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Ten realms

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The ten realms (T. khams bcu; C. shijie; J. jikkai; K. sipkye 十界) are ten states of existence that are identified within the cosmology of some Mahayana Buddhist traditions. The ten realms consist of:[1]

  • Six realms of samsara (six mundane realms)
    • Hell realm
    • Hungry ghost realm
    • Animal realm
    • Human realm
    • Demi-god realm
    • God realm
  • Four holy realms
    • Sravaka realm
    • Pretyakabuddha realm
    • Bodhisattva realm
    • Buddha realm

This formulation of ten realms is based on an interpretation of the Lotus Sutra within the Tiantai tradition.[1][2]

The ten realms are emphasized in these traditions:

The ten realms

Six realms of samsara

The six realms of samsara are subject to karma and rebirth. They are also referred to as the "worldly" or "mundane" realms. The six realms are:

  • Hell realm
  • Hungry ghost realm
  • Animal realm
  • Human realm
  • Demi-god realm
  • God realm

Four holy realms

Editor's note: this section needs attention. It can use more research and clarification Review-icon.png

The four holy realms are beyond rebirth. These realms are:

  • Sravaka realm - "the joyful state of existence beyond the worldly birth and death because they are enlightened that the worldly phenomena are unreal and impermanent."[3]
  • Pretyakabuddha - "they are enlightened by understanding the Law of Dependent Originations or the Twelve Links of Dependent Originations."[3]
  • Bodhisattva realm - have the aspiration to help other beings reach enlightenment. "They commit themselves, by their great vows, to be reborn in any Dharma Realm to rescue the sentient beings."[3]
  • Buddha realm - the highest state of existence of all sentient beings[3]

Interpretations within different traditions

In some traditions, the ten realms are perceived as distinct realms through which forms had to experience in order to expiate karma. According to Japanese Shugendō tradition, the ten realms are seen as distinct trials of discipline a practitioner must encounter or overcome in order to reach a material or spiritual goal.[4]

However, according to Zhiyi's conceptualization of "three thousand realms in a single moment of life," they are not separate physical realms into which one may be reborn but interrelated realms of consciousness, each of which is contained within each other (Jp. jikkai gogu).[5] The Ten Realms are a conceptualization of the Lotus Sutra's worldview of the interconnected relationship of phenomena, the ultimate reality of the universe, and human agency.[6][7]

Tiantai: Three thousand realms in a single moment

According to the Tiantai tradition, each of the ten realms or worlds are contained within each realm, the "mutual possession of the ten realms" (Jap. jikkai gogu). The one subsequent hundred worlds are viewed through the lenses of the Ten suchnesses and the three realms of existence (Jpn. san-seken) to formulate three thousand realms of existence.[8] These hundred aspects of existence leads to the concept of "three thousand realms in a single moment (Jap. Ichinen Sanzen)."[9]

According to this conception, the world of Buddha and the nine realms of humanity are interpenetrable,[10] there is no original "pure mind," and good and evil are mutually possessed.[11] This establishes a proclivity to immanence rather than transcendency.

Symbolic interpretations of states of existence

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes the Tantai view of the ten realms as different states of existence as follows:

The ten realms are all the states in which a sentient being might find him or herself in the Buddhist universe, from the lowest ignorance and suffering to the highest bliss and enlightenment. They are often interpreted symbolically: Buddhahood representing a moment of enlightened experience, Bodhisattvahood a moment of compassion, Sravakahood a moment of quiescence or renunciation of the worldly, Godhood a moment of great worldly bliss and power, Asurahood a moment of egoistic rage and combativeness, animals ignorance, purgatories suffering. One reason to read these as states that any being might undergo is that each of the ten realms is listed twice. This is because each realm “includes” or “instantiates” all the other ten realms. That is, each can appear “as” any of the others, and in fact nothing appears which is not always “as” something else. A human-bodhisattva, an animal-god, a Buddha-demon, an Asura-Sravaka, etc. A bodhisattva appears as a human, or an animal, or a Buddha, or an Asura. But as we've seen, this also means a human appears as a bodhisattva, or a demon as an animal, or a Sravaka as a hungry ghost, etc. Of course this goes on ad infinitum: each of these included realms further includes all ten realms, and so on. The 10 times 10 is just to point to this factor of mutual inclusion, and make sure it is accounted for in our meditative contemplation of “what exists”.[2]

Non-theistic view

One contemporary school asserts that the theory of the ten realms and its larger associated concept of three thousand realms of existence in a single moment portray a non-theistic interpretation of how a person is affected by the cosmos and, in turn, has the potential to impact on the cosmos.[12]

Pilgrimage sites

In some Japanese traditions the ten realms are experienced in pilgrimages to a series of temples[13] or sites along holy mountains.[14]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Lopez, Donald S. (2016). The "Lotus Sūtra": A Biography Lives of Great Religious Books. Princeton University Press. p. 58. ISBN 9781400883349. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Tiantai Buddhism
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Buddhist Door, Dharma realms
  4. Blacker, Carmen (2000). "16: Initiation in the Shugendo: The passage through the ten states of existence". Collected writings of Carmen Blacker (Transferred to digital printing. ed.). Richmond, Surrey: Japan Library. pp. 186–199. ISBN 9781873410929. 
  5. Bowring, Richard (2008). The religious traditions of Japan, 500-1600 (Paperback ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 123. ISBN 9780521851190. 
  6. Ikeda, Daisaku (2003). Unlocking the mysteries of birth & death : & everything in between, a Buddhist view of life (2nd ed.). Santa Monica, Calif.: Middleway. pp. 106–107. ISBN 9780972326704. 
  7. Anesaki, Masaharu (1916). Nichiren, the Buddhist Prophet. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. pp. 150–154. ISBN 9781498186582. 
  8. The Soka Gakkai dictionary of buddhism. Sōka Gakkai., 創価学会. Tokyo: Soka Gakkai. 2002. ISBN 9784412012059. OCLC 5196165. Lay summary. 
  9. Caine-Barrett, Myokei (Feb 8, 2017). "Teachings for Uncertain Times: Viewing 3,000 Realms in a Single Moment". Tricycle. 
  10. Shimazono, Susumu (2003). "29: Soka Gakkai and the Modern Reformation of Buddhism". In Takeuchi, Yoshinori. Buddhist spirituality: later China, Korea, Japan, and the modern world. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. p. 445. ISBN 9788120819443. 
  11. Stone, Jacqueline I. (2003). Original enlightenment and the transformation of medieval Japanese Buddhism (Pbk. ed.). Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. p. 179. ISBN 9780824827717. The mutual encompassing or copenetration of the ten realms (jikkai gogu) collapses any ontological distinction between the Buddha and the beings, implying that the nine realms of unenlightened beings possess the Buddha nature inherently, while the Buddha possesses the nine realms of unenlightened beings. The mutual inclusion of the ten realms represents an important characteristic of Chih-i's thought there is no original "pure mind"; good and evil are always nondual and mutually possessed. The most depraved icchantika is endowed the Buddha realm, while the Buddha is still latently endowed with the realms of unenlightened beings. 
  12. Fowler, Merv (2015). Copson, Andrew; Grayling, A.C., eds. The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Humanism. John Wiley & Sons. p. 145. ISBN 9781119977179. 
  13. Usui, Sachiko. "4: The Concept of Pilgrimage in Japan". In Ackermann, Peter; Martinez, Dolores; Rodriguez del Alisal, Maaria. Pilgrimages and Spiritual Quests in Japan. 2007: Routledge. p. 26. ISBN 9781134350469. 
  14. Staemmler, Birgit (2005). Chinkon kishin : mediates spirit possession in Japanese new religions. Münster: LIT Verlag. p. 40. ISBN 9783825868994. 


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