An Introduction to Spirituality in Nichiren Buddhism
The Four Higher Worlds
Taken from the article 'Practicing Buddhism in a War Zone' first published in The Buddha Mag

T’ien T’ai’s conceptual theory of Life Condition, Life Moment, and the Mutual Possession of the Ten Worlds gives you a window into your own and others’ spiritual aspect. Having just discussed the Six Lower Worlds it may seem strange to consider those miserable (for the most part) descriptions as having anything at all to do with our spiritual self. After all, when we think of the term “spirit” don’t we all conjure up thoughts of wispy, ghost-like, mostly-good, other-worldly beings? That’s what theists have led us to believe, but it’s far from the truth. Or we may think of spiritual people as being somber, tranquil priests, men devoted to learning about the mysterious. On a day-to-day basis, we neglect the fact that our very own everyday lives have a spiritual aspect. That aspect is with each and every one of us at this very moment, even as we read this, and it is an essential part of our lives. It’s always there, whether we focus on it and are aware of it, or not.

The Ten Worlds, and how we use each of them, is both the cause and effect of our spiritual development. A person in the world of Animality, reaching for a higher status, may not seem like a spiritual person, but their spiritual presence is very strongly felt by those around them, especially those who get knocked down as that entity races toward its goal.

What’s misleading when thinking about the Six Lower Worlds is that these lower conditions have just exactly as much spiritual quality to them as any other Life Condition. But until you learned about these Six Lower Worlds, if you’re like most people, you just couldn’t bring yourself to think of a greedy World of Hunger politician, for example, as being the slightest bit spiritual.

Here’s a test for you on the part of your spiritual self we just discussed in the last chapter. If you’ve been looking around yourself at others’ appearance and asking yourself which of the Ten Worlds you think they’re in, you may actually have developed an eye for “seeing” the Ten Worlds on people. And when considering your own Life Condition, well, you have even more than just appearance to go on. During this past week have you been able to spot other people or yourself in these life conditions? Hell - depressed hopelessness; Hunger – desire for what you just know will make you happy; Animality – taking care of #1 in this dog-eat-dog world with the fierceness necessary to survive; Anger – knowing your own power and not settling for just surviving, but a driving purposefulness to dominate; Tranquility – lazily obsessed with conflict avoidance, protecting yourself from change; Rapture – amazed at how elated you feel, by comparison to the other moments that continually define your daily existence.

Seeing that there is a real spiritual aspect to both yourself and others can be enough to start you wanting to do something with it. After all, many, if not all of you reading this, did not really think about your spiritual self this way before now. You likely thought of your spiritual self as a separate entity that lives within your body, which floats around without a body once you die. Or perhaps you didn’t believe in a spiritual aspect at all. But here’s the important thing about T’ien T’ai’s theory: It makes most of us believe that not only do we have a spiritual side, but that our spiritual aspect influences or even wholly determines the decisions we make, the causes we create, and the very personality we present.

People believe that they have no control over their spiritual self, that it is beyond the realm of cause and effect and therefore is something that just is – and over which they can do nothing. In addition, it’s counter-intuitive for people with theistic backgrounds to associate their spiritual self with anything that has any negative connotation to it, like the Six Lower Worlds, for instance. Certainly many people recognize Hellish hopelessness in themselves, but then try to address this hopelessness to an imaginary god-spirit that they believe dwells outside of their life. But Buddhism hypothesizes, and then validates through practice, that you really can affect your spiritual aspect, in any of the Ten Worlds, and do so by yourself. Buddhism thereby enables you to look realistically at your spiritual self, seeing both positive and negative as potentials within any World, and using the inherent power within your spiritual aspect to then influence and change both that reality and also your physical reality.

If you are true to the statistical 94% of our global population that are theists, you cannot imagine anything spiritually good coming from, say, the Worlds of Anger or Hell. The same holds true for your speculation about what good can come from your addictions within the World of Hunger. But this is a crucially important point to understand. Every World contains within it the potential to do both good and harm, sometimes even at the same time. And, as we will come to see, not one of the Ten Worlds can go unused by a Buddha. To do so would limit and constrict your potential to the point of imprisoning your highest potentials and your ability to do what we started out to do: overcome all suffering and become a Buddha.

So let’s take stock of our spiritual selves before we go on to the Four Higher Worlds, shall we? Imagine: You look red faced and angry. Your voice is loud and your eyes are glaring. You look like you’re in the World of Anger, and you are. Your World of Anger does not necessarily have to produce negative karma, negative cause and effect. In fact, while in the World of Anger, you are far more likely to do something constructive for both yourself and the world in general than anyone is likely to do in the World of Tranquility (although Tranquility is a sub-potential for you too). Whether Anger is a condition that yields positive results or negative results depends largely on your life’s purpose at that moment in the World of Anger. We might say it all depends on whether or not you chose the World of Anger as a vehicle to accomplish something good or if it just consumed and overtook you unawares.

Yet you are most likely embarrassed to even think of yourself in the World of Anger, even if it’s for some important purpose, aren’t you? People will berate you as being uncivil, and perhaps more disturbing, unreligious, without even knowing what religion you are. They may even say, “You’re so angry…And I thought you were a practicing Buddhist!”

But if you are to be successful at overcoming your own suffering and the suffering of others on this planet, you will disregard society’s view of life and realize that in order for you to help yourself and other people, you will need to use every single aspect of your life for that purpose.

Those who present a wise, unflappable appearance all the time are merely hiding out in the World of Tranquility. They will do little for either the whole of society or themselves toward eliminating suffering and accomplishing enlightenment. They spend all of their time trying to present themselves as wise and unaffected. If they accomplish this aim, they have learned to completely lack real compassion. As an acolyte (by the way, a completely useless term in real Buddhist practice) of such a person you would even draw criticism for getting angry about the suffering you see around you. The “Master of Tranquility” cannot fathom the depths of the potential that lies in passion nor the reality of people’s suffering around them, and will slander anyone who doesn’t follow in their own footsteps. This is not the kind of “Buddhist” any of us wants to become, right? We want to learn how to utilize all of the Ten Worlds at our command, and use the positive potential within each to accomplish the ends we seek -- to eliminate suffering.

If you are to be a Buddha, you must be willing to be mocked and shunned on account of your bold actions within the Lower Six Worlds, as guided by the Higher Four Worlds. You must be willing to put aside your craving for being praised and accepted by others. What I’m saying is that you have to throw yourself into your practice of Buddhism considering the benefit to both yourself and others as your entire motivation, unafraid to have people criticize you for looking very unenlightened according to their (unenlightened) version of what that means.

Changing your spiritual aspect can alter the course of your whole life and the course of lives that you are “linked” with (those people whom you care about). And as we’ve just discussed, changing your spiritual aspect doesn’t mean that you’ll look a whole lot different than you always did. It means understanding yourself and others more deeply and then doing something about it to make it better, right now! Imagine being able to change your karma! What would it be like to not be caught in the frustratingly boring and evil cycle of the Six Lower Worlds? What would it be like to make life-changing, personality-changing causes, then see the effects of those changes in people you care about? Is it really possible to affect people from thousands of miles away by strengthening and improving your spiritual self? Can you alter the whole course of your destiny? Yes, by becoming a Buddha you can do more than you ever considered humanly possible. You can change the suffering course of your own and others’ lives.

T’ien T’ai’s Ten Worlds is the philosophical foundation and also the door that can be opened to allow you a great deal of, if not entire, control over your life. That this door opens the spiritual aspect rather than the physical one does not make it any less valid or valuable. But opening that door – that’s the tough part. In order to make changes to the Six Lower Worlds you will need to learn about and deal with the Four Higher Worlds. And doing that will take extreme effort on your part.

Because you, if you are true to the statistic I used above, currently believe that a mythical being (God, Jesus, Allah, Yahweh, et al) controls your spiritual self, it will be highly unlikely that you are going to be capable of either exerting enough effort or exerting it consistently enough to ever determine for yourself whether or not this Buddhism stuff is really true or not. Your theistic belief really does block your spiritual development. If you can overcome your fears enough to search your spiritual self for the answers, I believe that you will be surprised, no, shocked and mystified about what is so close at hand yet was so far from reach for you until now.

I say all this before introducing the Four Higher Worlds because you’re going to need a lot of “tough love” about who you can be as opposed to this person you’ve come to settle for being and living with. And you’ll likely need much encouragement and repeated coaxing before you really listen. Look at what you’ve become: Are you afraid of offending other’s beliefs? Are you afraid of what your family will think of you? Are you afraid of death and a hell that might await you (that has been used for years to keep people in line) if you don’t bow and scrape and say “I’m sorry for everything I’ve ever thought or done in my miserable life” every waking moment of every day? Are you philosophically cowardly? This is a fantastic opportunity for your religiously maligned spiritual self to develop some spiritual courage.

Here’s where you can really make an awesome change for the better in your life, if you can bring yourself to challenge this frustrating cycle you’re now enduring. By practicing Buddhism, you can change your Central Life Tendency from being one of the Six Lower Worlds to that of Buddhahood.

As I had mentioned earlier, most people stay around a single World, within the Six Lower Worlds, most of the time. The World that a person hovers around is known as their Central Life Tendency. The Central Life Tendency of most humans is Tranquility (a.k.a. Humanity). Let’s face it; we put pressure on each other, acting as Society, to remain in Tranquility as much as possible. “Acting out” in any of the Lower Four Worlds is held up to public disdain (in some societies more than others) and there are laws written and enforced to prohibit the unabated exercise of action within them (Hunger has laws against theft, Animality – laws against killing, etc.).

Social laws won’t enable you to break free from the cycle of the Six Lower Worlds. And since breaking free from these lower conditions takes more effort than most people are willing to exert, most people have grown quite content with only the few brief glimpses of, say, the World of Rapture in their lives. Or they’ve settled for Tranquility as being as good as it gets. We know how we’ve been successful in maneuvering our lives through this cycle and how we’ve obtained some external goals with our maneuvering. Then, too, we look around ourselves and see that everyone around us is experiencing this cycle, just like we are. We think that this must just be how life is. That is, until we know about the next Worlds.

As the name of this World implies, the World of Learning is exhibited when you are gaining knowledge about the World around you or your own life. To begin to learn, that is to be in the World of Learning, you must exert effort. It is said that a seeking mind is the key to wisdom, and you’ve probably heard teachers say that without effort on the part of their students, learning will not take place. Put another way, your external environment cannot make you learn. It can provide great circumstances to learn, but it cannot make you learn or be in the World of Learning.

Just think, how much of your time today was spent with your focus of attention eagerly engrossed in seeking out information, versus spent in, say, the World of Hunger where you’re focused on escaping the situation you’re in and getting on with a different and better part of your life (like eating or sleeping or entertainment)? The point is that this World is typically only briefly experienced, and then only with what seems like an extreme effort on your part.

You can experience the World of Learning anywhere and at any time. In fact, most life lessons occur while exerting effort to understand life, how things work, and why they work that way, all while struggling within the Six Lower Worlds. T’ien T’ai’s theory of the Mutual Possession of the Ten Worlds postulates that while you’re stuck in a holding pattern of the cycle of the Six Lower Worlds, the potential for any other World exists within that World. The World of Hell can be vacated for the World of Learning the instant that you actively seek hope for your life in what’s learned. The same is true of Hunger, Animality and the rest.

With the seeking mind required to be in the World of Learning, comes the benefit of longer enduring positive effects. Put another way, a short moment or two of experiencing the World of Learning can have a profound impact on your life that you will probably recollect for years to come. And the mere respite of having left the Six Lower Worlds is refreshing to a long-bludgeoned life condition in them.

There is a negative to being in the World of Learning, though. It is a Life Condition that tends to separate us from the rest of society. The World of Learning actually requires a bit of “escapism” like that of the World of Tranquility, and steals our focus away from dealing with the nastiness of others in the Six Lower Worlds while we refocus ourselves on important matters concerning our own life. While this is pleasant at the time, it serves to “plateau” the growth of our lives for a bit.

Still, being in the World of Learning is amazingly refreshing after spending years of uninterrupted time in the Six Lower Worlds. And, as I have said, it is a Life Condition that, just like all the other Ten Worlds, can be obtained anywhere you are, and at any moment. It’s just difficult to attain it. But if you think the World of Learning is difficult to attain, the next one is even harder.

The World of Realization takes Learning one step further. It requires even more effort. Perhaps the easiest way to describe what takes place within the World of Realization is to look to the arts. Just because you know the notes that a guitar can make doesn’t make you a great musician. Similarly, Learning and knowledge about painting does not make you a great artist. By internalizing the knowledge and adding something of yourself and your creativity to it, you can take your learning a step further and actually go beyond the level of your teachers. This World is sometimes spoken of as the “Aha!” experience or a special and very personal understanding of how a brief instance of Learning intersects with your life, and connects you with the lives of others.

Another example of Realization can be related directly to this article, or to all of your learning about Buddhism. Knowing about the Ten Worlds is one thing. Reading about them and coming to understand what they are on an intellectual level requires the World of Learning. To apply them to yourself and others and utilize your knowledge of the Ten Worlds to further your development toward enlightenment is the World of Realization.

The World of Realization, while harder to attain, is more readily at your fingertips at any moment than Learning. You have learned things in the past. You can always ponder what you’ve already learned and find new ways to apply and utilize that knowledge.

Adding further knowledge to what you’ve already learned, or relearning something, may help add moments of Realization. And Realization may add to a thirst for more knowledge. These two Worlds, like the next two Worlds, come as a pair and work symbiotically.

These two Worlds, Learning and Realization, are much “higher” and allow you much more control than the Six Lower Worlds did. For one thing, as I’ve said, the respite from the grueling cycle of the Six Lower Worlds is rewarding in and of itself. But these two Worlds still have their shortcomings. First of all, to remain for long in these Worlds you must become somewhat self absorbed. They can actually be thought of as a limited sort of enlightenment, but one that excludes most others around you.

While in Learning and Realization, people become ever consumed with Learning more and understanding more. They become engrossed by their own knowledge and develop a perpetual thirst for more of it. But this is a selfish quest, one that helps the individual but does others no good.

In real life, the Worlds of Learning and Realization most frequently lead you back to the World of Anger. Once one has developed considerable knowledge, beyond what others know, the person becomes arrogant about their knowledge, believing they are superior to others in this respect.

So much effort is required to remain even a short while in these two Worlds that people trying to remain in them begrudge any time spent helping others. It’s just that they know there’s not much time and they feel that they have little means of helping other people anyway, while they can clearly see just how far they must go and how much effort and time they must spend to help themselves. So they just carry on with improving their own lives within these two Worlds.

In Shakyamuni Buddha’s day, people who were focused just on these two Worlds were called people of the Two Vehicles. The Two Vehicles are legitimate means for improving people’s lives; they’re just not enough to complete the task of eliminating human suffering altogether and attaining Buddhahood. In fact, Shakyamuni pointed out that those who followed his own early teachings were doomed to be trapped in these two Worlds and would likely never escape from them within their lifetime. He was sharply critical of his own followers who focused on nothing but these Two Vehicles because he knew they were in a trap. Certainly these two Worlds caused people who focused on nothing but them to adopt a new cycle within the Ten Worlds. The people of the Two Vehicles (Learning and Realization) experienced a modified Lower Six Worlds during the numerous moments they were not in the seventh and eighth Worlds. They learned about Buddhism and life in general, yet their own lives had little affect or impact on other people, either directly or even as an example to them. Their efforts within the Worlds of Learning and Realization became the pinnacle of their life’s achievements, yet the power of their life’s impact on the world was miniscule. You will see that by comparison to the next two Worlds, achievements in these Worlds are really minor. And, it is said that minor accomplishments can be harmful in that they stop one from reaching higher potentials. This is the true aspect of these two Worlds. In them, you trade being trapped in the Six Lower Worlds for being caught in the Two Vehicles – ultimately a selfish, self-satisfied place to be.

The World of Bodhisattva is a condition of caring and compassion. Just to be consistent in my explanation of these Four Higher Worlds, let me insert here that this World is the most difficult to be in of any we’ve discussed so far.

Now before you “tough guy” mentalities out there start thinking this is just not for you, that no one is going to turn you into a “Flower Child” or “Do-Gooder,” you need to stop for a moment and consider this: the Bodhisattva Life Condition is the Life Condition of true heroes. Being in this Life Condition for any length of time at all requires a strength of will equivalent to actually offering your life for the sake of another. It is not merely cheap talk about peace and love. It can make even the toughest guy squirm with fear, a fear that will be his or her decision to overcome and overcome for the right reasons.

So if the Life Condition of the World of Bodhisattva is one in which you actually care about another person’s life, happiness and well being more than you do your own, and if you’ve spent much time in a war zone, you’ve probably either seen or heard of someone who appears to have taken the actions of Bodhisattva. Or, on a rare occasion, you may have experienced something like this yourself. Say, for instance, that there is someone in a life-threatening situation. To make a decision to risk your own life to save another’s out of nothing but concern and caring for them, is the condition of Bodhisattva.

But don’t be fooled by all heroic actions. Many people who seem outwardly to be choosing to risk their lives for the sake of others on a continual basis, such as soldiers or rescue workers, for instance, actually choose their occupation based on the egotistical World of Anger or Animality. For them, it’s not caring for others that really drives them. Some, who choose to put themselves “heroically” in harm’s way, may actually be acting out a socially acceptable form of suicide, which is driven by the World of Hell. Other soldiers may feel a social obligation to provide for their families back home and know of no other way, also showing characteristics of the World of Hell (or more accurately Bodhisattva within Hell). Some carry on a family tradition of military pride, a.k.a. World of Anger. There are many things that may look like caring, but relatively few that actually spring from the Life Condition of Bodhisattva.

And while I’m on the topic of actions that appear to be in the World of Bodhisattva, let me recite some statistics. Approximately one hundred soldiers per year stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan have committed suicide in recent years – predominantly because of relationship or money problems, yet also influenced by the stressful environment. When it comes to suicide, it is reasonable to say that it is never an act of Bodhisattva compassion. It never comes from someone in the World of Bodhisattva. If such soldiers were really considering what is best for the person or people they love but are having troubles with, it could never happen that suicide would be the answer. But, perhaps ironically, if these very soldiers were to develop and strengthen their own Life Conditions they would almost assuredly be able to resolve all their suffering resulting from relationships and at the same time make a powerful impact on the people they are having trouble with back home, all while they are still active in a war zone. Yes, the World of Bodhisattva is so powerful that it can reach across thousands of miles and deeply impact another person, but we’ll talk more about this later.

For now, just understand that most people do not consistently act out of Bodhisattva compassion, where it is the love and concern they feel for another person that drives their every action. This is readily understandable. But even a single moment’s occurrence of this Life Condition will change the life of both the person in Bodhisattva and the recipient of their compassion, on a very deep level. That’s how powerful it is. The Life Condition of Bodhisattva can actually break the chain of karmic causality and alter the destiny of the lives of all involved. Unfortunately, it is so difficult to maintain, that the stay in it is brief and the space of time between occurrences is vast.

But therein lays the limitation of the World of Bodhisattva. Recall that we were looking for the means to break free from the cycle of the six lower Worlds – the cycle that is a fundamental element of human suffering. Breaking free from these cyclical Life Conditions requires repeated efforts of the magnitude of World of Bodhisattva. Another way to put this is that the level of cause and effect (the fundamental building block of karma) that is required to avoid slipping back into your Central Life Tendency cannot be accomplished with surface-level causes. Instead, causes based on the very depths of life are required. And this brings us to the Tenth and final World, Buddhahood, which is the only World where such causes can be made.

Before we leave the topic of the Ninth World, please keep in mind that the World of Bodhisattva will continue to play an important part in the actual attainment of enlightenment – enlightenment defined as having replaced your previous Central Life Tendency (in the lower Worlds) with the Central Life Tendency of Buddhahood. Recall that, like Learning and Realization, Bodhisattva and Buddhahood are symbiotic Life Conditions, working together and enhancing each other. They do this by acting reciprocally to lengthen the duration and strengthen the impact of the other World. Another way to say it is that the World of Buddhahood brings out our wisdom and compassion which compels us to move toward the World of Bodhisattva; the World of Bodhisattva is given “wings,” “muscle,” or wisdom, by our World of Buddhahood. This new cycle is the most rewarding possible.

Here’s another important point for you to keep in mind. You can only re-establish your Central Life Tendency to the World of Buddhahood by yourself, as an individual. It will not be done within a group. This point makes questions of which Buddhist group to belong to and which sensei/mentor to follow completely unnecessary.

If you’re in the military, and in a war zone while reading this, you may not think you have a choice of which “group” you’ll belong to. This is another important aspect of practicing Buddhism in a war zone you should face. You are your own “group.” Those who discourage your caring for others based on political affiliations (the enemy) are doing so to encourage you to take actions requiring you to disregard all personal feelings. You can start fighting this dark plot by choosing to stand alone and in control of your emotional choices. The starting point for Bodhisattva compassion, while in a war zone or anywhere else for that matter, is empathy. Putting yourself in the place of another; feeling what another person is feeling, is empathy and is a significant cause you can make toward using the World of Bodhisattva in your life.

I’ll discuss the World of Buddhahood in the next section, and will hopefully put all this in a clearer light for you. In preparation, I’d like you to look at what it means to be in these Nine Worlds without the World of Buddhahood.

In the Six Lower Worlds it feels like they are happening to you. In the Worlds of Learning and Realization (Worlds Seven and Eight), they came about by your efforts to develop yourself. In the World of Bodhisattva (the Ninth World), you got there purely by caring for another person. Can you see the focus being shifted? You’re a victim in the Six Lower Worlds; Selfishly knowledgeable in the Two Vehicles; A caring martyr in the World of Bodhisattva. You might say that I’m being too harsh here. But I don’t think so. I’m describing characteristics within these lower Nine Worlds that are their unenlightened aspects. The way I’ve just now described them is, I believe, the best you can hope for in these Nine Worlds without adding what’s known as Daimoku.

Daimoku is meditation based on chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo. It is focused on your eternal, enlightened self and has an almost unimaginably powerful impact on your life within the Nine Worlds. And without both an understanding of the Ten Worlds and practical experience chanting Daimoku, it will be impossible to fully grasp the potential of Buddhism – the potential to eliminate human suffering.