Each person’s life contains infinite potential; this is the core belief of Nichiren Buddhism. While it may be easy to accept this in a theoretical sense, in reality we tend to impose limits on our possibilities. To a large extent we define our lives in terms of these perceived or unconscious limitations–I am able to do this but not that. We can exist quite comfortably within our own self-imposed limits, but when we come up against a problem or challenge and we feel we lack the ability or the spiritual resources to overcome it, we suffer. We feel overwhelmed or helpless, afraid.
Buddhist practice enables us to draw on inexhaustible inner reserves of courage, hope and resilience to surmount challenges and expand our lives and to help others do the same. “Buddhahood” describes this dynamic, compassionate life condition, and a Buddha is someone who has firmly established this condition as their predominant reality. Most people, however, are unaware of this possibility or how to actualize it.
The renowned sixth-century Buddhist scholar T’ien-t’ai (538-97) developed a meditative practice to enable people to perceive the boundless extent of their lives at each moment. He also developed a theoretical system to describe this reality. He called this “three thousand realms in a single moment of life” (Jpn. ichinen sanzen).Ichinen sanzen demonstrates that the entire phenomenal world exists in a single moment of life.
The number three thousand is arrived at through the following calculation: 10 worlds or potential conditions of life, which are each mutually inclusive (10 x 10) x 10 factors x 3 realms of existence.
The Ten Worlds are, in ascending order of desirability: Hell, Hunger, Animality, Anger, Humanity, Heaven (or Rapture), Learning, Realization, Bodhisattva and Buddhahood. These are distinct but fluid life states that every person experiences. They describe all the possible conditions of life, and at any moment we are in one or other of these “worlds.” Hell is the world of self-absorbed misery; Hunger is a condition of craving; in the world of Animality one either fawns on others or seeks to dominate them depending on whether one perceives them as more or less powerful than oneself; Anger is the world of competitiveness and jealousy masked by the pretense of virtuousness; Humanity is a state of rational calm; Heaven is the world of desires fulfilled; Learning is the joy of expanding one’s knowledge; Realization includes the absorbed world of creative pursuit; Bodhisattva is the devoted spirit of service to others; and Buddhahood is the most creative and wholly positive potentiality. Each of these worlds contains the potential for the other nine, meaning that you can bring out your Buddhahood while also living your life as an ordinary human being.
While the Ten Worlds describe differences among people and phenomena, the Ten Factors describe elements common to all things. The first three are (1) appearance (what can be seen), (2) nature (inherent disposition, which cannot be seen) and (3) entity (the essence of life that permeates and integrates appearance and nature). The next six factors explain how our lives interact with others and with the environment surrounding us. (4) Power is potential energy and (5) influence is when that inherent energy is activated. (6) Internal cause, (7) relation, (8) latent effect and (9) manifest effect describe the mechanisms of cause and effect–the law of causality to which all things are subject: internal causes latent within one’s life (positive, negative or neutral), through relation with various conditions, produce manifest effects as well as latent effects which become manifest in time.
To offer a simple analogy, internal cause could be compared to sediment at the bottom of a glass of water, and relation to a spoon that stirs the water. The effect is the clouding of the water. Without the internal cause of the sediment, no amount of stirring will produce cloudy water. A remark or incident may cause one person to fly into a rage or sink into a sense of deep injury, while for another person the same external stimulus might produce no effect.
The 10th factor, consistency from beginning to end, means that the Ten Factors are consistent for each of the Ten Worlds. That is, the world of Hell has the appearance, nature, essence, manifest effect, etc., of Hell, all of which are different for the other worlds.
The Three Realms are (1) the realm of the five components, (2) the realm of living beings and (3) the realm of the environment. These could be thought of simply as, from the standpoint of a human being, the person, society and the environment.
T’ien-t’ai derived ichinen sanzen from principles elucidated in the Lotus Sutra, the Buddhist scripture that is the foundation of Nichiren Buddhism as practiced by SGI members. Nichiren (1222-82) described ichinen sanzen as “the heart and core of the teachings put forward by the Buddha in the course of his lifetime.” It is the essential principle of Nichiren Buddhism.
This framework is in effect a kind of map of our relationship to the world. It shows us that life is not fixed but fluid, and that our perception of things can shift from moment to moment. For someone in a depressive state of hell, the world appears constricted, dark and hopeless. Problems are overwhelming and tortuous. Past, present and future seem bleak. Yet, some minor shift in our perception, a ray of hope, an encouraging word or response can instantly transform everything.
When our perspective changes, the world itself appears different. When we believe in the potential for change in each moment, when we start to have faith in our Buddhahood, the meaning that we discover in our surroundings changes.
While this may sound simple enough, changing our fundamental perspective can be very difficult. T’ien-t’ai developed a profound but notoriously difficult meditation practice around the theory of ichinen sanzen to enable people to perceive their Buddhahood. Six hundred years later, on the basis of T’ien-t’ai’s theory and the principles of the Lotus Sutra, Nichiren developed a simple and effective practice that can be carried out by anyone in any circumstances.
Nichiren’s practice of chanting “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” with faith in our inherent Buddha nature actualizes the principles of ichinen sanzen in the life of the practitioner. More than enabling one to see things from a different perspective, Nichiren’s teaching emphasizes our ability to positively transform the world for the benefit of oneself and others.
Nichiren expresses the reality of ichinen sanzen in the following terms: “Life at each moment encompasses the body and mind and the self and environment of all sentient beings in the Ten Worlds as well as all insentient beings in the three thousand realms, including plants, sky, earth, and even the minutest particles of dust. Life at each moment permeates the entire realm of phenomena and is revealed in all phenomena.”
Because of the deep interrelationship of our life and all phenomena at each moment, a change in our inner life exerts an influence on all things and brings about a change in our environment or circumstances, ultimately transforming the world itself. As SGI President Daisaku Ikeda writes, “The power of belief, the power of thought, will move reality in the direction of what we believe and conceive of it.” Our strong resolve or prayer permeates the entire phenomenal world, its influence manifesting more strongly as we take action.
The practice developed by Nichiren and carried out within the SGI encourages people to make ceaseless efforts to manifest the limitless potential of their own life, to confront and overcome the obstacles to happiness both within themselves and in society and thereby, beginning where they are now, to make the world a better place.