This is why this book and others like it are so important, because, as Nichtern shows, when applied in the way that is most appropriate for the student, such teachings are highly relevant.
Having read all Chogyam Trungpa’s books and studied the six realms myself, I can also see that Nichtern has remained true to the meaning of these teachings. The language he uses and the angle he takes are purely Trungpa. He even includes a teaching on the twelve nidanas by Trungpa at the end of the book. Personally I found this unecessary. Nichtern leaves us in a good place at the end of his writing, with the sense that we can escape from this cycle of suffering; in comparison the insert from Trungpa seems heavy and hopeless. It is also very dense and harder to follow. It would be much better to have Nichtern reinterpret this teaching in the plain, easy to understand and relate to language that he uses in the rest of the book. Apart from this Trungpa insert, this book is accessible for dharma students of all levels and ordinary people alike. Serious dharma students will, however, find the Trungpa quote a worthy addition.
I give it 5 stars for relevance and clarity of interpretation, and I think this book should be read by all dharma students who come across the six realms in any context.