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The three realms of existence are as follows: (1) The realm of the five components. (Great Concentration and Insight says: “Since the five components and the eighteen elements of perception differ in each of the Ten Worlds, we speak of the realm of the five components.”)

(2) The realm of living beings. (Great Concentration and Insight says: “How can the living beings in each of the Ten Worlds fail to show differences? Hence we speak of the realm of living beings.”)

(3) The realm of the environment. (Great Concentration and Insightsays: “The surroundings in which the living beings of the Ten Worldsexist are referred to as the realm of the environment.”)

In the new translations of the sutras the five components are called the five aggregates. The word on of go’on, or p.74five components, means collection or accumulation.

The first of the five components is form. This refers to the five types of form or color.2

The second of the five components is perception. This refers to the taking in [of one’s surroundings].

The third component is conception. Dharma Analysis Treasury says: “Conception is the function that forms mental images.”

The fourth component is volition. Volition is what creates or motivates action.

The fifth component is consciousness. Consciousness is what carries out the process of discernment or discrimination.

Volume five of Great Concentration and Insight, quoting a doctrinal commentary, states: “Consciousness first carries out the process of discernment or discrimination. Then perception takes in a thing, conception forms an image of the thing, volition decides whether to go along with or reject the thing, and form responds to the decision of volition.”


Nichiren Daishonin wrote On the Principle of Three Thousand Realms in a Single Moment of Life in 1258. There is no known recipient or addressee; rather, it appears to be notes recorded in preparation for subsequent works.

the Daishonin explains the ten factorsof life and the three realms of existence, the two components of that principle, and how they relate to the Ten Worlds. Because of the mutual possession of the Ten Worlds, these constituents form the hundred worlds, the thousand factors, and the three thousand realms. All of them exist in a single moment of life. He explains that the three realms of existence are:

  • The realm of self (the five components),
  • the realm of living beings, and
  • the realm of the environment.

This concept originally appeared in The Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom, and T’ient’ai (538-597) adopted it as a component of his doctrine of three thousand realms in a single moment of life. The concept of three realms of existence views life from three different standpoints and explains the existence of individual lives in the real world. The five components, a living being as their temporary combination, and that being’s environment all manifest the same one of the Ten Worlds at any given point in time.

  • The realm of self (the five components):

Buddhism traditionally defines living beings as made up of five components, a theory which explains how each person’s idea of reality is formed and therefore how it is that each person’s response to this reality is unique. The five components of life explain individual uniqueness and they are:

  • Form

This is our physical self – our body and the five sensory organs through which we perceive the outer world (sight, touch, smell, taste and hearing. The mind is added as the sixth organ as it integrates the five senses).

  • Perception

The function of organising and co-ordinating the information received from the outer world through our six sensory organs. For example if you pick up an orange, it is perception that enables you to distinguish it from an orange ball and if say the front door-bell rings while you are peeling this orange, perception enables you to realise that the ‘peels’ of the bell are coming from the front door and not the orange! No two people’s perceptions are the same. Nichiren Daishonin writes: “People of hunger regard the Ganges river as fire, people of tranquillity regard it as water and people of Rapture regard it as nectar. Water is water, but it changes according to the karmic capacity of each individual.”(WND1p486)

  • Conception

The function by which we form an idea or concept about what has been perceived. This includes value judgements – what we each perceive to be right or wrong – good or bad. With regards to the example of the orange, above, with conception you want to eat the orange, knowing it is thirst quenching and has vitamin C which is good for us!

  • Volition

The will to act based on the conception or judgement we have made upon what we have perceived. So, therefore, with volition you can then eat that orange! The fact is that no action we take in life can be separated from the belief we hold at the time. As President Makiguchi once said, “the entirety of daily life is a process of putting beliefs into action… therefore the question in life is what to have faith in.”

  • Consciousness

Functions to support and integrate the other four components as well as the discerning function of life through which one can make value judgements. It is the mind as a whole including the vast realm of the unconscious. Consciousness gives rise to and integrates the other spiritual functions of perception, conception, and volition. Buddhism teaches that our deepest consciousness is identical to the life of the cosmos, itself. In order for a human life to exist, there must be a “temporary harmonising of the five components”, or in other words, “a single human life is viewed as a merging and harmonising of the physical and spiritual potentials of life.”7 Form is very much the physical aspect of life, whereas the other four comprise of the spiritual aspect. Buddhism holds that the physical and spiritual aspects of life are inseparable, so there is no form without perception, conception, volition and consciousness and there is no consciousness without form, perception, conception and volition. These five components must be understood as a whole and grasped in terms of their interaction. Every person on earth differs from others by their unique expression of the five components. How the five components are expressed also depends on the life state we are in. This determines how we perceive reality and therefore how we respond at any given moment. As we separate out all these functions, manifestions and realms it is hard to believe this is all happening at once – in a life instant! The interactions of life become our experience which influences our causes at each moment. And our cause at this moment becomes our experience. The five components differ from one individual to another. For instance, suppose John loves dogs, but his friend George dislikes them because he was bitten by one when he was younger. When John and George walk up the street and see a dog in front of them, John immediately feels compassion and wants to pat the dog, whereas George is scared and wants to run away. It is the same dog, but their perception of the dog is different because of their past experiences. In a low life condition, the five components of the Self tend to prolong suffering and obscure the Buddha nature. When our life condition is manifesting Buddhahood these work to enable us to accumulate good fortune based on wisdom and compassion. This is the purpose of our chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to polish these five components so that we live brilliant lives. Where, then, does the individual perform their actions, derived from the five components? In the realms of Living Beings and the realm of the Environment.

  • The realm of living beings:

This realm includes all living beings with whom any given individual interacts: people, animals, birds, insects etc. Living beings cannot live in complete isolation from each other. As there is a perpetual interrelation and mutual dependence with other living beings, all expressions arise from this relationship. This is the importance of practising Buddhism in the society in which one lives and why dialogue is central to the practice of Buddhism. Nichiren Buddhism, as President Ikeda often stresses, is not escapist. It is practised among the people in the realities of the society in which we live. This is why the practical application of Buddhism to the struggles in our daily lives is emphasised, rather than a focus on formality or theoretical understanding. It is a practice that allows us to thrive on challenge and experience the benefit of struggling in society. In this way, our own transformation is a cause for the transformation of humanity. It is the realm of the society where we are able to reveal our potential by challenging to encompass more and more individuals in our lives through dialogue. This is a most practical way to build happiness as we transform our relationships directly through concern for the happiness of others. The significance of this contemporary expression of Buddhism is that each person can transform their suffering whilst working simultaneously for the happiness of others without competition or sacrifice. Every action based on this mission will reveal profound benefit for those who engage in this dynamic way of living. By grappling with the realities of life where we are, in the midst of society, we reveal the potential of Buddhahood to give hope to others. Whereas with an escapist attitude we ignore the suffering existing in contemporary society. When we limit ourselves to seeking comfort we do not give ourselves the opportunity to courageously face our inner weaknesses. However, engaging in dialogue with an open heart continuously opens up the possibility for transforming ourselves and is the surest means to work towards a more harmonious society.

  • The realm of the environment:

All living beings function in some sort of environment that supports their existence and where they carry out their activities. The environment includes insentient life forms such as plants and trees, mountains, rivers and so on. Life and its environment are closely related – in fact, Buddhism expounds the concept of the oneness of life and its environment. Whichever of the 10 worlds a living being manifests will be reflected in the environment of that living being. A person in the state of hell can be in a comfortable environment and seemingly good circumstances from an objective viewpoint. However, if they are suffering, the environment is in actuality reflecting their state of hell. For example, we could be in a beautiful park, sharing valuable time with our family and a massive argument breaks out. Instead of a peaceful time it turns into one of stress and suffering. The purpose of practising Buddhism is that, rather than being affected by our environment, we determine to transform it. So rather than being angry ourselves and escalating the situation, we may empathise and see that despite being in a beautiful park, our partner may have something on their mind; our children are not being naughty, rather playful. From our reflection it may be possible to engage in a dialogue or determine to put more energy into ensuring everyone can have a valuable and enjoyable time. Alternatively, we could give up and a golden memory in the park is clouded by descending into the state of hell. The cause for a positive transformation arises from a deeper consciousness than the conscious mind. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo activates this deeper consciousness.

When we focus on the environment as affecting us we see a war torn area as reflecting the life state of Hell as its people are thrown into immense suffering and agony. An amusement park like Disneyland reflects the state of Rapture as people enjoy the thrills of the rides. Again, dependent on different states of life, Disneyland may conjure up hell (for parents worried about the cost or for someone who has a fear of heights!) and war may draw out qualities of compassion and courage in individuals beyond what they thought possible. Once again, the purpose of studying the concept of ichinen sanzen is to give us confidence that the potential always exists to transform our environment. As Nichiren Daishonin points out in On Attaining Buddhahood in this Lifetime,

…if the minds of the people are impure, their land is also impure, but if their minds are pure, so is their land. There are not two lands, pure or impure in themselves. The difference lies solely in the good or evil of our minds.

This is why our own inner transformation is important. When we transform, we see the change reflected in our environment and our relationships, too. The Daishonin says, “It is the heart that is important” . When we open our heart to belief, we tap into the limitless creative potential of our self, humanity and the environment to transform towards a positive direction. Even as we address each issue that threatens humanity, for example environmental destruction, another new challenge will always arise unless we get to the root of suffering. This is due to the failure of our race to address the fundamental crisis that effects all humanity. That is, the crisis of the spirit or the heart. From this perspective, the evolution of humanity’s spirituality is the prime point for the future of humanity and its environment.

From the above examples we can see that the Three Realms are interrelated to the 10 Worlds and 10 Factors. We can see that our current life state (e.g. anger) will colour our perception of self, our society and our environment. This is manifested through our behaviour towards others. When we change our life state positively by chanting for the happiness of others this is reflected in our environment, although anger may remain our motivation or driver. Each individual is so closely related to their society and environment. This interdependence ultimately influences the world at large.

As we believe so do we act. The potential effects of our actions accumulate in the depths of our lives to find expression in daily life, when the time and conditions are right. If we think of the objective world as a screen on which the effects of our actions are reflected like a shadow cast by a body, it means we can determine how the world around us is. Blaming our surroundings for our misery is like the body blaming the shadow for its shape! The revealing of Buddhahood in our lives transforms our immediate environment for the better and as more and more people reveal their Buddha natures, the possibility of world peace, including a sustainable environment, becomes a reality.

Source: Indigo, May 2007, SGI Australia
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