“From the point of view of one who seeks enlightenment, it is far better to be a human being than to be born even in the heavens of the gods….”
Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche,
Enlightened Courage: An Explanation of the Seven-Point Mind Training
Recall that we’re trying to evoke an entire worldview here, which necessarily includes some thoughts that fit well into the scheme from the inside, but might look a bit random if this is your first tour. So for the next bit, we encounter some extremely important concepts for Buddhists that don’t necessarily fit into any obviously logical sequence.
Buddhists say one is extremely fortunate to have been born a human. This is the result, not of mere chance, but of good karma you have accumulated in previous lifetimes. Even if you don’t believe in previous lifetimes, you can still appreciate your good fortune to have been born human. The advantages of being born human is that one has the cognitive ability to learn and practice the dharma, or the truth of Buddhism, unlike animals, but, unlike gods, one has sufficient disappointments in life to serve as a goad to enlightenment. Because you can bake a cake and then suffer deciding whether to eat it or keep it, you’re more likely to have the urge to transcend this samsaric existence.
Even more, in your case, you were not just lucky enough to be born human, but also to have the opportunity to learn about the dharma. This is your lucky day!
This subject can, like reincarnation, get us into territory that modern Americans are likely to find a bit bizarre and hard to swallow, but Buddhists posit six realms of existence. One does not need to understand them as six literal realms in the sense of different places where reside different types of being than we are accustomed to. One can as easily understand them as psychological states, any one of which a given human might find her/himself in on any given day. The six realms are the god realm, the jealous god realm, the human realm, the animal realm, the hungry ghost realm, and the hell realm.
Obviously, the hell realm is the least desirable. Surely we’ve all had days we described as “the day from hell,” when it seemed as if everything went wrong and by the end of it you were miserable and didn’t want to live any longer. On days like this, we celebrate impermanence, go to bed, and hope for better things the next day.
Days in the animal realm are not necessarily notably good or bad, just days when you allow your more primal instincts to guide you, whether to food or sex or some other of the more animalistic impulses that human have. From the Buddhist perspective, one could spend one’s life primarily or exclusively indulging animal instincts, thus frittering away the precious human birth and making little or no headway toward escaping samsara.
One way in which Buddhism clashes with American culture, and most human culture, is by pointing out that gratifying animal impulses is fun while you’re doing it, but the fun always ends and that you are better off in the long run abandoning all animal impulses to achieve complete awakening instead.
The hungry ghost realm is pretty unpleasant. A hungry ghost is a being that has a huge, distended, constantly hungry stomach, but a tiny, pencil-thin throat that hardly any food can pass through. This can manifest as literal huger, or as various forms of greed, or persistent, insatiable desire for other things such as money, etc. You’ve likely had days or times when you just wanted one thing or class of things and no amount of it ever seemed to be enough. To state what may be obvious, such greed is very likely to lead you into unskillful actions that will produce bad karma.
The god realm is one of enormous satisfaction and contentment. The problem with the god realm from the Buddhist perspective is that life is so easy there, you don’t have any motivation to make progress toward escaping samsara. Without naming any names, we can likely all think of a celebrity who had the good fortune to be born into comfortable circumstances and has an easy, glamorous life, but doesn’t seem to be accomplishing much that is beneficial or admirable with her/his good fortune. This is clearly not “god” in the sense of a single, omnipotent deity that created us and everything around us. This is perhaps the easiest one to think about in terms of a psychological state. We can imagine, I suppose, a person who grew up with some degree of material abundance and stable, loving parents, such that s/he reaches adulthood with little or no psychological baggage and few unmet needs of any sort, who thus perceives this human life as a pretty nice place to be. Those of us who are not living such a lifetime now might think that sounds pretty nice, and in most ways it is. The problem, again, is that becoming too content in any lifetime as a human in any of these realms cuts down on the impetus to move out of samsara altogether, where the god realm distinctly still is.
One way in which the Buddhist worldview agrees with most of us regular folk is in taking a dim view of jealousy. So, as the name suggests, the jealous god realm consists of people who have almost the quality of life of gods, but not quite, and feel the lack very keenly. In their zeal to appear as god-like as possible, they can be haughty and pretentious, and sometimes cruel to people whom they see as inferiors. Again, it should perhaps be obvious that this bad attitude is highly likely to result in unskillful behavior producing bad karma.
Finally, there is the human realm, where most of us likely spend most of our time. Life doesn’t suck badly enough to make it the hell realm, but it still has its persistent annoyances, whatever those may be. Your spouse may snore, or chew with her/his mouth open, you may have teen aged children, you may hate your boss, any one of the various problems that really are problems in some sense, but not really that big of a deal in the grand scheme. The kinds of problems you would happily take some steps to get rid of, or learn to ignore, but that are not going to make you slit your wrists. Again, from the Buddhist perspective, this is the best place to be. Unlike in the animal or hell realms, you are stable enough to be able to think about your future and take steps to improve it. But you are still annoyed enough to have some motivation to do so.
So, again, from the Buddhist perspective, of the six realms, the human realm is the best place to be, better even than the god realm.