Humanity has fetishized and mistaken the "god realm" of luxury and comfort for the goal of this life. We're seeing how far that got us. Maybe it's time to try something new...and ancient.
When I began to study the Eastern philosophies (Buddhism, Sanatana Dharma), it was no surprise to me to learn that a human birth is considered the most auspicious birth. What I didn't know and was surprised to learn is that we can also be born into the God Realm. Due to especially good karma, it is possible to take a turn as an actual god--yes the kind of ethereal, element-bending, pleasure-enjoying, power-wielding, heaven-abiding gods we find across cultures. You and I can be gods...perhaps we have been already.
Surely, I thought...this is preferable to being a human with all our pain and suffering? Certainly it's a wonderful way to spend a life or a few. But, as it turns out, the god realm is still a part of the wheel of Samsãra. The problem in the god realm is that we become addicted to the pleasures there. There's not enough suffering to motivate us to pursue a spiritual path. We're too comfortable to want out! Getting trapped in the god realm is certainly preferable to being trapped in the ghost realm or animal realm, but it's still trapped. It is the suffering in the human experience, and the compassion that arises with an intimate knowledge of that suffering, that fuels us to make ourselves genuinely helpful to others and to seek liberation.
Through this quarantine (and prior to it) I've been facing my biggest spiritual lessons head on. Many of us have. The mirror is clearer in this time of retreat. One that's been central to my path in this life is around wealth, prosperity, and poverty. I could say a lot about what I've learned of the deep knots that exist in my causal and energy bodies around these topics. But, I'll save that for another post. What's new for me is a shift in perspective that came with a deeper understanding of what the God Realm really stands for...not "out there," but as part of the human experience--individually and collectively. Right here.
The God Realm is that place within each of us that seeks pleasure over pain, that *thinks* all will be better when I have this or that thing, the part that covets wealth and luxury, that gets complacent when things are going well, that envies the *perceived* advantage of others, that dissociates, numbs and avoids pain and discomfort at all costs. We all know this place. The truth is our mainstream culture is built around the perverse idea of the God Realm. On the grandest scale we seek comfort, deify royalty and worldly leadership, still believe the preservation of wealth and power is the central goal of life, we still build fortresses around ourselves that block out any signs of death or decay.
It never ceases to amaze me how wisdom is right there in plain sight, but until we're ready for it we just don't get the message. For literal-minded modern folks, it can be hard to grasp the deep nuance and subtlety of meaning in the parables from these traditions. What I've recently begun to look at is how they operate not just on the personal level, but at the level of society. There are many stories of great spiritual aspirants who leave the comforts of the palace to grow in ways they never could in their sheltered existence; the exile playing a central role in their development. Over the years, I’ve used these stories to support my personal understanding of the role of suffering and loss in my own life and growth. What I hadn’t considered was what happens when a whole culture is thrown out of its comfort zone into exile? What happens when the existential angst grows louder than the advertising and media dedicated to lulling us into complacency and great hordes of us decide to leave the palace behind?
Leaving the god realm is not about submitting to a life of suffering and misery. It’s about leaving a superficial and state-dependent happiness to discover the Reality that we are Bliss itself. The Buddhist scholar, Bob Thurman, corrects the common misconception people have that the Buddha’s first Noble Truth was the depressing pronouncement: “Life is suffering.”
“He didn’t discover suffering, anyone who ever stubbed their toe knows about suffering. Bliss is it, ok? That’s what Buddha discovered. Not suffering. He only mentioned suffering because he discovered bliss. Because when you suffer it’s because you’re not fully aware of your own nature.” — Bob Thurman on the Four Noble Truths
Pleasure is not a problem. Fortunately, a human life is full of pleasures! It's the craving for pleasure and the avoidance of pain that causes of suffering — what we resist creates tension…Leaving the god realm is about seeking a deeper happiness by moving fully into a relationship with the world as it is. In this way, our challenges aren’t obstacles on the path, but the path itself.
Probably best known among the parables of leaving the god realm is the story of the Prince Siddhārtha Gautama who became the Buddha. He was born into wealth and living in the confines of his Palace (God Realm) until his early adulthood. A prophesy that he would either become a great spiritual teacher or a great king, caused his father to shelter him from suffering so that he would become the king (stay in the God Realm), surely a much better and easier life. "I lived a spoilt life, a very spoilt life, in my parents' home..." Buddha later said (Schumann, Hans Wolfgang). Of course, we know the end of the story...he snuck out, saw the evidence of impermanence, sickness, old-age and death and vowed to spend the rest of his life finding meaning in that suffering.
The Lady Yeshe Tsogyal, known as a female Buddha. She was born a princess and married off to a powerful and worldly king who beat her and tried to control her spiritual fervor. Eventually, through her cleverness, she convinced him to give her as an offering to the great spiritual teacher, Padmasambhava, who took her on as disciple and consort. She was a marvel in her mind (perfect memory) and dedication to practice. So much so that he often had to correct her overzealous austerity. Her biography recounts the extreme bodily suffering she experienced on the way to enlightenment--literally starving and freezing herself nearly to death, being visited by demons and ghosts, losing parts of her body, being covered with boils, withstanding temptation...she endured many trials in her journey and ultimately attained the highest states of Buddhahood. At which point, she opened numerous monasteries throughout Tibet and ushered in an era of great flowering of the teachings throughout the land.
In the stories of the 84 Mahasiddhas, the great Tantrikas who attained superhuman powers through their practice and devotion, there are many tales of kings and princes voluntarily leaving their lives of leisure to walk the path. One of my favorites is the story of a king who was out hunting with his minister. In the forest they encountered a great yogi ascetic in a hut. Witnessing the grace and power of this simple being they begged for teachings. The yogi told them to come back when they felt truly committed to study and they must bring nothing with them.
A few weeks of life back at the palace and the king found himself completely disenchanted. It felt empty. So he and the minister went back to the yogi dressed in simple robes. They asked again for teachings and lamented, "Oh great yogi, you told us to leave all behind so we have nothing to offer for your teachings other than ourselves." The yogi said that would do. So they pledged themselves - their bodies - to the practice. A few days passed with some basic instruction. Just as the king and minister were getting impatient for more advanced studies, the yogi told them it was time to start their path in earnest. They eagerly followed him to town where he gave one of them to the local bar keeper as a servant and the other to the madam of the local house of prostitution. They were outraged and protested. The yogi reminded them that they had given themselves to him and as his property he could do with them as he liked. He left them there for 12 years.
Of course, this was an unbearable lot at first for them both and they were destroyed psychically. But eventually they both turned their suffering into the way and began to practice meditation and austerities in earnest. Eventually, both became Mahasiddhas (great and perfected yogis) achieved a state of enlightenment and their masters became their disciples.
In another tale of a Mahasiddha, we meet a king who falls madly in love with a low caste woman. They become sacred lovers and practice deep spiritual union with each other. Eventually, they are found out and because it is so inappropriate for a king to be with a low caste person and because he refuses to give her up, they are banished to the forest (thrown out of the God Realm...but, by choice).
Years later, some ministers of the new rulership come across them in the forest. The yogi is in a state of bliss as the naked yogini feeds him nectar from a pristine stream. They are living in harmony with nature. Outraged, the ministers bring them back to the town and burn them at the stake in the public square. The fire rages on for days in a supernatural way, eventually causing fear and concern in the hearts of the locals who begin to suspect they might have made a mistake. Eventually the fire burns down and the yogis are there in sexual union on a lotus flower in the middle of a fresh lake--representing the marriage of wisdom and compassion that transmutes all. This, of course, impressed the town very much and it became a spiritual haven and home of many yogis.
In the Hindu tradition (Sanatana Dharma) there are similar stories. The story of how Parvati won the heart of Siva by leaving her comfortable palace existence to practice great austerity in the woods, nearly dying in the cold of winter, but never faltering in her prayer and devotion. The story portrayed in the Ramayana of how Rama, who was in line for the throne, was exiled (by an evil stepmother, of course) from his kingdom to live as a beggar in the woods with his beloved, Sita and his brother, Lakshmana. They perfected themselves through practice in their small hut, eating simple, fresh foods and focusing on their devotion, until a demon kidnapped Sita and launched Rama on the quest that eventually would defeat the demon and restore peace to the kingdom and return them 14 years later to their thrones--transformed into mature and wise leaders who ushered in a reign of prosperity for all.
These stories are a version of the classic hero's journey, but the focus in particular on the renunciation of wealth and worldly prosperity feels particularly relevant to this moment. As the suffering of this material, desacralized (largely in the mainstream) existence is laid bare, we can see the Universal Truth present in the teachings. It is only by inhabiting the human experience fully and not getting distracted by the pleasures of the God Realm that we find true bliss, perfection, and ultimately liberation...and not just for ourselves but for everyone! By coming into contact with the suffering of humanity, we can address it in our own organism and make ourselves of true service to the alleviation of suffering all around us. We have to know it - in our bones - before we can treat or transmute it.
It feels like it's time for humanity-as-a-whole to take this lesson to heart. We need to wake up (via our existential angst), collectively stop fetishizing the God Realm, and step out into the wilderness of actual life where the promise is simple. If we walk with sincere intention to understand (through direct experience) and transcend (through practice which leads to insight and accumulation of wisdom, which liberates from the bonds of illusion) we can be sure we will reach our true destination. There is no failing. We do it for our own liberation, but also for the benefit of all beings. This is coming home.