Last year, I was introduced to Nichiren Buddhism, a Japanese form created in the 13th Century by a monk named Nichiren Daishonin. This type of Buddhism is primarily practiced by an organization called Soka Gakkai International, and operates in America under the name SGI-USA. There are SGI centers throughout the country that host free meetings and chanting (meditation) sessions most mornings and evenings during the week.
Over the course of my travels, I’ve had the pleasure of attending meetings in multiple states, and have found the people who practice this form of Buddhism to be very warm-hearted individuals who are seeking the deepest levels of truth in life. I haven’t remained consistent in my “practice” (daily chanting), but I do find it to be beneficial in clearing my mind and helping me to focus on my higher aspirations and staying in a positive mindset.
One of my favorite concepts that is taught within this form of Buddhism is “The Ten Worlds.” Essentially, this is a classification of the ten states (or moods) that we can be in as human beings. At any given waking moment, you will be operating within one of them. And by becoming conscious of them, and observing which state you are in, you can start to transcend them and more directly control your thoughts and emotions.
The Six Lower Worlds
The very lowest state is, unsurprisingly, called Hell. It’s interesting to note that the highest state is not Heaven (this is only the 6th one up). That span from Hell to Heaven is called the Six Lower Worlds. These are the states we normally range within unconsciously as human beings. If you just go through your life blindly, you will live exclusively within these six worlds.
The defining factor of the Six Lower Worlds is that they are all based on reactions to external conditions. They are the result of seeking happiness outside of yourself, and as long as you continue to do so, you can never gain access to what lies beyond them. An existence within the Six Lower Worlds is naturally unstable, since it is all defined by forces outside yourself.
By relying on external circumstances, your state is always fragile. So even attaining a moment of ecstasy (Heaven) will be short-lived and vulnerable to quickly slipping back into a lower state.
The lowest four worlds (within the Six Lower Worlds) are referred to as the Four Evil Paths. These are the negative states of being that are the cause of all of our emotional suffering as humans. If you are in psychological pain or stress, you can be certain that you are operating within one of the Four Evil Paths.
Hell – The realm of Hell is the absolute lowest state that we can experience as human beings. Hell is an intense state of depression. It is a feeling of hopelessness, of powerlessness, and fear. We all have our own personal version of Hell, the things that truly throw us into the deepest pits of despair. You are living in Hell when just being alive feels like suffering– when all of your thoughts and emotions are too much to bear. In fact, the state of Hell is often associated with claustrophobia, a sense that the world is crushing you. Perhaps words cannot truly convey what it means to be in “Hell,” but we have all experienced it.
Hunger – The realm of Hunger (or “Hungry Spirits”) is characterized by intense, unending desire. This is the “hedonic treadmill.” It is the suffering that comes from always looking forward to the next fix– the next meal, or payday, or sexual experience– and never being satisfied with what you already have. When you are always waiting for future fulfillment, even attaining the reward itself does nothing to quench your desire. This is the realm of addictions of all kinds, and it is only one step above outright Hell. People can waste their whole lives searching for happiness in the realm of Hunger, and never find it. As Alan Watts once pointed out, to want something means to lack it. So if you are constantly wanting, it means you are operating off of a belief that you have a hole or inadequacy– that you are not enough. If you continue to live in the world of Hunger, you will never be at peace, always desperate to attain something new and constantly suffering over it.
Animality – The world of Animality is defined by living purely in the moment, while blind to any future consequences. It is a state of being in which a person is overly concerned with their own survival, and it causes them to take advantage of the weak, while sucking up to the strong. When you are in this state, you have no morals because you never look beyond what is immediately in front of you. This causes chaos and is ultimately destructive, even though you could achieve pyrrhic victories. You might not suffer as much within Animality as you would in Hell or Hunger, but living in this state would cause you to easily fall back into those lower worlds.
Anger – Anger is similar to Animality in the sense that it is not as full of outright suffering as the lowest two worlds, but it is still chaotic and unstable. The world of Anger is also referred to as Arrogance, and it is essentially egotism. In this state, you live to fuel your ego, and others are seen as competitors. You will always be envious of others’ success, whether it be with money, or women, or in a pursuit like sports or music. Again, you can “win” when you live in the state of Anger, but if you dwell there blindly and without reflection, you will never achieve lasting happiness. It is, by nature, unstable.
Above these Four Evils Paths, there are two more realms within the Six Lower Worlds:
Humanity – This is a neutral state, one in which you are simply existing. It is above the Four Evil Paths because it contains no inherent suffering, but it still leaves one vulnerable to falling back down to the realms below. It is like you are a ship with no anchor, just floating with the winds. But this state is also significant because it leaves one open to moving higher toward enlightenment as well. Usually one must make a stop here to be psychologically prepared to attain one of the highest states.
Heaven – Heaven is what you experience when you get that big job promotion, or you get married to the love of your life, or you win an enormous lottery jackpot. It is a state of ecstasy, of all the good feelings we are capable of as human beings. It is a huge hit of all the positive chemicals your brain can give you– a rush of dopamine, serotonin or oxytocin. The love that we share with others, whether romantic, sexual, or familial, and the satisfaction we get from deep friendships often puts us in this realm of Heaven. But “Heaven” as it is defined here in the Ten Worlds is still based on your external circumstances. Whatever person or event or object gave you this happiness, it is also transient and will eventually subside. And then you are susceptible once more to slip easily down into the Four Evil Paths. In fact, when you leave Heaven, it is quite easy to go directly back into Hell. Many people get stuck in this emotional roller coaster, desperately seeking higher highs to combat every lower low. Again, this is a cycle you can become trapped in, and never escape from.
If you look closely at those you know, and the masses of people all around you, you’ll probably be able to identify the Four Evil Paths at work. In modern culture, most people just oscillate between Hell and Hunger (or they take psychotropic drugs to avoid Hell). They are intensely disconnected and depressed (Hell), and then think the solution is to get something (Hunger)– buy a new gadget, eat an expensive meal, get some more “likes” on social media. Sadly, the majority of human beings will go through life living somewhere in the lowest four realms, with only the occasional moment of Heaven interrupting them. But they quickly fall back down after that, because Heaven, like the rest of the Lower Six, is still based on external circumstances that are beyond one’s own control. And so the feeling cannot last.
The Four Noble States
So what is the answer? How can you escape the cycle of being swept from Hell up to Heaven and back, over and over? In one sense, you can’t. We will always be affected by our external circumstances, and we will always have desires. And so it is perfectly normal to dwell often in the Six Lower Worlds. But although it is possible to attain relative (temporary) happiness in these realms by reaching the state of Heaven, or minor victories within Animality or Anger, this will always be fleeting.
A sense of true, absolute happiness can only be achieved within the worlds of the Four Noble States. These are the forms of happiness that are self-generated and in limitless supply. When you are able to redirect yourself toward these states, you can live a more stable and truly enjoyable life, feeling at ease and in rhythm with the universe around you. They can even allow you to access the Lower Six Worlds in a more controlled and healthy way.
The first pair of these Four Noble States are referred to as The Two Vehicles:
Learning – This is the state in which you are seeking knowledge and mastery through the teachings of others. In some sense, you become a disciple and seek out your guru (or gurus). The state of Learning is sometimes referred to as becoming a “Voice-Hearer.” It is characterized by consciously and actively making a decision to search for the absolute truth– free of the lies and delusions that might have been put in front of you. It is taking ownership and control of your path in life, and dedicating yourself toward finding something deeper. You can acquire both practical skills and sublime spiritual truths in this state. It is the beginning of your path toward absolute happiness, and so it holds the potential for great satisfaction in itself as well.
Realization – Also known as the realm of “Cause-Awakened Ones,” the state of Realization occurs when you begin to learn from your own experiences and perceptions of the world. This state is very powerful because it involves giving up the illusion of everything outside yourself, and realizing it is all transient and incomplete. In this realm, a person is able to gain great clarity in observing their own mind, and the world around them. It works in tandem with the world of Learning– gaining understanding both from others, and from one’s self.
The two vehicles of Learning and Realization are paths toward Buddhahood, but they are imperfect because they are still primarily focused on enriching one’s self. There is a certain instability beneath them, because people’s egos can latch onto these states. Sometimes people will feel they are superior for having reached the two vehicles, and slip back into the world of Anger. Or they congratulate themselves too much and try to binge on the pleasure of having found new truths, pushing themselves into Heaven and then soon after, Hunger to attain it again. This occurs because they are still compensating for some feeling of lack in the physical and external world. In other words, they are still desiring too much externally, and end up suffering for it.
But above the two vehicles lie the two highest states of being– the realms in which the greatest, most absolute and lasting happiness can be found. And they are a mirror of Learning and Realization– two parallel paths that also deal with others, and ourselves– but taken to a higher plane.
Bodhisattva – Being a “bodhisattva” in its simplest sense means living for others. In this state, one finally realizes that lasting happiness is found primarily in helping to alleviate the suffering of other people, having compassion for them, and sharing your joy with them. Rather than just focusing on the enrichment of one’s self (as is done in the lowest eight worlds), when a person is living in the world of Bodhisattva, he will be conscious of the interconnectedness of all beings, and strive to help others achieve enlightenment and absolute happiness as well. Embodying the world of Bodhisattva means taking concrete actions to raise the state of others, though this can take on infinite different manifestations.
Buddhahood – Buddhahood goes in tandem with the state of Bodhisattva, but it also lies above it, transcending all other states. The world of Buddhahood describes a state of mind that is absolutely enlightened– a mind that is “totally free.” When Buddhists describe this state of freedom, they mean that a Buddha is free from the illusions that keep people suffering. In the state of Buddhahood, one sees the spiritual truth of the Universe, the cause-and-effect (karma) by which all phenomena and lifeforms are governed. Attaining Buddhahood (also called “accessing your Buddha nature”) puts you in touch with your “highest self.” It opens you up to all the spiritual possibilities of the world, and allows you to fill your heart with peace, by connecting with yourself and others. In this state, you can draw from all the other nine worlds as needed, but you are able to rise above the Lower Six Worlds by always finding strength within, and guiding others to do the same.
The Mutual Possession
One other crucial aspect of the ten worlds is called the “mutual possession.” What this means is that, no matter which of the ten states you are currently living within, the other nine are always present in that moment as well. So even in the moment when you are living in Hell, each of the other nine states– even Heaven or Buddhahood– is inherently present in that moment. And so anyone can transform their state directly from Hell to Heaven, or from Hell to Buddhahood instantaneously, without passing through every single one of the worlds.
Human suffering also contains an element of grace that all religions acknowledge in some way. In the Buddhist conception, this is expressed as a belief that even when going through the darkest moments in life, our own Buddha nature is still there ready to shine through. And Buddhahood is defined by encompassing all these other truly human states of being– acknowledging them, accepting them, and working with them, because that is what it means to be a human being.
There is a poetry to this concept, an inherent truth that we can all observe within ourselves. When we are going through our darkest moments, there is still a holiness there. A sense that, if we could just step back and see things a little differently, it wouldn’t really be so bad. We could be at peace, we could laugh, we could admire the beautiful universe that we are just one small part of, and appreciate the laws of nature that we are able to embody. This is the spirit of the mutual possession. No matter what is happening in your life, your soul possesses the full spectrum of all that is possible to experience.
Now that you’re familiar with the Ten Worlds, start to look for them appearing in yourself each day. Your life condition will naturally fluctuate from one to another, as your focus and mood shifts, but the more consciously aware of your state you are, the more you are able to control and direct it from one world into another.
Cultivating a life condition of Buddhahood is the ultimate “goal” in a sense. This is the state of enlightenment we all aspire to. But an important lesson of the Ten Worlds is that even Buddhahood contains all other life conditions within it, including Hell. This is the truth of our existence in this universe. Buddhahood is not something that is attained and then permanently held onto. We can have fleeting moments of being a Buddha, and we always carry our own Buddha nature within us, even when we are in a state of Hell, or Hunger, or Anger. Buddhahood represents our highest self, our ideal, the person we are in the core of our soul, when all else is stripped away. It is complete peace.
Being a Boddhisattva or a Buddha means shining a light for others, showing them a path and offering them comfort. Some of the best “gurus” we have today are writers who have tapped into their own Buddha nature and can become Bodhisattvas for others. When I look at someone like my friend Mike Cernovich, I can see someone who has tapped into his own Buddha nature (or “Gorilla Mindset”) and has become like a beacon for others, an anchor that other people gravitate toward. This is because he is in touch with something deep and profound, and others wish to share in that wisdom. It’s not even just about concrete knowledge, there is an emotional and even spiritual element (perhaps rooted in biology) that draws us toward those who have mastered themselves and attained Buddhahood.
Reflecting on the past year, I can see times that I lived within all ten of these states. But the more I consciously remember The Ten Worlds and take the time to check in with myself, the more I am able to stay consistently within the Four Noble States, and not trapped within the Six Lower Worlds. This allows me to be more energetic, positive, and fulfilled, because I can create works that are meaningful to me, and I can share happiness with others in a deeply resonant way. Ultimately, lasting happiness will come from what I create internally.
And now, there is only one question left to ask.
What world are you living in?