Extraterrestrial Highway

ET-Hwy2The U.S. Government has finally admitted the existence of Area 51, the secret base where many people believe that for decades the Air Force has been studying crashed alien spaceships along with captured, or stranded, extraterrestrials. Area 51 is located 100 miles from Las Vegas, near the small town of Rachel, on Nevada State Route 375, also known as the Extraterrestrial Highway, so named because of the numerous UFO sightings and reports of other strange alien happenings along the road.

Unfortunately, according to the new declassified documents, Area 51 was just home base for the U-2 spy plane program and other aerial surveillance programs. How boring. But there is a caveat, and that’s that this information comes from the CIA, not famous for their truthfulness, so there is still a small ray of hope for UFO enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists.

marvinI believe in the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and I’d certainly like to meet up with an ET. Nothing would be cooler. Unless, he, she, or it wanted to zap me with a ray gun, or was intent on destroying the earth. That’s definitely not cool.

But believe me, the threat from space is real, and as it stands right now, we’re about to become less protected. The United States Air Force says that because of the sequester cuts, it can no longer afford to maintain the “Space Fence,” the space surveillance network that scans the sky for extraterrestrial threats that could destroy Earth. This is disturbing news because when the Space Surveillance System shuts down in October not only will we be vulnerable to global devastation from incoming comets and asteroids, but we’ll also be unable to detect impending interplanetary attacks.

This is serious stuff. This June, NASA announced that more than 10,000 asteroids and comets are near Earth, which means they could come within 28 million miles of the planet – that’s uncomfortably close. I guess.

Speaking of space, Lama Govinda notes that “According to the ancient Indian tradition, the universe reveals itself in two fundamental properties: as motion, and as that in which motion takes place, namely space . . . space is called akasa . . . derived from the root kas, ‘to radiate, to shine’, and has therefore also the meaning of ‘ether’. . .” *

In Buddhism, there are two kinds of space, local or limited space (akasa-dhatu), and infinite space (ajata-kasa). You really got to hand it to the ancient Indians, because when most people thought the earth was flat and that the sun revolved around it, those guys in India were envisioning multiple universes, multiple planes of existence within these universes, life on other worlds.

It’s really mind-blowing. Take the Lotus Sutra, for example. In this text, the Buddha explains that he didn’t actually become enlightened under the Bodhi tree as he said, but in fact, he became enlightened in unimaginably distant past.

He tells the assembly on Vulture Peak:

It has been immeasurable, boundless hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of kotis of kalpas (eons) since I in fact attained Buddhahood . . .  Suppose a person were to take five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a million nayuta asogi thousand-million-fold worlds and grind them to dust. Then, traveling east, passing another five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a million nayuta asogi worlds he drops one particle of dust. Then, suppose he continues eastward like this until he has finished dropping all the particles. Good men, what do you think? Can the total number of all these worlds be imagined or calculated?”

Well, yeah, they can. A kotis is 10 million, and a nayuta is 100 million. It works out something like this: 5 x 100 x 1000 x 10,000 x 100,000 x 100, 000, 000, 000 x 1,000,000,000,000[4] x 1,000. On my calculator it comes out as 2.e+41, whatever that might be. Let’s just say it’s heck of lot of worlds. Actually they’re ‘world systems’ or galaxies.

By the way, I know you are very impressed with my calculations, but I have to admit that I got it from a book called Lecture on the Sutra by Josei Toda.

Then the Buddha says,

Suppose all these worlds, are once more reduced to dust, and each particle represents one kalpa (eon = 4.32 billion years). The time that has passed since I attained Buddhahood surpasses this by a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a million nayuta asogi kalpas. Ever since then I have been in this saha (mundane) world, teaching the dharma. Likewise, I have led and benefited living beings in hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of nayuta asogi worlds.”

Not only that, but Buddhist tradition holds that there have been countless Buddhas in the past, although several eons usually go by between each Buddha’s appearance, and there are Buddhas presently teaching in other worlds.

I’m a bit pessimistic about all that, but at any rate, this passage in the Lotus Sutra is where the Buddha reveals that he is not the mundane Gautama Shakyamuni Buddha of history, instead, he is the cosmic, Eternal Buddha. Naturally, this shouldn’t be taken literally, because it’s allegory. Just as the Buddha says he has always existed in this world, the potential for awakening to Buddha Nature has always existed in our life.

We could say that in this allegory, infinite space represents the infinite mind. As a physical object, our brain, may not be a vast as space itself, but it does contain 456 trillion trillion atoms, and our brain can hold more information and process it faster than the most powerful super-computer on earth.

Influenced by the Lotus Sutra, T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i developed the concept of i-nien san-ch’ien or “three thousand worlds in one thought.” These worlds, which some translators call dharma-realms, are basic conditions of life that interpenetrate one another, possess certain factors or qualities, and are manifested within the three spheres of existence: the five aggregates (form, sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness), the realm of sentient beings, and the realm of the environment.

Chih-i arrived at the number of 3000 through a particular formula, but enough calculating for one post. Suffice it to say that the number of worlds is not important but rather what it represents, which is the interpenetration of all reality in a single thought. This is also stated as a single moment of thought permeating the universe with all phenomena in the universe contained within that single thought moment. Figuratively, then, the mind is a vast as space after all.

Chih-i’s identification of all reality with the mind was his way of equating the mind with Buddha-nature. All worlds or dharmas are Buddha-worlds or Buddha-dharmas, so the takeaway here is put succinctly by Chih-i himself in the text, Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sutra,

If one contemplates the thoughts of one’s mind . . . with the understanding that all dharmas (realities) originate from the mind, then the mind is Buddha-nature.”

Huang Po, a Chinese Ch’an teacher who lived roughly two hundred years after Chih-i once said, “Remember that the endlessness of the ten directions of infinite space is originally one’s own Mind.”

Just as with space, we are really still in the early stages of our exploration of the mind. The mind is the true Extraterrestrial Highway because it can take us beyond our saha or mundane world. I don’t mean to formless realms or twilight zones, but rather to a dimension of space and time where we transcend the desires and illusion that bind us to a world of suffering.

The mind is said to be quiescent like space. Nirvana is also said to be quiescent like space. It is through quieting the mind, allowing Buddha-nature to ‘to radiate, to shine’ that we can find Nirvana, right where we are in a single moment, in the present moment.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Anagarika Brahmacari Govinda, Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism, Weiser Books, 1960


The Six Subtle Dharma Doors

doors-1d3The Six Subtle Dharma Doors (Lu Miao Fa Meng) is a manual attributed to T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i that explains a meditation method consisting of six steps, each one of which is said to directly bring about purification of mind and the transcendence of suffering.

Still well known in Asian, both the text and the technique are relatively unfamiliar here in the West. One can find references to the Lu Miao Fa Meng here and there, for instance, Thich Nhat Hanh in several of his book mentions “The Six Wonderful Dharma Doors.” He describes them as “counting the breath, following the breath, concentrating the mind, observing to throw light on all that exists, returning to the source of mind, and going beyond the concepts of subject and object.”

Lu Miao Fa Meng
Lu Miao Fa Meng

There is an English translation of Chih-i’s text, titled “The Six Dharma Gates to the Sublime,” and it appears to be a good literal, and authoritative, translation, yet I wonder how familiar the translator is with the teachings of the T’ien-t’ai school. For one thing, in the title of the work, we find the Chinese character miao (pronounced “meow”), that this translator renders as “sublime”, which is certainly acceptable, but he associates it with the term pranita, rather than the Sanskrit sad (or sat), which has a more direct relationship with T’ien-t’ai doctrine and practice.*

Miao is an key term in Chih-i’s philosophy. In “Profound Meaning of the Dharma Flower [Lotus Sutra]”, he devotes a lengthy section discussing the meaning of miao and miao-fa (saddharma). For Chih-I, miao meant “subtle”: “beyond conceptual thought.”**

As The Six Subtle Dharma Doors focuses on the breath, there is another, more literal aspect of “subtle” to consider. The breath is the perfect object for meditation because it is so subtle. One of the chief aims of meditation is to let go of discursive thinking, and we often breathe without thinking about it at all. It follows, then, that it should be relatively simple to focus on the breath without attaching a great deal of conceptual thought to the process.

In Lu Miao Fa Meng, Chih-i tells that the name “six subtle dharma doors” (or gates) means they are linked together and mutually inclusive. As progressive steps, though, the sequence moves from learning to concentrate the mind, to effortless mindfulness of breath, calming the mind, severing delusions, returning to original mind (which includes returning to the original teachings and meditation of the Buddha), and finally, realization of the emptiness (non-substantiality) of all dharmas, or things.

The Six Subtle Dharma Doors falls under “Subtlety of Practice”, the third of Chih-i’s three categories of Subtlety (Subtlety of Objects, Subtlety of Knowledge, and Subtlety of Practice), and is actually a rather simple meditation technique, although the last three steps  are not as straightforward as the first three.

Yin Shih Tzu
Yin Shih Tzu

The textural source for this meditation that has been most helpful to me is from Yin Shih Tzu. His explanation and instructions from Chapter 6 of his book Experimental Meditation for the Promotion of Health appears in Secrets of Chinese Meditation by Charles Luk. The same material was translated into English some years ago in Tranquil Sitting.

Evidently, Yin Shih Tzu, was a lay person who first studied Taoist meditation as a member of the Dragon Door Sect (Lung Men Tsung) and later went on to master practices taught in the T’ien-t’ai, Ch’an and Tibetan schools. In the early 1950’s, when he was in his 80’s, he wrote several books that are considered classic works on the subject of meditation. In Luk’s book, the Lu Miao Fa Meng is translated as “The Six Profound Dharma Doors,” while in “Tranquil Sitting” it is rendered as “The Six Mystical Steps.”

Here are the opening paragraphs to Yin Shih Tzu’s instructions in Tranquil Sitting, as translated by Shi Fu Hwang and Cheney Crow, Ph.D.:

Breath is the origin of life. Anyone who cannot breathe will soon die. The nervous system cannot sustain its reflexes and the mind dies. His life is finished. Breath alone makes it possible for us to connect the body and the mind, and maintain life. The entry and exit of air through our nostrils depends on this breath. Although it is usually invisible to our eyes, breath has both form and weight, since it has both weight and form, during its passage it is also a material part of our body. We realize that entry and exit of the breath depend entirely on our mind, and that is part of the spirit. Since breath can connect the body and mind, we know that breath itself is part of the body and mind.

The six mystical steps will teach the practitioner to manage the technique of breathing. It is a method of continuous meditation. After learning the principles of Chih Kuan, the practitioner can go further to study the six mystical steps. Even without practicing the principles of Chih Kuan, he may begin the study of the six mystical steps.

The six mystical steps are: counting, following, resting, visualization, returning, and clarifying.”

And now, the practice:

The Six Subtle Dharma Doors, taught by T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i, based on instructions by Yin Shih Tzu.

The Six Subtle Dharma Doors center on breath and are a thorough method of meditation.

The method consists of: (1) Counting the breath (shu), (2) Following the breath (sui), (3) Stopping (chih), (4) Contemplating/seeing (kuan), (5) Returning (huan), and (6) Refining (ching).

1. Counting (shu)

Regulate the breath so that it is even and rhythmic. Count slowly, from one to ten, placing the count on either the inhalation or the exhalation, not letting the mind wander. If notice that your mind has strayed, go back to count one and begin again.

As you become comfortable and proficient with the counting method, your breathing will become so regular and subtle, that you will no longer need to count.

2. Following (sui)

When counting is no longer necessary, practice the method of following. Just follow the breath going in and out. As in counting, if the mind wanders simply bring your attention back to the breath. As practice progresses in this method, breath and mind become one. It will feel as if the breath is passing through all the pores of the body, and the mind is peaceful and still.

3. Stopping (chih)

Once the method of following has been mastered, the breath still may not be subtle enough. Stopping, then, is the next step. Here, the entire practice consists of simply focusing the mind on the tip of the nose. As this method proceeds, the practitioner should lose his or her constant awareness of a physical body and mind, indicating entry into level of deep quiescence.

4. Seeing (kuan)

The seeing method is visualization. It is also called “turning back the light of the mind upon itself.” Visualize the breath coming in and going out of the body. Eventually you can mentally observe the breath entering and exiting through every pore in your body. When the light of the mind is turned back in this way, the practitioner should see that all things are empty and without a substantial reality of their own.

5. Returning (huan)

After practicing seeing for some time, follow up with returning. The practice of returning consists of two steps. First involves visualization. Having already visualized the breath, the mind is now attuned to the art of intelligent visualization, which differs from intelligent activity. The aim here is to dissolve the duality between the mind that contemplates the breath and the breath that is contemplated. This opens the way for tracing the origin of one’s thought back to the fundamental, true mind.

The second step is to understand that like the breath, the mind also rises and falls. This is likened to water that rises in waves. Waves, however, are not the water. Thus, the mind that rises and falls is not the true mind. We look into true mind and see that it is uncreated, beyond ‘is’ and therefore, empty. As it is empty, there is no subjective mind that contemplates, and since there is no contemplating mind, there is nothing contemplated.

Going back to the true mind in this way is what is meant by “returning.”***

6. Refining (ching)

In returning, there may linger some idea of returning. The first step of refining is to clear the mind of any vestiges of this thought. The second step of refining is to keep your mind like still water, with all random thinking and discrimination stopped. In this way, you can observe your true mind.

In observing the true mind, one realizes that it does not exist apart from the random thinking mind that discriminates. It is like the waves disappearing on the surface of the water. This is called pure realization.

In The Six Subtle Dharma Doors, counting (1) and following (2) are the preliminary practice. Stopping (3) and seeing (4) is the main practice, and returning (5) and refining (6) are the concluding practice, or the “fruit of the meditation.” Stopping is the chief training, and seeing is its support.

Here ends the instructions on The Six Subtle Dharma Doors.


* Pranita, is “pure, immaculate, beautiful.” Chih-i understood and used miao in relation to sad (or sat), as in the saddharma of the Lotus Sutra (a very important sutra for the T’ien-t’ai school), meaning “wonderful, beautiful, mystic, profound, subtle, mysterious.” [See A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms, 1994 compiled by William Edward Soothill, Delhi., pg. 234] Without going into a lengthy explanation, it is suffice to say that the distinction between sad and pranita in relation to miao is important.

** See Hurvitz, Leon Nahu,  Chih-i (538-597): An Introduction to the Life and Ideas of a Chinese Buddhist Monk, 1959, UMI Dissertation Services, and Swanson, Paul, Foundations of T’ien-T’ai Philosophy, Asian Humanities Press, 1989

*** “Returning” is also to return to the original meditation of the Buddha, as Chih-i maintained that The Six Subtle Dharma Doors was the method Shakyamuni used the night of his awakening beneath the Bodhi Tree. Even though he cites several ancient text in support of this claim, it must be noted that Chih-i’s sense of the Buddha was not historical, but more the Mahayana Shakyamuni, or quite possibly Shakyamuni as the Eternal Buddha of the Lotus Sutra.

Other Works Mentioned:

Thich Nhat Hanh, Breathe, You Are Alive!: The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, Parallax Press, 1992

The Six Dharma Gates to the Sublime, Bhikshu Dharmamitra, translator, Kalavinka Press, 2009

Luk, Charles (Lu K’uan Yu), The Secrets of Chinese Meditation, Samuel Weiser, 1965

Shi Fu Hwang and Cheney Crow, Ph.D., Tranquil Sitting, Dragon Door Publications, 1994


View from the Celestial Terrace

While scholars still debate the historicity of Bodhidharma, considered by many the “father of Zen,” one real father of that school is Chih-i, the Third Patriarch and actual founder of the Chinese T’ien-t’ai (“Celestial Terrace”) tradition, whose historicity is not in doubt and whose teachings on both doctrine and meditation paved the way for the development of Ch’an/Zen.

c-ichikuan9g2bChih-i was one of the giants of Mahayana Buddhism. In the West, it seems that there is little knowledge or appreciation of his tremendous influence. Many of the Eastern Mahayana schools, and their Western extensions, still study the meditation manuals attributed to this great master, so at least for them, his philosophy lives on.

I often see remarks by non-Asian Buddhists to the effect that Chih-i’s meditation teachings are too complex and the practices he laid-out too time-consuming to be of much use in this modern age. But if that were entirely true, then why are his manuals still studied and his influence so highly-regarded in the East? I think a lot of it has to do with bad PR. Chih-i’s school in no longer in existence, so he hasn’t had any modern day champions, as Bodhidharma has, and while the Japanese offshoot of T’ien-t’ai, Tendai, from which Japanese Zen emerged, is still in operation, it is so insular it’s become irrelevant. The Nichiren traditions do acknowledge Chih-i’s influence and rely on his teachings, but merely as a backdrop to Nichiren’s philosophy, and they largely misinterpret the doctrinal aspects while they ignore the meditation teachings entirely.

It was that latter group of teachings that had such a great influence on Chinese Ch’an, Pure Land, and especially, Japanese Zen, but during Chih-i’s time (the Sixth Century CE), there were no Ch’an/Zen schools to speak of; however, the term ch’an, being the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit word dhyana, was in use as a general term for Buddhist practice. Paul Swanson, a professor at Nanzan University in Japan, and a specialist in the area of T’ien-tai/Tendai Buddhism, says in his essay, “Ch’an and Chih-kuan,” that Chih-i moved away from the use of ch’an in his teachings because it focused narrowly on the chih (cessation or samatha) aspect of meditation, at the expense of the kuan (contemplation or vipassana) aspect:

Chih-i (based, to a great degree, on his understanding of the teachings of the Lotus Sutra) is critical of an unbalanced emphasis on “meditation alone,” portraying it as a possible “extreme” view and practice, and offering instead the binome chih-kuan (calming/cessation and insight/contemplation, samatha-vipasyana) as a more comprehensive term for Buddhist practice.”

It might be a mistake for us to view chih-kuan simply in terms of it being the Chinese translation of samatha-vipassana. Kuan-ting (Chih-i’s student), in his introduction to the monumental work on Buddhist practice attributed to Chih-i, the Mo-ho Chih-kuan (“Great Stopping and Seeing”), wrote, “The luminous quiescence of stopping and seeing [chih-kuan] was unknown in former ages until The Wise Teacher [Chih-i] expounded it,” suggesting that Chih-i’s concept of meditation differed from the established teachings at the time, and that his intention was to take Buddhist meditation into a new dimension, one of balance and inclusiveness.

Chih-i disapproved of “masters” who advocated one-sided practice, “claiming that their teaching and practice is unbalanced and perhaps even dangerous.” Swanson quotes from the Mo-ho Chih-kuan:

If people rely exclusively [on either cessation or contemplation, or on only one teaching or practice] to attain understanding, then what was the reason for the Buddha to offer such a variety of teachings? The heavens are not always clear; a doctor does not rely exclusively on powdered medicine; one does not always eat rice.”

Peter N. Gregory, suggests that Chih-i’s form of samatha-vipassana was to some extent “samatha-prajna or meditation and wisdom, as vipasyana may be understood as the teaching aspect of the practice brought into meditation) . . .” (Sudden and Gradual: Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought).

Naturally, from this, we should not form the impression that teaching and study was the limit of Chih-i’s kaun/vipassana, or what we call “insight” meditation. As I’ve noted in previous posts, and it bears repeating considering the increasing numbers of Buddhists and “un-Buddhists” who are quite dismissive of meditation practice nowadays, that Chih-i stressed the importance of striking a balance between practice and study, or meditation and wisdom.

And as I’ve quoted before, in “Chih-kuan for Beginners”, he states:

[The Lotus Sutra] says ‘The practice of dhyana [meditation] alone, while prajna [wisdom] is disregarded causes delusion, and the practice of wisdom alone, while meditation is disregarded, causes infatuation’ . . . Although delusion and infatuation differ from each other in a minor way, their contribution to misunderstanding is the same. Thus, if meditation and wisdom are not in equal proportion, the practice is deficient.”

Those guys look more like Curly, Moe and Shemp to me.
Those guys look more like Curly, Moe and Shemp to me.

Study is subsumed under the rubric of wisdom, and Chih-i compared practice and study to two wings of a bird and two wheels of a cart. Without two wings, a bird cannot fly. Without two wheels, a cart cannot move. In the same way, both practice and study are required if we are to progress in our faring of the Buddha way. For a cart, or nowadays, a car, two wheels also provide balance. When the wheels on our car are balanced, it allows for a smoother ride and extends the life of the tires. In the same way, balance between practice and study makes wayfaring more even and extends the life of the journey.


What Evil Lurks In the Heart

Cat Ballou was mean and evil through and through.

I’ve been beating the drum for non-duality a lot lately. I hope I am not overdoing it, but it’s an important subject and deserves a certain amount of attention. In light of recent events, I thought it might be worthwhile to revisit the non-duality of good and evil.

T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i maintained that the mind, although intrinsically enlightened, contains all the potentials for both good and evil, that it is both pure and stained, and that even Buddhas possess evil natures. He developed a meditation in which one “entered” evil in order to cultivate mindfulness of it. This supposedly allowed the practitioner to exercise control over evil.

The focus here is on the negative side of the coin, but there is also the positive side. Neal Donner, in his essay, Chih-i’s Meditation on Evil, writes,

[Chih-i shows] that there is no contradiction between evil and the Way. Even if evil is constantly present in one’s mind, good will always be found somewhere within it, for every element of existence is present in every other . . .”

This notion of the interpenetration of various qualities within the mind is one of the core principles found in T’ien-t’ai philosophy. The other day I mentioned how suffering never actually ceases, it just becomes dormant as we active more positive qualities. Chih-i put it this way:

Although the Buddha does not remove inherent evil (Ch. hsing-er), he fully understands the nature of evil. As a result, he is not defiled by it and can be the master over evil. Additionally, owing to his observation, evil never arises, and the Buddha does not create evil again.

The Profound Meaning of the Kuan-Yin Sutra (Kuan-yin Hsuan-i)

“The weed of crime bears bitter fruit.”

Because of my pop (and pulp) culture inclinations, I can’t help but think of The Shadow: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” The Shadow was a crime-fighter who used hypnotism to “cloud men’s mind” so they would think he was invisible. He also had to rely on physic powers to see in men’s hearts. You and I as ordinary beings don’t need physic powers or hypnotism, nor do we really need to enter into esoteric meditations to see inherent evil. As with emptiness, the power of understanding, in this case, understanding of the non-duality of good and evil, combined with self-reflection, will suffice.

However, there is still the question of how make sure that inherent evil remains in a dormant state. One point that seems clear in regards to the recent shooting in Aurora is that it is not just an issue of guns or violence, it’s also an issue of mental health. Most of us will never perpetrate that kind of evil, but we are perfectly capable of committing small wrongdoings, what you might call “little evils.” So, the short answer to the question would be that we should insure that our minds stay healthy. Naturally, I recommend the practice of Buddhist meditation as an excellent way to accomplish that.

Again, it doesn’t seem necessary to engage in esoteric meditations to maintain a healthy mind. Nor, as a rule, do we need to become knee-deep in psychotherapy. Simple, basic meditation, such as mindfulness meditation, is good enough. Along with calming the mind and developing a greater awareness of the present moment, meditation also helps us suppress the negative states of mind that create non-virtuous emotions and actions. When we get up from the meditation mat, our calmness and inner health will serve us well when we face situations in daily life charged with potential negativity.


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.