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The Mutual Possession of the Ten Worlds

The Ten Worlds are 10 conditions of life that we have the potential to experience from moment to moment.

Photo by DRAFTER123 / GETTY IMAGES.


An essential teaching of the Lotus Sutra is that anyone at any time can become a Buddha. Buddhas are not deities who dwell in faraway places or special people who have dedicated a certain number of years to Buddhist practice. Rather, a Buddha is an ordinary individual who has awakened to the reality that they inherently possess the universal power of the Mystic Law. We can freely tap this power by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to the Gohonzon.

A Buddhist concept that gives insight into this idea is the “mutual possession of the Ten Worlds.”

The Ten Worlds are 10 conditions of life that we have the potential to experience from moment to moment.

They are described as the worlds of: 1) hell, 2) hunger, 3) animality, 4) anger, 5) humanity, 6) heaven, 7) learning, 8) realization, 9) bodhisattvas and 10) Buddhahood.

Understanding the nature of these worlds can help us recognize our life tendencies and begin to transform them.

In addition, the mutual possession of the Ten Worlds is a revolutionary concept explaining that each of the Ten Worlds possesses the potential for the other nine within itself. In other words, because the potential for Buddhahood exists within each of these worlds, we can bring forth this highest state of life no matter our circumstances.

For example, though we may be suffering in the world of hell due to the loss of a loved one, we can summon profound compassion and empathy when we try to help others who are suffering in the same way. Regardless of our current life state, we can summon Buddhahood and create value in every situation.

Buddhist teachings prior to the Lotus Sutra explained that people were confined to one world for as long as several lifetimes before they could ascend to a higher world. The Lotus Sutra refutes this view, teaching that, just as they are, people can immediately reveal the state of Buddhahood by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.

SGI President Ikeda explains:

Our lives are eternal entities endowed with the Ten Worlds. Because Buddhahood exists in our lives from the beginningless past through the infinite future, so long as we can encounter the right external factors, then we can open up and manifest the world of Buddhahood at any time and in any place.

Therefore, it is unnecessary for us to practice for countless eons to attain Buddhahood. We can become Buddhas in the course of this existence; we do not have to practice lifetime after lifetime without reaching our goal. Again, no matter how heavy our burden of karma, through tapping our inner life force, we can revolutionize our existence.

This represents a fundamental transformation in the view of attaining enlightenment, a great shift in perspective with regard to the causality for becoming a Buddha. (The Heart of the Lotus Sutra, p. 163)

The mutual possession of the Ten Worlds teaches that we can immediately awaken to our greatest wisdom, courage and compassion. The more people awaken to their Buddha nature, the more empowered and capable they will become to create a society based on humanism and the respect for the inherent dignity of all life.

For more in-depth study of the Ten Worlds, please see An Introduction to Buddhism, second edition, pp. 16–26.

The Ten Worlds Explained

1) Hell: Life itself is suffering, devoid of freedom; rage and anger fuel further self-destruction.

2) Hungry spirits (hunger): Governed by endless craving and the suffering that comes from those desires going unfulfilled.

3) Animals (animality): Driven by instinct rather than reason, morality or wisdom, and reflected in threatening the weak and fearing the strong.

4) Asuras (anger): Inclined to compare oneself with others, preoccupied with surpassing others, feigning humility while inwardly harboring jealousy and resentment.

5) Human beings (humanity): Able
to control desires with reason, and act in harmony with others while aspiring to a higher life state.
6) Heavenly beings (heaven): Feeling short-lived joy in having various desires fulfilled.

7) Voice-hearers (learning): Dedicated to self-improvement based on others’ ideas, knowledge and experiences.

8) Cause-awakened ones (realization): Understanding Buddhist truths through one’s own direct perception and experience.

9) Bodhisattvas: Fueled by compassion for others, understanding that self-perfection lies in working for the enlightenment of others.

10) Buddhas (Buddhahood): A state of perfect and absolute freedom in which one realizes the true nature of life. In this state, one continues working against and defeating the negative functions of life, transforming all difficulties into causes for further development.