Concepts

Ten Worlds

The purpose of Buddhist practice is to strengthen our inner state of life.

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. Photo: © ISTOCKPHOTO/ Dean Fikar


How is it that the same set of conditions (the same workplace, for example) is perceived by one person as unremitting misery, and for another as a source of exhilarating challenge and satisfaction? SGI President Ikeda says that the answer is found in the “condition of people’s hearts, on the state of their life itself” (The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, vol. 4, p. 98).

The purpose of Buddhist practice is to strengthen our inner state of life, so that, instead of remaining a victim to our circumstances, we can be empowered and take control.

Based on his reading of the Lotus Sutra, the sixth-century Chinese Buddhist T’ien-t’ai developed a system that classifies human experience into 10 life states or “worlds.” Ordered from the least to the most desirable, the Ten Worlds are:

1) Hell: a condition of despair in which one is completely overwhelmed by suffering.

2) Hungry spirits (also hunger): a state dominated by deluded desire that can never be satisfied.

3) Animals (also animality): an instinctual state of fearing the strong and bullying the weak.

4) Asuras (also anger): a state characterized by an unrestrained competitive urge to surpass and dominate others good and wise.

5) Human beings (also humanity): a tranquil state marked by the ability to reason and make calm judgments.

6) Heavenly beings (also heaven): a state of joy typically experienced when desire is fulfilled or suffering escaped.

In these worlds—which together are called the “six paths”—a person is easily influenced by external circumstances, and cannot gain true freedom or independence.

By chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, we can bring forth the life state of Buddhahood, which can illuminate all aspects of our lives.

What Buddhism refers to as the “four noble worlds” represent the effort to live with integrity, inner freedom and compassion. They are:

7 & 8) Voice-hearers and Cause-awakened-ones (also learning and realization): perceiving the impermanence of all phenomena, one strives to free oneself from the sufferings of the “six paths” by seeing some lasting truth through one’s own observations and effort.

The worlds of voice-hearers and cause-awakened ones, together known as “the two vehicles,” however, can be self-absorbed and marked by self-centeredness and complacency.

The final two states of life are the ones we aspire to cultivate as Buddhists:

9) Bodhisattva: a state of compassion in which we overcome the restraints of egotism and work tirelessly for the welfare of others.

10) Buddhahood: for a person in this state, everything, including the inevitable trials of illness, aging and death, can be experienced as an opportunity for joy and fulfillment. The inner life state of Buddhahood makes itself visible through altruistic commitment and actions enacted in the world of Bodhisattva.

Nichiren Daishonin teaches that, of the Ten Worlds, each world contains within it the other nine. As he expresses it: “Even a heartless villain loves his wife and children. He too has a portion of the Bodhisattva world within him” (The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 358). Thus, the potential for enlightened wisdom and action represented by the world of Buddhahood continues to exist even within a person whose life is dominated by lower life states.

The message of the Lotus Sutra is to encourage people’s faith in their own Buddhahood, their own inherent capacity for wisdom, courage and compassion. By chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, we can bring forth the life state of Buddhahood, which can illuminate all aspects of our lives.