Philosophy > T'ien-t'ai


Each person’s life contains infinite potential; this is the core belief of Nichiren Buddhism. While it may be easy to accept this in a theoretical sense, in reality we tend to impose limits on our possibilities. To a large extent we define our lives in terms of these perceived or unconscious limitations—I am able to do this but not that. We can exist quite comfortably within our own self-imposed limits, but when we come up against a problem or challenge and we feel we lack the ability or the spiritual resources to overcome it, we suffer. We feel overwhelmed or helpless, or afraid.
Buddhist practice enables us to draw on inexhaustible inner reserves of courage, hope and resilience to surmount challenges and expand our lives and to help others do the same. ‘Buddhahood’ describes this dynamic, compassionate life condition, and a Buddha is someone who has firmly established this condition as their predominant reality. Most people, however, are unaware of this possibility or how to actualize it.
The renowned sixth-century Buddhist scholar T’ien-t’ai (538–97) developed a meditative practice to enable people to perceive the boundless extent of their lives at each moment. He also developed a theoretical system to describe this reality. He called this “three thousand realms in a single moment of life” (Jpn. ichinen sanzen). Ichinen sanzen demonstrates that the entire phenomenal world exists in a single moment of life.
What T’ien-t’ai’s theory does is explain how we humans construct our experience of life moment by moment.
We have within us ten states of life: hell, hunger, animality, anger, tranquillity, rapture, learning, realisation, Bodhisattva (helping in response to the suffering of others), and Buddha (see ‘ten worlds’ on this page).
Each of these life states can change into any of the others through what we think, how we feel, how we act. In other words, there is a cause and effect process at work in human life based on thinking, feeling and doing.
So at one moment I may be tranquil and the next raging with anger depending on how I react to a change of circumstance. T’ien-t’ai expressed this as each of these worlds or states of life having the potential to change into any other state of life. The technical phrase for this is ‘the mutual possession of the ten worlds’.
So theoretically, life contains the 10 worlds which can become any of the others. Mathematically we have 10 times 10 possibilities or 100 possible states of life.
But there are ten factors involved in this change of one state of life to another. These involve our change of mind, the power and influence of our lives and also the causes we are making inside ourself (thoughts, feelings) as well as external triggers we are responding to.
So the 100 life state can be multiplied by 10 factors resulting in 1,000 possibilities.
Human beings experience their own inner workings (self), the inter-relationships with others (society) as well as the natural realm of the place we find ourselves (environment). These three: self, society and environment are called the three realms.
So we now have 1,000 life possibilities multiplied by 3 realms making 3,000 life possibilities experienced within one moment of life.
The main practical application of this theory is that when we, as individuals, change, that transformation influences the people around us, as well as our environment. We no longer need to feel powerless or unable to make a difference. Instead, we can be confident that our own inner change for the better changes the outside world for the better.