In the Buddhist understanding of the universe, we are not separate individuals, but impersonal streams of cause-and-effect that have been unfolding since beginningless time. This is a radical interruption of the idea we have been trained to believe: that we are fundamentally human, with an individual essence and identity. The teaching on the “six realms” proposes that the stream of action (karma) we conventionally called “me, myself, my story” can take a variety of forms depending on our own actions and the conditions of our birth. One of these forms is called “human,” but we also take the form of animals, ghosts, spirit beings, and even powerful gods depending on conditions. Whether you take this teaching as myth, psychological metaphor, or material reality, it offers a powerful antidote to the self-centered, consumerist, isolated self of our modern condition.
An accessible doorway to this ancient, visionary aspect of the Dharma is to practice relating to the entire living world as sentient. When we address the earth, sky, trees, animals, and plants, as well as energetic cultural and emotional stories that are larger than us as individuals, like hatred, lust, or fear, as friends and relatives, we find ourselves living in a far more complex community of beings. This is the world described in the discourses of the Buddha, where spirit beings, animals, and ghosts regularly interacted with the Buddha and his community, revealing a universe where our actions create our own and others’ futures far more expansively than our current materialistic worldview can see.
This talk is an introduction to Dr. Oakes’s upcoming sutta study series at Spirit Rock: Animal, Spirit, Human, God: Karma and the Cycle of Saṁsāra, Mar 9 – Apr 6.
Sean Feit Oakes, PhD (he/him, queer, Puerto Rican & English ancestry, living on unceded Pomo land in NorCal), teaches Buddhism and somatic practice focusing on the integration of meditation, trauma resolution, and social justice. He received teaching authorization from Jack Kornfield, and wrote his dissertation on extraordinary states in Buddhist meditation and experimental dance. He teaches at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, East Bay Meditation Center, Insight Timer, and locally. See SeanFeitOakes.com