six paths ［六道］ ( shad-gati; roku-dō): The realms of hell, hungry spirits, animals, asuras, human beings, and heavenly beings. “Path” here means the path a life follows in the process of transmigration; it also indicates a realm or state of existence. The six paths were viewed traditionally as realms within which unenlightened beings repeatedly transmigrate. When regarded as conditions of life, they indicate states of delusion or suffering. The term six paths is used in contrast with the four noble worlds—the worlds of voice-hearers, cause-awakened ones (pratyekabuddhas), bodhisattvas, and Buddhahood—in which one makes efforts to transcend the delusions of the six paths.
Beings in the six paths are governed mostly by their responses to external stimuli and are therefore never really independent or free but constantly at the mercy of changing circumstances. Among the six paths, the three paths—the realms of hell, hungry spirits, and animals—are collectively termed the three evil paths. Beings are reborn into these states of suffering due to their evil actions in a previous lifetime. The three paths of asuras, human beings, and heavenly beings are termed the three good paths because beings are reborn into these states due to their good and virtuous actions in a previous lifetime. The concept of the six paths is universally accepted in Mahayana Buddhism. The Sarvāstivāda school, a major Hinayana school, teaches the five paths—the realms of hell, hungry spirits, animals, human beings, and heavenly beings, arguing that the realm of asuras was included within the realms of hungry spirits and heavenly beings.