Ichinen Sanzen

3000 worlds in a single thought

By Seishin Clark

‘3000 worlds in a single thought’ is a Tendai/Tientai doctrine created by the founder of Chinese Tientai, Chih-i (Zhiyi). In the following essay I hope to give a simple explanation of this incredibly important Tendai doctrine, although I feel I will not be able to do it justice. On the face, it seems like an easy to understand philosophy, however I believe Chih-i’s vision goes a lot deeper than my own capacity. Therefore any mistakes or misunderstanding in the following essay is my own.

Chih-i’s philosophy of ‘3000 worlds in a single thought’ can be found in his magnum opus ‘Maka Shikan’ 摩訶止観 (Mohe Zhiguan) in which he coined the term “i ch’ien nien san” (Japanese; ichinen sanzen), which means that the “three thousand worlds can be found in a single moment of the mind”. To understand this, we first need to define the ‘3000 worlds’ and define ‘a single thought’.

“Life at each moment is endowed with the Ten Worlds. At the same time, each of the Ten Worlds is endowed with all Ten Worlds, so that an entity of life actually possesses one hundred worlds. Each of these worlds in turn possesses thirty realms, which means that in the one hundred worlds there are three thousand realms. The three thousand realms of existence are all possessed by life in a single moment. If there is no life, that is the end of the matter. But if there is the slightest bit of life, it contains all the three thousand realms…. This is what we mean when we speak of the ‘region of the unfathomable.’” http://www.sgilibrary.org/search_dict.php?id=2376
The basis of the 3000 worlds stems mainly from the Lotus Sutra, but also from the general corpus of Buddhist Material, and Mahayana texts, especially Nagarjuna’s Mahaprajnaparamita-shastra. To start with, let us look at the 10 Worlds;
The ‘10 worlds’, also known as the ’10 Spiritual Realms’ (十界 jikkai) is a philosophy of Buddhist cosmology in which one experiences 10 different conditions of life in any given moment. They are also classified as categories of beings and physical locations.
They are;
(Lower Realms)
1. Hell / Hell beings
2. Hunger / Hungry Ghosts
3. Animality / Animals
4. Anger/arrogance / Asuras
5. Humanity / Human beings
6. Heaven / Devas
(Higher Realms)
7. Learning / Śravakas
8. Absorption / Pratyekabuddha
9. Bodhisattvahood / Bodhisattvas
10. Buddhahood / Buddhas

These are given mention in the Lotus Sutra in various chapters, however to give a quick explanation;

The Hell Realm is a place in which one suffers incessantly. It is a condition of total misery devoid of joy and happiness with seemingly no end or respite.

The Hunger Realm is a place in which one is forever hungry (ie desiring) but is never satisfied. Beings of this realm are called ‘Hungry Ghosts’, and have an endless desire for food, drink, please etc, but can never find satisfaction.

The Animal Realm is a place in which one is conditioned by ‘animal instinct’, devoid of wisdom, morality and reason. Those of the animal realm prey on the weak and both fear and despise those stronger than them.

The Asura Realm is a place of anger and arrogance. In Indian cosmology, an Asura can be likened to a belligerent spirit, similar to the western understanding of ‘demons’, they stand in contrast to the Devas (gods/demi-gods). Beings of this realm are conditioned by persistent hostility, anger, and arrogance.

The Human Realm (our realm) is a place between the lower and higher realms (although still considered a lower realm) in which, although still driven by the fetters of the lowers realms, we also have aspirations and most importantly, the capacity to attain the higher realms.

The Heavenly Realm is a place of joy and happiness, seemingly untouched by suffering. However, this realm, like the previous, is impermanent and conditioned, therefore, it can be easily taken away. Those in this realm still have the capacity to reach the higher realms but often do not feel any need for it. This arrogance soon comes around as the causes and conditions that put them in the heavenly realm come to an end and they fall in to one of the lowers realms. In Indian cosmology, this is the realm of the Devas, which are often likened to the Western notion of gods and demi-gods.

Also known as the ‘Voice-hearer Realm’, is a place where one gets to hear a Buddha preach the Dharma. In Sanskrit it is ‘Śravaka’ (lit: voice hearer). Those in this realm are in a condition in which they have realised śunyata (emptiness) and have dedicated their lives to realising Nirvana.

Also known as the ‘Self-awakened Realm’, this is a place where people realise the path of their own accord, without the help of teachers or ever having received a teaching. In Sanskrit this is known as ‘Pratyekabuddha’.

The Bodhisattva Realm is a place in which one has reached a high level of realisation and compassion. So moved by their compassion of all sentient beings that they have dedicated their lives to aiding sentient beings on their path to enlightenment. These beings are known as ‘Bodhisattva’s.

The Buddha Realm is a place of complete and perfect realisation. Absolute freedom from the chains of the samsara, realised to every aspect of all phenomena.
For a sceptic, it’s hard to imagine these realms as physical places in which one is born in to, however it is fairly easy to see how these apply psychologically to our moment to moment experiences. We have all felt, even if only for a moment, that feeling of complete low, when our suffering is simply too overwhelming and seems like it will never end. Conversely, we have felt so high that we think life could not get any better. We feel untouchable. We have also experienced a verity of these conditions within a single day. This is what Chih-i means when he says that each of the 10 Worlds contain the 10 Worlds. In our “Human Realm” we are able to experience all the other realms. Therefore, Chih-i concludes that the Hell Realm also contains all 10 Realms, and the Heaven Realm also contains all 10 Realms and so on. This is known as ‘Jikkai-gogu 十界互具’

‘Jikkai-gogu 十界互具’ or ‘mutual possession of the Ten Worlds’. In Tendai Buddhism, these worlds are not exclusive, each has the potential for the other worlds to manifest at any given moment, even if those worlds are latent. The important significance of this teaching can be summed up two-fold, 1) Right here, right now, we have not only the potential for Buddhahood, but we also contain Buddhahood, like a gene we carry that remains dormant until we switch it on. This stands in opposition to the idea that Buddhahood is something we gain, slowly, over hundreds of life-times. 2) The Buddhas and other enlightened beings are not separate from ordinary people.

The 30 Realms is comprised of the ’10 Factors of Life’ within the ‘3 Realms of Existance’;
10 Factors of Life (Ju-nyoze 十如是)
The ‘10 Factors of Life’ are also known as the ’10 Suchnesses’ is a doctrine unique to Tientai Buddhism (but found in Tendai and Nichiren) and is derived from the Lotus Sutra (Chapter 2) in which the “true aspect of all phenomena” consists of;

1. Such a Form/phenomenon (相)
‘That which is discernible’ such as physical form, colour, behaviour etc
2. Such a Nature/character (性)
‘That which is not discernible’ which is the inherent quality. What this means is that every phenomena has an inherent nature that cannot be changed. Fire has the nature of fire. If it had the nature of water, then it would cease to be fire.
3. Such an Entity/embodiment (体)
‘That which integrates and embodies form and nature’
4. Such a Potency/ability (力)
Life’s potential energy. We have the potential for Buddhahood, but we also have the potential to become hungry ghosts.
5. Such a Function/activity (作)
‘That which is produced by life’s energy’
6. Such a Primary cause/direct cause (因)
The potential cause that produces an effect of the same quality
7. Such a Relation/secondary cause (縁)
Indirect causes/secondary causes that work with the primary cause to produce an effect
8. Such a Latent Effect/result (果)
A dormant effect that has not had the conditions necessary to arise
9. Such a Manifest Effect/recompense (報)
The observable effect, the reward or retribution
10. Such a Consistency from beginning to end/the whole (本末究竟等)
‘That which unifies all the above’, which are all interrelated working together moment to moment.

These ‘factors’ are common to all forms of life and phenomena, without exception, meaning there is no fundamental difference between a Buddha and an ordinary person. This is why they are also called ‘suchnesses’ meaning that ‘it is such’ or ‘such as it is’. They reveal the way things are, just as it is, and all phenomena are part of this process. They also point to how phenomena (and us) relate, effect and influence all other phenomena.

3 Realms of Existence (San-seken三世間)
The 3 Realms of Existence comes from ‘The Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom’ (Skt: Mahaprajnaparamita-shastra, Jpn: 大智度論 Daichido-ron) by Nagarjuna, and are categorised as;
1. The Five Skandhas (components) (五陰世間 Go-on Seken)
2. The Realm of living beings (衆生世間 Shujō Seken)
3. The Realm of the environment (国土世間 Kokudo Seken)

The reason Chih-i connected the 3 Realms to the 10 Factors is because the later does not operate in living beings alone, but also in the material world. The material world, in turn, is not separate from the mind of living beings. The ‘Five components’ (form, perception, conception, volition and consciousness), which are perceived by living beings through the ‘Five Sense Organs’ (eyes, ears nose, tongue, body and mind), are what is used to perceive and judge. These components, when used, cause us to form a conception of our surroundings, and those in one of the ‘Ten Worlds’ will see the same thing in a completely differing way. The realm of living beings, refer to the manifestation of sentient life, all of which have the ‘Five components’ who, in turn, interact with their environment. Our perception of our environment changes depending on our own minds, meaning we can live in the hell realm or the bodhisattva realm simultaneously. Therefore, these three realms are not separate, but very much an integrated whole that manifests within each of the ‘Ten Worlds’.

To simplify the above, there are ’10 Worlds’ within the 10 Worlds (10×10 = 100). Within each of these there are the ‘10 Factors of life’ that are experienced within the ‘3 Realms of Existence’ (10×3 = 30). Now multiply 100×30 = 3000 worlds. What I get asked quite often, is why did Chih-i use these particular realms and not others, or why 3000 and not 300,000 etc? Worrying over the exact number or components misses the point of this teaching. The importance of this is that all of these various realms are not separate, but interconnected and interrelated within any given moment.

When we speak about a single thought, we are speaking about a single moment which is why ‘ichinen’ can also be translated as ‘single moment’. Life is made up of immeasurable moments although “a moment” itself cannot be measured or quantified. Still, it can’t be denied that our lives are made up of a multitude of moments. We qualify these moments through our cognition which is an interpretation based on our senses (see above). Within each moment, then, we are inextricably connected with the 3000 worlds. Each moment contains the 3000 worlds. We are not separate from that which we cannot see or conceptualise. With a single thought, we are able to penetrate the entire cosmos, just as the cosmos penetrates all phenomena.

The teaching of ichinen sanzen says that in any given moment we have the potential of “being” in any of the given worlds, experienced through the realms. In other words, in our current state (human), we are able to experience the life of hell, or the life of a Bodhisattva. When in that state, those “worlds” are very real. Our suffering is very real, as is our rapture. This also connects very closely with the Tientai teaching of the “Three Truths”. The world in which we experience is very real to us – this is the ‘truth of the relative’ (ke 仮). However, both this world and through that which we experience this world is empty and impermanent – this is the ‘truth of emptiness’ (kū 空). Both these aspects are true both at the same time, our “world” and our experiences are both real and empty at the same time – this is the ‘truth of the middle’ (chū 中). In realising the truth of the middle we will be able to penetrate the concept of Ichinen sanzen and realise that we have potential to awaken to our Buddha nature in this very moment. One state does not proceed or lead to the other, rather, each state is available to us in any given moment. In fact, these two aspects of ‘3000 worlds’ and ‘one moment’ are not two distinct elements, but are non-dual. When there is even a single moment of life then the 3000 worlds are present. One does not contain the other as they are not separate. This is what the Lotus Sutra teaches and what I believe influenced Chih-i in forming ‘Ichinen Sanzen’. The Lotus Sutra first teaches the 10 Factors of Life, then teaches that all beings have the potential for Buddhahood, illustrating ‘Jikkai-gogu 十界互具’ or ‘mutual possession of the Ten Worlds’. It then illustrates the true aspect as inseparable of all phenomena instead of phenomena being a product of mind (“True Aspect of all Phenomena” shohō-jissō 諸滕實相). This teaching greatly influenced Chih-i’s philosophy, that every aspect of reality, just as it is, is no different to the true aspect, to the Middle Way, to Buddha.

So, ‘ichinen sanzen’ not only points to our relation will everything, but also points to the very real possibility of Buddhahood in this lifetime, in any given moment. The provisional paths illustrate cause and effect, that one state proceeds another. The “True Aspect” of the Lotus Sutra, and Chih-i’s ‘Ichinen Sanzen’ shows that they are not separate and are open to us right here, right now.

“What we call Perfect Sudden is to relate our mind to reality from the very beginning, and visualize the object of mind. Such is in fact identical with the Middle Way. This is not different from the conceptual truth. When our mind relates to the Dharma Realm even our visual forms and fragrance do not differ from the Middle Way. Our World, the Buddha World, the world of sentient beings, or the five aggregates are all in fact the expressions of Middle Way. You can not avoid sufferings. Ignorance and delusions themselves are the object of Enlightenment. There is not any cause of suffering to be cut off. All of Fundamental Ignorance and distorted mind are involved in the Middle Way. There isn’t any special path to be practiced. Our Life and Death are the manifestation of Nirvana. There is not any cessation or sufferings to be realized. There is no pain nor accumulation of pain. Therefore, there is not any ordinal world, path, nor cessation of sufferings. Accordingly, there is not any saint world. Pure Reality does not exist. There is no other dharma except reality. Tranquility of Dharma Nature is called Calmness (Calming Mind). The Tranquility of Dharma always shines brightly. That is named Discernment (Discerning Real). Though we use the words beginning and end, there is no duality, nor any difference between them. This is named Perfect Sudden.
We should know our body and the land we are. Three Thousand Realities are in a single moment of our consciousness. Therefore, when we realize our way of life, we will aware of the basic nature of reality. Our mind and mindfulness prevail in the World of Reality.” Translation provided by Ven Shoshin Ichishima – ‘Perfect Sudden’ Maka Shikan