THE TEN WORLDS — The Buddhist Vision
Much philosophy has been devoted to the question of reason versus passion, and how exercising one often means ignoring the other.
Philosophers Eastern and Western have long supposed that the human being is at war with himself, and that the fundamental conflict is between intellect and emotion. However, there’s another view of this subject, that’s well worth considering, and I want to introduce it to you here.
It’s Buddha’s idea of the Ten Worlds, and was applied most effectively to daily life by Nichiren Daishonin in thirteenth century Japan. Nichiren was a kind of Japanese Socrates. A wise and benevolent teacher, also a Buddhist monk and scholar, he got into serious political trouble by exposing the corruptions of his day – especially how Buddhism itself had been corrupted by the ruling classes, and was being abused to control and impoverish the masses, instead of enlighten and uplift them.
Every religion passes through this stage — Some remain there a long time.
As you can imagine, Nichiren made powerful enemies by telling these truths. He also made a few powerful friends. He narrowly escaped execution, and endured harsh exiles. But he survived to become a great exponent of the Lotus Sutra, which embodies, among other things, the teaching of the Ten Worlds.
These Ten Worlds are actually ten different states of mind, which you experience simultaneously. They’re all present together, like so many ingredients in a stew. But at any given moment, depending on what you’re thinking or doing, or on what’s going on around you, you’ll experience one of these states on a priority basis. It will leap to the forefront of your consciousness, and overshadow the others, but only for a while. One state changes to another, many times per day (and also when you’re sleeping). What are these states? Their names are hell, hunger, instinct, anger, tranquillity, rapture, learning, and reali¬zation, helping, and awakening. What characterizes them? First I’ll summarize each state, and afterward revisit Barry’s case showing how they interchange in practice.
Hell: Whenever something terrible or even disagreeable happens, you get upset or distraught. Any anxiety, fear, or other dis-ease can be hellish. Diseases like chronic depression, or the depressed state of bipolarity (manic depression) are also hellish. So is the boss from hell, the job from hell, the date from hell, or the marriage from hell. People consumed by hatred are in hell. Whenever we experience pain or suffering, we are in hell. It’s the worst state to inhabit, beyond reason and passion alike.
Hunger: This doesn’t refer to physical appetite, but to craving. People who are obsessed have this hunger, as do people who are addicted to alcohol, drugs, or other things. Many obese people have a terrible hunger – whether for meaning, purpose, love, or affection in their lives – which they try but fail to satisfy with food. They eat constantly, yet remain hungry. These kinds of hungers are extreme (or unnatural) passions.
Instinct: These are your animalistic appetites and drives, given to you by bodily nature. Normal needs for air, food, drink, sleep, love, affection, excretion, and sex are all instinctive. They are not learned. No one taught you to feel thirsty, tired, lovesick, or horny. You don’t need a clock to know when to eat; your stomach tells you. Our animalistic appetites are normal (or natural) passions.
Anger: This means more than losing your temper. Some people seem constantly enraged; others, intermittently cranky. Others still become irritated by a given stimulus, whether a car alarm on their street or the odour of cheap perfume (or no perfume) on the subway. Still others seem bent on some crusade, and are perpetually and aggressively proselytising their agenda, whatever it is. Still others are always argumentative or hypercritical. Yet others are arrogant or sadistic. These kinds of angers are unreasonable and exaggerated passions.
Tranquillity: This is a peaceful state in which your mind is un-perturbed, like the unrippled surface of a pond on a perfectly calm -day. You often attain a tranquil mental state after strenuous physical exertion, or after a heavy meal, or during meditation, or on a long drive, or when daydreaming, or in some phases of sleep. Nothing in particular is disturbing you, nor are you disturbing yourself. Tran¬quillity is neutrality, and absence of passion and reason alike.
Rapture: This is a state of sudden happiness, or even ecstasy. Perhaps you received a raise or a promotion at work. Maybe you got a personal makeover, or just bought your dream home. Perhaps you proposed and she said yes, or he proposed and you said yes. Maybe your team won a big game. Perhaps you got a pleasant surprise. Maybe the medical test results came back negative and gave you a new lease on life. Nothing feels better than rapture, while it lasts. It is the most joyous passion, but for that very reason it cannot last.
Learning: In this state you are exercising your cognitive skills, flexing your intellectual muscles. You might be learning a new language, a new concept, a new piece of music, a new game. You might be cramming for an exam, researching a term paper, or surfing the Web. You might be catching up on current events or planning a trip. Whatever you’re up to, your thinking mind is engaged and in high gear. You are a reasoning being.
Realization: Realization means discovery, creativity, invention, and connection. Suppose you are studying geometry and have just learned the relation of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle to its other sides. That theorem was originally Pythagoras’ realization. Similarly, Shakespeare realized Macbeth, Bach realized The Well-Tempered Clavier, Einstein realized that E = mc2, and Salk realized the polio vaccine. You have surely realized many things yourself. Plato realized that people can and do realize ideas that others have previously realized. Jung realized that new realizations often take place simulta¬neously. Realization is reason inspired by creative passion.
Helping: I could not be writing these words, and you could not be reading them, without a lot of help from others. Parents, teachers, coaches, and caregivers are helpers. So are food producers and book producers. Fire-fighters, and all who risk their lives for others, are helpers. You are surely a helper too, at least sometimes. The helping state of mind is essentially a giving one. In its higher aspects it seeks nothing in return, aiming only to replace others’ dis-ease with ease. Helpers of this kind are called “bodhisattvas.” Their – and your – ultimate purpose is to help others awaken more fully. They – and you – are lamps that light the Way. Helping is reason motivated by compassion.
Awakening: Many people walk or talk in their sleep. Not many can drive that way, at least not for long. Whatever you can do in your sleep, you can do better awake (except sleep itself). The other nine worlds are partially awakened states of mind; some more so, others less. The world of full awakening is Buddha’s state of mind. The Lotus Sutra teaches that you are already a Buddha, but you may not fully realize it. This is the only state in which even pain and suffering are born with ease. It is immune to hell. It is the best state to inhabit. And nothing prevents you from inhabiting it, except your other states of mind.
THE WHOLE TRUTH
Now it’s time to let you in on a little secret. I have told you the truth about the Ten Worlds, but not the whole truth. You see, I introduced them from the standpoint of the traditional debate on passion versus reason. As we saw earlier in this chapter, most philosophies, Eastern and Western, have generally sought to conquer passion and extol reason. Passions are portrayed as bad, reason as good. Nichiren’s teachings, which are thought to represent an advanced teaching of Buddha, say something quite different. With the exception of the fully awakened state, each and every one of the other nine states of mind can give rise to both helpful and harmful consequences. This is very important to bear in mind – whichever state you’re in. Let me give you some examples.
We know that hell is bad. What good can come of it? For one thing, great works of art can emerge from a mind in hell. Van Gogh is one example, Dante another. Closer to our times, Jim Morrison (of the Doors) and Jimi Hendrix are other examples. Beautiful painting, literature, poetry, and music can come from hell. Also, many people who admire and appreciate such works become grateful that their own hells are not so bad compared with these.
We know that hunger (as in craving) is bad. What good can come of it? For one thing, great social or political reforms are often brought about by leaders who hunger or thirst for justice. Nichiren himself was one good example, as was Martin Luther King Jr. One can also crave truth, as scientists sometimes do for years until they experience realization. Kepler and Pasteur are two among many examples. If such hunger is subordinated to a higher cause and remains uncor¬rupted by anger, it can be a means to a worthy end.
We know that the debate on instinct is still raging. For example, look at the vast variety of attitudes concerning sex, one of our strongest instinctive drives. Some cultures are open and natural about its expression; others are freaked out and repressive. In the Ten Worlds teaching, the instinctive state of mind is neither good nor evil: What really counts is what you decide to do with it. If you express your sexual desire through love with a willing (and not otherwise committed) partner, that’s good. If you go out and rape somebody, that’s evil.
We know that anger is generally bad. What good can come of it? Sometimes we need the force of conviction to demonstrate our seriousness, or to take a stand. It may be necessary at times to be adamant or even vehement in making a point or serving a cause. Suppose you want to make your child stop playing with matches, but he is too young to understand the reason why. If you convey just enough emotional displeasure when he does it, he will sense your emotion and will stop doing it – either to please you or for fear of your displeasure. You are not angry with him, but you need to protect him from himself. Controlled passion can be helpful, as when used to avert harm, and can therefore be good.
We are habituated to believe that tranquillity is generally good. What ill can come of it? Some people are tranquil to the extent of procrastination, laziness, or sloth. That’s too much of a good thing. Others are tranquil to the point of apathy, so that if something actually needs to be done, they won’t get involved. Recall the famous case of Catherine Genovese, the unfortunate woman who was as¬saulted and stabbed to death in New York City in 1964, while thirty-eight of her neighbours heard and watched from their windows, yet none intervened or even called the police. Their tranquillity – in this case apathy – probably cost her life. So tranquillity can be bad at times.
We believe that rapture is wonderful. What ill can come of it? One always does: rapture ends, and usually ends in hell. The greatest love affairs are inevitably the most tragic, from Antony and Cleopatra in ancient history, to the medieval legend of Tristan and Isolde, to Romeo and Juliet in fiction. Creative genius is also rapturous, and often meets the same hellish end. When Ernest Hemingway could no longer write, he killed himself. After Maurice Ravel suffered a stroke, he could still “hear” his compositions in his mind but was unable to play them or write them down. He lived four years in that hell, until he died. Most people don’t experience too much rapture, which is just as well: Most could not afford the steep price of its ending.
We believe that learning is generally good. What harm can come of it? One can learn helpful or harmful things. If you learn medicine, you can heal others and alleviate suffering. If you learn terrorism, you can harm others and engender suffering. Even normally good things, like medicine, can have bad applications. For example, Nazi doctors. performed barbaric experiments on human beings. In our times, computers are indispensable tools, but vital facts about people learned through the Internet can result in identity theft. There are many ways in which reason can be applied to bad ends.
We believe that realization is generally good. What harm can come of it? As with learning, realization can backfire. Nuclear energy can be used to generate electricity, which is good unless the reactor core melts down, as almost happened at Three Mile Island and did happen at Chernobyl. The discovery of nuclear energy also allowed nuclear weapons to be built, which is a persistent problem that may yet revisit us. The ancient Chinese discovered gunpowder, and invented fireworks. Early modern Europeans discovered gunpowder, and in¬vented firearms. Sociopaths are calculating beings, using their inven¬tive intelligence to inflict savage harms. Creative reason cuts both ways.
We believe that helping others is generally good. What harm can come of it? A friend of mine gave his daughter a tidy sum of cash as a wedding gift, not knowing (at the time) that she and her husband were addicted to cocaine. Guess what she bought? A road to hell, paved with her father’s good intentions. On a large scale, consider the impact of social welfare. While compassionate governments should provide a “safety net” for their citizens, many families in developed socialized nations have been collecting such benefits for generations: They have lost their incentive, initiative, and confidence. This is not good for them. So if we give inappropriate help, it can turn out to be harmful.
Finally, awakening is always good, because it does not take place in the presence of a harmful thought or deed.
So the lessons of the Ten Worlds reform and resolve the ongoing debate about passion and reason. The proper goal for human beings is not to eradicate passion and elevate reason. The proper goal is to cultivate only the beneficial aspects of all your possible states of mind.
That way, whatever states manifest, you will guide yourself toward the best possible world.