The Ten Worlds and their mutual possession – Ichinen Sanzen Pt 1

Read the other parts of this series – Part 2Part 3Part 4

Ichinen Sanzen – Part 1

The mutual possession of the Ten Worlds is one of the foundations in understanding the broader concept of Ichinen Sanzen. So what is Ichinen Sanzen? What does mutual possession mean, and what are the Ten Worlds that Nichiren Buddhists so often speak about?

Ichinen Sanzen was a system of thought put forth by the Great Teacher T’ien-t’ai in 6th century China. It teaches the interconnectedness of all phenomena (including us). The name itself derives from Ichi, meaning One, and Nen, being a translation of sanskrit Sati-Smrti – or mindfulness. Sanzen, literally means 3000. We generally describe Ichinen Sanzen as three thousand realms in a single moment of life.

In practice, Ichinen Sanzen offers a remarkably comprehensive method for describing life, in both the material and the spiritual, or emotional sense. However, to offer any explanation of Ichinen Sanzen, one must first understand the concept of the Ten Worlds, and the Mutual Possession of the Ten Worlds – so that’s what I’m covering in this article. Next time we’ll cover the Ten Factors.

The Ten Worlds

T’ien-t’ai postulated that human experience falls into ten life states – or worlds. Nichiren was wise enough to perceive the truth in this teaching, and saw that rather than existing outside us, that worlds like Hell and the Buddha land were an intrinsic component of ourselves – or as Nichiren puts it in the New Year’s Gosho, “both exist in our five-foot body.

These life states are subjective in nature, and determine to a large extent the colours and shades of the paintbrush with which we cover the canvas of our lives – or our Karma. And because our Karma is a dynamic and constantly changing thing, just as an artist can scrape off or paint over areas of the canvas with brighter colours, so too can we take action to improve our Karma by elevating our life state through the practice of chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.

Ichinen Sanzen teaches that each of the ten worlds contains the other nine – thus creating 100 worlds in total. This is known as the mutual possession of the ten worlds. Just as Buddhahood contains all nine lower worlds, so each of those worlds contains the potential of Buddhahood. So lets get on with it…


Hell is, predictably, the lowest life state of all. In stark contrast to the Christian concept of hell, where one is tortured in the afterlife, the Buddhist concept of hell relates to something we can only experience while alive. Hell is a state of hopelessness and overwhelming despair. People who commit suicide are, understandably, in the life state of hell. It is a dark and ugly place where there appears to be no option but to continue suffering without end – we can allow it to direct our thoughts inwardly, worrying solely about ourselves.

But as with all lower nine life states, hell can also be positive – to experience suffering often gives us the insight and understanding to open the way to compassion.

The Mutual Possession of Hell – Examples

Imagine on one hand the stockbroker who has lost millions on the trading floors. Truly in despair, driven by the delusion that his entire self worth has been flushed down the toilet, he jumps off the top of his building, falling to his death. Without a thought for his family, he can’t face life any longer and commits an act of great selfishness that will cause great suffering to his family and friends. This is perhaps the expression of hell through the state of hunger (for wealth) and perhaps anger (not being able to accept that he made a mistake, and fearful of being seen as less capable than his peers).

On the other hand, imagine if you can, what it was like to be trapped on one of the hijacked flights of 9/11. Despite being in no doubt as to their probable demise at the hands of the Islamic extremists, a number of passengers phoned their loved ones to reassure them, and to express their love. This is surely demonstrating the expression of their Buddhahood from the depths of their own personal hell.


Also known as the realm of Hungry Spirits, Hunger is also called the world of desire. Desires are obviously important for our survival – the desire to breath, eat, have sex are all required for our very existence. Desire drives everything we do – including our desire to express compassion and even our desire to attain Buddhahood.

However, desire as a means to its own or other selfish ends is destructive and un-fulfilling. We often desire things because we believe that their acquisition or accomplishment will make us happy (food, profit, power, fame etc.), but we are usually mistaking happiness for rapture, another of the ten worlds we will look at shortly.

Common inhabitants of the world of hunger are people who have become addicted to alcohol, smoking, or drugs, and are utterly unable to accept that their addiction is causing them suffering. Sexual addiction, or other forms of compulsive behaviour are also examples of the world of hunger.

The Mutual Possession of Hunger – Examples

Imagine someone who believes they are better than the general public, and deserving of better treatment and a better income. In order to achieve this they believe that fame will lead to fortune, and spend their lives trying to win talent shows. This is an example of the world of anger manifesting the world of hunger. The same could be said of organised criminals, who, with a contempt for the general public, hold up banks, or deal in drugs and prostitution in order to get rich quick. I don’t know any organised criminals, but I suspect there are few who are genuinely happy.

On a more positive note, someone who has begun to learn something new (perhaps Nichiren Buddhism!) has created within themselves the desire to learn more. This is the world of learning manifesting the world of hunger. Or, the person who sees an old lady trying to cross a busy road may manifest the desire to help her safely to the other side. In this case, the world of hunger is driven by one of the highest life states, that of bodhisattva.


The world of animals and animal (or instinctive ) behaviour, is also called the world of animality. This is a state of mind bereft of any morality, and is driven primarily by the parts of our brains that evolved before most others – it is a state of life where we observe nothing more than the law of the jungle, picking on the weak, and fearing the strong. It is also responsible in many cases for saving our lives, so it can be positive, too.

You’ve probably heard the term “red mist” – and many of us, I’m sure have come close to experiencing it when under pressure. All it takes is one momentary lapse of reason, and we find ourselves doing the angry red faced dance. Of course, this can turn into the worst kinds of violations against another person.

When I was much younger, in my late teens, I remember someone driving a mini cutting me up on a roundabout. Being a hot blooded young man, I instantly thumped the horn and flashed my headlights like a toddler having a tantrum. My brain had instantly lost the plot. Because I was driving a large delivery van, I felt safe blasting the little car that had driven in front of me. Well, the car stopped, and my jaw dropped as the original 300Ib man mountain unfolded himself and proceeded to return his feelings through the window of my (now locked) door.

The Mutual Possession of Animality – Examples

For a negative example, I’m going to stick to the theme of driving – because let’s face it, our roads allow the worst aspects of humanity to surface so easily. If you drive a small car, you’ll undoubtedly have encountered at some point in your driving career Mr Tank Commander – 2 tons of gleaming metal charging at you in the middle of a country lane, as though you simply weren’t there. Of course, it’s you who end up swerving into the ditch to avoid being crushed.

In a sense, you were saved by your own world of animality – confronted by imminent danger, your desire (hunger) to stay alive drives your animal instincts to avoid an impact.

The driver of the large 4×4 on the other hand, is displaying the world of animality (picking on the weaker, small car driver) through the world of anger – the belief that he is more important than you because, well, his car is worth more than your house, and he’s on his way to a very important meeting. In many ways, people behave like the 4×4 driver every day.

Whenever a joke is made about someone who is fat, gay, blind or just different somehow from the rest of the group majority, they are doing exactly the same thing – picking on someone who is in a weaker position, because they can, and because they believe they are better than the person they are victimising. You might not even realise you are doing it – think carefully next time you point someone out to a friend and snigger together.


Anger, together with Animality, Hunger and Hell make up the Four Evil Paths. These paths are termed evil, because as and of themselves, they lead to suffering. Only when one is mutually expressed through the higher life states can suffering be eased.

Also called the world of asuras. In Indian mythology, asuras are arrogant and belligerent demons. The world of anger is principally expressed through an inflamed ego and sense of pride – Blinded by their own world view, people in this state will continue to hold onto mistaken views despite clear evidence to the contrary.

This world is characterised by aggression, which does not necessarily mean overt physical aggression, but often refers to the pervasive sense of superiority or entitlement over others.

Those in the world of anger devalue others or their environment, and feel they must dominate them at any cost, although they will never admit as much. People who feel envy may inwardly seethe at someone’s success, while at the same time, they shake their hand, and congratulate them, or flatter them.

The Mutual Possession of Anger – Examples

Lets suppose you want to learn about Buddhism. That’s fine, but now lets assume that the reason you want to learn more about Buddhism is because your mate, who is Christian, is always winning philosophical arguments with you. Rather than being content with treating your friend as a human being, and avoiding arguments, you are determined to prove to him that Buddhism is right by crushing him in debate. This would be an example of the World of Learning being manifested through the world of Anger.

Going back to the example of the little old lady trying to cross the busy road. Lets suppose that a celebrity has just emerged from their home, and spots a few members of the paparazzi, cameras at the ready. Seeing the old lady struggling to cross the road, they make a dash to help the pensioner to safety, motivated by little more than the possible headlines and press coverage that will ensue. Here, the world of bodhisattva is twisted through the lens of anger. The old lady is safely across the road, but the celebrity’s prime motivation was less than noble.


Also known as tranquility, the world of humanity represents a calm and rational state of life where reasoning and judgements are made. It can be the creative element in life, and provides the environment in which love and compassion can emerge. When our immediate needs are met, and we are not unduly influenced by the lower worlds, then we may reside in the world of humanity.

Humanity is a briefly enjoyed life state, but is important as it offers the catalyst for ascending to the noble, or higher paths, and thus transcend suffering. It is equally capable of giving way to the four evil paths.

Some confuse a supremely calm lifestate with having attained incomplete Nirvana (the highest lifestate believed to be reachable by the Hinayana teachings) – but this is anathema to Nichiren Buddhism. To remain unmoved regardless of what is going on around us, provides a breeding ground for apathy and decay.

The Mutual Possession of Humanity – Examples

The world of humanity, like all of the other nine worlds, can be mutually possessed. However, the manifestation of the world of the world of humanity when motivated by the other worlds is essentially an exercise in thought alone. Our calm, rational state – our conscious thought processes, are constantly bombarded by the influences of the other nine worlds.

Whenever we attempt to assimilate the influences of the other nine worlds, and begin to rationalise a response then we are manifesting our humanity. We may attempt restraint for a time, but it is natural for our desires to lead us into one of the other worlds soon enough!


The sixth world is that of RaptureThis state can best experienced when, for example, we attain something we desire, or when long term suffering has been relieved. Although the feeling is intense, the joy experienced is short-lived and extremely susceptible to external factors. Most commonly confused with happiness by many, the desire for rapture as an escape from suffering is one of the prime reasons for our repeating the same mistakes over and over, making bad causes along the way, and thereby creating more suffering.

Rapture is the highest of the six paths (or six lower worlds) – all of which have in common the dependance on external factors for their appearance or disappearance.

The Mutual Possession of Rapture – Examples

Rapture can be expressed and experienced as a result of anger. Imagine the school or workplace bully, who depends on dominating others for his or her kicks. Only through the world of anger (i.e. dominating another) can this person experience rapture. Thinking it will create a lasting happiness, the bully is disappointed, and soon begins to feel the need to re-establish dominance over others, and so repeats the cycle.

Perhaps familiar to most people is the rapture experienced during sex. Driven by our animality – our desire to have sex is driven by our animal need to orgasm. Without it, the human race would cease to exist.

An Intermission – reviewing the lower 6 paths

The first six worlds, from Hell to Rapture, are collectively known as the “six paths,” or six lower worlds. All of them are brought about through either the realisation or the elimination of various desires and impulses. Their occurrence or passing is therefore governed by external factors.

People often live out their lives in trapped in the lower six paths without ever realizing they are at the mercy of their reactions to the world around them. Because these life states are dependant upon external (and therefore impermanent) factors, then any satisfaction gained from them is also transient in nature, and entirely beyond our control.

This is the turning point. If we can perceive the impermanence of the lower six paths, and begin our quest for a lasting truth, then we open the way to the four noble paths.

Unlike the lower six paths, the four noble worlds are the result of self actualisation, an internal struggle to fulfill our true potential as human beings for wisdom and compassion. The focus of the four noble paths is to develop the four virtues of purity, eternity, true self and happiness within our lives, to build an indestructible treasure tower. Let’s continue.


Also known as the world of voice-hearers. “Voice-hearers” (Skt shravaka ) referred to those who listened to the Buddha’s teachings, and began to practice the eightfold path in order to gain freedom from earthly desires. It is the first life state in which one awakens to the impermanence of things and the uncertainty of the six paths.

When dedicating one’s self to creating value through practice and study, then we are experiencing the world of learning. Note, that the world of learning isn’t simply about the acquisition of knowledge, theological or scientific, it is about assimilating it in a way that adds the wisdom and value to leverage and experience the lower paths through our highest lifestates of bodhisattva and Buddhahood. We cannot escape the lower worlds entirely while we are alive, and manifest a physical body, but the world of learning offers us the initial path to gaining emancipation from them.

The Mutual Possession of Learning – Examples

Second SGI president Josei Toda was imprisoned along with his mentor, and founder of the SGI Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, in 1943 after resisting the religious and thought control being imposed by the military regime of the time. Toda’s imprisonment was a crucial experience in awakening him to his mission of Kosen Rufu – to build the foundations for a peaceful society. Being seen as an enemy of the state in World War 2 Japan, was bad enough, but being in prison must have been a hellish experience, and far removed from the well equipped prisons we see in the West. Indeed, Makiguchi died in prison, aged 73, from malnutrition. From the depths of this hellish experience, Toda’s study of the Lotus Sutra and his chanting manifested the world of learning, and surpassing it even to bodhisattva, to come forth from prison and begin transforming society. He had truly conquered the hell of his incarceration.

The mutual possession of the ten worlds is perhaps most crucial at the stage of learning. Without the mutual possession we could never manifest the life state of hunger (or desire) to rise above the 6 lower paths to attain learning. Indeed, in this sense, desire itself is the gateway to learning – without one, there cannot be the other. Nichiren wrote a Gosho entitled Earthly Desires Are Enlightenment – which reinforces the mutual possession of learning in all other worlds.


The world of realisation is one in which we have internalised a teaching, and seek the truth through our own direct perception of the universe. It is the fulfilment of learning, and affirmation of the fundamental truths that provide us with a degree of independance from our lower six life states.

The world of realisation is focussed on an internal process of improvement and growth which is therefore self oriented. The two worlds of Learning and Realisation (also known as the two vehicles) can become a cause for egotism. Archimedes is probably displaying the world of rapture due to the realisation he made while trying to understand the displacement of water.

The Mutual Possession of Realisation – Examples

You must have come across people who use their greater understanding or knowledge of something to belittle others and boost their own ego. This contempt for people in the six lower paths is the downfall of those in the two paths of learning and realisation, because that very contempt (or sense of superiority) is borne of the world of anger – busted!

The father who watches as his child is born is perhaps experiencing every life state imaginable, and in glorious Technicolor®! However, I think it would be fair to say that the life state of bodhisattva is clearly prevalent in this situation, and that this informs a fundamental realisation regarding the true nature of love, compassion and life itself. As the newborn baby enters the world there can be no stronger example of realisation. All of the material possessions and other non-permanent manifestations in life cannot replace this moment in our lives.


The world, or life state of Bodhisattva is inhabited by those aspiring to enlightenment, but unlike the world of realisation, the Bodhisattva is equally committed to the enlightenment of others. Awakened to the Mystic Law represented through all phenomena, Bodhisattva’s find their greatest pleasure in altruistic acts that bring joy to, or ease the sufferings of others. The kind of compassion exhibited in this state is unconditional – one does not expect reward or material gain. Compassion for others is more important even than our own attainment of Nirvana, or enlightenment.

However, there is still opportunity for a negative aspect to this world. Some people endlessly put other’s happiness ahead of their own, even to the detriment of their own happiness. This can lead to resentment, and a slippery decent to the world of hell.

In the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha entrusted the propagation of the Lotus Sutra to the Bodhisattvas of the Earth. This was of crucial importance. In the Emerging from the Earth chapter of the Lotus Sutra, countless Bodhisattvas from other worlds implored the Buddha to allow them to propagate the Lotus Sutra in this world, but the Buddha refused them, stating that the Bodhisattvas of this very world will carry out the task of propagation (Kosen Rufu).

At that time, the Bodhisattvas of the Earth burst forth from the ground lead by the four great Bodhisattvas – Superior Practices, Boundless Practices, Pure Practices and Firmly Established Practices. Each of these Bodhisattvas possess the 32 features that characterise a Buddha. In The True Aspect of All Phenomena the Daishonin makes it clear that in the Latter day of the Law the Bodhisattvas of the Earth are none other than the practitioners of the Lotus Sutra.

The Mutual Possession of Bodhisattva – Examples

Sometimes we might feel the need to take action to protect someone. Lets assume we see a thief snatch a pensioner’s handbag. In this case, we are outraged by the thief, and want to teach him a lesson. We simply feel that by tackling the thief to the ground we are doing the right thing. We feel we are superior to the thief in our morality. Although this is rooted the world of anger (a sense of superior morality), it is channelled through the world of bodhisattva – the altruistic desire to help someone in need.

I recently build a model aeroplane for my son-in-law’s. We built it together, so I could show him how the electronics fitted together, what sort of glue worked best and so forth. My only desire during this exercise was to see him learn, enjoy flying his plane, and to become successful in his science related school work. I really enjoyed this activity, and didn’t expect anything in return (except perhaps a go on the controls!). In this instance my world of hunger mutually possessed the world of Bodhisattva.


Buddhahood is equated with enlightenment. It is the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice, and is a state of complete freedom from suffering where one is awakened fully to the eternal and ultimate truth of reality, as it is. Characterised by supreme wisdom and infinite compassion, revealing our Buddha state requires us to perceive the Mystic Law inherent in all living beings. It also requires us to be awakened to the fact that we have possessed the world of Buddhahood since our infinite past.

Note that being freed from the sufferings of of this world doesn’t mean that we will no longer encounter any challenges or obstacles in our life. As Nichiren says, no one can avoid problems, not even sages or worthies. However, when we are in tune with life, and manifest our Buddhahood in a consistent manner, then the problems we encounter are less likely to be of our own making.

Buddhahood is also mutually possessed by, and mutually possesses the other nine worlds. However, unlike the other worlds, Buddhahood can only produce positive effects regardless of how it is mutually possessed with the other nine worlds. Like the other noble paths, Buddhahood is indestructible, and is not dependant upon external factors.

When we chant the daimoku – Nam Myoho Renge Kyo – we are working to lift our life state to the world of Buddhahood. It is the state where the causes we make will lessen our karmic retribution, and will produce benefit both for ourselves and for others.

With thanks to Phil Becque for the use of the Ten Worlds image used at the start of the article


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