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.”