Chapter 5: Three Thousand Realms in a Single Moment of Life
“Three thousand realms in a single moment of life” is a Buddhist teaching that reveals how ordinary people can attain buddhahood. Studying this teaching deepens understanding of the way in which Nichiren Buddhism makes it possible for all people to attain enlightenment.
1. Three Thousand Realms in a Single Moment of Life
One of the philosophical principles forming the basis underlying Nichiren Daishonin’s inscription of the Gohonzon of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo—the object of devotion for enabling all people of the Latter Day of the Law to attain buddhahood—is the doctrine of three thousand realms in a single moment of life.
This was formulated by Great Teacher Tiantai (Zhiyi) of China in his work Great Concentration and Insight in order to help people put into practice the Lotus Sutra’s teaching that all people can attain buddhahood.
“A single moment of life” indicates one’s life as it exists at any given moment. “Three thousand realms” refers to all phenomena—all things and their varied functions. The principle of three thousand realms in a single moment of life teaches that a single moment of life includes three thousand realms, and life at each moment permeates and pervades all of them.
Life at each moment contains limitless potential. When one transforms the state of one’s life at this moment, the environment that surrounds it also changes, which can even result in a change in the entire world. Thus, the doctrine of three thousand realms in a single moment of life is a teaching of hope and transformation. President Ikeda expresses the significance of this principle in describing the theme of his novel The Human Revolution: “A great human revolution in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of a nation and, further, will enable a change in the destiny of all humankind.”
In his work “The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind,” Nichiren Daishonin quotes a passage from Tiantai’s Great Concentration and Insight that describes the three thousand realms in a single moment of life:
“Life at each moment is endowed with the Ten Worlds. At the same time, each of the Ten Worlds is endowed with all Ten Worlds, so that an entity of life actually possesses one hundred worlds. Each of these worlds in turn possesses thirty realms, which means that in the one hundred worlds there are three thousand realms. The three thousand realms of existence are all possessed by life in a single moment. If there is no life, that is the end of the matter. But if there is the slightest bit of life, it contains all the three thousand realms.” (WND-1, 354)
In other words, so long as one is alive, one’s life at each moment possesses three thousand realms, each of which is unique and distinct from the others.
The number three thousand comes from multiplying the mutual possession of the Ten Worlds (10 worlds × 10 worlds = 100 worlds) by the ten factors of life and then by the three realms of existence (100 × 10 × 3 = 3,000). The Ten Worlds, the ten factors, and the three realms are concepts that each approach life and the law of causality operating within it from a different perspective. Three thousand realms in a single moment of life incorporates all of these perspectives and thereby offers an encompassing view of one’s life and the world as a whole.
1) The Mutual Possession of the Ten Worlds
The core principle underlying three thousand realms in a single moment of life is the mutual possession of the Ten Worlds. The Daishonin writes, “The doctrine of three thousand realms in a single moment of life begins with the concept of the mutual possession of the Ten Worlds” (WND-1, 224) and “[The Buddha] also expounded the doctrine of three thousand realms in a single moment of life, explaining that the nine worlds have the potential for buddhahood and that buddhahood retains the nine worlds” (WND-1, 539).
The Ten Worlds represent ten states of life. They are the worlds of (1) hell, (2) hungry spirits, (3) animals, (4) asuras, (5) human beings, (6) heavenly beings, (7) voice-hearers, (8) cause-awakened ones, (9) bodhisattvas, and (10) buddhas.
The sutras other than the Lotus Sutra teach that each of the Ten Worlds is a distinct and separate realm, or a fixed condition of life, and that one cannot move from any one of the Ten Worlds to another until after one dies, at which time one can be reborn into another of the Ten Worlds.
But the Lotus Sutra fundamentally overturns this idea, revealing that all people in any of the nine worlds other than buddhahood also possess the world of buddhahood. Conversely, the world of buddhahood is endowed with all the other nine worlds.
The mutual possession of the Ten Worlds means that a life now manifesting any one of the Ten Worlds possesses all of the Ten Worlds. In that sense, buddhas and all people of the nine worlds are equally endowed with all the Ten Worlds and are therefore essentially equal.
Also, if one’s life is displaying a particular one of the Ten Worlds at this moment, it has the potential to manifest, in response to a condition or influence, another of the Ten Worlds at the next moment. It follows that anyone in any of the Ten Worlds, in response to the right conditions, can manifest the world of buddhahood and become a buddha.
The principle of the mutual possession of the Ten Worlds, then, explains that one can elevate one’s state of life to that of bodhisattvas and even to buddhahood in the course of this lifetime.
2) The Ten Factors of Life
There are ten aspects, or factors, common to all life in any of the Ten Worlds. From the world of hell to the world of buddhahood, all lives in any of the Ten Worlds equally possess the ten factors of life. These ten factors describe the law of causality at work behind the changes in one’s state of life.
The section of the “Expedient Means” (2nd) chapter of the Lotus Sutra that Soka Gakkai members recite every day during the practice of gongyo describes the “true aspect of all phenomena” as follows:
“The true aspect of all phenomena can only be understood and shared between buddhas. This reality consists of the appearance, nature, entity, power, influence, internal cause, relation, latent effect, manifest effect, and their consistency from beginning to end.” (LSOC, 57)
To help people conceptualize the true aspect of all phenomena, the sutra introduces ten attributes, or factors. Each factor is prefaced by a term, pronounced nyoze in Japanese, meaning “like this,” “such,” or “thus.”
Among the ten factors, appearance is the outward form or aspect of a living being that is subject to change from moment to moment.
Nature is the innate and consistent character or intrinsic attributes.
Entity is the thing or being itself, which has the aspects of appearance and nature.
The first three factors, appearance, nature, and entity, constitute the existence and essence of the living being. The remaining seven factors, in contrast, express the workings or functions of that life.
Power means internal energy or inner potential.
Influence is the outward expression of internal power and the influence of that power on other life or phenomena.
The next four factors, internal cause, relation, latent effect, and manifest effect, express the law of causality that governs the workings of life.
Internal cause is a primary or direct cause inherent in life that produces an effect or result.
Relation refers to an external condition or influence that stimulates the internal cause, functioning as a supporting or auxiliary cause to bring about an effect.
Latent effect is the intrinsic, imperceptible result arising from the interaction of the internal cause and the relation, or external cause.
Manifest effect is the evident result that emerges from the latent effect in response to the time and to external causes or conditions.
Finally, consistency from beginning to end means that all the other factors are consistent from the beginning—the first factor, appearance—to the end—the ninth factor, manifest effect. For example, a life presently in the world of buddhahood will have the appearance of buddhahood, the nature of buddhahood, all the way through the manifest effect of buddhahood, and the same principle applies to each of the Ten Worlds.
Life in any of the Ten Worlds is equally endowed with the ten factors, that is, with the law of causality that governs changes in one’s state of life. One’s life, while displaying a particular one of the Ten Worlds, has the potential to manifest, in response to a condition or influence, any other of the Ten Worlds. It follows, then, that anyone in any of the Ten Worlds can, in response to the right conditions, manifest the world of buddhahood and become a buddha.
3) The Three Realms of Existence
The “three realms of existence” are the realm of the five components, the realm of living beings, and the realm of the environment. Each of the Ten Worlds distinctly expresses itself in these three realms.
Living beings are classified according to their states of life, that is, the Ten Worlds, from moment to moment. The realm of living beings reflects the differences between these life states.
Buddhism regards a living being as a temporary union of five components. As such, living beings have no fixed or permanent existence of their own but are in a constant state of flux and change.
It is natural, therefore, that changes or distinctions in the life state of living beings, that is, in which of the Ten Worlds they manifest, are also evident in the five components that make up those living beings.
The five components are form, perception, conception, volition, and consciousness.
Form is the physical aspect of life, the body and its physical attributes.
Perception is the function of receiving and sensing information from and about the outside world through the six sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind).
Conception is the function of forming impressions or ideas about what has been perceived.
Volition is what links the conception of what is perceived to action. It accords with the various workings of the heart and mind, such as will, wants, and desires.
Finally, consciousness describes the discerning function of life that recognizes and distinguishes things.
In the world of hell, the five components of life have characteristics specific to the world of hell, while in the world of buddhahood they have characteristics specific to the world of buddhahood. Thus the realm of the five components manifests the Ten Worlds.
The differences in the life state of living beings, or which of the Ten Worlds they manifest, are also manifest in the land or environment those beings inhabit, that is, the realm of the environment.
From the principle of the three realms of existence, we can see that when the state of the five components changes, that of living beings and their environments also changes. A change in the state of one’s heart and mind will effect a change in every aspect of one’s own life and one’s environment.
The principles of the mutual possession of the Ten Worlds, the ten factors of life, and the three realms of existence, when merged together, form the three thousand realms in a single moment of life. This teaching provides a comprehensive view of the law of causality permeating life and the surrounding world and clarifies that all people are equally capable of attaining buddhahood.