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The Mutual Possession of the Ten Worlds

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Nichiren Buddhism teaches that we can attain Buddhahood right where we are, just as we are. And the “Ten Worlds” is a core Buddhist concept that helps us understand how this is possible. A clearer understanding of the dynamics of the human condition offers insight into how to improve it.

The Ten Worlds is a classification of ten distinct states of life:

Six Paths or Six Lower Worlds

hell; 
hungry spirits (also called hunger);
animals (animality);
asuras (anger);
human beings (humanity or tranquillity);
heavenly beings (heaven or rapture);

Four Noble Worlds

voice-hearers (learning); 
cause-awakened ones (realization); 
bodhisattvas; and
Buddhas (Buddhahood)

Among these, hell, hunger, animality, asuras, humanity and heaven are known collectively as the “six lower worlds” or the “six paths,” which are states of life easily influenced by external circumstances.

The worlds of voice-hearers, cause-awakened ones, bodhisattvas and Buddhas are known as the “four noble worlds.” People in these states of life are able to build a self-determined happiness.

Each of the Ten Worlds possesses the potential of all ten within itself. This is the principle of the “mutual possession of the Ten Worlds,” which means that life is not fixed in one of the Ten Worlds, but can manifest any of the ten, from hell to Buddhahood, at any given moment. This principle essentially teaches that every person has the potential to manifest Buddhahood at any time and that the Buddha, like all people, possesses the other nine worlds as well.

Nichiren Daishonin writes: “Neither the pure land nor hell exists outside oneself; both lie only within one’s own heart. Awakened to this, one is called a Buddha; deluded about it, one is called an ordinary person. The Lotus Sutra reveals this truth, and one who embraces the Lotus Sutra will realize that hell is itself the Land of Tranquil Light” (“Hell Is the Land of Tranquil Light,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 456).

Though in one moment we may experience misery characterized by the world of hell, in that same moment, through Buddhist practice, we can begin transforming our lives so that we can savor the deep, inexhaustible joy of the world of Buddhahood.

This article was adapted from An Introduction to Buddhism, pp. 16–17.

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[Nichiren Daishonin writes:] “Practitioners of these pre-Lotus Sutra teachings failed to understand that if others could not attain Buddhahood, then they themselves could not do so, that if others could attain Buddhahood, then they themselves could do so, that the salvation of ordinary people meant the salvation of oneself” (“The Sacred Teachings of the Buddha’s Lifetime,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 2, p. 59).

Before the doctrine of the mutual possession of the Ten Worlds was expounded, the problems and concerns of others were regarded as something divorced and separate from oneself. But with the teaching of the mutual possession of the Ten Worlds, people came to realize that the attainment of Buddhahood by others was their own attainment of Buddhahood, while if others could not attain Buddhahood, then neither could they themselves. This dramatically transformed people’s view of life and the world.

The misfortune of others is our misfortune. Our happiness is the happiness of others. To see ourselves in others and feel an inner oneness and sense of unity with them represents a fundamental revolution in the way we view and live our lives. Therefore, discriminating against another person is the same as discriminating against oneself. When we hurt another, we are hurting ourselves. And when we respect others, we respect and elevate our own lives as well. (The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, vol. 1, pp. 149–50)

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