Field Mapping

Complex Systems and the Six Realms of Dharma —

microworlds-ilachinsky                                                                                        Photograph by Andy Ilachinski

It was while reading the somewhat scandalous thinker Wilhem Reich that I first encountered the idea of emotional traumas being encoded into the flesh and blood circuits of the body. Freezing into a kind of “armor,” these encodings work to shape and delimit the ways we perceive the world, hence wielding an out-sized influence over the course our lives take. This was in the early 1990s, and I was reading Reich along with some of the Frankfurt School thinkers (Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, etc.) who (broadly speaking) collide psychology and social theory to see what falls out. Behind this roller derby approach was the idea that both Freud and Marx addressed only half of the puzzle of humanity’s chronic dysfunction. Freud focused on the internal at the expense of the social; Marx the opposite. By considering them together, the thinking went, perhaps progress could be made on the crude and repetitive pathologies of warfare, social injustice and other forms of pointless violence that define us almost completely.

At that time, purely by chance, I happened to pick up a friend’s copy of The Myth of Freedom by the troublesome but also brilliant Tibetan monk and teacher Chogyam Trungpa. Even today I recall the sense the text immediately conveyed that the Tibetans were leagues ahead when it came to explaining the origins and the dynamics of encoded dysfunction. Just for starters, the Tibetans view our normal mode of functioning as afflicted by repetitive behavioral loops devoid of agency or awareness, pulling us out of balance with respect to the way things actually are. They view normal, common-sense existence as, in other words, deeply neurotic. By an implacable, ratchet-like effect, for example, abject emotions linked to shame, lack and resentment come to define us precisely because we can’t bear to experience them. To the Buddhists, this self-limiting dynamic is not a fate reserved for the unfortunate or the unworthy—it is simply the normal mode of human (dys)function. Civilization as a manifestation of something like the Freudian death drive? Where Marcuse and Co. wind up in their critical project is, for the Buddhists, a starting point.

Whether or not the Buddhist ideas I began to encounter were correct, I was struck by how self-consistent and comprehensive they seemed, but according to a logic quite different from our own. The Buddhist descriptions of experience had for me the ring of something true—true enough, at any rate, to make me want to test the practice out for myself. Fortunately, among the most fundamental distinctions between Trungpa’s mode of thinking and that of the West is the embodied—rather than the abstract—nature of the practice. Sitting, resting on the breath, we draw mind down into body, and then watch what unfolds. As chance would have it, a friend with a Tibetan practice was visiting at that time. Wanting to see for myself how the Buddhist picture of experience held up, I asked for a quick lesson, and it was off to the races. And, over the course of what has been now a long engagement, I have often sensed echoes of dharma in a variety of Western cultural expressions, from art and thought to the sciences as well.

One of the first figures of thought you encounter in Buddhist doctrine are the Six Realms of Samsara (samsara refers, basically, to neurotic existence). In a typical mandala design, these realms are depicted as six little pie slices around a wheel, identified as the realm of Hungry Ghosts (craving), the Hell realm (anger), the Animal realm (stupidity), and then the three higher realms: Human (aspirational desire), Titan (competitive aggression) and God (pride) realms. Explanations of the realms often devolve into a story about causality, and the doctrine has frequently been abused by those seeking to justify current arrangements of power, and to explain to people why complete passivity and resignation are the correct attitudes to embrace. To me, at first, the imagery also seemed strangely heterogenous, mixing ghosts, animals and deities together within a single framework, while also showing them all to be inadequate as models for human identity. Some unfamiliar logic, again, was at work, elevating these identifications above the allegorical and the manipulative. I didn’t quite understand the elusive echoes in play until I came into contact with complex systems thinking.

Complex systems thinking, or “the science of complexity” has roots in 19th century dialectics, and also in the cybernetics movement of the 1930s and 40s. The field arrived in full force in the 1990s as computer software became powerful enough to model dissipative systems like the weather, or the fluctuations of financial markets. With complexity theory, the view of science was no longer exclusively reductive, aimed at smaller and smaller bits of matter and energy; now researchers could also model emergent properties—the dynamics of things like hurricanes and coral reefs that arise from the simple interactions of lots and lots of smaller things. Researchers also began to talk about complex adaptive systems—self-symmetrical networks that respond and adjust to shifts in their environment, responsively maintaining their basic form and mode of functioning.


In their adaptive behavior, complex systems take three types of action: they seek to connect with more of what sustains them; they seek to separate from what threatens to degrade them; and they basically ignore whatever is irrelevant to their adaptive project. This is where complexity theory connects with the six realms. Those familiar with Buddhist doctrine will recognize in these three functions a version of the Three Poisons of greed, aversion and ignorance. In mandalas, these three posions often appear at the very hub of the Wheel of Samsara as a rooster (desire), a snake (aversion) and a pig (ignorance or delusion). The two realms associated with hatred or aversion—the Hell realm and the Titan realm—simply apply to those states of an adaptive system seeking to separate from inputs that threaten its continued existence. The Hungry Ghost and Human realms—realms associated with craving and desire—apply to states in which adaptive systems seek more of what sustains them. The God and Animal realms—modes of operation governed by higher and lower forms of ignorance—simply describe complex systems tuning out what is irrelevant to their self-maintenance project.

The crucial point is that there is no agency at all in this basic dynamism, which applies equally well to living and non-living complexities. The vast majority of complex adaptive systems in the world are, in fact, entirely inanimate. It is this automatic dynamism that, to Buddhists, generates the endless sufferings of the egoic self. Our emotional traumas create affective formations that draw on the energies of life in pursuit of a zombified adaptive project, without living consciousness or agency. The vast store-room of awareness practices within the various dharma traditions—meditations, mantras, invocations and visualizations—offer different ways to counter the implacable, machinic and repetitive aspects of this adaptive self. Re-enacted daily in a meditation practice, this inner technology provides a set of equally implacable external repetitions, re-balancing operations designed to emphasize connection over separation, relation over possession, capacity over property.

How you feel about your underlying kinship with non-living complexities depends on your assumptions, conscious or otherwise, about the nature of matter itself. Mostly, in the West, we are saddled by the alienating assumption that matter is devoid of life. This belief leaves us unable to account for all the different forms we encounter in the world. Who or what made inert material into all these different, identifiable things—carpets, tables, zebras and oceans? If matter is inert, these segmentations must have come from elsewhere—from the hand of God perhaps, or from the effects of dialectical oppositions in the abstract realm of pure idea. Complexity theory suggests, instead, that matter is not inert, but rather imbued with form-generating expressivity. Material needs no help in order to spontaneously differentiate into the endless forms of the world. And, intensively charged in this way, matter by itself is capable of giving birth to life itself. This self-organizing capacity might fill you with terror, or it might generate a feeling of kinship with a world lit up with vitality down to its roots.

This link between the six realms and complex adaptive systems casts our suffering in an interesting light—our suffering, it turns out, is not what sets us apart from the inanimate world. In the nearly twenty years since my first sit, I can report that what is automatic in me—that which I recognize as rooted in elaborate and entirely illusory self-completion projects and agendas—has been steadily eclipsed by a vivid and heightened mode of being that frustrates all description. Words, perhaps, are part of that other mode of being—the systemic and the adaptive. This would imply that everything I’ve written above, while true enough, is also reductive, and thus, to some extent, also untrue. This contradiction—the paradox of truth and untruth juxtaposed—is, sadly or not, simply the way things are. Those who recoil from the idea of awareness being material in nature are not incorrect to do so—our capacity for knowing remains both deeply material and also deeply mysterious…and that’s entirely okay. Automatic reactive functioning, projections and self-completion projects are aspects of experience we cannot leave behind, but neither is there a reason to allow these powerful forces to devour us entirely.





  1. jan johnson says:

    This is beautiful and greatly appreciated.

  2. Looking forward to part 2! Heady stuff even though it’s supposed to be anything but. Thanks!

  3. Douglas says:

    This is very interesting. I was wondering whether you may have considered some of Gurdjieff’s ideas? Particularly, I am thinking about his argument that what we take for normal consciousness, is instead a form of “sleep” wherein we are not individuals acting in the world, but organisms reacting to the world. What we think of as “me” is simply a black box that is the sum total of the impressions made upon us, and the accumulated re-actions to these stimuli. The Buddhist thought(s) you mention seems to indicate they think something similar. The very notion of “normalancy” (if there is such a word) suggests that perhaps consciousness is a collaboration with the external world, not an intrinsically human characteristic. I am looking forward to part two.

  4. thanks Guy.
    i’ve been wanting to reconcile my intuitive Buddhism with Buddhism.
    here is another chance. looking forward to Part 2.

    (also starting to work on a piece that involves Reich’s ideas!)

  5. Great comments everyone. Douglas, I do think there’s a lot of resonance between Tibetan Buddhist practice and the Gurdjieff work (though my direct exposure to Gurdjieff). I suspect Kashmiri Shaivism may be the direct influence on both, but again, I’m not sure. John, I know exactly what you mean. Thanks for responding..

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