Please note: This is an old blog post to which I've had frequent occasion to refer during discussions here on Newsvine. For easy reference--and perhaps for the purpose of generating religious discussion that's not centered on political ideology (though I'm happy to discuss the ways in which my political ideology relates to my spiritual beliefs)--I have reprinted it here with some judicious rewrites and edits.
One of the concepts that sits at the heart of Nichiren Daishonin's Buddhism is Ichinen Sanzen, the observation of 3000 realms in a single moment of life. To me, this is at its heart a doctrine of infinite possibility, as well as part of a broader metaphysical assertion of universal inclusivity, what modern theosophers often call pantheism; Renaissance Gnostic, hermetic philosopher, and heretic monk Giordano Bruno expressed a concept not unlike Buddhism's idea of "mutual possession" when he said, "Anything we take in the universe, because it has in itself that which is All in All, includes in its own way the entire soul of the world, which is entirely in any part of it."
Or, to paraphrase Heinlein's shaggy-dog barb near the end of Stranger in a Strange Land (I don't think this constitutes a SPOILER, but I'll give y'all a qualified heads up anyway), "Thou art God; but then, who isn't?"
Bruno often spoke of the eternal incorporeal--that which he, for lack of a better word, called "God," but which bore little more resemblance to the god noted by anthropomorphic monotheists than did Spinoza's physical universe. To Bruno, the eternal incorporeal was indistinguishable from the eternal corporeal; that is to say, the corporeal was simply the manifest aspect of the incorporeal. The physical universe is deity; its properties are emergent. Essence cannot precede existence because the two are not separate (this also speaks to the Buddhist concept of "simultaneity of cause & effect," but I'll save that for another article).
For those who, like yours truly, are better able to grasp an abstraction if it's tied to some sort of rational construct, there is a useful symbolic equation for this concept. The 3000 realms in question are actually the product of the ten basic "life states" or "worlds"; the mutual possession of the ten worlds (simply put, the accepted fact that each life state, or world, possesses the other nine); the ten factors of life, which are the ten ways in which an organism affects--and is affected by--the world and other sentient beings; and the three realms, or spheres of worldly being. Given our ten worlds, and our mutual possession, we begin with 100 possible worlds in any given moment; multiply that by ten factors--the ways in which these worlds, through the individual, affect the literal, observable world at large--and you have 1000 possible "effects"; and finally, multiply those possible effects by the three realms which may ultimately be affected. And so we've reached our number.
Confused yet? Good. I'm going to revisit this equation later, so just let it sit and simmer on the proverbial back burner.
First off, let's take a look at those ten initial "worlds". Where Western morality often focuses on easy duality (good/evil; right/wrong; flesh/spirit), and Western psychology on an ever-expanding litany of emotions and neuroses (and let me say here that there are times where either duality or irreducible complexity are still useful models), Nichiren's Buddhism postulates that our "life states" can be understood by way of ten "worlds". To my still-embryonic understanding, the advantage of equating life-states with worlds, as opposed to emotions, neuroses, or pre-judged moral conditions, is that treating each life state as a "world", with its own rules, its own obstacles, its own character, accurately reflects both the ostensible pervasiveness of any of these states when you feel "stuck" in one and the fact that one may still experience a broad spectrum of emotions while inside.
The ten worlds are best described as follows:
1) Hell - The world or state of Hell is said to be characterized by rage. Because this is our first state, it's important to note that the rage, in this case, isn't directed at other beings or events, but rather at being itself; it's not unlike the existential rage William Blake describes in "Infant Sorrow":
My mother groaned, my father wept,
Into the dangerous world I leapt;
Helpless, naked, piping loud,
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.
Struggling in my father's hands,
Striving against my swaddling bands,
Bound and weary, I thought best
To sulk upon my mother's breast.
This condition could even be seen as a parallel to Sartre's [N/n]ausea at his recognition of being.
2) Hunger - Greed is the primary characteristic of the world of Hunger, which can mean both literal hunger and, more generally, the tendency of all organisms to seek acquisition.
3) Animality - This is where hierarchical struggle begins; the dominant characteristic is foolishness. In a condition of animality, one dominates those which one recognizes as weak, and grovels before those recognized as strong.
4) Anger/Asuras - This anger is quite different from the more metaphysically rich rage of the Hell condition. Also called ASURAS, a name for a class of angry spirits left over from Hindu cosmology, the state of ANGER is characterized by perversity and arrogance, and refers broadly to a condition wherein one experiences jealousy, envy, competitiveness, duplicity, and deceit.
5) Humanity - This is the state of civilization, the mutual agreements we make with other organisms to effect peace. The tranquility characterizing this state isn't really comparable with the peace that comes with enlightenment, but it's obviously a necessary component of civic life.
6) Heaven - HEAVEN--like HELL--represents something far more ephemeral in Buddhist cosmology than in Western theologies. The primary characteristic of HEAVEN is the happiness that comes from material gains and worldly pleasures; unlike true happiness, this "happiness" leads to yet more desire.
7) Learning - Also referred to as the realm of VOICE-HEARERS, this state represents the beginning of the quest for enlightenment, the point at which one glimpses truth (which, for one studying this Buddhism, is the moment at which one is introduced to the Lotus Sutra, as summed up and expressed in the law, or Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo).
8) Realization - The realm of CAUSE-AWAKENED ONES, wherein one begins to seek self-improvement through observation or effort; having heard the ring of truth, the "voice-hearer" of the last state now pursues study, engages in meditation through chanting, etc. These last two states are important steps on the road to enlightenment, but are also intrinsically self-centered; these worlds are characterized by an ernest desire for truth couples with a high level of introspection and a certain level of indifference to other sentient beings.
9) Bodhisattva - When the voice-hearer and/or the cause-awakened one feels compassion rising within him, and he wishes to share what he knows of the truth, to bring others to enlightenment, he has enterered the world of the BODHISATTVA. The self-centered nature of practice then opens itself up into a new mission to help one's fellow beings. While this refers primarily to sharing Buddhism with others, I don't think it's too much of a stretch to imagine that anyone engaging in spreading true compassion, through charitible work or other selfless acts, is experiencing this world.
10) Buddhahood - If the world of the BODHISATTVA is characterized by compassion, BUDDHAHOOD is characterized by limitless compassion and reflexive wisdom, an ability to see all potential at all times in all beings.
Now here's where things get really interesting. We started with these 10 worlds. Our next step is to recognize mutual possession. To make sense of this concept, we need to understand that we ALL possess these conditions, these worlds. Moreover, these worlds all possess each other. What this means is that even if, say, I'm currently functioning in the world of Hell, I still possess the other nine worlds, including the Four Noble Worlds (Learning, Realization, Boddhisatva, Buddhahood); conversely, someone functioning in the world of Buddhahood still possesses the first Six Paths, as well as the three remaining Noble Worlds. In other words, each world possesses all worlds in itself.
This is a recipe for some beautiful--if unrepentantly heady--stuff. If, through practice, I come to function at the level of Buddhahood, recognizing conditions like Hell and Animality in myself creates ground for empathy when faced with someone functioning at those levels; recognition, also, that those functioning on such levels possess Buddhahood allows for greater compassion. But wait; it gets better! Someone whose primary life condition is that of Buddhahood is not always well-served by functioning in that world; for instance, active opposition of injustice may require a Buddha to function in the world of anger. But if one can function in the various worlds with an awareness of the seed of enlightenment at the heart of her being, one may function in the world of Anger (for instance) in a different way than one unaware of--or unconcerned with--mutual possession, for said individual may engage with anger with the goal of sharing boundless compassion.
Remember our equation? Take your Ten Worlds, and assume that each of the ten possesses all ten within itself. That's our first 100.
Our next order of business is to analyze the ways in which each world (or, more importantly, how each organism possessing all ten) becomes manifest in life, space, and time. These are called the Ten Factors of Life, and are as follows:
1) Appearance - Also called FORM or BODY. Refers to the physical properties of being.
2) Nature - Spiritual properties of MIND.
3) Entity - Also called SELF; refers to the confluence of body and mind that establish BEING, or the physical and spiritual aspect of all things).
4) Power - Also called INHERENT ENERGY: the energy of a person's life allowing a person to act a specific way in each of the ten worlds.
5) Influence - Volitional activity--the words, thoughts or actions that emerge from an individual based on in which he/she currently resides.
6) Inherent Cause - Karma, basically. Not easily defined, but for these purposes, we can call it the seed of the experience(s) a person will have when all conditions manifest.
7) External Cause - Influence from the environment or from other sentient beings.
8) Latent Effect - Internal reaction to any and all phenomena, not yet manifest outwardly.
9) Manifested Effect - Observable outcome of the past causes outlined above.
10) Consistency from Beginning to End - The constant interrelation between the first nine factors, representing the cyclical nature of these factors.
So we have our life-states and their mutual possession; we can multiply that total by the Ten Factors, because these are the channels by which our life-states affect the world at large. 100 becomes 1000.
But . . . what of that world at large? Well, according to the doctrine of Ichinen Sanzen, the world itself operates at three different spheres, each of which can be influenced by the life condition of any given individual.
These spheres are:
1) Self/Individual - Entity composed of the 5 components of life: form, perception, conception, volition, and consciousness.
2) Society/Other Sentient Beings - Other people, community. Worth noting, here, is that, in a panpsychic construct, all objects are potentially sentient, so understanding of this principle can vary to the degree that this principle is embraced.
3) Environment/Land - Can refer both to the Earth, in the strictly environmental sense, or to the nation-state, the confederation between communities.
And so we reach 3000.
The mathematical equation is of more symbolic than literal significance; we could quibble over internal variations in any one of the categories, or the possibility of states between the states, but for the purposes of allegory, what we have is more than functional.
More important than any attempt to empiricize the doctrine is to analyze its metaphysical function. I've already noted that mutual possession gives us ground for empathy and compassion; but of more interest, to me, is that the doctrine in its totality creates a holistic template for unlimited possibility. Ichinen Sanzen is about the pregnancy of any given moment in time, wherein the entirety of any world, any sphere of being, is available; the myriad channels by which one can use one's life-state to interact with and extend compassion to other organisms; and the spheres upon which one can commit such action. As in existentialism, choice becomes the defining characteristic of being . . . and the number of available choices is manifold. Through this realization, we have stumbled upon fertile ground for the discovery of Buddha nature, for enlightenment, for the realization of goals personal and global. Viewed through this lens, we see each moment as an opportunity to effect change in ourselves, and through that, on our communities and on the world at large.