Realms, Roots and Mind: How the Triune Brain Model Verifies and Explains the Six Realms, and Shows How Thought Patterns Define Reality

Dr. Paul MacLean’s Triune Brain Model corresponds with the realms of existence that Buddha described, as depicted in the wheel of life. The Triune Brain is a simplified way of examining three types of behavior models and how these describe our mental function, and our perception of reality. The realms of existence are a way of explaining mind and reality, the path and the transformation that lead to the relief of suffering for all beings, and the nature of cyclic existence.

That the realms of existence fit together nicely with the Triune Brain, indicates that the realms of existence and the wheel of life concept is based in a sold understanding of how the mind creates reality, and how thought patterns define our realms of existence. It explains how thoughts define and create reality, and how this is now verifiable with neuroscience and mappable in MRI.

This correlation also creates a simple framework for how we can use these models of brain circulation to help ourselves with understanding the nature of reality, with mindfulness training, overcoming fear, cultivating awareness, and cutting attachments to negative cycles of thoughts and behavior.




Basically, the Triune Brain Model, developed by Dr. Paul D. MacLean is a model of the evolution of the brain in vertebrates, and the corresponding behaviors that function, “through,” these. It splits the brain into three areas based on function, thought pattern, and behavior pattern.

The Reptilian Complex or basal ganglia is responsible for: aggression, dominance, territoriality, and ritual displays. How we react when afraid or startled, or how we respond, “without thinking,” is tied directly into the basal ganglia.

The Paleomammalian Complex or limbic system is responsible for the motivation and emotion involved in feeding, reproductive behavior, and parental behavior. Pictures, and music, and how we react to them are processed in this part of the brain.

The Neomammalian Complex, or cerebral neocortex, is responsible for language, abstraction, planning, and perception. Reading words and communicating with writing is processed in this part of the brain.


(The Realms of Existence or the Realm of Becoming) An image of the six realms of existence and their embodiment or manifestation.



The Buddhist realms of existence, as depicted within the wheel of life, are depictions or modalities of mind/existence. They are our modes of relating, or our abodes. We can live in these places, spiritually, physically, or mentally, and life progresses cyclically through these modes until we understand and follow the path which leads to freedom for all beings.

God realm: the gods lead long and enjoyable lives full of pleasure and abundance, but they spend their lives pursuing meaningless distractions and never think to practice the dharma. When death comes to them, they are completely unprepared; without realizing it, they have completely exhausted their good karma (which was the cause for being reborn in the god realm) and they suffer through being reborn in the lower realms.

Demi-god realm or Asuric realm: the demi-gods have pleasure and abundance almost as much as the gods, but they spend their time fighting among themselves or making war on the gods. When they make war on the gods, they always lose, since the gods are much more powerful. The demi-gods suffer from constant fighting and jealousy, and from being killed and wounded in their wars with each other and with the gods

Human realm: humans suffer from hunger, thirst, heat, cold, separation from friends, being attacked by enemies, not getting what they want, and getting what they don’t want. They also suffer from the general sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death. Yet the human realm is considered to be the most suitable realm for practicing the dharma, because humans are not completely distracted by pleasure (like the gods or demi-gods) or by pain and suffering (like the beings in the lower realms).

Animal realm: wild animals suffer from being attacked and eaten by other animals; they generally lead lives of constant fear. Domestic animals suffer from being exploited by humans; for example, they are slaughtered for food, overworked, abused, and so on.

Hungry ghost realm: hungry ghosts suffer from extreme hunger and thirst. They wander constantly in search of food and drink, only to be miserably frustrated any time they come close to actually getting what they want. For example, they see a stream of pure, clear water in the distance, but by the time they get there the stream has dried up. Hungry ghosts have huge bellies and long thin necks. On the rare occasions that they do manage to find something to eat or drink, the food or water burns their neck as it goes down to their belly, causing them intense agony.

Hell realm: hell beings endure unimaginable suffering for eons of time. There are actually eighteen different types of hells, each inflicting a different kind of torment. In the hot hells, beings suffer from unbearable heat and continual torments of various kinds. In the cold hells, beings suffer from unbearable cold and other torments. [from wikipedia]


“Cyclic existence; the continual repetitive cycle of birth, death, and bardo that arises from ordinary beings’ grasping and fixating on a self and experiences. All states of consciousness in the six realms […], including the god realms, characterized by pleasure and power, are bound by this process. Samsara arises out of ignorance and is characterized by suffering.”–Chogyam Trungpa

In Buddhism, existence is cyclic. In other words, it repeats. Our lessons are repeated until we learn. Cyclic existence is called Samsara, and it is all of material existence, and all hells and heavens as well. The bardos are intermediate realms between life and death where one can liberate themselves by recognizing specific patterns and colors of light as they arise, as the manifestations of purified, perfect consciousness.

When Buddha saw that the world is like a dream, he was seeing how people who live in their basal ganglia and limbic minds tie themselves to what is not real and forget what is real by accumulating karma that results from actions and reactions based in a reactive and fearful mode of grasping, rather than a mode of fearlessness and giving.

Samsara is like that song, “Row Your Boat.” You are merrily rowing your boat, “gently down the stream,” and not swimming upstream at all, and making something that is not real into something that is more real than anything else.

“The world, indeed, is like a dream and the treasures of the world are an alluring mirage! Like the apparent distances in a picture, things have no reality in themselves, but they are like heat haze.” –Buddha

Fearlessness, as in, “do not fear, know yourself,” as Buddha exhorts us to do, is based in turning the attachments that are based in fear and their reactive roots in the poisons. Here, the Bodhisattvas teach specific meditations called inversion meditations, cultivation of awareness, the cultivation of mindfulness, actions based in generosity, and by understanding the four noble truths and following the eightfold noble path.


Manifestation of reality is a life of perceived separateness. Also often compared to a passing cloud in a sky, manifestation takes different forms. Cloud means thought. Mind means sky. Life passes in a simple cycle. Thoughts arise and dissipate. This is how we manifest as clarity and light or how we manifest reality through the filter of attachments of false-mind and misapprehensions.

Clear light or misapprehension merely depends on whether the roots of perception have been penetrated with inversion meditations and awareness or not.

“This life of [perceived] separateness may be compared to a dream, a phantasm, a bubble, a shadow, a drop of dew, a flash of lightning.” –Buddha


When we live in the basal ganglia [reptilian complex, our nervous system and brain stem, or two lower realms, hell and the realm of the hungry ghosts], we are living a manifested dream, a phantasm, a reactionary world characterized by intense suffering and harmful behaviors.

When we live in the limbic mind [paleomammalian complex or midbrain, animal realm, and asuric/demi-god realm], we are living a bubble or a shadow characterized by intermediate suffering and ignorance.

When we live in the prefrontal cortex and beyond [neomammalian complex, human realm and god realms and above = buddha realms], we are living a drop of dew or a flash of lightning, characterized by wisdom and forethought and the ability to communicate ideas that are profound and meaningful.

All six realms are present and appear simultaneously as liberated and free Buddha Mind: liberated from fear and free from suffering.


Prajnaparamita teaches us that there is no separate self-existing thing. No separate self-existing idea or concept. No separate, self-existing self that could be affected in any way by any perceived outside or apparently separate thing. Prajnaparamita is the stainless nature of blissful wisdom, a profound understanding of the realms of mind and the path of enlightenment. So, wherever we are, whether in the depths of hell, or in the heights of heaven, the path is wisdom and bliss.

tryadhva vyavasthitah sarva-budda
all buddhas, past, present and future.
prajna-paramitam ashritya
take refuge in prajnaparamita
anuttaran samyak sambodhim abhisambuddhah
and realize unexcelled perfect enlightenment

3 thoughts on “Realms, Roots and Mind: How the Triune Brain Model Verifies and Explains the Six Realms, and Shows How Thought Patterns Define Reality

    • Right. It’s called a Stanford education and using the frontal lobe. Then you don’t need any idiots to “feed” you information. Thanks for the backhanded compliment that reduces me to something much less wise than what I am. Have a nice day.

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