What are the ten worlds?

Following the teachings of Tendai Buddhism, Nichiren Buddhists envision ten worlds through which beings are constantly moving. These worlds consist of the six “lower realms” of rebirth taught in earlier schools of Buddhism, plus four “higher realms” that characterize the path to Buddhahood. From the lowest to the highest, the realms consist of: (1) hell-dwellers, (2) hungry spirits, (3) animals, (4) demigods, (5) humans, (6) heavenly beings, (7) voice-hearers, or learners, (8) cause-awakened, or realized ones, (9) bodhisattvas, and (10) buddhas.

The ten worlds were originally thought to be separate physical realms, each with its own class of beings. However, according to the Tendai philosophy that Nichiren draws upon, all ten worlds are mutually inclusive, each realm potentially containing all the others. In practice, this means that the ten worlds are really ten different life conditions that an individual might experience at any given time.

A core teaching of Nichiren Buddhism is the “mutual possession” of the ten worlds. In practice, this means that the karma of each lifetime (indeed of each moment) is fluid rather than fixed. Human beings are not at the mercy of conditions or their surroundings but can transform any moment by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, the Japanese title of the Lotus Sutra. The realm of demigods, for instance, in which everything is seen as a potential threat, can give way to the realm of the bodhisattva through altruistic action toward others. It is therefore possible to manifest any of the ten worlds, including Buddhahood, at any time. 

Buddhahood is never viewed by Nichiren Buddhists as a state removed from ordinary life. In this realm one strives with even greater energy and conviction to transform difficult situations, creating peace among human beings and maintaining harmony with the natural world.


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