Reviews the book `Foundations of T'ien-t'ai Philosophy:

The Flowering of the Two Truths Theory in Chinese Buddhism`

by Paul Loren Swanson

Whalen Lai
Philosophy East and West
Vol. 42 No. 2 Api 1994
Pp.344-347
Copyright by University of Hawaii Press


. Foundations of T'ien-t'ai Philosophy: The Flowering of the Two Truths Theory in Chinese Buddhism. By Paul L. Swanson. Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1989. Pp. xi + 399. Since I have reviewed this book before (see back of book) and have highly recommended it for Buddhologists, I will try to present here its equal importance for those involved in East-West comparative philosophy and to do so in nontechnical language. T'ien-t'ai philosophy synthesized the vision of the Lotus Sutra and the dialectics of the Middle Path philosophy. Of the works in English on T'ien-t'ai, this one deals most thoroughly with the development of Nagarjuna's Two Truths into a Threefold Truth. Although such a threefold division is not known in India, the study well shows how this is by no means a misunderstanding. Rather, it captures well the spirit of the letter of the Law of Interdependence. The first half of the book (pp. 1-156) deals with the history of this idea. This is followed by a translation (pp. 157-256) of key sections of Chih-i's Fa-hua hsuan-i. Swanson opens with an exposition of the theory of the Threefold Truth (pp. 1-17), and takes us through its historical development: through Kumarajiva and Seng-chao (pp. 18-37), two important apocryphal sutras in China (pp. 38-56), key Southern and Northern developments (pp. 57-81), and, especially, the Ch'eng-shih masters and the San-lun school of Chi-tsang (pp. 82-114), before concluding with the views of Chih-i (pp. 115-156). There can be no denying that Madhyamika (Middle Path) and Yogacara (Idealism) were Sinicized in China. This occurred naturally during the Northern and Southern dynasties. A new influx of the more Indic readings of both traditions appeared in the Sui and T'ang, touching off heated debates between the "new" and the "old" understandings. Thus Chi-tsang in the Sui launched his San-lun (Three Treatises) critique of the native Two Truths theories, just as Hsuan-tsang, later in the T'ang period, would critique a Sinitic "Mind Only" Idealism found in the Mahayana Treatise on the Awakening of Faith. That Fa-tsang of the Hua-yen school came to the rescue of the Awakening of Faith and reversed Hsuan-tsang's indirect critique of it is fairly well-known. Fa-tsang was able subsequently to charge Hsuan-tsang's students for knowing just Consciousness Only but not Mind Only, for being fixated with phenomenal dharma-characteristics or fa-hsiang and missing out on seeing the noumenal Dharmata essence or fa-hsing that activates the forms. The same "challenge and response" pattern can be found in the history of Sinitic Madhyamika. It is only that it is less well-known. Chitsang of the "new" Middle Path philosophy published his work earlier in the Sui capital. His critique demolished the various "old" Two Truths theories. Chih-i was teaching at Mt. T'ien-t'ai at the same time, but his teaching was only published posthumously through his disciple and recorder, Kuan-ting, in the early T'ang. This fact makes it harder to track down the sequence of "challenge and response," but it is safe to assume that by the time Chih-i's Threefold Truth was codified and publicized, it had reworked and overcome the weakness of the "old" Two Truths theories while incorporating the "new" insights of Chi-tsang's critique even as it worked to displace the latter. Traditional T'ien-t'ai scholarship on the Threefold Truth begins with that triumphal scheme of Chih-i. In so doing, it generally ignores Chinese theories on what went before. Swanson's book is the only one that lays out this prehistory. This alone makes it an invaluable sourcebook for anyone working in the history of Middle Path philosophy. But the reader should be prepared for missing links, for Chih-i was no midget standing on the shoulders of giants. He was the giant that towered above his predecessors. This fact of his genius is told by Kuan-ting in a T'ien-t'ai legend that has Chih-i receiving his understanding of the Threefold Truth directly from Nagarjuna. This is T'ien-t'ai kerygma or proclamation. It was apparently in response to Chi-tsang's lineage legend. Chi-tsang had traced his own orthodoxy to Kumarajiva through a transmission among the masters of Mt. She. The new T'ien-t'ai legend effectively undercut this. T'ien-t'ai had its patriarchal line tying Chih-i directly to Nagarjuna, bypassing even Kumarajiva, the Kuchan translator who was until then the unchallenged authority. It was (to wit) a case of "It was said (by authorities to date) ... but Chih-i (inspired by Nagarjuna) says now unto you...." But if there is such a transhistorical source, does that not invalidate the whole "history of ideas" approach? Yes and no. Here is where the second half of Swanson's study is most pertinent. For understanding the Threefold Truth, one must take into account Chih-i's reading of the Lotus Sutra in the Fa-hua hsuan-i. This work marks the beginning of a new Buddhist hermeneutics. In it, Chih-i disclosed the hsuan-i or "hidden truth" of the Lotus Sutra: it is more than just the meaning of words and sentences, the province of the philologist. What Chih-i found is a principle, a philosophy, within the text itself that would help unlock the text. Every Mahayana sutra has this essence and this principle (ching-t'i, ching-tsung) . The essence is Mahayana; the principle is what places a sutra in the unfolding of this One Truth. Chih-i used this new hermeneutics to find a unity in every sutra and a unity to all sutra. The result is the T'ien-t'ai system of p'an-chiao or tenet classification that David Chappell has so well traced for us. The Fa-hua hsuan-i is the text where we can see Chih-i working out this new hermeneutics in seminal form. Most important is the section dealing with his disagreement with the authority of Fa-yun. Swanson's translation stays close to the text and captures the intricacies and the excitement of Chih-i's formative thoughts. The copious notes are most useful to the specialist. Once more, T'ien-t'ai legend lifts this reading of the hidden truth "above history." Chih-i is supposed to be able to intuit it because he got it directly from the Buddha, together with his master Hui-ssu, in a prior life on Vulture Peak. The story goes that when Chih-i met Hui-ssu (said to be one "enlightened without a teacher"), they both recalled a prior encounter during an audience before Sakyamuni. This myth form is, as I have shown in my work, taken from the first chapter of the Lotus Sutra where the players were originally Manjusri and Maitreya, and the Buddha was a prefiguration of Sakyamuni. Here, too, is the key to Chih-i's genius. He used the Ekayana (One Vehicle) doctrine of the Lotus Sutra -- the teaching that the Three Vehicles are ultimately one -- to remold the Two Truths theory into the "Round" for the Threefold Truth. And he used Nagarjuna's dialectics, in reverse, to help unlock the structure of the Lotus Sutra. Chi-tsang never used Ekayana that way, and no (prior Chinese Two Truth theorists knew this Truth-in-the-Round. In the "Round" of Ekayana, the One Truth is fully present in each of the three truths. Thus "Three [is] One; One [is] Three" (see Swanson p. 7). Or everything is "siva empty, siva real, siva middle." This is a forerunner of the Hua-yen Totalism of "One is All, All is One." In light of ail that, the two halves of Swanson's book give us indeed the key to seeing the foundation of T'ien-t'ai philosophy. Swanson is in a position to do this, for having been raised in Japan, he has a grasp of the Japanese language that few other Americans have. Not tied to sectarian Tendaigaku, he comes to the texts with fresh readings and insights. A permanent member now of the Nanzan Institute of Religion and Culture, he is also in the company of some of the best minds in interfaith dialogue. Now, in medieval Chinese thought, the two new departures from classical philosophy were the "Mind Only" Idealism of the Awakening of Faith and the "Threefold Truth" of T'ien-t'ai. They may not correspond exactly to the pillars of medieval European thought: the Neo-Platonism of Pseudo-Dionysius and the Trinitarianism supposedly rooted in Aristotle. The One Mind does not really devolve into multiplicity as the One would in Plotinus. Here, all realities are immediately the One Mind, and the Threefold Truths may not proceed, so to say, from Father to Son to Holy Spirit. But the medieval interest, East and West, in the One and the Three is no mere accident, and there is, I think, enough common ground for each to look at the other anew. Swanson has now placed in our hands a systematic study of the Threefold Truth to facilitate that dialogue -- and I hope comparative philosophers or religionists would take him up on that.