Oct 21, 2009

The Ten Worlds

One way that Buddhism explains life is through a concept known as "the ten worlds." These are ten states or conditions of life that we experience within ourselves and are then manifested throughout all aspects of our lives. Each of us possesses the potential for all ten, and we shift from one to another at any moment, according to our interaction with the environment. That is, at each moment, one of the ten worlds is being manifested and the other nine are dormant. From lowest to highest, they are:

Hell -- This is a state of suffering and despair, in which we perceive we have no freedom of action. It is characterized by the impulse to destroy ourselves and everything around us.

Hunger -- Hunger is the state of being controlled by insatiable desire for money, power, status, or whatever. While desires are inherent in any of the ten worlds, in this state we are at the mercy of our cravings and cannot control them.

Animality -- In this state, we are ruled by instinct. We exhibit neither reason nor moral sense nor the ability to make long-range judgments. In the world of Animality, we operate by the law of the jungle, so to speak. We will not hesitate to take advantage of those weaker than ourselves and fawn on those who are stronger.

Anger -- In this next state, awareness of ego emerges, but it is a selfish, greedy, distorted ego, determined to best others at all costs and seeing everything as a potential threat to itself. In this state we value only ourselves and tend to hold others in contempt. We are strongly attached to the idea of our own superiority and cannot bear to admit that anyone exceeds us in anything.

Humanity (also called Tranquillity) -- This is a flat, passive state of life, from which we can easily shift into the lower four worlds. While we may generally behave in a humane fashion in this state, we are highly vulnerable to strong external influences.

Heaven (or Rapture) -- This is a state of intense joy stemming, for example, from the fulfillment of some desire, a sense of physical well-being, or inner contentment. Though intense, the joy experienced in this state is short-lived and also vulnerable to external influences.

The six states from Hell to Heaven are called the six paths or six lower worlds. They have in common the fact that their emergence or disappearance is governed by external circumstances. Take the example of a man obsessed by the desire to find someone to love him (Hunger). When he at last does meet that person, he feels ecstatic and fulfilled (Heaven). By and by, potential rivals appear on the scene, and he is seized by jealousy (Anger). Eventually, his possessiveness drives his loved one away. Crushed by despair (Hell), he feels life is no longer worth living. In this way, many of us spend time shuttling back and forth among the six paths without ever realizing we are being controlled by our reactions to the environment. Any happiness or satisfaction to be gained in these states depends totally upon circumstances and is therefore transient and subject to change.

In these six lower worlds, we base our entire happiness, indeed our whole identity, on externals.

The next two states, Learning and Realization, come about when we recognize that everything experienced in the six paths is impermanent, and we begin to seek some lasting truth. These two states plus the next two, Bodhisattva and Buddhahood, are together called the four noble worlds. Unlike the six paths, which are passive reactions to the environment, these four higher states are achieved through deliberate effort.

Learning -- In this state, we seek the truth through the teachings or experience of others.

Realization -- This state is similar to Learning, except that we seek the truth not through others' teachings but through our own direct perception of the world.

Learning and Realization are together called the "two vehicles." Having realized the impermanence of things, people in these states have won a measure of independence and are no longer prisoner to their own reactions as in the six paths. However, they often tend to be contemptuous of people in the six paths who have not yet reached this understanding. In addition, their search for truth is primarily self-oriented, so there is a great potential for egotism in these two states; and they may become satisfied with their progress without discovering the highest potential of human life in the ninth and tenth worlds.

Bodhisattva -- Bodhisattvas are those who aspire to achieve enlightenment and at the same time are equally determined to enable all other beings to do the same. Conscious of the bonds that link us to all others, in this state we realize that any happiness we alone enjoy is incomplete, and we devote ourselves to alleviating others' suffering. Those in this state find their greatest satisfaction in altruistic behavior.

The states from Hell to Bodhisattva are collectively termed "the nine worlds." This expression is often used in contrast to the tenth world, the enlightened state of Buddhahood.

Buddhahood -- Buddhahood is a dynamic state that is difficult to describe. We can partially describe it as a state of perfect freedom, in which we are enlightened to the ultimate truth of life. It is characterized by infinite compassion and boundless wisdom. In this state, we can resolve harmoniously what appear from the standpoint of the nine worlds to be insoluble contradictions. A Buddhist sutra describes the attributes of the Buddha's life as a true self, perfect freedom from karmic bonds throughout eternity, a life purified of illusion, and absolute happiness. Also, the state of Buddhahood is physically expressed in the Bodhisattva Way or actions of a Bodhisattva.

The Mutual Possession of the Ten Worlds
The ten worlds were originally thought of as distinct physical realms into which beings were born as a result of accumulated karma. For example, human beings were born in the world of Humanity, animals in the world of Animality and gods in the world of Heaven. In Nichiren Daishonin's Buddhism, the ten worlds are instead viewed as conditions of life that all people have the potential to experience. At any moment, one of the ten will be manifest and the other nine dormant, but there is always the potential for change.

This principle is further expressed as the mutual possession of the ten worlds -- the concept that each of the ten worlds possesses all ten within itself. For example, a person now in the state of Hell may, at the next moment, either remain in Hell or manifest any of the other nine states. The vital implication of this principle is that all people, in whatever state of life, have the ever-present potential to manifest Buddhahood. And equally important is that Buddhahood is found within the reality of our lives in the other nine worlds, not somewhere separate.
In the course of a day, we experience different states from moment to moment in response to our interaction with the environment. The sight of another's suffering may call forth the compassionate world of Bodhisattva, and the loss of a loved one will plunge us into Hell. However, all of us have one or more worlds around which our life-activities usually center and to which we tend to revert when external stimuli subside. This is one's basic life-tendency, and it has been established by each individual through prior actions. Some people's lives revolve around the three evil paths, some move back and forth among the six lower worlds, and some are primarily motivated by the desire to seek the truth that characterizes the two vehicles. The purpose of Buddhist practice is to elevate the basic life-tendency and eventually establish Buddhahood as one's fundamental state.

Establishing Buddhahood as our basic life-tendency does not mean we rid ourselves of the other nine worlds. All these states are integral and necessary aspects of life. Without experiencing the sufferings of Hell ourselves, we could never feel true compassion for others. Without the instinctive desires represented by Hunger and Animality, we would forget to eat, sleep and reproduce ourselves, and soon become extinct. Even if we establish Buddhahood as our fundamental life-tendency, we will still continue to experience the joys and sorrows of the nine worlds. However, they will not control us, and we will not define ourselves in terms of them. Based on the life-tendency of Buddhahood, our nine worlds will be harmonized and function to benefit both ourselves and those around us.

1 comment:

Corrupy said...

Hi, I happened to stumble across your blog while looking up some information about Nichiren Buddhism.
Reading the 10 worlds I noticed something. I'm not very sure as I'm still a new practitioner. I always believed that for each of the 10 worlds, there was a positive and negative aspect. So for example, hunger - this could mean to be dominated by cravings or it could also be the driving force for us to improve.

Just something I happened to think about :).