From Qin to Tang
Tiantai & the Unification of Disunity

Dharma Wheel Turning
Opening Quote from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms: The empire long divided must unite, long united must divied..."
Qin Shihuang (First Emperor of China)
Map of the Qin Dynasty
Qin Shihuang's Terra Cotta Warriors
Netflix Series "King's War"
Map of the Han Dynasty
Map of the Three Kingdoms Period
Map Showing the Period from the Three Kingdoms to the Tang Dynasty
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Map Showing the Spread of Buddhism
Cover of Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika
Madhyamaka in China
KumarajivaThe Three-Treatise (Sanlun) school is the Chinese representative of the Indian Madhyamika (Middle Doctrine) school of Nagarjuna (ca. 100-200 C.E.). It was introduced into China by a half-Indian missionary named Kumarajiva (344-413), who translated into Chinese three Indian works systematizing the Middle Doctrine. Two of these by the Madhyamika school taught that the phenomenal world has only a qualified reality, as opposed to those who maintained the ultimate reality of the chain of events or elements that make up the phenomenal being or object. According to the Madhyamika view, a monk with defective eyesight may imagine that he sees flies in his begging bowl, and they have full reality for the perceiver. Though the flies are not real, the illusion of flies is. The Madhyamika philosophers tried to prove that all our experience of the phenomenal world is like that of the shortsighted monk, that all beings labor under the constant illusion of perceiving things as real, whereas in fact they are only “empty.” This pervasive Emptiness or Void (Sunyata) is the only true reality; hence the Madhyamikas were sometimes also called Sunyavadins (exponents of the doctrine of Emptiness). Although the phenomenal world is true pragmatically, and therefore has qualified reality for practical purposes, the whole chain of existence is seen as composed only of a series of transitory events, and these, being impermanent, cannot have reality in themselves. Emptiness, on the other hand, never changes. It is absolute truth and absolute being — in fact it is the same as nirvana and the Body of Essence, or Dharma-Body, of the Buddha. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 436)
Scale representing the "Three Truths" of Tiantain Buddhism: Conventional and Ultimate Truths are balanced by the "Middle Truth"
Portrait of Seng ZhaoThe [Zhonglun] says, “things are neither this nor that.” But one man will consider “this” to be “this” and “that” to be “that,” while another man considers “this” to be “that” and “that” to be “this.” Thus “this” and “that” do not definitively refer to a particular name, but deluded people would believe that they necessarily do. This being the case, [the distinction] between “this” and “that” is from the beginning nonexistent, but to the deluded it is from the beginning not nonexistent. If we realize that “this” and “that” do not exist, is there anything that can be regarded as existent? Thus we know that things are not real; they are from the beginning only temporary names. ... 
Compare with Zhuangzi
ZhuangziEverything has its “that,” everything has its “this.” From the point of view of “that” you cannot see it, but through understanding you can know it. So I say, “that” comes out of “this” and “this” depends on “that” — which is to say that “this” and “that” give birth to each other. ... [The sage] recognizes a “this,” but a “this” which is also “that,” a “that” which is also “this.” His “that” has both a right and a wrong in it; his “this” too has both a right and a wrong in it. So, in fact, does he still have a “this” and “that”? Or does he in fact no longer have a “this” and “that”? A state in which “this” and “that” no longer find their opposites is called the hinge of the Way. When the hinge is fitted into the socket, it can respond endlessly. Its right then is a single endlessness and its wrong too is a single endlessness. So, I say, the best thing to use is clarity. (Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, 34-5; cf. Sources of Chinese Tradition, 100-1)
The sage moves within the thousand transformations but does not change, and travels on ten thousand paths of delusion but always goes through. This is so because he leaves the vacuous [i.e., empty] self-nature of things as it is and does not employ the concept of vacuity to make things vacuous. Therefore the scripture says, “Marvelous, the World-Honored One (Buddha). You establish all dharmas in their places without disturbing Reality.” He does not depart from reality in order to establish them in their places; reality is right where they are established. This being so, is the Way far away? Reality is wherever there is contact with things. Is the sage far away? Realize him in one’s life and there will be spiritual intelligence (shenming). (A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, 356; cf. Jizangs discussion of the Twofold Truth” in Sources of Chinese Tradition, 438-440)
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The Large Sutra on the Perfection of Wisdom says, “Prajna [wisdom] is without any mark; it is without the marks of origination and extinction.” The Small Sutra on the Perfection of Wisdom says, “In prajna, there is nothing that is known and nothing that is seen.” These remarks mean to elucidate the [perfect] wisdom’s function of cognition. But then why do they say that [prajna] has no mark and no knowing? Evidently, there exists [a form of] knowing which is markless, and [a kind of] cognition which is non-knowing. For what reason? When there is something that is known, there is something that is not known. Since in the holy mind, there is nothing that is known, there is nothing that is not known. The knowing which is non-knowing is termed “all-knowing.”
Compare with Zhuangzi
... [U]nderstanding [i.e. knowing] that rests in what it does not understand is the finest. Who can understand discriminations that are not spoken, the Way that is not a Way? If he can understand this, he may be called the Reservoir of Heaven. Pour into it and it is never full, dip from it and it never runs dry, and yet it does not know where the supply comes from. (Chuang Tzu, 40)
The perfect man dwells in [the realm of] being without [affirming] being, and resides in [the realm of] non-being without [affirming] non-being. Although he does not grasp at being and non-being, he also does not abandon being and non-being. Therefore, “softening his brilliance and conforming to the wearies of the dust[y world]” (Lao Tzu, Ch. 4), he wanders throughout the five destinies. Tranquilly he goes, calmly he comes. “Being serene, he does nothing;” yet nothing is left undone.
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Mt. Tiantai (with Tiantai Temples)
The Tiantai Synthesis
Zhiyi (538-597)
Chinese characters for "Tiantai School" (Tiantai zong)In Zhiyi’s time, Buddhist thought in South China was distinctly philosophical in character, while in the north Buddhists were developing a religion of faith and discipline. Himself a product of the southern Chinese gentry, but with a northerner, Huisi (514-577), as his teacher, Zhiyi came to the conclusion that the contemplative and philosophical approaches to religion were like the two wings of a bird. Consequently, the Tiantai school is characterized by a strong philosophical content and at the same time an even stronger emphasis on meditative practice. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 444)
Map showing Contemplative Buddhism in the north and Intellectual Buddhism in the south
Establishing Unity out of Diversity
The Five Periods of the Buddha’s Teaching
(Sources of Chinese Tradition, 455-458)

This system, derived from the Nirvana Sutra but supported by parables from the Lotus, organizes the Buddha’s preaching career into five basic periods, which unfold one upon the other, leading the Buddha’s assembly of followers progressively to the highest and purest expression of the Buddha’s vision. That vision is the unadulterated preaching of the perfect teaching in the Lotus Sutra, wherein he reveals both the pedagogic strategy and the ultimate purpose of his teaching career. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 456)
Womb World Mandala
Immediately after his enlightenment, the Buddha (in his Vairocana body) preached the doctrine that the universe as a whole is a perfect expression of the absolute in which each individual thing both contains and is contained by all other things.
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Over the next 12 years, the Buddha is said to have delivered all of the sutras contained in the Theravada canon or “tripitaka,” which is essentially identical to the Mahayana use of the term “4 Agamas” (4 types of sutras).
Over the next 8 years, the Buddha established some of the more basic teachings of the Mahayana tradition, such as the superiority of the bodhisattva vow of compassion for all sentient beings over the self-interested concern with one’s own emancipation as embodied in the Hinayana ideal of the Arhat.
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  Enso (Zen circle painting)
The Expanded Teaching was then further expanded over the next 22 years to include the teachings contained in the Perfection of Wisdom (or Prajnaparamita) sutras.
Tree/Roots (interdependence)
The most fundamental Perfection of Wisdom concept is the notion of sunyata or “emptiness,” which was brilliantly elucidated by the 2nd century Indian thinker Nagarjuna.
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Lotus Sutra
The final and highest level of truth, however, is to be found in the Lotus Sutra, which the Buddha is said to have preached during the last 8 years of his life. In this final stage, the “negative” dimension of the Prajnaparamita teachings on the “emptiness” of all phenomena is balanced by a “positive” reaffirmation of their absolute identity with the true “Thusness” of Reality itself. Thus, Zhiyi emphasized the idea that “the three thousand worlds are immanent in a single instant of thought!”
Monkey with space-time spring forth from empty mind springHuman being composed of dnaZhi-yi says: “One thought contains the ten dharma realms. Each dharma realm also contains the ten dharma realms. Each dharma realm contains thirty worlds; so one hundred dharma realms contain three thousand worlds. These three thousand worlds are contained in one thought.” ... To associate Tian-tai’s claim that “one thought contains three thousand worlds” with the Consciousness-Only School’s claim that “Alaya is the storehouse for all seeds of worldly phenomena” is to greatly misconstrue Tian-tai’s worldview. Zhi-yi does not claim that the only thing real is Mind and that the world is dependent on Mind’s activities. The world is not a by-product of the Buddha’s mind, or of any mind whatsoever. As Zhi-yi puts it, “The objects of the [true] aspects of reality are not something produced by Buddhas, gods, or men. They exist inherently on their own and have no beginning.” From this quote, we can see that Tian-tai philosophy is fundamentally a realist philosophy. Its world is an objective world, not a creation of the Buddha or the Mind. ...
If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
The mind does not exist substantially, since it relies on the world to generate its cognitive content. At the same time, the world relies on the mind’s cognition to contain all dharmas. According to Zhi-yi, neither the mind nor dharma has the power to arise spontaneously on its own. Since each one is the condition for the other’s arising, each one depends on the other for its existence. “When they are separate they do not arise at all.” Because of their ontological interdependence, the mind and the world are logically coexistent — one is not prior to the other. As Zhi-yi puts it, “We do not say that the mind exists first and dharmas come to be later; nor do we say that dharmas exist first while the mind comes to be later.” (An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy, 282-4)
Buddha Nature
From Three Thousand Worlds... Buddha Nature
If what we call the phenomenal world is the same reality that the Buddhas call nirvana, then our emancipation from this phenomenal world does not mean that we enter a different reality, but rather that we have altered our perception of the self-same reality. Therefore, the difference between being in the mundane world and entering nirvana is nothing more than our internal perception and our understanding of this reality, not the reality itself. It is open to all of us to alter our mistaken views and delusions to gain true insights; it is open to all of us to obtain salvation and reach nirvana. This very possibility lies in the fact that we all possess “Buddha-nature” from time immemorial. The universality of Buddha-nature is what makes it possible for everyone to attain Buddhahood and enter nirvana. (An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy, 297-8)
Zhi-yi says: “If beings are already identical with enlightenment, then there is nothing further to obtain. If beings are already identical with nirvana, then there is nothing further to annihilate. This being the case for a single thought, it is the case for all thoughts and for all dharmas as well.” (An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy, 299)
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Map showing Contemplative Buddhism in the north and Intellectual Buddhism in the south
Meditating Gnu
Tiantai Practice
Constantly Sitting/Constantly Walking

Chih-i identifies the first of the four kinds of samadhi [the samadhi through constant sitting] with the practice known as i-hsing san-mei, rendered here as one-practice samadhi.” ... As Chih-i describes it in the Mo-ho chih-kuan, one-practice samadhi is to be performed in a quiet room or a secluded and untrammeled spot. The essential requisite is that the immediate environs be free of any disturbance, human or otherwise. Only a single rope bed for meditation is to be placed in the hall; no other seats or daises should be added. The practice itself lasts for a fixed period of ninety days and may be performed alone or in a small group. Over the entire duration of this three-month period the meditator applies himself zealously to the practice of sitting motionless in the traditional lotus” meditation posture. With the exception of brief stretches of walking meditation and attending to such necessities as eating and relieving himself, he vows never to sleep, lie down, stand, wander aimlessly about, or lean against any object for support. For this reason the practice is referred to as constantly sitting.” ...
Diamond World Mandala

Womb World Mandala
Chih-i distinguishes two basic approaches to meditative practice in this one-practice samadhi: the radical approach of directly contemplating the reality of the Dharma-realm (or the Dharma-body of the Buddha) and the more expedient approach of concentrating the mind on the name, idealized image, and merits (the body of form) of a particular Buddha. ...
Amitabha Pure Land Altar
Nianfo (nomo amitofuo)Constantly walking samadhi is identified with the practice known as ... pratyutpanna samadhi, [shorthand for] the samadhi wherein one finds oneself standing face to face with all the Buddhas of the present age.” ... Like the one-practice samadhi, the pratyutpanna samadhi is to be performed in isolation. The meditator selects and adorns a hall for practice, prepares all the necessary accoutrements of offering, and lays out various delicacies, fruit, incense, and flowers. Having washed himself thoroughly, he changes into a new set of robes, which is to be worn at all times in the inner sanctuary where the practice is performed. Whenever he leaves this chamber to tend to necessities, he changes once again into an older set. The practice itself lasts for a fixed period of ninety days, over the duration of which the meditator must continuously circumambulate an altar to the Buddha Amitabha. He vows never to entertain worldly thoughts or desires, never to lie down or leave the hall, and, aside from the times when he eats his meals, never arbitrarily to sit down or stop to rest until the three months are completed. (The Experience of Buddhism, 303-304)