Empty, Provisionally Existent, and The Middle Way

Yesterday, a reader commented on Thursday’s post, “What is Faith”:

This one was written for the advanced student, I think. It was difficult for me to understand, anyway. What is “provisionally existent?” What provisions?

Does one have faith in nothingness? What is faith in nothing? Nothing in nothing. I’m confused. A rank beginner, obviously.

This understanding is a challenge for everyone. The first thing we need to do, though, is to forget about the words “nothing” and “nothingness.” That is not what we are talking about at all.

In Thursday’s post, I quoted Kuan-Ting discussing Chih-i’s concept of the Threefold Truth (Emptiness, Conventional Existence, and the Middle Way):

. . . all entities are empty, [and yet] they are nevertheless provisionally existent, and that they are the middle between these extremes.”

Ancient painting of T'ien-t'ai master, Chih-i

As I stated in the post, Chih-i (538–597 CE) is considered the de facto founder of the T’ien-T’ai (“Celestial Terrace”) school. He was the first Chinese Buddhist to produce meditation manuals and the first Chinese Buddhist scholar to attempt to unify the various and contradictory Indian teachings. In the process, he developed a number of new doctrines, his work based mainly on the teachings of Nagarjuna. The Threefold Truth, then, was an expansion on Nagarjuna’s Two Truths.

Truth or satya, according to the Soothill dictionary of Buddhist terms, means “To judge, examine into, investigate . . .” In Buddha-dharma, truth is not arbitrary or arrived at through revelation. As one scholar, Yao-Yu Wu, puts it: “Truth is the investigation of reality, the principles of reality learned through investigation are called Truth.” This investigation is done primarily through the process of meditation.

In Fundamental Verses on The Middle Way, Nagarjuna says,

The teachings of the Buddha are based on two truths, the mundane and the ultimate. Those who do not know the distinction between these two do not understand the profound meaning in the teachings of the Buddha.”

According to the ultimate truth, all things (dharmas), all phenomena, are devoid of an essential self-being (Skt. svabhava) or selfhood. They are empty (Skt. sunya). Self-being is an intrinsic nature that is permanent, unconditioned, independent, and un-caused. In Buddhism, the existence of self-being is impossible. For this reason, we say that things do not exist on their own, independently, eternally, without causes and conditions.

This, however, does not deny the reality of the phenomenal world. From the perspective of the mundane (relative or conventional) truth, all things do exist. But, due to the fact that they lack this intrinsic nature or inherent existence, they are only “provisionally existent.” In other words, it is a temporary existence.

Nagarjuna further says, “All things neither exist (as substantial Being) nor inexist (as nothingness).” Paul Swanson, in Foundations of T’ien-t’ai Philosophy, explains:

Therefore, “non-existence” is affirmed in the sense that though phenomena have conventional existence, they have no substantial Being. “Not inexistent” is affirmed in the sense that though phenomena have no substantial Being, they are not complete nothingness.”

When we look into the mirror, we see a person, a being, who is unique. There is no one else in the world who looks exactly like us, has the same personality, thinks exactly as we do, with the same personal history, etc. Yet, all the characteristics that seem to make us unique are temporary, they will cease to exist when we die, and all of that uniqueness comprises perhaps less than 2% of our entire being. The other 98% is exactly alike everyone else. From this perspective, it is just as Kuan-Ting wrote, “all entities are alike, ultimate, pure and unimpeded.”

Buddhism teaches that all things come into being as the result of causes and conditions, that they are interconnected. This we call pratitya-samutpada – dependent origination, conditioned co-arising, or interdependency.

Chinese character for "The Middle Way"

Chih-i pointed out that within the doctrine of the Two Truths there was actually a third truth implied. He based this on Nagarjuna’s famous maxim:

Whatever arises through interdependency is emptiness. However, this is a conventional designation. It is the meaning of the Middle Way.”

Chih-i maintained that emptiness and provisional existence are merely different extremes or aspects of one reality. Things are empty, in that they do not exist in themselves, but at the same time, they are not nothing. They are midway between these two extremes, and that middle ground (or Middle Way) constitutes a third truth.  On this point, Paul Swanson says,

Chih-i interpreted reality as a threefold truth, a single unity with three integrated aspects . . . The threefold truth is an integrated unity with three aspects. First, emptiness (Skt. sunyata), or absence of substantial Being, often identified with the ultimate truth (Skt. paramartha-satya). Second, conventional existence, the temporary existence of the phenomenal world as co-arising, often identified with the worldly truth (Skt. samvrti-satya). Third, the Middle [Way], a simultaneous affirmation of both emptiness and conventional existence as aspects of a single integrated reality.

For Chih-i these three components are not separate from each other but integral parts of a unified reality.

That’s why Kuan-Ting says that these three views are also provisional, because they are not independent. None of the three truths can stand alone. And when he says faith is conviction, he does not mean any sort of blind faith. Along with meaning a strong belief, the word “conviction” also conveys “the state of being convinced” (Merriam-Webster). And how are we to be convinced? Through our investigation of reality. In this way, the principles of reality learned through investigation that we call truth or satya, become the objects of our conviction, our faith.

To have faith in the Threefold Truth of Emptiness, the Provisional, and the Middle Way is to see reality as it truly is. Chih-i called it chen-k’ung miao-yu or “true emptiness, wondrous existence.”

Chen-k’ung or “true emptiness” refers to the realm of thought, the mind that realizes the emptiness of all things. It’s a state of mind that, free from attachments, is likened to space – it’s non-obstructive, open, and vast. Miao-yu, “wondrous existence”, says Buddhist scholar Ng Yu-kwan, “would imply an affirmative but non-attaching attitude toward the dharmas [things] in the world.” So, once again, emptiness does not deny or reject existence – emptiness is never nothingness – rather it is insight into the mystery of existence, it’s inexplicable reality, and our faith is in the glorious interdependency of all things.

This is a rather simplistic explanation, and I left a number of things out (like the Five Skandhas) in order to keep it as simple as possible. Nonetheless, I hope it helps answer the questions and does not add to any confusion.

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