Buddhism suggests that there are six realms that govern existence. The lowest realm--or the realm that is most affected by bad karmic conditions--is the region of hell. The next lowest is that of ghosts or spirits. The realm karmically above the realm of ghosts is that of the animals. The next realm is that of the Asuras, or titanic gods or demons, followed by that of human beings. The final realm is that of heaven, or that realm of the gods.
Unlike Judaism and Christianity, which see heaven and hell as final destinations, Buddhism believes that an individual goes through all of these dimensions depending on his or her karmic history. So, for Buddhism, neither heaven nor hell is necessarily your ultimate dimension. Indeed, heaven is not necessarily the place you end up when you are completely good and hell where you end up when you have been irredeemably bad. In heaven, for instance, it is possible to experience a surfeit of wealth and joy and so become lax in the continued cultivation of wisdom--the ultimate aim of all Buddhists. Similarly, as we noted with the Ksitigarbha bodhisattva, good souls operate in hell as a way to rescue those who have ended up in the lowest realm.
This conception of existence--governed by movement through different realms throughout our lives--means that at any moment we are surrounded by those on their way to hell and those on their way to heaven and, most importantly, by bodhisattvas who are working all the time to enable us to change our lives for the better. Just as September 11 showed up that even in the midst of absolute hell there were great souls--in the shape of firefighters and police officers--who gave their lives for others, so Buddhism tells us that their legacy of good is not finite. Even now they are working to create good karma, by allowing us to make our lives similarly meaningful and compassionate.
In December 2001, a number of firefighters who had lost colleagues and family in the World Trade Center tragedy went to Afghanistan to help feed orphans at the Alaodin orphanage on the outskirts of Kabul. According to the BBC, when the firefighters Joe Higgins, whose brother was killed in the World Trade Center, was asked how he felt now that he was in the country that had sheltered the people who killed his colleagues, he did not express vindictiveness or anger. He did not even say that he had experienced a kind of catharsis or feelings of peace. "Humbling," is how he described his reaction. "We are here to show that we do not hold Afghan people responsible." Many of the children whom the firefighters served had never heard of New York. Now, of course, they have, and their experience is a positive one. That is a good karmic action that will have effects for generations to come. Even in the hell of starvation and deprivation that is present-day Afghanistan, the bodhisattvas are working.
I have a friend who is the founder of an animal protectionist organization called Last Chance for Animals. One day, recalling pledge all bodhisattvas make, he said to me, "Yifa, I vow to save all the sentient beings in the world."
"That's good you have vowed to do that," I told him. "But do not expect it to happen.
"Why?" he asked.
"Because," I replied, "animals, just like human beings, are unlimited. Their suffering is endless."
But my animal protection friend is not going to change, nor should he. Like a good bodhisattva, he will keep working to stop the suffering of all sentient beings.
Many of us are overwhelmed when confronted with the suffering of the world. Even as a Buddhist nun I often feel swamped by that suffering. We wonder what we can do. We feel paralyzed. When I was talking with the animal advocate, I was not arguing that they should stop trying to alleviate suffering. Far from it: Buddhists make it our central goal. What I meant, however, is that we should go about alleviating suffering with humility and a lack of attachment. This lack of attachment is not a lack of caring or some sort of indifference. What it means is that we should not attach ego or pride or greed to the action.
There is a story attributed to the writer Loren Eiseley about a man who one day walking along the seashore. One the sand he saw countless starfish, thousands upon thousands of them, which had been carried by the tide onto the beach and were dying in the heat of the sun. The man felt helpless at seeing all these bodies piling up. Then he saw a girl picking starfish up and one by one throwing them back into the sea. Going up to the child, the man asked her what she was doing."I am rescuing starfish," said the girl.
The girl looked at him and pointed to the starfish in her hand. "It makes a difference to this starfish," she said.
This story points up a central truth illuminated in Buddhism. Without hope for reward and, in some way, acknowledging the hopelessness of her task, the child yet felt compassion for each individual sentient being she came across. She did not see life as a collective, and nor was she overwhelmed and paralyzed by the enormous suffering taking place on the beach. Instead, she focused on what she could do and saved those individuals she could save, because she knew that each of the starfish lives mattered to each individual starfish, and that in the end was what counted. Likewise, the Buddhist, as a bodhisattva, takes on the task of rescuing all sentient beings and postponing his or her own liberation from the cycle of death-birth-rebirth, so that, in his or her own particular way, he or she can throw individual starfish back into the water.
There is an additional component that needs to be understood here, and that is that those isolated starfish are in some way connected to you. Thus, in saving the starfish you save yourself and everything all at the same time. There is a well-known saying in Buddhism: "From one flower you can see the whole world." Although the flower opens up in one moment, it did not just suddenly bloom. The sun, the rain, the soil, and the bees nurtured it. It too came from a seed, or a root, or a tuber that in turn came from seeds, roots or tubers. That flower contains in it the sum of the past growth and decay of its forebears, and the germ of future seeds for generations to come. If we are to take any action on behalf of anything, we need to acknowledge that. What we eat, what we wear, what materials we consume--all were made or grown using natural resources by other individuals, transported by other individuals, transformed by chemicals or manufacturing by other individuals. Everything we have created, everything we are, is the sum of an infinite number of other acts. To honor the flower, to honor the details, is to honor everything--to bring into the hell of our lives a little bit of heaven.