Ichinen Sanzen: A few remarks

Statue of Chih-i, founder of the T'ien-t'ai School

Chih-i (538-597 CE) was one of the greatest Buddhist philosophers, perhaps second only to Nagarjuna. Also the de facto founder of the influential T’ien-t’ai or Heavenly Terrace School, as well as the first Chinese Buddhist to systemize Buddhist teachings, and a compilation of his teachings on practice resulted in the first Chinese mediation manuals.

Essentially, Chih-i was a Madhyamaka philosopher. I think his teachings need to be understood in that context.  The real founder and first Patriarch of T’ien-t’ai was Hui-wen (fl.550 CE), whose teachings were based exclusively on Nagarjuna’s Great Transcendent Wisdom Treatise (Mahaprajnaparamita-sastra). Hui-wen was the teacher of Hui-ssu (514-577), who in turn was Chih-i’s teacher.

Furthermore, the foundation of Chih-i’s own doctrine came from a phrase in Nagarjuna’s Verses on the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamka-karika), which says, “We state that whatever is dependent arising, that is emptiness. It is only a conventional designation which, again, is the Middle Way.”

Chih-i’s underlying themes were harmony and integration; that “all things and events of the phenomenal world, despite their manifold variety, are in a state of harmonious integration, one with another.” This is not different from Nagarjuna when he says that “This dharma [emptiness] is in harmony with all things . . . It is of the same nature as akasa [space].” Both Chih-i and Nagarjuna taught that the mind contains all dharmas or things, and that it possessed the same quality as space.

Chih-i recognized a need to systematize Indian Buddhism for a Chinese audience. One problem he faced was the Chinese aversion to the negative sounding Indian dialectic. Traditionally, Chinese philosophy tended to use more positive language. Like many people today, when Chinese Buddhists encountered the doctrine of emptiness, they initially viewed it as nihilistic, and missed its real import.

I-nien san-ch’ien or “Three Thousand Words in One Thought” (ichinen sanzen) is Chih-i’s way of putting a positive spin on emptiness. Sunyata (emptiness) and ichinen sanzen are flip sides of the same coin, although of the two, emptiness is the deeper teaching.

Chih-i does not reject emptiness, nor does he replace it. He merely clarifies it, or rather he offers an explanation from another angle. One key to grasping these two concepts is in understanding how Chih-i and Nagarjuna viewed Dharmadhatu, the matrix, the totality of phenomenal reality, or limitless, all-pervading space in which all phenomena arise, abide, and cease.

In the Verses on the Middle Way, Nagarjuna says,

“Even as it is the very nature of water to flow down by reach of which all waters return to the great oceans, blend and become of one essence,  just in the same way all determinate entities, all natures general and particular, return ultimately to Dharmadhatu, blend and become of one essence with it. This is Dharmadhatu  . . . Through knowledge, through discrimination, the mind seeks the true nature of things and thus get to tathata [the ultimate essence of all things]. From tathata , the mind enters its original nature, where it remains as it ever was, devoid of birth (and death) and with all imaginative constructions put an end to. This is the meaning of Dharmadhatu . . . Beings are varied and different; their acceptances and rejections vary. But when they reach their inmost nature, then their movement stops. Nothing else is there to reach exceeding this. This is the meaning of Dharmadhatu.

In the Mo Ho Chih-kuan, Chih-I says,

As for stopping and seeing [chih-kuan], by sitting upright and being mindful, one removes the veils of wrong concentration and does not engage in discursive thoughts. Do not let your mind wander, or cling to appearances. Single-pointedly focus on the Dharmadhatu. With a single thought on the Dharmadhatu, focusing  is then stopping, and seeing is one thought. When you understand that all dharmas are the Buddha’s teaching, before and after dissolve, and there are no more limits . . . one dwells where there is nothing to dwell on, just as Buddhas dwell, abiding in the silence of the Dharmadhatu. For this reason, you should not be afraid of this teaching.

Dharmadhatu is also called enlightenment, as well as the ‘inconceivable realm.’ It is also known as wisdom, for it is not becoming and not passing away. All phenomena are nothing other than Dharmadhatu. Do not let doubts arise while learning of this nondifference and nonduality.

If you can but understand in this manner . . . when one sees Buddha, one does not  think of Buddha as Buddha. There is no Buddha to be Buddha  . . . Seeing Buddha like this is very subtle. It is like space, it has no imperfection, and it promotes right mindfulness . . . Seeing Buddha is then like gazing into a mirror and seeing one’s own face.

For Nagarjuna, emptiness is the door that opens to the inconceivable realm, the ultimate reality, which is nothing other than this very world we inhabit. He says, “Samsara is Nirvana.” Nirvana is not some other place, or a blowing out, a complete extinction of being; rather it is the great joy realized with the extinction of earthy desires and ignorance.

Likewise, for Chih-i, there is no other reality than the phenomenal world. All things are in harmony with one another and perfectly integrated. This is the idea of “mutual possession” or “mutual inclusion” that is really nothing more than a restatement of “dependent arising,” the interdependency and inter-linking nature of all things.

Originally, ichinen sanzen was intended to form the basis for meditation: every moment of thought includes “three thousand worlds,” a term that symbolizes the totality of phenomenal reality. It’s not important whether there are three thousand or thirty million worlds, it’s just a number, a way to describe something that is almost indescribable or inconceivable to the mind.

In the narrow view, emptiness means that all things are “empty” of self or own-being, while in the broader view it signifies the “open” nature of all things. Beings, thoughts, and things (dharmas) are not isolated from other beings, thoughts, and things, for no single entity can stand on its own side. To paraphrase John Donne, everything is a part of the main, everything is interlinked and mutually inclusive.

Leon Hurvitz, in his famous dissertation on Chih-i, wrote that as for Nagarjuna, so too for Chih-i the primary concern was “the cognizing mind and that of the cognized object” and how to counter the tendency to seize, to cling to objects as though they were substantial entities: “For, the moment that is done, one is denying the cardinal doctrine of the interdependence of all things.” In other words, emptiness and ichinen sanzen point in the same direction with the same goal.

Today, the concept of ichinen sanzen is not widely known. How it may be used in modern Tendai, I have no idea. Tendai seems to be rather exclusive and isolated. On the other hand, the Nichiren traditions rely on ichinen sanzen to a great extent, and they are more than happy to share. Unfortunately, and I say this as a former practitioner in that tradition, Nichiren completely misunderstood both Nagarjuna and Chih-i. In Nichiren’s hands, and those of his followers, ichinen sanzen is mere dogma, and instead of seeing the Lotus Sutra as inclusive of all Buddhist teachings, as Chih-i did, the sad reality is that they have made it exclusive of all other Buddhist teachings.  If you think that one sutra is superior to all others, that there is one True teaching or one True Buddhism, you understand neither emptiness or ichinen sanzen.

In the Mo Ho Chih-kuan, Chih-i says that “Emptiness is just a label.” The same goes for ichinen sanzen. In Chih-i’s teachings, this concept, and for that matter, the Lotus Sutra, are only expedient methods for pointing to the ultimate truth. Tools to be used, but not to be seized. In this way, emptiness is the deeper teaching because it cuts through all dogma. With a firm understanding of emptiness, one is able to sever all attachments, stop all clinging, because emptiness cuts through everything, including itself.

It is not possible to go into all the details in this post, so there are some points unmade, some interconnecting doctrines not considered, and some nuances left out.

Here, then is the “nuts and bolts” explanation of ichinen sanzen, from Chih-i’s Mo Ho Chih-kuan (Great Stopping and Seeing), which I believe was translated by Burton Watson. In this passage, Chih-i uses the terms “vertical” and “horizontal.” In his doctrinal language, vertical is “the gate to the source” and horizontal means “the gate to the manifestation.”

. . . thirty types of world-realm all originate from the mind. Moreover, the ten [different manifestations] of the five aggregates each comprises ten dharmic constituents. They include their such-like: (1) mark, (2) nature, (3) substance, (4) power, (5) activity, (6) palpable cause, (7) ancillary influences, (8) effect, (9) recompense, and (10) ultimate beginning and end . . .

Now, the Mind comprises these ten dharma-spheres, but each dharma-sphere also comprises ten dharma-spheres, giving a hundred dharma-spheres. One sphere comprises thirty kinds of worlds, hence a hundred dharma-spheres comprise three thousand kinds of worlds. These three thousand are contained in a fleeting moment of thought. Where there is no Mind, that is the end of the matter; if mind comes into being to the slightest degree whatsoever, it immediately contains the three thousand. One may say neither that the one Mind is prior and all dharmas posterior nor that all dharmas are prior and the one Mind posterior. For example, the eight characters of matter change things. If the thing were prior to the characters, the thing would undergo no change. Thus neither priority no posteriority is possible. One can only discuss the thing in terms of it changing characters or the characters in terms of the changing thing. Now the Mind is also thus. If one derives all dharmas from the one Mind, this is a vertical relationship, if the mind all at once contains all dharmas, this is a horizontal relationship. Neither vertical nor horizontal will do. All one can say is that the Mind is all dharmas and that all dharmas are the Mind. Therefore the relationship is neither vertical nor horizontal, neither the same nor different. It is obscure, subtle, and profound in the extreme. Knowledge cannot know it, nor can words speak it. Herein lies the reason for it being called “the realm of the inconceivable.”


8 thoughts on “Ichinen Sanzen: A few remarks

  1. Thank you for some really useful research material. I’m practising Nichiren buddhism in the UK, and have always struggled with faith without gaining a fuller understanding behind some of Nichiren’s doctrines. I believe Nichiren’s inentions were pure, and still fit with the times (for many people), but I accept that some require a deeper foundation in theory before they can develop faith. Can a teaching engender faith?

    Perhaps the faith approach is that in chanting Daimoku one can awaken one’s Buddha nature, and thus reduce one’s ignorance, and suffering. Whereas through the meditative approach one achieves the same ends, but through great concentration and insight into emptiness and impermanence?

    Please forgive me if I paraphrase some of Chih-i’s writings you have cited here – it’s great reading!

    1. Thanks, Steve, for your comment. Glad you enjoyed the post. Sure, a teaching can engender faith, but I also think that faith can endanger understanding of a teaching. It’s depends on what is meant by “faith.” These days I am not too sure about the kind of expressions of faith that one finds in the Nichiren and Pure Land traditions. One can have trust and confidence in the teachings and practices of Buddhism, but that is not necessarily the same thing as what most people would call faith, which has more to do with belief. It may seem like I am splitting hairs, but I think there is a subtle difference.

      As you state, through the meditative approach one achieves the same ends of awakening one’s Buddha-nature, reducing ignorance and suffering. Insight into emptiness and impermanence reveals that we are all equally empty, equally impermanent, and equally Buddhas.

      1. Faith vs Trust and Confidence – this distinction is certainly not splitting hairs. While I believe society would benefit from Buddhism, and that Nichiren Buddhism is perhaps one of the most accessible in terms of its ‘instant buddha’ promise, I fear that it is taught more from a position of faith and proof (in daily life) than that of study and understanding (despite the popular message within SGI of ‘faith, study and practice’). This inevitably induces an occult element, which is at the root of the current and ugly schism between SGI and the priesthood.

        Your blog and your responses do you great credit, David – for once I find someone who does not partake in the ugly partisan or ad hominem attacks on the leaders of other sects! I’m off to bed, but I’m sure we’ll write again.

        1. Thanks for you kind words, Steve. I try not to “attack” but at the same time I can be rather opinionated at times.

          Not sure what you mean by “instant buddha” promise, but taking it in the most positive connotation, being the idea that we can become Buddhas in this lifetime, the Nichiren tradition certainly has no monopoly on that. Of course, attaining Buddhahood is not so much an end result as it is an extremely high stage in one’s ever-continuing evolution.

          1. Hey Steve and David!

            I’ve actually had email discussions with both of you in regards to Nichiren Buddhism and I thought I’d pipe in here because I’ve done a bit of research on “Faith” as it is expressed in Nichiren Buddhism. Also, thank you David for directing to this post today! It has given me lots to think about.

            The actual word that “Faith” is translated from is the Sanskrit word “Shraddha (Sanskrit)” or “Saddha (Pali).” I checked on the SGI online dictionary and they translate it directly as “faith” (http://www.sgilibrary.org/search_dict.php?id=606) so I decided to do a little searching to get a better understanding of the word and most sources say that the word “Shraddha” doesn’t really have an English equivalent. Some sources refer to it as “faith,” but not as the faith we normally understand the word to mean. One online source states the below:

            Shraddha means something closer to “trust” or “conviction.” It most commonly refers to the conviction that develops from one’s own direct experience and practice. It can also mean confidence or trust in oneself and one’s practice. In the Saddha Sutta of the Pali Canon, the Buddha compared trust in the dharma to the way birds “trust” a tree in which they build their nests. (http://buddhism.about.com/od/buddhismglossarys/g/Saddha-Shraddha.htm)

            A Nichiren Buddhist practitioner (non-SGI) that I spoke with said, “Faith requires implicit and explicit shunning of fact or evidence, while the true meaning of the Sanskrit and Chinese calligraphy is a, ‘sense of deep commitment and resolute determination’.”

            Although we might think the the words ‘Faith’ and ‘Conviction’ are interchangeable, here is a great perspective on the distinction between the two.

            Faith is a belief that has no absolute basis in observable fact – for example “There is a god”. It may be supported by observed facts that can seemingly only be explained in the light of the belief, but nonetheless the belief itself is not a result of the facts. Indeed, in my interpretation, if it could be generated purely from the facts, it’s not really faith – it’s conviction. Faith requires NOT knowing for sure, in an empirical way, that something is true.

            Conviction, on the other hand, requires the exact opposite. It’s the nominalisation of the passive voice of the verb “to convinced”; that is, it means the state of being convinced. And in order to be convinced of something, there have to be observed (or at least acknowledged) facts from which the conviction has been derived. It doesn’t matter whether one’s interpretation of the facts is accurate, or accepted by other people – that’s not the point, what matters is that the belief has come from facts that are believed to lead to it. (http://www.ecademy.com/node.php?id=146031)

          2. Thanks, Michael, for piping in. You lay it out pretty well. Faith in Buddhism is highly nuanced. While I think in general we can rule out the disregard for facts or evidence as a essential component of Buddhist “faith,” I’m not so sure we can entirely dismiss belief, or perhaps acceptance would be a better word. For instance, the Chinese character xinxin, most often used to denote faith, is defined in one Buddhist dictionary (Soothill) as “a believing mind, receiving without doubt,” and in the ancient texts and commentaries when some statement is made, it is often followed up with something along the lines of “have no doubts about this.” So, I think there is, or was, an element of believing in dharma simply on the basis of hearing, having trust in a sutra or teacher’s words. One is expected to trust that the words have a basis in fact or else the sutra or teacher would not have said it. I think, though, this would be more applicable at the beginning stages of one’s practice.

            In any case, here are a couple of posts I’ve written on this subject:

            What is Faith?

            21st Century Faith

  2. Hi All… Thanks for the recent comments, which have been interesting to note. My study of “faith”, or at least Shraddha contributed to me moving away from the SGI. As you point out, the English “faith” is just too vague due to context for it to be a useful word to describe a spiritual viewpoint in the West. For me, personally, faith in a spiritual context means a conviction that a teaching is essentially “correct view” – that is to say, it serves to remove ignorance and lessen suffering. I think a world that is full of spirits and deities is something that the West is clearly averse to, and yet I think Buddhism loses something if we take the other extreme view of applying the scientific method – In a spiritual context, we have Buddhism represented by this kind of thinking, and on the other hand we have the likes of Krishnamurti. As always, finding the elusive middle way is a personal journey. Avalokiteshvara, for example, for me is not (and cannot be) an independent entity, but still I see him/her manifest in the world around me. I have faith that this influence exists in people because I feel it is a benefit to all – but this faith only grew out of meditation, daily practice and reflection.

    1. Thanks, Steve.

      Avalokiteshvara, or as I prefer, Kuan Yin (in the female manifestation) represents the seed of compassion within each of us. So, to have faith in Kuan Yin, as many Chinese Buddhists do, is really just to have faith, or trust, confidence, belief in, your own capacity of compassion, or in the potential of your own bodhisattvahood. Some people do view Kuan Yin as an independent entity. Regardless, I think she is a wonderful and very powerful icon or symbol of compassion. I love Kuan Yin dearly.

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