SINITIC UNDERSTANDING OF TWO TRUTHS THEORY
IN THE LIANG(A) DYNASTY (502-557): ONTOLOGICAL GNOSTIEISM IN THE THOUGHTS OF PRINCE
by Whalen W. Lai
The Maadhyamika philosophy of Naagaarjuna has been appropriately called
the "central philosophy" of Mahaayaana.(1) This "Middle Path"
philosophy (namely, `suunyavaada, or Emptiness school) was the means by which Mahaayaana
criticized and undermined the "atomist pluralism" of the "realist"
thinkers in northern Indian,especially the Sarvaastivaadins within the general
`Hinayanist' Abhidharmic circles. The Emptiness philosophy was based on the
Praj~naapaaramitaa corpus and its basic insight into the emptiness of all forms. Names and
forms (naamaruupa) are empty (`suunya); emptiness is itself the raison d'etre of all
phenomenal names and forms. The articulated philosophy of Emptiness produced by
Naagaarjuna became the cornerstone of subsequent Buddhist scriptures and commentaries in
the Indian Mahaayaana tradition. It is indeed the central or the pivotal philosophy of
Mahaayaana. The impact of Maadhyamika in China was equally significant. Despite the
earlier familiarity with the Praj~naapaaramitaa (Emptiness) Suutra, Chinese Buddhist truly
embarked on a "Mahaayaanist" phase after the introduction of key Mahaayaana
suutras and key treatises of Naagaarjuna by Kumaarajiiva, the central Asian translator in
the Chinese court during the early years of the fifth century A.D. Seng Chao(c), an aide
in the translation project, is regarded as the first Chinese to master the Maadhyamika's
method of dialectical negation. With him, however, also began the subtle transformation of
sinification of Maadhyamika. Taking an overview of the Chinese Maadhyamika tradition, I
would say tentatively that the Chinese had faithfully preserved the spirit, if not always
the letter, of the Maadhyamika critique. A full study of the unfolding of the sinitic
Maadhyamika tradition still awaits diligent research and analysis of the nuances involved
in the transmission of this philosophy into Chinese. The following essay will look into
one development in the Liang dynasty, through two essays by the Buddhist devotee and
A word on the "fate" of the Maadhyamika transmission is
necessary to put the present study into the proper historical context and to correct some
commonly held misconceptions about the Maadhyamika lineage in China. Soon after the
introduction of the writings of Naagaarjuna by Kumaarajiiva, the Chinese San-lun(d) (Three
Treatise, namely, Maadhyamika) tradition was vershadowed by a treatise by Harivarman, the
Ch'eng-shih-lun(e) (Treatise to establish the real). The value of this work and the actual
role it played in the history of Chinese Buddhist thought has been overlooked by scholars,
primarily because of a crucial "hindsight condemnation" of it by the San-run
muster Chi-tsang(f) (549-623). The Ch'eng-shih-lun dominated southern Buddhist speculation
during the fifth and the first half of the sixth century. When it was used as the
philosophical companion text to the highly valued Mahaaparinirvaa.na Suutra. Harivarman
was regarded at that time to he the authoritative interpreter of the Emptiness philosophy,
and the Maadhyamika philosophy was interpreted through the "exegesis" of his
text. By the middle of the sixth century, however, there was a revival of the
"purer" Maadhyamika tradition by the San-lun masters stationed in She-shan(g), a
mountain outside the southern capital. Conflict then grew out between these new defenders
of Naagaarjuna's supremacy and the old Ch'eng-shih masters who held that they, in their
fashion, were "faithful" to the Emptiness insight. In the end, Chi-tsang,
acknowledged master of the San-lun tradition, triumphed and his polemical and critical
condemnation of the Ch'eng-shih tradition became dogma for all subsequent times. It can be
shown that Chi-tsang intentionally misrepresented the intention of the Ch'eng-shih school,
and I believe that Kumaarjiiva was even instrumental in actually popularizing
Ch'eng-shih's "numeral Realism" (the term "ch'eng-shih" was probably
created by Kumaarajiiva to designate the treatise's attempt to establish the Real,
shih-hsiang(h), as a necessary corrective to the potential "nihilism" in the
Chinese appropriation of `suunyataa as k'ung(l), voidness).(2) Current scholarship on the
Chinese San-lun tradition focuses attention primarily on Seng Chao and on Chi-tsang.(3)
What is over-looked often is the fact that Chi-tsang did not count Seng Chao as a member
in the San-lun lineage that Chi-tsang retrojected into the Six Dynasties. To understand
the philosophical roots of Chi-tsang, an appreciation of his opponents is imperative.
However, the study of Harivarman and his followers in China has hardly
begun, and this article can only claim to look rather obliquely into one aspect of the
missing link between Seng Chao and Chi-tsang. Prince Chao-ming of the Liang dynasty
(502-557) was by no means the leading authority on Buddhist philosophy at the time, but he
was one of those gentry aristocrats famous for his layman's devotion to the Dharma. He was
well informed of the basic issues in Buddhist thought. His essay "On the Two Truth(j)
" has been collected in the Kuang-hung-ming-chi(k) (Taisho Tripitaka(l), vol. 52.)
This essay, though brief, represents one Chinese attempt to come to terms with
Naagaarjuna's wo-truths theory.(4) The questions and answers following this essay further
provide an insight into the frame of mind of the court Buddhist thinkers at the time.(5)
The doctrine of the two truths can be found in the early canonical
writings and is by no means the invention of Naagaarjuna, but Naagaarjuna surely gave it
articulated expression by his writings. It was inherited by `Sa^nkara in the later Hindu
Advaita Vedaanta tradition.(6) The two truths refers to the higher truth,
paramaartha-satya, and the mundane or lower truth, sa^mv.rti-satya. The former is
nondiscursive and defies all conceptual comprehension while the latter, the mundane
"everyday" truth, belongs to the realm of logical discourse. By this
distinetion, Naagaarjuna points out the erucial characteristic of dharmataa.
Reality-as-it-is cannot be grasped by the egoistic framework of human concepts. All
discursive thought and expression, including even the four noble truths that Gautama
taught, belong to the lower level of truth. Naagaarjuna, however, did not simply assign
the higher truth to the AAryan (noble) silence. He believed that the higher truth can he
pointed to by recourse to the lower truth. His own dialectical negation of his opponents'
obsession with the "necessary" ontological correspondence between words and
reality which words refer to is perhaps the classic example of how logic can he used to
destroy logic and reveal directly the doctrine of Emptiness (of self-existents) .(7) The
Chinese Ch'an (Zen(m))masters might be less patient with all the dialectical proofs
Naagaarjuna perfected, but their method of "using words to destroy words" would
be another example, mote romantic perhaps, of how to point beyond the very limits of
Says the Ch'an tradition: The finger that points out the moon is, after
all, not the moon itself.(8) Naagaarjuna's negative philosophy is like a chameleon. The
moment one thinks one has a grasp of it, it not only slips away but it also makes one feel
uneasy about the "grasping-of-it" itself. I would, therefore, not go into what
Maadhyamika means, for it seems that consensus was lacking in Naagaarjuna's followings as
it is lacking among modern scholars.(9) The fact that Naagaarjuna is hard to grasp should
alert us to the fact that it was no easy task for the Chinese in the fifth and sixth
centuries to come up with the "definitive" understanding of his philosophy. The
Chinese language then was even more neffective than our present-day English as a tool to
convey all the nuances of the Sanskrit original, and it is not surprising that some of the
intricate Indian logic was lost to the Chinese.(10) Nevertheless, if the Chinese learned
anything, it was the technique of prasa^nga, the art of exposing the antinomies involved
in any philosophical position. In their way, the Chinese adopted the technique to their
own milieu or problems. The Chinese were interested more in the totalistic issues of being
(yu) and nonbeing (wu(n)), activity and inactivity, the one and the many, the concrete
(shih) and the vacuous (hsu(o)). These issues are more Taoist than Indian. If we stand
back and look at the general Chinese results after they have exercised their dialectical
reasonings, we would find that, for certain strange reasons, the Chinese would allocate
being, inactivity, concreteness and the one to the so-called higher truth, assigning their
opposites, the "unreal" nonbeing, the actively "responding," the
vacuously delusive and the Many to the Lower Truth. This Chinese conclusion is somewhat
ironic, considering the fact that Indian Buddhism as a whole and Maadhyamika especially
would hardly associate itself with such ontological absolutes like being, reality, and the
one changeless essence. The whole intention in Maadhyamika was to affirm emptiness,
impermanence, selflessness, and nonsubstantiality.(11) This is not to say that there were
no Indian traditions leaning toward the Chinese view; scholars now recognize the role
played by the Tathaagatagarbha tradition, in both Indian and hinese Buddhist history.
Nevertheless, keeping a purist stand, one can still legitimately wonder how the Chinese
often came up with such numenal realism as the "higher truth"!
This is where a basic Chinese misappropriation of the two truths theory
occurred, and this is where the significance lies of the Ch'eng-shih school in the
historical development of Chinese Maadhyamika sophistication. Although Seng Chao might be
an ardent interpreter of Naagaarjuna and has received supposedly the seal of approval from
Kumaarajiiva himself, it should be noted that Seng Chao barely just touched on the two
truths. The "attractiveness" of the Ch'eng-shih-lun for the Chinese, I think,
was due to its exploration of this theory. These Ch'eng-shih masters mediating Seng Chao
and Chi-tsang developed various theories of the two truths. Without these speculations,
the mature San-lun tradition in Sui would not be possible. (In fact, Chi-tsang himself
built his unique "Fourfold Two Truths" upon the shoulders of the Cheng-shih
master he vehemently and justly attacked.) The basic mistake among the masters in the Six
Dynasties who interpreted the Two Truths theory is confusing what originally was an
epistemic issue with the native Chinese concern for ontological matters. The Two Truths
(that is, two ways of discourse) became in China two realities, that is, a higher reality
and a lower reality. With the hangovers of a "Hinayana" utlook, the Chinese
Buddhist in the Six Dynasties then aligned the higher reality with nirvaa.na and the
unborn, and the lower reality with life and eath or sa.msaara. This basic misunderstanding
was well noted by Chi-tsang. Chi-tsang is right in insisting that the "Two
Truths" pertains to chiao(p) (teaching, discourse) and not mphatically not to li(q)
(principle, reality).(12) However, Chi-tsang was virtually the only Chinese master who
harped on this issue and his warning, for all practical purposes went, unheeded in his
time and beyond.
The Chinese mistake was natural, and they were hardly the last
Maadhyamika scholars (in the world) to follow that misguided interpretation. When a person
hears that Naagaarjuna had discovered that words do not describe reality, the person can
easily draw the conclusion that the words do not describe an Ultimate Reality beyond
phenomenal realities. The Chinese having learned from the I Ching(r) (Book of hanges) and
Wang Pi(s) (who commented on it) that "Language cannot exhaust the (ultimate)
Meanings...and one can forget the Forms (hsiang(t)) when the meaning is attained."
would naturally assume that there is an ultimate reality the Tao(u), the One, Real behind
the phenomenal realities of the many and the illusory. By so "assuming" the
existence of an ultimate reality behind phenomena, the Chinese disrupted the original
Maadhyamika intent to show that all is phenomenal, all is empty, all is insubstantial.(13)
`Suunyavaada does not subscribe to any subsisting ultimate reality beyond the phenomena.
Name-and-form (naamaruupa) is emptiness itself. Tathataa or the "real nature of
Reality" (Chinese; chu-fa shih-shiang(v)) is none other than Emptiness.
It is necessary to add that Chinese were not always ignorant of the
fact that "Emptiness itself is name-and-form." Prince Chao-ming and his
con-temporaries all knew this basic dictum from the Praj~naapaaramitaa corpus. However,
their inability to be consistent and their repeated relapse into the ontological framework
is responsible for the tangles in their thoughts. Chi-tsang and, to a certain extent, the
T'ang masters were more sophisticated in this regard. The following analysis of an essay
of the prince will show both his venture beyond Seng Chao and his shortcomings.
The term paramaartha-satya is given by the Chinese then as ch'en-ti(w)
or real truth or as ti-i-i-ti(x) or highest truth (literally, truth of the number
one/highest significance) . The term sa.mv.rti-satya rendered as su-ti(y) or common truth
or as shih-ti(z) or worldly truth. The prince regards the first of these two set to
pertain to the "substantive realm" (that is, as the two realities) and the
second of the two pairs to pertain to "evaluative judgment" (that is, two forms
of knowledge that correlate with the status of the sage wisdom(aa) and the common man
without wisdom). These distinctions by the prince are based on the Chinese words used in
the two alternative translations of the one term in Sanskrit. In that sense, he
exercised poetic license not possible in the original Sanskrit.
Furthermore, by splitting up the words, the prince speculated on the word
"i"(ab) (meaning, significance) in the Chinese compound, ti-i-i-ti, for
Translation of ON THE TWO TRUTHS (ERH-TI)
The principle of the two truths is indeed profound and mysterious.
Unless one has reflected upon it deeply and with reverence, one cannot comprehend its
breadth. There is, indeed, not one single way to appreciate the Tao. Essentially (there
are two ways): one can approach it either by way of the (objective) ream (ching(ac) ) or
by way of (subjective) wisdom (chih(ad)). At times, one can understand the meaning by way
of the realm (aspect).
At times, one lets the actions manifest by way of the wisdom (aspect).
Concerning the theory of the Two Truths, it is the tool to understand
the meaning by way of the realm (aspect). If this point is missed (by the reader), then
the person would be lost forever in (wrongly) thinking that there are Three Truths.
However, if he sees the point, the myriad problems will disappear.
The two truths refer to the real truth (chen-ti) and the common truth
(su-ti). The real truth is called also the truth of the highest meaning (ti-i-i-ti). The
common truth is also known as the worldly truth (shih-ti-). The (terms) "real)"
and "common" are established to refer to substance (that is, reality). The
(terms) "highest meaning" and "worldly" are chosen to refer to
attributes of praise and depreciation.
Firstly, we should say that the one corresponds to the real truth and
the two (dualities) to the common truth. When the one and the two are added together,
there will be three. However, there are really only two truths [not three truths]. In
nominal designations the terms "higher" and "lower" are used, but they
often create confusion concerning the meanings intended. [Therefore they are explained
The real exists (as the real) not because of the common. The common is
born (as common) not because of the real. Precisely so can one be designated as the real
and the other as the common. By the real is meant the concrete (shih), where all things
attain the same-ness and where differentiations dividing them would not be.
By the common is meant the compounded (realities of the world) that
gives rise to fleeting illusions and activities.
The (term) "highest meaning" is additional appreciation
heaped onto the reality of the unborn. (The term) "worldly" describes that which
has differentiations, life and death (samsaric characteristics), flow and movements, where
nothing is ever permanent. The Mahaaparinirvaa.na suutra says: "The knowledge of
those people who have transcended the world is known as the truth of the highest meaning;
the opinion of those men who are still in the mundane realm is known as the worldly
truth." This is the scriptural basis for regarding "highest meaning'' and
"worldly'' to be terms of appraisal.
These terms used to render the two truths are chosen for specific
reasons. "real," "common," "worldly" share one intention,
but the term "truth of the highest meaning" has another meaning. The principle
is this: Insofar that the te(af) (virtue, power, [pertaining to the higher truth]) is the
highest, its "meaning" is also the highest. The (mundane) world is but a
fleeting illusion it cannot claim to have any "meaning." Therefore we only say
"truth of the world" [never "truth of the world's meaning."]
Truth is that which comprehends the concrete (shih). The real truth
examines the concrete and finds it to be real. The common truth examines the same and
finds only the common. The real truth is beyond being and nonbeing. The common truth sees
(that there are) being and nonbeing. (The distinctions between) Being and nonbeing
constitute false names (subjective ideas). Neither being nor nonbeing reveals the middle
path. The real is the middle path and has the unborn as its substance. The common is false
names and has the born realities as its substance.(14)
In the preceding essay, the prince explicitly defined the two truths to
be pertaining to the objective realm, that is, as two realities. However, the two
realities are, in one sense, epistemic realities since they are correlated with the
subjective wisdom and opinions of the sage and the commoner. In this way, the Prince did
solve the paradox of the two truth-realities by suggesting that there is ultimately one
reality with two perspectives. However, his solution was not always perfect and in the
questions and answers collected after the essay (the prince solicited these responses),
the problem emerged of how the two "substances" of the two "realms"
can be related to one another. It is a problem that plagued the Ch'eng-shih masters who
tried to use the (Taoist) paradigm of "substance" and "function" to
analyze the relationships between the two realities (sic).
The following exchange shows the awareness of this thorny issue.
Q: The rising (of the fleeting no reality is the common while that
which is beyond being and nonbeing is the Real. Now, are the fleeting no reality and the
Real one in substance or are they two (in substance)?
A: The people of the world regard the horn realities to be the
substance. The people who have transcended the world regard the unborn as
substance. These opinions are due to their different perceptions.
Knowledge of the real is the insight into Emptiness-in-Being itself.
The common people mistake the [same] emptiness to be being. So
considered, no reality and reality are not different in substance.
Q: If the two truths are one in substance, would not the real truth go
through life and death (sa.msaara)...?
A: The real principle is quietistic and is never aroused. It is only
the confused consciousness of the common men that arbitrarily sees movements (where there
Q: But is there movement that the common men arbitrarily see? Or there
being no movement and the common people arbitrarily "see" it?
A: If there is movement as such, then we would not have called the
common people's seeing "arbitrary"....
Q: Is "arbitrary seeing" itself a thing (a reality) or not?
A: The misconception is on the side of the perceiver.... The (real)
dharma is passive and therefore it cannot prevent such human faults from arising.(15) If
the exchange is not as keen as that between Indian logicians, it still reflects a
sophistication that goes beyond the native tradition of logical debates. The clever
distinction made between subject and object, realm and wisdom, the perceiver and the
perceived is due clearly to Indian influence. The naive assumption that words necessarily
describe realities (as per the ontological theory of language) is refuted by the prince.
The one weak point in the prince's perception of the real dharma is that it is passive and
not empowered to help misguided men toward a truer vision. In mature sinitic Mahaayaana
thought, a more active absolute the omnipresent and omnipotent tathaagatagarbha is
admitted as the agent of enlightenment itself.(16)
The passive/active distinction is a traditional Taoist distinction. It
has been used by Seng Chao in his thesis. The sage view is that which "seeks the
non-moving in the midst of movement" while the common view is that which "seeks
activity in the realm of the inactive."(17) So too, the Prince said: "The wise
sees Emptiness in Being while the foolish sees Being in Emptiness." The exchange
recalled Seng Chao's thesis again when the following question arose:
Q: What the Sage sees (according to Seng Chao) is that things actually
do not move. What the Common People see is that they apparently do. Movement and
non-movement are different. How can they be one [that is, occupying the same space]?
A: It is not said that movement and non-movement each has one
substance. It is only that the common people see movement when there is none....
Q: ... If there is only One Reality, there cannot be Two Truths.
A: ... According to Sagehood and Commonness, there are the two.(18)
The prince acknowledged, correctly, that there is only one reality but
two perceptions of it. He recognized that the label "truth" is given to the
common men's knowledge because for those people, it is "true." Truth becomes
relative to the person. This theme runs through the discussion. The emphasis put on the
subjectivity of truth and the importance placed on the personality of the attainer himself
has been regarded by one Japanese scholar to be a Chinese "humanistic"
trait.(19) Naagaarjuna was less interested in the personalism of truth and more intrigued
by the impersonal structure of language and conception. But if truth is a function of
personality and not a function of different ways of knowing, then a predictable (and
amusing) question emerged.
Q: Does the Sage (then) see the Mundane Truth or not?
A: The Sage knows of the Common People and therefore he knows
(vicariously) the existence of the Common Truth. (Alone) by himself, he does not see the
Common Truth.... (The Sage) speaks of the Two Truths (only) in accordance with the feeling
of (common) men.(20)
According to this Chinese formula, the sage would not really be
functioning in the everyday world, a world in which discursive logic and discriminated
realities are apparently "real." The sage only lowers himself to participate in
the mundane world of affairs. The questioner pursued another avenue.
Q: The (objective) realm known to the Sage is the Real Truth. Now is
the wisdom that knows it part of the Real or the Common Truth?
The question is whether subjective wisdom (chih) belongs to any
objective realm (ching). The prince's answer is faithful to Maadhyamika:
A: What knows is called wisdom. What is known is called realm. When
wisdom appears, the (normal subject-object) realm disappears. In that sense, the wisdom
can be said to be with the Real.
Praj~naa, the nondiscursive wisdom, is strictly speaking not a
"thing" in a "realm," but insofar as the real (`suunyataa) is known
through praj~naa, praj~naa and `suunyataa belong to the same company.
The questioner persisted:
Q: What about the person with the wisdom. Is the person with the wisdom
in with the Real Truth or the Common Truth.
A: As long as you say it is the "person" of wisdom, then the
"person" belongs to the common realm.(21)
What about the mind that is beginning to comprehend the real? Is this
mind resident of some intermediate area that can be designated the third truth (realm)? To
these questions, the prince answered with a realistic "no."(22) The mind is on
the way toward enlightenment. On the basis of this, the prince rejected the idea of sudden
enlightenment.(23) In this, he was only sharing the dominant view of his time.
The prince had demonstrated, up to this point, a high degree of clarity
even if he was limited by his vocabulary and understanding. At times, he seems to share
the misguided notion of two realities with his questioners. However, his answers were less
than satisfactory on two other issues. It is not accidental that mature Chinese San-lun
philosophizing was yet to come. The first issue involves the issue of the origin of
Q: The common Truth sees Being and Nonbeing, therefore it has born
realities as its substance. Now I can see that Being-dharmas can give birth
to realities, but Nonbeing-dharmas implies an absence of dharmas
(realities). How can the latter give birth to realities?
A: In the realm of Common Truth, Being and Nonbeing are relative
(interdependent). Becuase they are interdependent, they both can give birth to
One suspects the prince was equating being and nonbeing with
yin-yang(ag). The Buddhist notion of relativity is turned into the Chinese yin-yang
complementation. From the "interdependence" of yin-nonbeing and yang-being,
things are born.(25)
In another similarly unconscious adoption of Chinese cosmological
outlook, the prince permitted a strange notion of a "dependent absolute" to be.
This is in sharp contrast with Chi-tsang's idea of an absolute Void as the
"nondependent Void."(26) The Prince was very probably misled into his strange
theory by the I Ching's distinction between "above form" (hsing-erh-shang) and
"below form" (hsing-erh-hsia(ah)). For him, the higher truth as hsing-erh-shang
is relative to and dependent upon the lower truth of physical forms, hsing-erh-hsia.
Q: Is the term i (Meaning) in the term ti-i-i-ti (Truth of the Highest
Meaning) dependent on form (hsing(ai)) or not?
A: It is dependent on form.
Q: It is without hsiang(aj) (phenomenal characteristic). How can it be
dependent on any form?
A: Since it is called the Highest (literally, Number One), how can it
not be dependent on (relative to) other (lower) things?(27)
Apparently for the prince, the higher truth was defined in part by its
cosmogonic sequence. It is prior to hsing (form). Although it is above hsiang (lak.sa.na
in Sanskrit, it can also refer to the "emblems" in the I Ching which are
"below form"), it is not truly free from being related to hsing as such.
The prince's philosophy represents the view of a well-informed gentry
Buddhist of sixth-century A.D. China. The prince had digested an admirable mount of the
Maadhyamika logic. He was not totally free from an ontological understanding of the two
truths, but he had recognized the perspectival nature of the two realities. Like most
gentry Buddhists in the southern courts, there was a "gnostic" bias in his
thinking, a trust in wisdom of a quietistic type, a lack of sensitivity to the more
dynamic aspect of compassion (karu.naa) and an infatuation with the "formless".
Anything less than this abstract absolute would be a betrayal of the vision of Mahaayaana.
This "ontological gnosticism" prevented the southerners, their piety and
Buddha-worship notwithstanding, to develop the faith side of Mahaayaana. I will support
this observation with a translation of another even shorter essay by the prince on the
dharmakaaya. In this essay we can see a "colorless" absolute, a god of the
philosophers, giving little comfort except to the cerebral pietists or philosophers.
Translation of ON DHARMAKAAYA(ak)
The dharmakaaya is empty and quiet, far away from the world of being
and nonbeing, being alone liberated from the forces of karman. It cannot be known by
wisdom or cognized by consciousness, being beyond all discourses. However, I cannot remain
silent in showing its principle. Because we have to use words, therefore it is called the
law-body, dharmasariira in Sanskrit and fa-hsin in Chinese. In substance, it is its own
self-nature. It only becomes relative in verbal discourse. The word fa (dharma) has as its
Principle the conformity to the rule. The word hsin (body) means that it has a physical
body. The body that adheres to the rule or norm is the fa-hsin. Briefly to explain its
substance: It is called the eternal body, the diamond body, but upon scrutiny, it is shown
to be invariable. To call it "diamond is to give it name and form; to label it
"eternal" is to assign to it a space. Invariability or permanence is only a
description; diamond is only a metaphor. Its real substance is union with the unborn. Thus
it is said that the body of the Buddha is wu-wei(al) and that it never (truly) falls into
the worldly realm. The Nirvaa.na suutra says: "The Body of the tathaagata is a
Non-body, without limits, quantity, trace, knowledge or form, being totally pure and
unknowing." Since it has the positive attribute of purity, it cannot be said to be
(simply) nonbeing. It is said to be subtly existent and yet not existent. Beyond being and
nonbeing, that is the Dharmakaaya.(28)
The prince's description of the Dharmakaaya is not incorrect by
Mahaayaana standard. The Dharmakaaya is indeed formless and eternal, pure and cannot be
catalogued as being or nonbeing. However, in the following exchange we can see the danger
of such abstractions.
Q: ... I do not know if the Dharmakaaya responds (to mankind) or not.
A: The Dharmakaaya does not respond.
Q: I thought that the Dharmakaaya is Dharmakaaya by virtue of its
ability to respond to changes.
A: The nature of the Dharmakaaya is to follow the dharma's substance.
(The dharma being changeless,) any talk about it responding or changing would not be
following the proper "tracks."(29)
Doctrinally correct, the prince allows little leeway for the active
role of the saving Buddha. In this regard, one should be grateful for the later
articulation of the trikaaya (three bodies) theory by Asa^nga, for the second body
(sambhogakaaya) can fill this conceptual vacumn.
Q: If there is no response and no change, how can the Dharmalaaya
follow the "tracks"? By "tracks" we must mean the tracks of the world.
If so, how can it not respond to things in the world?
A: Sentient beings hope and look for blessings, therefore the
Dharmakaaya can go along with things and transform the karman of man. Thy is not (really)
response and change.
Q: But if it can bless sentient beings, it must be responding and
A: (No,) if the hopes and expectations are born, then the track
(rhythm) of things will take care of these hopes and expectations.
In this last line, we see surfacing the Confucian
"agnosticism" why drag the spirits into the ethical affairs of men? Why bother
the Dharmakaaya, the impersonal absolute, with matters for which we are ultimately
responsible ourselves? Like heaven, the Dharmakaaya will "respond" but only
through the ethical symbiosis of what the Han Confucians called kan-yin(am),
"stimulus and response." The hopes and the expectations initiated on the
person's part will effortless of the Dharmakaaya qua Heaven. This is the minimal
intervention the prince would allow for the Dharmakaaya-Buddha. It would appear would
appear that the sentiment here is similar to the Neo-Taoist fascination with the Tao.
Q: If the Dharmakaaya gives hope and expectation, how can it not be
responding and changing? If there is no response and change from the Dharmakaaya, then all
hopes will be in vain.
A: (No.) The World Honoured One (the Buddha) is extremely numinous,
such that he can evoke the hopes which will then self-fulfil. If there can only be a
result after he (actively) reacts (to man) then why would (the Classics) say: "The
Ultimate Gods never respond and yet the greatest
beauty is accomplished." If you still insist that the Buddha (i.e.
Dharmakaaya) must respond, then the Dharmakaaya would hardly be any different from the
bodhisattva (as ruupakaaya).
Thus the prince's "two-bodies" theory (basic to Naagaarjuna
too) awaits the trikaaya theory to come for a more faithful articulation of the fuller
- T. R. V. Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (London: Allen and Unwin, 1955).
(2) On the fate of the Ch'eng-shih school, see Takakusu Junjiro,
Essentials of Buddhist Philosophy (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1947), pp. 74-75
and my manuscript, "The intended Meaning of the Term
`Ch'eng-shih,' A Hypothesis."
(3) See Takakusu, Essentials, pp. 99-110 and translations from
Chi-tsang in W. T. de Bary, et al., ed. The Buddhist Tradition (New York: Random
House, 1972), pp. 143-150. On Seng Chao, see Waiter Libenthal, The Book
of Chao (Peking: Catholic University, 1948) , and Richard Robinson, Early Madhyamika in
India and China (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1961).
(4) Chi-tsang reviewed and criticized those theories concerning two
truths proposed by thinkers that came before him in his work San-lun hsuan-i(an) (Taisho
Tripitaka, 45, pp. 1-11, 19); see also his Ta-ch'eng hsuan-lun(ao) (T. 45, p. 25).
(5) Taisho, 52, pp, 247c-250b.
(6) `Sankara is known to have adopted the "four-cornered
dialectics" of the Madhyaamika philosophy as well as the distinction between the
discursive and the nondiscursive (two) truths.
(7) Dharmataa, "reality as it is, " or dharma-ness, implying
a "common" characteristic of all phenomena, the "whole" as over
against the parts, figured often as the absolute in Naagaarjuna's philosophy; see Murti,
The Central Philosophy.
(8) The moon is the Zen symbol of enlightenment. Another analogy used
is the act of shouting "Silence!" to secure silence the word "Silence"
is then the instrument effecting the wordless quiet.
(9) Among Western scholars, three studies on Madhyamika are available,
each giving a slightly different slant to the phenomenon studied. Beside Murti's work,
there are Stcherbatsky's The Conception of Buddhist Nirvana (Leningrad: The Academy of
Science of the USSR, 1927) and Frederick Streng's Emptiness (Nashville: Abington, 1967).
(10) See my analysis of the Chinese understanding of the Buddhist
theory of pratitya-samutpaada in "Chinese Buddhist Causation Theories"
Philosophy East and West 27, no.3 (1977).
(11) The development in China of a counter-emptiness philosophy,
underlining the positive doctrine of A`suunya (not-empty) as developed by the `Srimaalaa
suutra and the Ratnagotravibhaaga, is touched upon in my thesis "The Awakening of
Faith in Mahayana: A Study of the Unfolding of Sinitic Motifs," (Harvard University,
Ph. D. dissertation, 1975).
(12) Among Chinese Buddhist schools, only San-lun so regarded the two
truths; see Bukkyo gakkai(ap), ed., Hasshuu Kovo koi(aq) (Kyoto: Bukkyo gakkai, 1927), p.
(13) It should be added that the Buddhists do recognize something
(nirvaa.na) which is "unborn," "uncreated," and so on.
(14) Taisho, 52, p.247c.
(15) Taisho, 52, pp. 247c-248a.
(16) In the thoughts of Fa-tsang, the Hua-yen(ar) patriarch, the
Absolute (Suchness, chen-ju) is both unchanging (pu-pien) and changing (sui-yuan(as),
following the conditioning factors that create the phenomenal world, that is,
participating in the world of change); see Whalen Lai, "The Awakening of Faith."
Fa-tsang actually incorporated the Taoist concept of wu-wei, active-inactivity, into his
interpretation of the nature of chen-ju.
(17) The categories of the sage and the commoner, strictly speaking a
pair of Chinese concepts, can be found in all the Chinese Buddhist schools and are
especially crucial to the Pure Land tradition. Seng Chao utilized this distinction in his
writings, The Immutability of Things (Taisho, 45, p. 151).
(18) Taisho, 52, p. 248ab.
(19) See essay on Hui-yuan and Lao-Chuang philosophy in Kimura
E'ichi(at), ed., Eon kenkyuu (Kyoto: Kyoto University, 1962) , II, Kenkyuu hen(au) .
According to this interpretation, the Chinese Buddhists placed more emphasis on the role
of the person, the bodhisattva in the form of the Chinese notion of the sage. The
shen-jen(av), man of spirit, can abide with the eternal Tao and yet be a citizen of the
(20) Taisho, 52, p. 248b. The next two quotations are continuations of
(21) Taisho, p. 249c.
(22) Taisho, 52, p. 250a.
(23) The "suddenism versus gradualism" debate, which began
among the southerners with Tao-sheng and Hui-kuan in the fifth century, had ended with the
victory going to the latter. The prince followed in this realist tradition. However, in
the Ch'en dynasty (557-589) the suddenists made a "comeback" and eventually
dominated the scene in the T'ang period, especially among the Zen circles.
(24) Taisho, 52, p. 249bc.
(25) This yin-yang logic recurred later in Hui-yuan (523-592) and found
its way into Fa-tsang's philosophy.
(26) The Chinese term used then was chueh-shih(aw) and not the present
Chinese term of chueh-tui(ax) (without opposition). The concept of the nondependent void
was apparently drawn from the notion of atyanta-`suunyataa, pu-ching kung(ay), "utter
void." Of the so-called twenty Emptinesses, the Chinese seemed to have selectively
atyanta-`suunyataa and `suunyataa-`suunyataa for their apparent
absolute and positive (sic) values. For a listing of the twenty Emptinesses, see Garma
Chang, The Buddhist Teaching of Totality (University Park: Pennsylvania State University,
1971), note 119. Sec note 27 herein.
(27) Taisho, 52, p. 249c. I must admit that the passage here is
difficult and confusing. The passage can be read in another way, namely, whether things
are dependent on the "Highest." However, considering the fact that the prince
admitted that the Highest is "dependent" later, I would adhere to my translation
instead. The whole use of the word "shih" (dependent) in this discussion is
drawn more from a usage in Chuang-tzu than from an Indian usage. Chuang-tzu, in his
discussion on the Tao and freedom, used the term "wu-shih" (independent,
nondependent) to describe the absolute freedom of the Great Man who roves with the Tao.
Everything else is "yu-shih(az)," that is, dependent on the Tao. Kuo Hsiang, in
his commentary on the Chuang-tzu, was most alert to this distinction. The Chinese
Buddhists, including Chi-tsang, then inherited this style of discourse. See Chuang-tzu,
chaps. 1 and 2.
(28) Taisho, 52, p. 250bc.
(29) Taisho, 52, p. 251b. The next two quotations continue from this.
(30) Indeed, in more mature Chinese thought, the relationship between
the three bodies(trikaaya) is better understood and the role of the sambhogakaaya (in
which many bodhisattvas manifest themselves) is intrinsiely tied up with the dharmakaaya;
see, for example. Awakening of Faith in Mahaayaana attributed to A`svaghosa, trans, by
Yoshito Hakeda (New York: Columbia University, 1967) . In so fat that Naagaarjuna himself
also worked with a two-bodies theory, perhaps the gnostic limitations of the prince should
not be judged to harshly.
Transcribed for Buddhism
Today by Bhikkhuni Lien Hoa