The Ten Worlds are ten conditions of life which everyone possesses and which we experience from moment to moment. The first six lower worlds are: Hell, Hunger, Animality, Anger, Humanity and Rapture. These six lower worlds arise automatically from within our lives in response to external surroundings. Three of the four remaining worlds, Learning, Realization and Bodhisattva, are developed through seeking, discovering and aspiring. Each of these nine worlds has a positive aspect which is balanced by a negative aspect. The tenth world, Buddhahood, is a condition of pure, indestructible happiness.
The majority of people spend most of their time moving between the first six conditions of life, from Hell to Rapture, governed by their reactions to external influences and therefore highly vulnerable to changing circumstances.
HELL is a condition of suffering, in which one is devoid of freedom and has very little life force (physical or mental energy). Without the world of Hell, however, we would never be able to understand happiness, or identify with anyone else’s suffering. Also, the desire not to fall into this condition is a powerful incentive for us to make efforts in daily life.
HUNGER is a condition characterized by an insatiable desire for food, power, wealth, fame, pleasure and so on. Looked at positively, though, hunger is the driving force behind most human activity. Put simply, without the desire to do something, nothing would get done.
ANIMALITY is a condition in which one is governed by instinct, in which one has no sense of morality and lives only for the present moment. The positive aspects of animality are our intuitive wisdom and the instinct to protect and nurture life — both our own and the lives of those close to us.
ANGER is the condition in which one is dominated by the selfish ego, competitiveness, arrogance and the need to be superior in all things. Its positive side is passionate energy, a desire for excellence and, above all, a burning abhorrence of injustice.
HUMANITY (or Tranquillity) is the a tranquil state marked by the ability to reason and make calm judgments. However, it is a very unstable state and one can quickly find oneself in a lower world if this world is disturbed.
RAPTURE (or Heaven) is the condition of pleasure, experienced when one’s desires are fulfilled. This state is temporary and easily disrupted by even a slight change of circumstances.
The four higher worlds are characterised by the fact that one needs to make effort to reveal them from within one’s life.
LEARNING is a condition in which one seeks some skill, lasting truth or self-improvement through the teachings of others.
REALISATION (or Absorption) is a state in which one discovers a partial truth through one’s own observations, efforts and concentration. The worlds of Learning and Realization are closely related. People in these states can become arrogant and self-centered.
BODHISATTVA is a condition in which one not only aspires for personal enlightenment but devotes oneself to relieving the sufferings of others through compassionate and altruistic actions. Even this state can have a negative aspect, however, the tendency towards self-sacrifice and acting but merely from a sense of duty and with resentment.
BUDDHAHOOD is the highest of the Ten Worlds, a condition of pure, indestructible happiness which is not dependent on one’s circumstances. It is a condition of perfect and absolute freedom, characterized by boundless wisdom, courage, compassion and life force.
Each of the Ten Worlds possesses all Ten Worlds and has the potential to reveal any of the others at any moment. This means that we have the capacity to reveal our Buddhahood from the first moment we begin to chant. As we practice, we make Buddhahood the dominant state of our lives, as it acts as a kind of filter, revealing the positive aspects of the other nine worlds from Hell to Bodhisattva.
In the course of a day, we experience different states in response to our interaction with our environment. However, all of us have one or more worlds around which our activities usually centre and to which we tend to revert when external stimuli subside. This is one’s basic life tendency, and it has been established by each individual through prior actions. The purpose of Buddhist practice is to elevate the basic life tendency and eventually establish Buddhahood as one’s fundamental state.
Establishing Buddhahood as our basic life tendency does not mean we rid ourselves of the other nine worlds. All these states are integral and necessary aspects of life. Without experiencing the sufferings of Hell ourselves, we could never feel true compassion for others. Without the instinctive desires represented by Hunger and Animality, we would forget to eat, sleep and reproduce ourselves, and soon become extinct. Even if we establish Buddhahood as our fundamental life tendency, we will still continue to experience the joys and sorrows of the nine worlds. However, they will not control us, and we will not define ourselves in terms of them. Based on the life tendency of Buddhahood, our nine worlds will be harmonised and function to benefit both ourselves and those around us.