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«Paul L. Swanson The idea of Buddha Nature, that all beings have the innate potential to become Buddhas, was an important topic of debate in later ...»

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T'ien-t'ai Chih-i's Concept of Threefold

Buddha Nature-A Synergy of Reality,

Wisdom, and Practice

Paul L. Swanson

The idea of Buddha Nature, that all beings have the innate potential to become

Buddhas, was an important topic of debate in later T'ien-t'ai thought, and led to

some fascinating speculations. Prominent among these was Chan-jan'sa (711-782)

advocacy of Buddha Nature in all things, even in inanimate objects such as plants,

trees, rocks and mountains, an idea which came to dominate Chinese and Japanese Buddhism.' Unlike later T'ien-t'ai thought, however, it would appear that the term "Buddha Nature" itself is not prominent in the writings of Chih-i, the founder of T'ien-t'ai phil~sophy.~ is not a topic dealt with explicitly at any length in his It major works such as the Fa-hua hsiian-i or Mo-ho chih-kuan. Much as the three-

- - - - - See especially his Chin kang peib, Taish6 46,781-786. See also the essay by Heng-ching 1 Shih in this volume.

For a quite different opinion, see Yu-kwan Ng's "Chih-i and Mgdhyamika," Ph.D 2 dissertation, McMaster University. Ng argues that what he calls "Middle Way-Buddha Nature" is the central concept in Chih-i's philosophy. There are some Japanese scholars who argue, on the other hand, that much of the material on Buddha Nature attributed to Chih-i is later, attributable especially to Chih-i's disciple Kuan-ting in response to the competition from San-lun scholarship. See Hakamaya Noriaki, Hongaku shisd hihan (Tokyo, 1989). especially 16-20. For textual studies showing the later accretions to Chih- i's work, especially in the Fa-hua wen-chu', see Hirai Shun'ei, Hokke monfu no seiritsu ni


172 fold truth (emptiness, conventional existence, and the Middle) provides the structure and basic pattern for Chih'i's massive system of Buddhist practice and philosophy without being expressly treated at any length, Buddha Nature is not so much explained as assumed.3 And yet, like the threefold truth, it is an important concept in Chih-i's T'ien-t'ai philosophy and practice in the sense that Buddha Nature is synonymous with the ekaya'na principle of the Lotu Szitra, the highest expression of the Buddha dharma. The concept of Buddha Nature, in this sense, is part of the assumed structure of Chih-i's T'ien-t'ai Buddhism The question then is, what does Buddha Nature mean and what is its significance for the theory and practice of the Buddha dharma? I intend to show that for Chih-i Buddha Nature is not a static entity but an active threefold process which involves the way reality is, the wisdom to see reality as it is, and the practice required to attain this wisdom. Buddha Nature is threefold: the three aspects of reality, wisdom, and practice are interdependent--one aspect does not make any sense without the others. In other words, the three aspect of reality, wisdom, and practice must be taken as a synergistic whole; they support each other and cannot be meaningful on their own. The "way things are" is realized (and Buddhahood achieved) through the attainment of wisdom, by following certain practices.

One of the few explicit discussions of Buddha Nature by Chih-i, and one that fits into the basic smcture of his philosophy as a whole, is his formulation of the threefold Buddha Nature in the Fa-hua hsiian-i. Even this explanation is only a short part of a longer section on "threefold real it^".^ The concept of threefold Buddha Nature is thus part of a general pattern in which various Buddhist concepts-vijkina, prajiia; trikCya, niratna, and so forth-are interpreted in a threefold pattem: the synergy of reality, wisdom, and practice. I will thus discuss Chih-i's concept of the threefold Buddha Nature in the context of this threefold pattern of reality, wisdom, and practice.

Threefold Reality Illustrated in Ten Categories

At the risk of straying too far from the subject of Buddha Nature, I will first present the ten Buddhist themes which Chih-i interprets in a threefold manner. It is within this context that Chih-i presents his idea of threefold Buddha Nature, and in order to understand Chih-i's threefold Buddha Nature it is useful to see how this pattern is applied on an extended level.

Chih'i's discussion of this threefold pattem begins with what he calls the three (or threefold) p track^"^. Chih-i uses the term "tracks" because these are the On the threefold truth see m y Foundations of Tien-t'ai Buddhism: The Flowering of the 3 Two Truths Theory in Chinese Buddhism (Berkeley, 1989).


4 Paul L. Swanson, "Buddha N a t u r e A Synergy of Reality, Wisdom, and Practice" 173 three aspects of the way things are; in a sense reality is "set" in a certain pattern.

This basic pattern is illustrated through a discussion of ten Buddhist concepts, all of which are interpreted in terms of both their unity and diversity.5 The three "tracks" are: (1) the true natured of reality, i.e., the way things are whether or not one is aware or awakened to it; (2) the wisdom, or "illumination through insight7'=,which destroys one's delusions and through which the true nature of reality is revealed, and (3) one's inherent dispositionf or potential (and, implicitly, the practices necessary) to realize this wisdom.

Note that Chih-i emphasizes both the unity and diversity of these elements.

As Chih-i is wont to say, they are three in one, one yet three. In technical T'ien-t'ai


There is only one Buddha vehicle. This single Buddha vehicle involves a threefold reality. This is also called the truth of supreme meaning, the supreme meaning of emptiness, and the rathigatagarbha. These three [aspects] are not a fixed three;

there are three yet they are one. The one is not a fixed one; there is one yet it is three. This is beyond conceptual understanding;

these are neither in a straight row [the same] nor distinct, like the :


[Sanskrit] letter or the eyes of %vara (S).6 u Chih-i then quotes the Nirvina Szitra that "Buddha Nature is... both one and not one, neither one nor not one."7 He explains that Buddha Nature is "one" because "all sentient beings [participate in] the single vehicle (ekaya'na; i.e., all sentient beings are destined to eventually attain Buddhahood), and this expresses the truth of supreme meaning (parama-rthasarya)."* For Buddha Nature to be "not one" means that "there are numerous dharmas (i.e., the diversity of provisional reality); this expresses tatlujgaragarbha.'g Buddha Nature is "neither one nor not

–  –  –

one"; it is neither a fixed unity nor a fixed diversity; there is one reality with three "names."lo It is not that there are three LLrealities," that there are three aspects to but the way things are. This threefold pattern, and the three-in-one yet one-as-three motif, is related to Chih-i's concept of the threefold truth, and also holds true for the remaining threefold categories (for which refer to the chart on page 176).

What then are these ten categories of threefold reality and their content?

Chih-i lists them, and gives the reasons for their choice and order, as follows:

(1) The threefold path of cyclic saqsiira is the basic dharma, therefore it comes first. If one wishes to reverse the flow of samsaa, one should understand (2) threefold consciousness, know (3) threefold Buddha Nature, awaken (4) threefold wisdom, arouse (5) threefold bodhi-mind, practice (6) the threefold Mahlylna, illumine (7) the threefold body (trika'ya), and perfect/attain (8) threefold nirv&a. (9) The three jewels (triratna-Dharma, Buddha, Saigha) benefit all [beings] and when their [task ofJ transforming and leading [others] is exhausted, they will enter (10) the threefold virtuelreward and dwell in the secret storehouse [of Buddhah~od].~~ The "threefold path," the first of the ten sets of three, refers to the cycle of sarqs5-a as suffering, passions, and karma. There is suffering (the way things are), which leads to passionate attachment and delusion (the opposite of wisdom), which in turn leads to karmic activity, leading again to further suffering in an endless cycle. This is the human condition. The themes which follow consist of those matters which need to be realized or perfected in order to overcome this human condition and attain the perfection of a Buddha.

The second of set of three is threefold consciousness: amala-vijrkim,a'layavijiia'na, idha-vijria'na, the threefold consciousness beyond the five senses, and ordinary consciousness (rnano-vijzna). At this point, Chih-i relies upon the "nine vijfia'na" theory of the She-lun school rather than the traditional "eight vijiia'na" theory of the Ti-lun school.12 Amala-vijiia'na, pure or undefiled consciousness, corresponds to the aspect of "true nature," a'laya-vijzna, the "store" consciousness, corresponds to the aspect of wisdom, and ZdEna-vijiia'na, which holds the "seeds" for both defilement and enlightenment, corresponds to the aspect of practice or 10 Taish6 33,741b20-22.

11 Taish6 3 3, 7 4 4 2 4 2 8.

Chih-i is aware of the fact that there are various interpretations of these "upper levels" of 12 consciousness. See the Fa-hua hiion-i [Taishd 33, 744b-c] and his commentary on the Virnalakirtisttra [Taishe 38, 553aI. This is a very complicated subject which cannot be dealt with in this paper. For a good summary see Stanley Weinstein, "The Concept of daya-vijkina in he-T'ang Chinese Buddhism," in Y t k i ky6ju sholju kinen: bukkyd shiscshi ronsht (Tokyo, 1964), 33-50.

Paul L. Swanson, "Buddha Nature-A Synergy of Reality, Wisdom, and Practice" 175 activity.13 Chih-i takes pains to point out, however, that these "three" are actually aspects of a single consciousness; these viji5na are three in one, one yet three, as explained above.

The third of the sets of three is threefold Buddha Nature; this is explained in the next section The fourth of the sets of three is threefold prajiid wisdom: the "real aspects" of prajria' refer to "all things" (sarvadhanna) as correctly perceived through prajiia' wisdom: prajn'a'illuminated through insightfcontemplation refers to the wisdom itself which illuminates reality as it is; "verbal" prajria'refers to the texts and verbal expressions of prajrZ, as well as other upZyic expressions of prajhi.14 The ffh of the sets of three is threefold bodhi-wisdom: the "real aspects" of it bodhi refer to reality as correctly perceived through bodhi-wisdom; bodhi as "real wisdom" refers to the wisdom itself which perceives reality as it is; bodhi as skilful means (upzya) refers to activity and working out of bodhi-wisdom in the mundane world, such as &kyarnuni's career and attainment of samyaksaqbodhi.15 The sixth of the sets of three is threefold MahIylna Ygreat vehicle"]: the vehicle as reality (tathatZ); the vehicle in accordance with wisdom; the vehicle as attainment, i.e., practice as the vehicle for attaining wisdom. In more technical terms, and with reference to a passage from the Lotus Sl?tra,16 the three aspects of reality refer to the "vehicle as reality", the great vehicle on which the Buddha himself dwells; the "vehicle in accordance", that adorned with samIdhi and wisdom; and the "vehicle of attainment", the dharmas which are attained through practice.17 It is interesting to note that Chih-i was familiar with but did not make much of these Yogk2.m concepts. In fact, he seems to have considered the YogMra tradition, or at least the M&iyiina.sarigraha.to be inadequate since it was (as far as he knew) too academic and did not teach the concrete practices needed t attain the fine state of Buddhahood expounded in o the text. He once compared the teachings of the Mahaicitmarigraha, especially the sections detailing the qualities of a Buddha, to a poor man counting his master's treasure. See Fahua hsiian-i.Taish6 33,704~13.

Taish6 33.744~27-74% This classification is based on a gloss found in the Ta chih tu lun (Taish6 44,669a-c).

Taishd 33, 745a14-17. This classification seems to be based on a passage in the Saddharmapu&arikas~tropade~a which presents three kinds of "Buddha-bodhi" based on the trikiya theory. See Taishd 26,9bll-19.


–  –  –

The seventh of the sets of three is the threefold body (trib-ya) of the Buddha: the dhamaEya-body of dharma; the sarqbhoghiya-reward body, the wisdom of a Buddha as a reward for the practice of a bodhisatma; and ni-qakcfya-transformation body, the appearance activity of a Buddha in this world.

The eighth of the sets of three is threefold nirvaa: nirvana as pure by nature, i.e., "the nature of reality", i.e., nirviiqa as the complete and perfect result of perfecting wisdom and Buddhahood, and nirvwa as pure in skilful means, i.e., the attainment of nirviina while still being active (though undefiled) to save other beings in this world, as "when firewood has been exhausted and the fire extinguished."l8 The ninth of the sets of three is the three jewels (triratna): the Dharma, reality as it is; the Buddha, or those who have attained wisdom; and the Saigha, the assembly of those who practice the Buddhist path.

The tenth and last of the sets of three is threefold virtue, the reward which accompanies the attainment of Buddhahood: dharmakgya, prajki-wisdom, and 1iberation.lg Once again, dharrnakiiya refers to reality as it is; prajiia' to the wisdom which correctly perceives this reality; and liberation to the attainment of this wisdom.

Threefold Buddha Nature

Threefold Buddha Nature consists of: (1) Buddha Nature as the direct cause of attaining Buddhahood, which corresponds to the aspect of "true nature"; (2) Buddha Nature as the complete cause of attaining Buddhahood, which corresponds to the aspect of wisdom; and (3) Buddha Nature as the conditional causes of attaining Buddhahood, which corresponds to the aspect of practice.

Buddha Nature as direct cause refers to the innate potential in all sentient beings to become a Buddha;20 Chih-i illustrates this aspect of Buddha Nature by quoting the passage from the Lotus Su'tra in which the rich father announces to everyone the true nature of his "lost" son: "You are truly my son; I am truly your father.'Ql This passage illustrates the aspect of Buddha Nature as reality. Since all beings have within them the potential to become a Buddha, this is the "direct cause" for attaining Buddhahood.

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