A Look At Nichiren and the Three-Thousand Realms

One of the major principles that represent Nichiren Buddhism, is a teaching called ichinen-sanzen (一念三千) which means something like “One Thought Contains A Thousand Worlds”.  I’ve heard this concept before bandied about in discussion, but I didn’t really understand what it meant.

In the book Lotus Seeds: The Essence of Nichiren Shu Buddhism published by the Nichiren Buddhist Temple of San Jose, the teaching is explained like so:

Ichinen Sanzen is the theoretical formulation of the main teaching of the Lotus Sutra according to the Tendai school of Buddhism, which Nichiren Shonin studied and practiced before declaring his own teachings.  Like the Three Truths, Ichinen Sanzen is a way of expressing the dynamic and interdependent nature of life to which the Buddha awakened. (pg 61)

The term was originally devised by the founder of Chinese Tiantai Buddhism Zhiyi (538–597) and popularized outside of Tendai by Nichiren.  The “Three-Thousand Worlds” above are comprised of:

  • The Ten Worlds of existence
  • Mutual possession of the ten worlds, but other worlds (e.g. each realm contains each other realm)
  • The Ten Factors of existence
  • The Three Realms

The book breaks it down like so.  The Ten Worlds are the sum total of Buddhist cosmology and represent the ten possible states of existence sentient beings can experience:

  1. Hell – endless suffering, hatred, bitterness, despair
  2. Hungry Ghosts – endless cravings, addiction, etc.
  3. Animals – elementary desires, basic instincts
  4. Asuras (fighting demons) – arrogance, conflict, anger, strife
  5. Humans – morality, reason
  6. Devas (heavenly beings) – bliss, joy (albeit still impermanent)
  7. Shravakas (voice-hearers) – the world according to the Four Noble Truths
  8. Pratyekabuddha (private-buddhas) – the world as seen through Dependent Origination
  9. Bodhisattvas (seekers of full awakening) – the world as seen through compassion and endeavor to complete the Six Perfections.
  10. Buddhas – complete and serene awakening.

The worlds highlighted in bold represent the traditional six realms of rebirth, the six realms that a being could conceivably be reborn in.  The remaining four represent specific states of mind, or milestones, in the Buddhist path.

As stated earlier, the second “10” is the fact that each world possesses one another.  They are not mutually exclusive to one another.  For example, a bodhisattva is motivated by compassion for beings suffering in Hell, and so on.  So, each world is said to “contain” each other world.

The Ten Factors, meanwhile, are a list mentioned in the 2nd chapter of the Lotus Sutra, and are used to describe all phenomena in existence, and what they consist of:

  1. Appearance
  2. Nature
  3. Entity
  4. Power
  5. Activity
  6. Causes
  7. Conditions
  8. Effects
  9. Consequences
  10. Unity

Finally, what are the Three Realms?  Simply put, these are individual, community and the land itself.  As Lotus Seeds explains:

These Three Realms show that the one thousand worlds are present in and manifest themselves through all things without exception.  That is, the possibilities that they point to are possessed by individuals, communities, and even non-human and inanimate phenomena. (pg. 70)

The concept of ichinen-sanzen paints a very fluid, and dynamic picture of the world we live in, and also reinforces that we are contributing to this one way or another through our words, thoughts and deeds.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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