Writings of Nichiren Shōnin Doctrine 2, pp. 34-35

Kaimoku-shō or Liberation from Blindness, pp. 13-14

The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin I, pp. 224

The “three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment” is the doctrine taught by Chih-i in his magnum opus, the Great Concentration and Insight. It was his way of giving expression to the inconceivable true nature of reality to which the Buddha had awakened. Nichiren states that this doctrine was hidden between the lines of chapter 16 in the Original Gate section of the Lotus Sūtra. Nichiren goes on to say that the “three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment” is based upon the “mutual possession of the ten worlds.” So what are the ten worlds? And how do you arrive at three thousand worlds altogether? And what does it mean to say that all of this is found in a single thought-moment?

Let’s begin with the ten worlds. As we have seen, there are the six paths of rebirth in Buddhism: the hell-dwellers, hungry ghosts, animals, fighting demons, humans, and heavenly beings. It should be noted that sometimes the world of fighting demons is left out, so some sūtras or commentaries only speak of five paths. Nevertheless, in T’ien-t’ai Buddhism, six paths are counted and these six paths comprise the six lower worlds. Four higher states are added to these: the worlds of the śrāvakas (lit. voice-hearers), pratyekabuddhas (lit. privately awakened ones), bodhisattvas, and buddhas. All four higher worlds are states of liberation from the compulsive cycle of rebirth among the six lower worlds. The first two of these are also called the two vehicles that only lead to liberation for the individual practitioner; however, the two vehicles together with the bodhisattva vehicle are all subsumed by the One Vehicle that leads to buddhahood according to the Lotus Sūtra. These ten states (or at least the six lower worlds) have traditionally been viewed as actual realms or forms of life that one can be reborn into depending upon one’s karma (for the lower six worlds) or stage of awakening (for the four higher worlds), but they can also be viewed as metaphors for states of being that we can find ourselves in from moment to moment. Let’s briefly review these ten worlds:

  • The world of the hell-dwellers is the lowest of the worlds. Those who willfully transgress against the ten courses of wholesome conduct are reborn as hell-dwellers as the fruition of their deeds. Likewise, those who commit one of the five rebellious sins (killing one’s father, killing one’s mother, killing an arhat, injuring the Buddha, causing a schism in the Sangha) will immediately be reborn in the lowest hell in their next life. The hot hells and cold hells (perhaps for the passionately unrestrained and the cold-hearted respectively) are the abode of those so consumed with hatred, bitterness, and despair that their only wish is to destroy themselves and others out of spite and the desire to end their miserable existence.
  • The world of the hungry ghosts is only slightly better. Those who transgress against the ten courses of wholesome conduct primarily motivated by selfish craving are reborn as hungry ghosts as the fruition of their deeds. Hungry ghosts are said to have large mouths and bellies, but only tiny throats. Hungry ghosts can never be satisfied and are consumed by craving. This is the state of those who suffer from addictions that control and dominate their lives. These addictions can be to drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, power, work, entertainment, or even religion.
  • The world of animals is the state of cunning, primitive aggression, and instinctive desires. Those who unthinkingly transgress against the ten courses of wholesome conduct are reborn as animals. It is a state of mind that does not look beyond immediate gratification and pays no heed to consequences or long-term benefit. Here, pleasure and pain reign supreme over reason amid the brute struggle for survival as the strong prey upon the weak. Though not as inherently painful as the two previous worlds, those who are in this state will inevitably meet with frustration and confusion, if not outright pain and suffering.
  • The world of the fighting demons is the realm of arrogant demons who are obsessed with issues of status and power and whose ambition is to overthrow the gods of heaven. Those who follow the five major precepts or even the five constant virtues (of Confucianism) but with ulterior motives and in a spirit of hypocrisy and self-righteousness are reborn as fighting demons. Those in this state are full of pride and arrogance, and are extremely competitive and envious. They can never rest or feel secure because they must constantly strive to maintain and improve their position and prestige, no matter how well off they may actually be.
  • The world of humanity is, of course, the world we are most familiar with. Those who follow the five constant virtues or who take refuge in the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha) and follow the five major precepts are able to be reborn as humans. In the human world, suffering is recognized for what it is, and morality and reason are called upon to improve the human condition. At this point, civilized life can truly begin. The human state is considered a very fortunate one, because the suffering and striving of the previous four worlds does not overcome reason, nor is there the complacency brought about by the pleasures of the heavens. From this world of humanity, one can find the opportunity to encounter the Three Treasures, take up the teachings, put them into practice, and attain liberation.
  • The world of the heavenly-beings is where the gods make their abode. Those who take refuge in the Three Treasures, follow the ten courses of wholesome conduct, and give generously to worthy people and causes are able to be reborn in the heavens of desire. Those who follow the ten courses of wholesome conduct and also go on to cultivate states of meditative absorption to overcome all inner disturbance and negativity are able to be reborn in the more refined heavens of form or formlessness, which correspond to the states of concentration they attained. The heavens are temporary (though long lasting) realms of spiritual bliss of increasing subtlety and refinement.
  • The world of the śrāvakas is the first of the four higher worlds. Śrāvakas are those who hear the teachings of the Buddha, specifically the four noble truths, and put them into practice by becoming monks or nuns and taking up a life of strict discipline and rigorous contemplative practices in order to awaken to the fact that all conditioned things are ultimately unsatisfactory, impermanent, selfless, and empty of any fixed unchanging essence. This awakening is their attainment of nirvāna. Nirvāna, for them, is the elimination of the fetters of greed, hatred, and false views that bind them to rebirth among the six lower worlds. Upon attaining nirvāna, śrāvakas are known as arhats (lit. worthy ones), who are worthy to receive offerings. Though this is called a world, arhats do not exist in a separate realm apart from the world of humanity. Arhats are invariably human beings who attain nirvāna and upon their deaths (which is called parinirvāna) they are no longer to be found anywhere, much like a fire that has been extinguished.
  • The world of the pratyekabuddhas is the second of the four higher worlds. Pratyekabuddhas are the ascetics and hermits who live in a time and place where Buddhism is unknown but attain liberation by contemplating causes and conditions and awakening to the unsatisfactory, impermanent, selfless, and empty nature of all conditioned phenomena. Unlike buddhas, they do not afterwards try to teach others how to awaken. Like the arhats they are invariably human beings who have eliminated greed, hatred, and false views. They too have realized nirvāna and are no longer bound to be reborn among the six lower worlds. Sometimes pratyekabuddhas are not viewed as hermits who awaken on their own apart from Buddhism. Sometimes they are thought to be those Buddhist practitioners who live as forest-hermits and attain nirvāna by contemplating the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination taught by the Buddha to provide a deeper understanding of causes and conditions. In this case they are known as “cause-knowers” (J. engaku).
  • The world of the bodhisattvas is the third of the four higher worlds. Bodhisattvas are those who aspire to attain buddhahood so that they too can lead all sentient beings to liberation. To do this they make vows, for instance the four great vows of the bodhisattva (to save all being, quench all defilements, know all the teachings, and attain the path to buddhahood), and take up the practice of the six perfections (of generosity, discipline, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom). Bodhisattvas sometimes reside in the pure lands of the buddhas of the ten directions, but can just as often be found taking rebirth among those in the six worlds in accordance with their vows so that they can help sentient beings, cultivate wisdom, and accrue the merit needed to attain buddhahood.
  • The world of the buddhas is the fourth of the four higher worlds. Buddhahood is the state characterized by purity, bliss, eternity, and authenticity. With perfect wisdom and great compassion the buddhas spontaneously and unselfconsciously respond to the spiritual needs of all sentient beings. They reside in the pure lands but also appear in the world of humanity as a person who attains buddhahood, teaches the Dharma, and establishes the Sangha.

Each of these ten worlds contains the causes and conditions of all ten within themselves. This means that any of the ten contains the potential to manifest any of the others. This is the mutual possession of the ten worlds. One might say that the lower worlds contain the higher worlds as seeds of their future growth and maturity, while the higher worlds embrace the lower worlds insofar as they are perspectives that have been outgrown and yet assimilated. These are not ten separate worlds lined up alongside each other, but rather ten different modes of the interplay of causes and conditions. This means that if you change the causes and conditions you can also change the kind of world that is or will be experienced. This also means that the world of buddhahood is accessible to all the other worlds and conversely the world of buddhahood is able to compassionately interact with the lower worlds.

What exactly do the ten worlds hold in common that allows for their mutual interpenetration? In short, one can answer, “causes and conditions.” Chih-i, however, specified ten factors of life that he derived from the beginning of the second chapter of the Lotus Sūtra wherein the Buddha talks about the reality of all things in terms of their appearance, nature, entity, power, activity, causes, conditions, effects, consequences, and the unity of all these factors. The mutual possession of the ten worlds is possible because the ten worlds all possess the ten factors in common. These ten factors are the ways in which each of the ten worlds can be viewed as the manifestation of a dynamic interdependent process. Let’s look at each of them:

  • Appearance refers to external or objective phenomena. That which is seen, heard, smelled, touched, or tasted is included in this factor. Appearance involves the way phenomena are encountered in their various changing expressions and objective relations. For instance, the hell-dwellers have the appearance of undergoing various painful experiences such as being boiled in oil; on the other hand, heavenly beings have the appearance of pleasure and ease in their palaces and gardens. The two vehicles of the śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas have peaceful demeanors as they have transcended suffering by realizing nirvāna. The bodhisattvas can be observed cultivating the six perfections, realizing nirvāna, and attaining virtuous qualities. The liberating activities of a buddha are the appearance of a buddha.
  • Nature refers to internal or subjective phenomena. This factor focuses on inner thoughts and feelings. Nature is about the subjective side of life, the conscious and felt nature of experience. It also refers to the inner qualities that remain for a time even as external appearances, expressions, and relations change. For instance, hell-dwellers are constantly dwelling on the perpetration of unwholesome actions that they believe will benefit them, whereas heavenly beings dwell on the performance of wholesome actions in order to gain benefit. The two vehicles are no longer attached to notions of gaining benefit through wholesome or unwholesome actions. The nature of a bodhisattva is either that of heavenly deeds or undefiled wisdom or the determination to remain in the six lower worlds to save all sentient beings. The wisdom that illuminates the true nature of reality is the nature of a buddha.
  • Entity is the causal nexus that expresses itself in both internal and external phenomena. Internal and external can never really be separated because both are nothing more than partial aspects of an integral whole. The integral whole is the contingent entity whose qualities have an objective and subjective dimension. For instance, the entity of hell-dwellers is characterized by torment, but the entity of heavenly beings is characterized by the temporary transcendence of disturbance. The entity of the two vehicles is the five-fold Dharma-body of precepts, meditation, wisdom, liberation, and knowledge of liberation manifest in their actions and attitudes. The entity of the bodhisattvas is that of the 32 marks of greatness and later the ability to transform into whatever is needed to save sentient beings. The entity of the buddha is the true nature of reality.
  • Power is the ability of phenomena to effect and undergo change. Whereas the first three factors analyze phenomena in terms of internal and external relations and their integral unity, this factor and the next point out that phenomena do not stand still as they are actually not static things but causes and conditions in a constant process of mutual influence and transformation. Any phenomenon is a causal entity that has the power to affect the world in myriad ways. For instance, hell-dwellers have the power to enter into states of suffering while the heavenly beings have the power to attain pleasure. The power of the two vehicles is to be in the world but no longer of it. The power of the buddhas and bodhisattvas is expressed in the four great vows.
  • Activity is the actual change brought about through the function of the aforementioned power. It should be pointed out that phenomena depend upon cooperative conditions in order to have an actual affect on the world. Just because something or someone has the power to do something doesn’t mean that it will actually exert that power. When the right circumstances are met with, then that power will be activated. For instance, the hell-dwellers actively break the ten courses of wholesome conduct, whereas the heavenly beings actively abide by them and perform acts of generosity. The activity of the two vehicles is to strive diligently to progress on the path to liberation. The performance of the six perfections is the activity of buddhas and bodhisattvas.
  • Causes are those intentional actions of moral import made in the present. This factor and the next three directly refer to the moral law of cause and effect or karma. Cause, in this context, refers to all of our thoughts, words, and deeds, which become karmic seeds in the depths of our lives. These seeds are the habit-patterns that determine the ways in which our life will unfold. In fact, the dominant world or state of mind that is our usual state of being is the fruition of these very seeds. Therefore, it is very important that we plant as many goods seeds in our life as possible. For instance, the hell-dwellers make bad causes of unwholesome thoughts, words, and deeds; the heavenly beings make good causes through wholesome thoughts, words, and deeds. The two vehicles make the cause of coming to know for themselves non-defilement. As the bodhisattvas progress they initially make the same causes as the heavenly beings, then the same causes as the two-vehicles, and then the perfecting of wisdom becomes their primary cause. The perfection of wisdom is the cause made by the buddhas.
  • Conditions are the secondary or environmental causes that allow the primary causes to bear fruit. The seeds we have planted in our life through our own actions require the proper circumstances before they come to fruition. Even when they do come to fruition, the exact ways in which they manifest can be influenced by the conditions that surround them. The causes we have made can be inhibited, distorted, modified, mitigated, or even amplified, depending upon the other causes that we have planted and the circumstances in which we find ourselves. For instance, the hell-dwellers find themselves in wretched circumstances and have unwholesome views and attitudes that drive them to greater desperation and even worse evils; whereas the heavenly beings find themselves in pleasant circumstances that put them at ease and inspire wholesome past times and benevolent attitudes. The two vehicles have as their conditions the practice of eliminating defilements. The bodhisattvas initially take the passions that bind beings to rebirth as their conditions but then move on to the practices and contemplations that reveal the truths of emptiness, provisional existence, and the Middle Way. The buddhas have the adornment of virtuous qualities as their conditions.
  • Effects are the immediate consequences of the causes we make. Whenever we act, speak, or even think about something, there is an immediate effect upon our lives. That effect might be so miniscule as to be hardly noticeable. However, effects primarily refer to the planting of a new karmic seed in the depths of our lives, not just the immediate change in our consciousness or external circumstances. The importance of this is that everything we do has, at the very least, a subtle affect on our lives, and even more importantly contributes to the formation of our whole character. For instance, the hell-dwellers fall into bad habits as the effect of the causes they have made, whereas the heavenly beings cultivate good habits because they strive to make good causes. The two vehicles progressive elimination of the fetters that bind them to rebirth and their attainment of nirvāna is the effect resulting from the causes and conditions, though nirvāna is not actually the effect of a cause but more like what is realized when the fetters are undone. The bodhisattvas initially eliminate deluded views and attitudes and later eliminate the delusions as innumerable as grains of sand as the effects of their continuing efforts. The buddhas realize perfect and complete awakening as the effect of the perfection of wisdom.
  • Consequences are the future manifest results of present causes. This refers to the perhaps unforeseen long-term effects of the causes we have set in motion. In one manner or another the karmic seeds planted in the depths of our lives come to fruition under the right conditions. For instance, the unwholesome actions of the hell-dwellers will lead to future rebirths in the lower realms, whereas the wholesome actions of the heavenly beings will lead to future rebirths in the heavens or at least the human realm. The two vehicles believe that there will be no future suffering of consequences for past karma because they have ended the process of rebirth, but from the perspective of the One Vehicle they are still subject to “transmigration of change and advance” until they overcome fundamental ignorance and attain buddhahood. The bodhisattvas likewise do not suffer the consequences of karmic recompense after they have matured in their practice and cultivation but they do engage in “transmigration of change and advance” in accordance with their vows. The realization of the true nirvāna of purity, bliss, eternity, and authenticity that is neither identical to nor distinct from samsāra can be said to be the result enjoyed by the buddhas as a consequence of their cultivation of the One Vehicle.
  • Unity refers to the non-duality of all phenomena despite these differing aspects. Even though the ten worlds can be distinguished due to their differing appearances, natures, and so on, they are all united and equal in that these differing aspects are all empty of any fixed independent substance, all temporary manifestations of causes and conditions, and all exemplify the Middle Way that embraces both emptiness and provisional existence.

I must confess that some of the application of the ten factors to the ten worlds seem arbitrary or forced. In particular the world of buddhahood at least would seem to transcend the causes and conditions of the ten factors insofar as the buddhas awaken to the unconditioned. On the other hand, the unconditioned is the true nature of the conditioned, and so not apart from causes and effects. In order to show that the world of buddhahood also possesses the ten factors and so is part of the same reality as the other nine worlds, Chih-i applied the ten factors to it as well.

Likewise, those in the four higher worlds do not make the same kind of causes as those in the six lower worlds, nor are they subject to effects and consequences in the same way. The causes made by those in the six lower worlds are karmic causes, which is to say they are actions defiled by greed, hatred, and delusion that perpetuate the process of rebirth as they seek to reap the fruits of their activities but more often than not reap disappointment and suffering as the immediate effects and long-term consequences of the karmic actions they have sown. Karma, then, includes both wholesome and unwholesome actions of thought, word, and deed that are tainted by some degree of self-seeking. Those in the four higher worlds have realized that there is no unchanging separate self and are no longer motivated by self-interest (though neither are they motivated by self-neglect). Instead, through the power of compassionate vows they remain engaged with all sentient beings. The effect and consequences they encounter are the results of these compassionate activities. As already mentioned, even the arhats and pratyekabuddhas who are believed to no longer generate consequences in the form of future rebirths actually transition onto the bodhisattva path and make their own compassionate vows. Nevertheless, all the ten worlds manifest by way of causes and conditions and are therefore united by holding the ten factors in common.

When each of the ten worlds is multiplied by the ten worlds again due to the mutual possession of the ten worlds one arrives at a hundred worlds. Since each of the hundred worlds has ten factors there are said to be one thousand worlds. In addition to all this, Chih-i taught that there are three realms that must be taken into account. These are the realms of the individual composed of the five aggregates (form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness); of the community of all beings of the ten worlds; and of the land in which they all live. These three realms show that the one thousand worlds are present in and manifest themselves in terms of the life of individual beings, the societies they form, and the environment inhabited by them. The one thousand worlds multiplied by the three realms brings the final total up to three thousand worlds that are operative in every single thought-moment.

The single thought-moment is nothing other than each singular moment of conscious awareness that comprises the here and now of our life. Each moment of awareness contains all three thousand worlds. The single thought-moment and the three thousand worlds arise simultaneously. There is never a single moment of awareness without all the worlds present within and all the worlds are always united in a single moment of awareness. In support of this idea, in his Great Concentration and Insight, Chih-i cited the following verse from the Flower Garland Sūtra to show that all these worlds are manifest by the mind:

Mind is like an artist,

Able to paint the worlds:

The five aggregates all are born thence;

There’s nothing it doesn’t make.

(adapted from Cleary, p. 452)

The idea here is that the world we experience is nothing but the transformations of the mind itself, and apart from mind, the single moment of awareness, there would be nothing at all. It is the mind that determines the coloration of our experience. It is mind that makes causes and reacts to conditions and then suffers or enjoys the effects and consequences of the actions it initiates. It is by coming to know the nature of mind that one can awaken to the three thousand worlds that are the mind’s palette. It is by awakening to the three thousand worlds in every moment of awareness that one realizes that buddhahood is there as well, available to us as the most authentic and liberated stance that realizes and actualizes the true nature of the whole.

Nichiren will discuss the three thousand worlds in a single thought-moment from the perspective of the Trace Gate and the Original Gate of the Lotus Sūtra in later sections of the Kaimoku-shō. For now, it might be instructive to read the other verses from the Flower Garland Sūtra that the above verse was taken from. In these verses, Forest of Awareness Bodhisattva teaches that coming to know the mind leads to knowing the Buddha as well.

It’s like a painter

Spreading the various colors:

Delusion grasps different forms

But the elements have no distinctions.

In the elements there’s no form.

And no form in the elements;

And yet apart from the elements

No form can be found.

In the mind there is no painting.

In painting there is no mind;

Yet apart from mind

Is any painting to be found.

The mind never stops.

Manifesting all forms.

Countless, inconceivably many,

Unknown to one another.

Just as a painter

Can’t know his own mind

Yet paints due to the mind,

So is the nature of all things.

Mind is like an artist,

Able to paint the worlds:

The five aggregates all are born thence;

There’s nothing it doesn’t make.

As is the mind, so is the Buddha;

As the Buddha, so living beings:

Know that Buddha and mind

Are in essence inexhaustible.

If people know the actions of mind

Create all the worlds,

They will see the Buddha

And understand Buddha’s true nature.

Mind does not stay in the body,

Nor body stay in mind:

Yet it’s able to perform the Buddha-work

Freely, without precedent.

If people want to really know

All Buddhas of all times,

They should contemplate the nature of the cosmos:

All is but mental construction.

(Ibid, pp. 451 – 452)


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