Not a single sentient being anywhere in the six realms abides in lasting happiness, and most experience misery almost beyond imagination.

Now, as we rest in the relative peace and happiness of the human realm, we should reflect on suffering, to develop both deep renunciation of suffering’s causes and profound compassion for all in its grip.

As with karma, we cannot attribute our suffering to some vengeful god or demon.

The seeds of suffering germinate in our mind when the first slip into dualistic delusion evolves into self-centered attachment and aversion, which become the basis of flawed action and karmic consequences.

In other words, our suffering arises from negative karma, which arises from non-virtue, which in turn arises from non-recognition of our own non-dual nature.

The dense projections that we label “the six realms” are part of a continuum that begins with dualistic confusion.

Suffering falls into three major categories—(1) change, (2) proliferation, and (3) pervasiveness. These are the mechanisms of misery for all beings, from those in the highest, most blissful worldly god realms to those in the lowest hells.

The suffering of change is particularly intense in the human realm, because the mixture of karma that brings about rebirth here juxtaposes joy and sorrow.

For example, we feel sunny, but a devastating telephone call—from our boss perhaps, or our stockbroker, doctor, or mother—changes our outlook entirely. We feel afflicted, not just by the bad news itself but also by the disintegration of the happiness we felt a moment before.

Again and again the wearisome fluctuations of impermanence erode our pleasure and undercut our stability.

The proliferation of suffering, “suffering upon suffering,” refers to one bad thing happening in tandem with another. We are embattled in a lawsuit and our love life falls apart; we are diagnosed as having a serious illness and we lose our job; a loved one dies and someone crashes into our car.

At times it seems as if adversity comes from all directions and nothing is so bad that it cannot get worse. We wonder why bad events occur in clusters.

Actually, every event stems from karma created in the past, and karmic results ripple through a life in their own time, just as if we had thrown a rock in a pond and now experience the waves.

In fact, not a single rock but countless past karmic events create unpredictable, turbulent wave patterns in this life.

Pervasive suffering resembles the oil of a sesame seed, not apparent until we press the seed, or the dangerous undertow of a calm ocean, invisible until someone is pulled down.

We, like most people, may often be comfortably oblivious to the suffering that saturates ordinary existence, that is inseparable from the web of conditioned existence.

For example, most people eat without thought of the animals slaughtered for their meat, or the insects destroyed to grow their vegetables, or the toil and exposure to chemicals of the farmers and farm workers, or the greed involved in marketing.

There are non-virtue and suffering in every phase of bringing food to the table, despite the pleasure of eating.

And so it is with every aspect of ordinary, comfortable existence.

If we probe the surface, we discover pervasive, inescapable suffering.

Suffering reveals itself (1) in the constant disturbances of the environment, (2) in the negative interactions between beings, (3) in the lack of freedom and enduring happiness.

No one can sustain obliviousness indefinitely, because the very nature of samsara is suffering.

We have an accumulation of negative karma and a store of mental poisons, so sooner or later the stresses of cyclic existence will bring suffering to the fore.

The teaching on the four thoughts usually includes graphic descriptions of suffering in the six realms. Nobody likes to imagine misery explicitly, particularly the horrors of hell. Tibetan dharma students, however, usually expect these teachings, whereas Western students are sometimes surprised and shocked when they are offered. Some think the lama is trying to indoctrinate by fear and do not come back.

Once, when Chagdud Rinpoche was giving extensive teachings on the realms, a woman who was tentatively exploring Buddhism came up to him after his presentation of the hells. “I’m a Catholic and I guess I’ll stay Catholic,” she said. “You Tibetan Buddhists have eighteen hells to deal with, while we have only one.”

Certainly, to generate fear and exhaustion with samsaric suffering is one purpose of these teachings.

Out of compassion, the teacher wishes to dispel students’ ignorance of karmic consequences.

However, a deeper motivation lies in arousing their compassion for all those trapped in the six realms and inspiring them to attain the power to lead these beings to liberation.

Source: Tromge, Jane. Ngondro Commentary: Instructions for the Concise Preliminary Practices of the New Treasure of Dudjom. Compiled from the teachings of H.E. Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche by Jane Tromge. Junction City, CA: Padma Publishing, 1995.