The “Ten Worlds” is a concept in Buddhism that represents ten conditions or states of life that we experience within our lives, moving from one to another at any moment according to our responses to circumstances.
They are derived from the Lotus Sutra, one of the most influential and important sutras in Mahayana Buddhism. The concept, particularly emphasized in Nichiren Buddhism, serves as a framework for understanding the range of human experience, encompassing both enlightened and unenlightened states.
- Hell: This is a state of intense suffering and despair in which we perceive no escape from our pain. It is not a physical place, but rather a state of life overwhelmed by rage, anxiety, and torment.
- Hunger: The world of hunger is dominated by insatiable desire for things we perceive as making us happy—whether food, wealth, power, or fame. It is a state of constant craving, defined by the inability to be satisfied.
- Animality: This state is characterized by the law of the jungle, survival of the fittest, where the strong prey on the weak. It is dominated by instinctual, immediate desire, without consideration for moral or ethical implications.
- Anger: This state is characterized by resentment, competitiveness, and the desire to surpass others. It’s a condition where people are dominated by ego, pride and the urge to impose their will on others.
- Humanity (or Tranquility): This represents a relatively calm and peaceful state in which we can think rationally and make free decisions. It is characterized by control over our basic instincts, but is still susceptible to external influences.
- Heaven: This is a state of intense joy stemming from the fulfillment of some desire, physical comfort, or a sense of accomplishment. However, it is transient and dependent on external circumstances.
- Learning: This is the state in which we seek truth through learning from the teachings or examples of others. It signifies a willingness to improve ourselves and our understanding.
- Realization (or Absorption): This is the state in which we seek the truth through our own direct perception of the world. It involves deep introspection and self-awareness.
- Bodhisattva: This state is characterized by the aspiration to achieve enlightenment and by the compassion to assist others to do the same. It is defined by selfless action, seeking the well-being and happiness of others before oneself.
- Buddhahood: This is the highest of the ten worlds, the state of highest enlightenment. It represents a life condition of limitless compassion, wisdom, and courage, which enables one to confront and overcome any of life’s challenges.
The beauty of this framework lies in the belief that all these states are present in each person’s life and that we can manifest any of them at any given moment. Importantly, the philosophy also posits that everyone, regardless of their current state of life, has the potential to achieve the enlightened state of Buddhahood. Thus, it calls for the recognition and cultivation of this inherent potential in the pursuit of a fulfilling and contributive life.
1. Hell (jigoku)
The concept of Hell, or “Jigoku,” within the context of the Ten Worlds in Buddhism, does not correspond to the often-understood Western conceptualization of Hell as a physical location of eternal punishment. Instead, it symbolizes a psychological state, an internal condition of life characterized by severe suffering and torment.
In the state of Hell, one experiences intense pain, despair and agony. This state is marked by a lack of freedom, where individuals feel as though they are trapped or confined in their suffering, with no apparent way out. It is a condition where happiness seems unattainable and suffering appears to have no end. This sense of hopelessness and intense suffering can be caused by various factors, including physical pain, mental distress, loss or feelings of profound guilt.
In this state, one’s capacity for rational thought is often obscured or overwhelmed, leading to reactions driven primarily by pain and suffering. The individual is consumed by the desire to escape from their torment, but they find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of negativity and despair.
Yet, in Buddhist thought, even the world of Hell contains the potential for enlightenment. While it represents the most painful and desperate of life states, the transition from one world to another is fluid in the doctrine of the Ten Worlds. Therefore, even from the depths of the Hell state, it is possible for one to move towards enlightenment. The challenge lies in recognizing and activating the potential for enlightenment that exists inherently within every individual, regardless of the life state they currently occupy.
Moreover, the experience of Hell can be transformative. It can stimulate compassion, understanding, and empathy for the suffering of others. It can give rise to the desire to alleviate not just one’s own suffering, but the suffering of others as well. Consequently, it can serve as a powerful motivator towards the pursuit of Buddhahood, the highest of the Ten Worlds.
2. Hunger (gaki)
In the schema of the Ten Worlds in Buddhism, Hunger, or “Gaki,” represents a state of life dominated by desire and craving. As with the other worlds, it should be understood not as a physical location, but rather as a psychological state or condition of life.
Hunger is characterized by the constant pursuit of desires, be it for material possessions, relationships, recognition, or any other object perceived to bring happiness or satisfaction. It is a state of life in which one is driven by insatiable wants, where desires are continually arising and satisfaction is always fleeting.
Crucially, the state of Hunger is defined by its unsatisfiability. The desires that arise in this state are not just strong, they are also ceaseless and unquenchable. Once one desire is fulfilled, another quickly takes its place, creating a cycle of craving and temporary satisfaction that can be deeply frustrating and distressing. The individual is caught in a continuous chase for satisfaction that, ultimately, is never achieved.
Moreover, the state of Hunger can lead to an external dependence on the objects of desire for one’s sense of happiness and self-worth. When happiness is based on obtaining external objects or conditions, it becomes precarious and contingent on factors outside of one’s control. This dependency can create an underlying sense of insecurity and instability in one’s state of life.
However, in the doctrine of the Ten Worlds, each state of life contains the potential for enlightenment, including Hunger. Even within this life condition, characterized by ceaseless craving, the capacity to manifest the enlightened state of life, Buddhahood, is present. The challenge lies in recognizing and tapping into this inherent potential for enlightenment, thereby transforming one’s life condition.
3. Animality (chikusho)
In the framework of the Ten Worlds in Buddhism, “Animality” or “Chikushō” represents a state of life dominated by instinctual behavior, ruled by immediate desires and fears, without moral or ethical consideration.
In the state of Animality, one’s actions are dictated primarily by primal instincts—those of survival, dominance, submission, and immediate satisfaction of desires. This condition lacks the rationality and moral judgement characteristic of higher life states. Actions and decisions are reactive, driven by instinctual responses to immediate circumstances, rather than thoughtful consideration of long-term consequences or moral implications.
Animality can manifest in various forms. In its most raw form, it can involve behaviors that aim at satisfying basic physical desires or asserting dominance over others. In a more subtle form, it might involve manipulating others to gain advantage or avoid hardship, or conforming mindlessly to societal norms without questioning their fairness or righteousness.
A significant aspect of this state is the absence of empathy and a disregard for the welfare of others. Actions are driven by self-interest, often without consideration for the potential harm they might inflict on others. This can lead to actions that are exploitative or destructive, contributing to personal and social suffering.
However, as with all states in the Ten Worlds framework, Animality carries within it the potential for enlightenment, or Buddhahood. Despite its base nature, it is not a fixed or irreversible state. The Buddhist view holds that by recognizing and awakening to our higher potential, we can transcend this state and elevate ourselves towards higher conditions of life.
This perspective reinforces the fluidity of the Ten Worlds, the idea that we are not stuck in one state but can transform our lives through internal change. Thus, the state of Animality serves as a reminder of our lower instincts, but also of our capacity to rise above them, cultivating wisdom, compassion and courage—the key attributes of Buddhahood. It underscores the Buddhist principle that all people inherently possess the potential for enlightenment, irrespective of their current life condition.
4. Anger (shura)
In the context of the Ten Worlds in Buddhism, “Anger” or “Shura” is a state of life marked by ego, competitiveness, and hostility. It is a condition characterized by resentment, conflict, and the urge to surpass others.
The world of Anger is driven by a desire to exert control and dominance over others, often stemming from feelings of superiority or inferiority. In this state, the individual’s self-worth is typically bound to their ability to be superior to others in some way—whether in terms of wealth, status, knowledge, or power. Their satisfaction derives from a sense of winning or being better than others.
This state can manifest in aggressive and destructive behaviors, but it can also present as more covert attitudes, such as passive-aggression, manipulative behavior, or hostility masked as politeness. Despite its name, Anger is not necessarily about overt anger or rage. It is more fundamentally about a state of mind that sees others as competitors or enemies, that feels the need to compare oneself with others, and that is obsessed with gaining and maintaining superiority.
In the state of Anger, relationships with others are often transactional, based on what one can gain or lose. Empathy, compassion, and genuine respect for others are typically lacking. This can lead to strained relationships and social discord, contributing to personal and collective suffering.
However, as with all the states in the Ten Worlds, Anger contains within it the potential for Buddhahood. Despite its destructive tendencies, it is not a permanent or unchangeable state. According to Buddhist teachings, by recognizing our inherent potential for enlightenment and consciously striving towards it, we can transform even a state of Anger into a state of wisdom, compassion and courage—the defining attributes of Buddhahood.
5. Humanity or Tranquility (nin)
The state of “Humanity” or “Tranquility,” known as “Nin” in the Buddhist schema of the Ten Worlds, represents a relatively calm and rational state of being. Unlike the lower four worlds, which are primarily driven by instinctual and reactive behaviors, Humanity is a state where individuals can think and act more deliberately.
In the world of Humanity, individuals have the capacity to exercise reason, make free decisions, and exert some control over their emotions and instincts. There is an element of self-awareness and a capacity to reflect on one’s actions and their consequences. This allows for the cultivation of ethical conduct and the ability to take considered action, rather than being impulsively driven by desires or fears.
This state, however, does not equate to a permanent condition of tranquility or unshakeable peace. Individuals in the state of Humanity can still experience a wide range of emotions, including joy, sadness, anger, and fear. They can also be influenced by external circumstances, and their tranquility can be disturbed when faced with difficulties or challenges.
Moreover, while the world of Humanity allows for the exercise of reason and ethical conduct, it does not necessarily imply the presence of wisdom or a deep understanding of life’s ultimate truths. It represents a kind of ‘ordinary’ human condition, where one is not dominated by base desires or destructive impulses, but has yet to attain the profound insight or compassion of the higher states.
Yet, as with all other states within the Ten Worlds, the state of Humanity inherently contains the potential for Buddhahood. It is within this ordinary human condition, with all its imperfections and vulnerabilities, that the capacity for enlightenment exists. The challenge lies in recognizing and activating this latent potential, thereby transforming the state of Humanity into a higher state of life.
6. Heaven or Rapture (ten)
In the Buddhist schema of the Ten Worlds, “Heaven” or “Rapture,” also known as “Ten,” signifies a state of temporary joy and satisfaction, often stemming from the fulfillment of some desire or the realization of a particular outcome. It should be noted that this state, like others in the Ten Worlds, does not correspond to a physical location but is rather an internal condition or state of life.
Heaven is characterized by feelings of intense happiness, pleasure, or euphoria. This can arise from various sources, such as the gratification of desires, achievement of goals, enjoyment of sensual pleasures, or experiencing love and appreciation. However, this joy is transient and dependent on external circumstances.
A crucial characteristic of this state is its dependency on external conditions. The happiness experienced in the state of Heaven is typically contingent upon specific factors or conditions being met. This could involve obtaining a desired object, achieving a particular status, or maintaining a certain relationship. As such, the joy experienced in this state is fleeting and vulnerable to changes in circumstances.
Further, while the state of Heaven involves experiencing pleasure or happiness, it does not necessarily entail a deep understanding of the nature of life or reality. It is a state that can be easily disturbed or disrupted by changes in external conditions or by the arising of negative feelings or circumstances.
Yet, in line with the doctrine of the Ten Worlds, the state of Heaven also contains the potential for enlightenment. Despite its transient and dependent nature, this state is not devoid of the capacity for Buddhahood. The challenge lies in recognizing this inherent potential and consciously striving towards it, transforming the temporary joy of Heaven into the enduring, profound joy of Buddhahood.
7. Learning (shomon)
In the Buddhist framework of the Ten Worlds, “Learning” or “Shomon” represents a state of life characterized by a thirst for knowledge and a willingness to learn from others, especially from the teachings of the Buddha.
In the state of Learning, individuals exhibit a desire to understand the truth of life and reality by actively seeking wisdom through the study of Buddhist teachings or other forms of knowledge. This state involves humility and openness to learning from others, as well as the recognition that one’s current understanding is limited and can be expanded.
The focus in the world of Learning is on gaining knowledge through listening or reading, and reflecting upon the teachings of others. It involves a proactive effort to better understand oneself and the world, motivated by the realization that one’s current level of understanding is insufficient.
It’s important to note that the state of Learning is not restricted to intellectual understanding or academic study alone. It also includes the application of the acquired wisdom to one’s life and behavior. The value of learning, from the Buddhist perspective, lies not just in acquiring knowledge, but in using that knowledge to cultivate wisdom, compassion, and a deeper understanding of life and reality.
However, the world of Learning has its limitations. While it signifies an active pursuit of knowledge, it can sometimes result in a reliance on external sources of wisdom, neglecting the potential for inner realization. Moreover, learning can sometimes be limited by preconceived notions and can become mere accumulation of knowledge without leading to true wisdom.
Yet, as with all states within the Ten Worlds, the state of Learning inherently contains the potential for Buddhahood. The challenge lies in transforming the pursuit of knowledge into a pursuit of enlightenment, and recognizing the profound wisdom inherent within oneself.
8. Realization (engaku)
In the context of the Ten Worlds of Buddhism, “Realization” or “Engaku” stands for a state of life in which individuals pursue the truth not merely through learning from others, but through their own direct perception and understanding of reality.
Realization is a state in which individuals actively engage with their own experience, scrutinizing the nature of their own life and the world around them. It often involves a shift from learning wisdom from external sources to uncovering wisdom from within one’s own life and experiences. This state can be initiated by introspective practices such as meditation, philosophical inquiry, or deep contemplation on the teachings of Buddhism.
The state of Realization is characterized by a proactive, self-guided search for understanding, in which individuals not only absorb the teachings of others but also critically examine and internalize these teachings based on their own experiences and insights. As such, the focus is on the attainment of personal realization, which often includes an understanding of the impermanence of life, the interconnectedness of all beings, and the sources of suffering and contentment.
Despite the profound understanding that can be attained in this state, it also has its limitations. Individuals in the state of Realization may still have attachments or misconceptions that cloud their understanding, and their realizations might be partial or incomplete. Additionally, while the state of Realization represents a significant step toward enlightenment, it is not synonymous with full enlightenment or Buddhahood.
Yet, as with all other states within the Ten Worlds, the state of Realization inherently contains the potential for Buddhahood. The challenge lies in transforming the partial understanding achieved in Realization into the profound wisdom and compassion characteristic of Buddhahood.
9. Bodhissatva (bosatsu)
In the Buddhist framework of the Ten Worlds, the state of “Bodhisattva” or “Bosatsu” signifies a life condition marked by a deep compassion for others and a dedicated effort to aid them in their suffering. This state is often associated with the path of the Bodhisattva, an individual who seeks enlightenment not only for their own benefit but for the welfare of all sentient beings.
The state of Bodhisattva is characterized by an altruistic commitment to help others. This commitment arises from a profound realization of the interconnectedness of all life and a deep empathy for the suffering of others. In this state, individuals strive to alleviate the suffering of others and to help them realize their own potential for enlightenment.
The Bodhisattva path entails a selfless dedication to the well-being of others. This involves a readiness to forgo personal comfort or gain for the benefit of others, and a determination to face and overcome the various challenges that arise in the process of helping others. It includes actions such as teaching and guiding others, providing emotional and material support, and working to create a more compassionate and equitable society.
In the state of Bodhisattva, the focus is not solely on personal enlightenment, but on the enlightenment of all beings. This reflects the Mahayana Buddhist ideal of the Bodhisattva, who seeks to attain Buddhahood not as an end in itself, but as a means of helping all beings attain enlightenment.
Despite the noble aspirations of this state, the world of Bodhisattva also has its challenges. Bodhisattvas may encounter difficulties and obstacles in their efforts to help others, and they may sometimes be faced with the limitations of their own understanding and capabilities.
Yet, as with all states within the Ten Worlds, the state of Bodhisattva inherently contains the potential for Buddhahood. The challenge lies in transforming the altruistic aspirations and compassionate actions of the Bodhisattva into the profound wisdom, boundless compassion, and inexhaustible courage of the Buddha.
10. Buddhahood (butsu)
In the Buddhist context of the Ten Worlds, the state of “Buddhahood” or “Butsu” represents the highest state of life, characterized by profound wisdom, boundless compassion, and unshakeable courage. This state is often associated with the Buddha, an enlightened one who has fully realized the ultimate truth of life and reality.
Buddhahood is a state of absolute freedom and unimpeded joy, unhindered by the afflictions of mundane life. Individuals in this state manifest the qualities of a Buddha, including a profound understanding of the nature of existence, an unwavering compassion for all beings, and the courage to face and overcome any challenge.
In the state of Buddhahood, individuals perceive the interconnectedness of all life and understand the workings of cause and effect (karma) at a deep level. This insight enables them to act wisely and compassionately in every situation, for the benefit of themselves and others. Their actions are guided not by selfish desires or fears, but by wisdom and compassion.
The state of Buddhahood is also characterized by a deep, enduring joy that is not dependent on external circumstances. This joy arises from the realization of the ultimate truth of life and the overcoming of fundamental ignorance, greed, and anger. It is a joy that persists even in the face of adversity, providing a source of strength and resilience.
Importantly, according to the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the state of Buddhahood is not an exclusive or distant goal. It is a potential inherent in every life, which can be actualized here and now in the midst of daily life. The challenge lies not in attaining Buddhahood as a separate state of being, but in manifesting it in one’s life through wisdom, compassion and courage.