Circling Through the Six Worlds

Umi no Nami Dan Rotnem

The cause of our circling through the six worlds

 is that we are on the dark paths of ignorance; 

going astray further and further in the darkness. 

When are we able to be free from birth and death?

From Song of Zazen, Master Hakuin

If you’ve participated in a Hollow Bones Zen silent retreat, you’ve read these lines by Hakuin, and I imagine I’m not alone in thinking “What’s that all about?” then moving on with the rest of the crew. Eventually, the idea of “circling through the six worlds” turned up in enough other places that I started digging into it a little more deeply. I share my current understanding in the hopes of supporting your own experiential insight into Hakuin’s message. 

For context, this stanza follows the teaching that:

Not knowing how near the truth is, 

We seek it far away. What a pity!

We are like a person who, in the midst of water,

Cries in thirst so imploringly. 

We are like the child of a rich house

Who has wandered away among the poor. 

We already have all we need right here, and yet we go off into the great unknown seeking something. We are from the very beginning, awakened ones. At our very core is the capacity to be present to life, compassionately curious, and lovingly engaged. Feeling this to be true, despite all that conditions us against intimately knowing this truth, we begin to seek. Where are the possible destinations when we’ve forgotten that we don’t have to try to shine? What exactly is it that makes us forget? This is where Hakuin takes us next:

The cause of our circling through the six worlds

is that we are on the dark paths of ignorance;

First, “cause” here is specifically the Buddhist notion of causality. It is pointing to the two-fold impact of direct causes and contributing conditions. A direct cause would be the spark which ignites a fire. Contributing conditions would be the right fuel, enough oxygen, not enough wind, the right amount of moisture, and so on.  

Next is this business of “six worlds,” which requires a little more information to really take in. Perhaps a more transparent translation would be “six realms” or “six inclinations.” Taking it as “six realms,” we can better understand the overall landscape of Buddhist cosmology.

Before we do, I’d like to point out that in yogic practice, along with many other esoteric teachings, the universal and the local mirror each other. In other words, whatever we experience “in here” can also be thought of to be real dimensions “out there,” and whatever we experience “out there” is really reflecting what’s happening “in here.” So, whether you prefer to think of these realms as psychological metaphor of instantaneous rebirth (the author’s bias) or multi-dimensional, multi-lifetime realities, is irrelevant. Both perspectives have a home in the tradition and both perspectives are empty of any self-nature. 

I like to use “six realms” for this part because there are Three Worlds: desire, form and formless. Each of these worlds has distint realms, like a good novel. We won’t go into the form and formless worlds here, but suffice to say they relate to degrees of meditation absorption (with a total of 21 realms). Here, Hakuin is talking about the “six realms” of the world of desire. The six are split into undesirable and desirable. The undesirable realms are:

  • The Animal Realm: we inhabit the animal realm when we lack immediate knowledge of the three truths and thus compulsively cling to pleasure or avoid pain. 

  • The Hell Realm: when we are overcome with violent emotional reactivity, specifically anger and aggression, we are inclined to this realm.  

  • The Realm of Hungry Ghosts: those of us inclined to obsessive, addictive and compulsive behaviors end up hanging out in this not-quite-alive and not-quite-dead realm of suffering and confusion. 

  • The Realm of Fallen Gods: we enter the realm of Fallen Gods (a.k.a Asuras) when we are inclined to put forward false patience and an air of superiority. Perhaps we ice the cake with outward displays of justice, faith, wisdom or piety. 

And the desirable realms are: 

  • The Human Realm: this realm is considered the most ideal realm and the only realm where there can be enlightenment. The fact that humans are born of passion, doubt and desire, yet can have enough material comfort and higher order functioning, is the perfect match of higher order mental functioning and inherent discontent with life. 

  • The Realm of Gods – being a god is great, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Blessed with good health and material abundance there is very little suffering. Yet, we are interdependent and thus are connected with the suffering of others. Because the god’s life circumstances are fundamentally absent of any significant suffering, they do not have the motivation to develop wisdom or compassion. Eventually, they will enter a different realm. 

Perhaps, if you are like me, you have memories of inhabiting at least several of these realms? And, maybe you also think it’d be pretty great to stop visiting them so often? Let’s see what kind of advice we can glean from the rest of this stanza:

The cause of our circling through the six worlds

is that we are on the dark paths of ignorance;

So, Hakuin tells us that the direct cause and contributing conditions of endlessly circling among these rebirths is that we are on the dark paths of ignorance. Ignorant of what, exactly? 

Ignorance is to inhabit a perspective where we foolishly cling to our abstract thought processes as some form of ultimately real thing – especially a little notion called “me” that arises out of our sensory-cognitive-emotional experience. When this process of abstraction is opaque, we can say we are on “the dark path”; when we experience the luminous clarity of our deeper nature, we are on the path of “enlightenment.” A perspective where awakened consciousness illuminates the process of our impermanent, selfless being. 

To sum it up so far then, we could say that we are reborn, endlessly, based on the causes and conditions arising from the fundamental mis-apprehension of our sensory-cognitive-emotional experience. 

The cause of our circling through the six worlds

 is that we are on the dark paths of ignorance; 


going astray further and further in the darkness. 

When are we able to be free from birth and death?

Going astray further and further in the darkness is talking about how, having taken one abstract thought as a real thing, we then use that to make another abstraction. As an example, based on the idea of a “me” there becomes a “you.” And perhaps “you” do something that “I” don’t like and there develops a feeling of anger, shame or disconnection – which of course must also be real! Taking these thoughts, feelings and emotions as ultimately real instead of treating them as information, we are subject to their conditioning and have no say where we’ll be reborn. 

So, when are we able to be free from birth and death? 

The richness of this line is in the inquiry. All six realms in the world of desire aren’t free from birth and death. If none of the worlds of desire give us freedom, then where can we find it? (Hint: not in any realm in the form or formless worlds…) 

What is beyond? What is ultimately real? Where does peace truly lie?

Ultimately, right here and right now. Sentient being is, by its very nature, enlightened. You are, in this very moment, already embodying a perspective of immediacy; where there are no boundaries to loving-kindness, sympathetic joy, compassion and equanimity. I invite you to taste nirvana in this moment. 

Allow the body to relax up.

Let the gaze go slack and extend along the entire horizon.

Place your attention in your heart.

Take a deep inhalation through the nose.


Notice the sensations of the body.

Notice the vibrations on the skin.

Notice the ongoing stream of thoughts and feelings.

Notice that it is all present, all transparent.

Here, there is infinite space within which everything arises. 

Including warmth in the chest. 

Bursting with clarity and love. 

Right here, right now, take your seat. 

This moment has always been home. Here, we consciously choose to be compassionate presence. Here we engage the entire experience of being with joy, curiosity and gratitude. Here, we do not take any thought, feeling or sensation to be who we truly are and so have all the information required to choose wise, compassionate responses. In this truly interconnected space, we are open, honest, and vulnerable. 

This renewed intimacy with life is the greatest gift we can give ourselves. Yes, it can be raw. Rawness simply means we do not filter our experience according to preconceived notions. Yes, there is pain. Pain itself is just another moment of information. 

This heart can never be broken. 

We are free from the cycle of birth and death. 

Similar Posts