Buddhists, bear with me…you already know about this. For my non-Buddhist readers, I want to explain two key Buddhist terms before I launch into any more topical issues. The first concept is the mutual possession of the Ten Worlds. The ten worlds (or conditions of Life) are hell, hunger, animality, anger, humanity, rapture, learning, realization, bodhisattva, and Buddhahood. (For a more extensive explanation, you can check out the SGI Dictionary of Buddhism, http://www.sgilibrary.org/search_dict.php.)

In short form, hell is a state in which your life is all misery and suffering; it’s slavery in its most extreme form, in which all your actions tend only to make matters worse. In the world of hunger, you cannot be satisfied; it’s the world of addiction, where nothing is ever enough. In the condition of animality, you revert to your basest instincts of kill or be killed; everyone else is an enemy or a potential enemy to be erased or at least subdued (or sucked up to, if too strong). In the world of anger, your ego becomes overpowering; there is no room for anyone else’s feeling or point of view. These four worlds comprise the “four evil paths”.

Things look up a bit as you “ascend” (more on that in a moment) to the next world, humanity. This is the state of a “good person”, who tries to control his/her emotions, think rationally, get along well with others, and who also aspires to an even higher life state. Then we have rapture…also known as “heaven”; it’s that wonderful feeling you get when a desire is realized or when you’re relieved of suffering. But that’s not as good as it gets! In fact, these two worlds added to the four evil paths comprise the “six paths”, and are still considered “lower worlds”. That’s because when we’re in these conditions we are subject to influence; you could say we’re at the mercy of our surroundings, so that we can go from humanity to anger in a nanosecond, or plummet from rapture to hell faster than the blink of an eye.

Next up? The “four noble paths”, beginning with the world of learning…it’s that condition where you are not satisfied with the status quo of the six paths, when you determine to be a better person and start finding out how. Realization, the next world, is when you put your research to use; as you begin to understand the nature of your existence, you make the causes necessary to improve it.

Sound better still? Yes, BUT. In the old days, such persons were considered incapable of attaining Buddhahood, because they tended to become excessively concerned with themselves, enchanted with their own growing wisdom…smug. Not so good after all…which leads us to the condition, or world, of bodhisattva. As a bodhisattva, you realize that your happiness is connected to others’ happiness…even that you cannot be truly happy unless you are also helping others become happy. This is the world of compassion; it encompasses, yet transcends, all the preceding worlds.

Which brings us to the world of Buddhahood. This is a state of absolute freedom, of boundless compassion, of being fully attuned to the nature of life. Early interpretations of the sutras regarded “the Buddha” as a deity; the state of Buddhahood was thought to be removed and discrete from the reality of human suffering. Likewise, each of the ten worlds was thought to be separate from the others; a person whose life tended to manifest a particular state was generally regarded to be “stuck” there. The best he might hope for was to somehow “move up” in his next life. (I’m using “he” because women weren’t even considered part of the equation.) Fortunately, T’ient’ai, a 6th century Chinese scholar, realized this was not the case at all.

In fact, each of the worlds contains and is contained by each of the others. When I first started practicing Buddhism, I had a hard time grasping this. The idea of the Ten Worlds was easy, especially when emerging once again from the world of anger and feeling that my inner Buddha was as distant as a star. But “mutual possession”? Huh? How’s that work?

I tried to come up with various ways to describe it. I thought of circles within circles…colors…no analogy seemed completely apt. But it’s such an important principle; I want to understand it fully. My latest idea is to consider Buddhahood as a stage production, with each world represented by an actor. Each actor has a role to play, has a “star turn”…and each is an understudy of all the other parts. The audience sees a continuously changing cast of alternating heroes and villains. The killer in today’s Act II becomes the rescuer in tomorrow’s Act I. Today you’re hissed and booed; tomorrow your path is strewn with flowers. But then the next day you may be in for more hisses…it’s all in the part you choose to play.

Because none of us is all good or all evil. We all (no exceptions) have the capacity for both. The ideal of Buddhism is to make Buddhahood your prevailing condition. As a human, this can seem impossible. One manifests one’s Buddhahood through bodhisattva behavior, resisting the urge to fall back on the “I’m only human” defense (but I am! We are!)…or worse yet, wallow in the evil paths. But with the mutual possession, even when one is playing the villain, there’s still a hero inside…however deeply buried. And that’s why we have to help each other bring out that hero. That’s the bodhisattva way.

Remember the old parable of the blind men and the elephant? Each of them gropingly encounters a different part of the elephant, attempts to describe the entirety based on his limited experience, and (at least in some versions) they end up in violent disagreement as to the true nature of the elephant. Our state of life colors our perceptions in much the same way; when in hell, all the world seems hellish. When in rapture, the world seems beautiful. When angry, we see angry people everywhere. And so on… In another version of the elephant story, the men are not blind, but they encounter the elephant in a dark room with the same results. I’m now imagining the ten worlds as those people in the dark room with the elephant with eyes shut and blindfolds on…Hell, Hunger, Animality and Anger duly touch the elephant, draw their conclusions, and get into a huge fight over it. Humanity tries to stay out of it, tries to calm them down, and wonders what else to do. Rapture’s blindfold slips, but won’t come off all the way. Learning manages to get the blindfold off and eyes open. Realization finds the light switch. Bodhisattva turns on the light, helps the others take off their blindfolds, and encourages them to open their eyes.

Buddhahood? Well, Buddhahood always knows about the elephant. Buddhahood always sees the elephant. Buddhahood is something that’s inside all of us, and within all of those other worlds. Attaining Buddhahood isn’t like climbing a ladder, with each of lower worlds representing a rung. We don’t attain it so much as reveal it, just as the elephant is revealed. All we have to do is take off the blindfolds, open our eyes, and turn on the light.