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January 29, 2012


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Zhiyi, based on an exhaustive exposition of a verse from Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka-kārikās (24: 18), devised a theory of three truths: provisional, empty and middle. The first two are mirror images of each other, two ways of speaking about causes and conditions. A table can provisionally be called a table, since its perceptible form has arisen through causes and conditions, and it only exists provisionally on the basis of those temporary conditions. The table is empty because, being the product of causes and conditions, it lacks its own intrinsic, independent nature. It is ‘middle’ because neither the provisional nor the empty truth about the table fully captures its reality. It is both provisional and empty, and simultaneously neither provisional nor empty. As Zhiyi put it, ‘wondrous being is identical to true emptiness’. Zhiyi sought many ways to express the nondual middle truth. For instance, rejecting the obvious dualism of the distinction most of his contemporaries made between pure mind (xin) and deluded thought-instants (nian), Zhiyi declared that every deluded thought-instant was identical to three thousand chilicosms. The details of the formulas he used to arrive at the number three thousand is less important than fact that it is meant to encompass the full extent of Buddhist cosmological metaphysics. The whole universe in all its dimensions is entailed in every moment of thought. Rather than attempt to eliminate deluded thinking to reach a purified mind, Zhiyi claimed each moment of deluded thinking was already identical to enlightenment. One merely has to see the mind and its operations as they are. This idea was later taken over by the Chan (Zen) school, which expressed it in sayings such as ‘Zen mind is everyday mind’.

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