Reviews the book `Foundations of T'ien-t'ai Philosophy:
The Flowering of the Two Truths Theory in Chinese Buddhism`
by Paul Loren Swanson
Philosophy East and West
Vol. 42 No. 2 Api 1994
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
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.
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
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