- Evil as the Good?A Reply to Brook Ziporyn
I was surprised to receive this lengthy response to my short review—yet not displeased, for the important question is, of course, how much Professor Ziporyn's reply helps to clarify the issues at stake, which we agree deserve to be pursued. One of the many admirable aspects of his Evil and/or/as the Good is that, in addition to presenting the Tiantai ethical position in its historical context, it argues forcefully for the validity and relevance of that approach today. Moreover, I am pleased at the way Ziporyn's response focuses the argument of his rich and dense book, so I welcome this opportunity to continue the discussion. And perhaps those who have read this far will also be pleased that I am able to present my main concerns somewhat more concisely.
Ziporyn begins with the relationship between ultimate and provisional truth, usually the crux of the matter from a Mahāyāna perspective. In response to a point I make—that ethically the nondual 'ultimate' point of view needs to be supplemented by a provisional 'lower truth' that distinguishes between good and evil—he emphasizes that according to Tiantai "conventional truth and ultimate truth are actually identical" (his italics) and that the conventional truth embraces all possible assertions, beliefs, and positions. Later, he elaborates that "provisional truth is a portion of ultimate truth, in a peculiar omnicentric sort of whole/part relation in which each part in fact contains the whole." The important term remains identity, for according to Tiantai "the idea that two entities might be mutually implicative and dependent, not adventitiously but in their nature, and yet not identical, is logically impossible." Ethically, of course, this means something more than the interdependence of good and evil: it is not only that "the most horrible evils are ineradicable, built into the absolute unchangeable nature of all existence, and fully and eternally present even in Buddhahood," but that "greed, anger, and delusion would be seen to be identical with Buddhahood, in accordance with precisely this Tiantai doctrine of the interpenetration of good and evil."
As in the original review, my main point is that this emphasis on the identity of conventional truth and ultimate truth is an important insight, but one that turns out to be quite problematic ethically. Its value is mostly epistemological and metaphysical: it helps us escape from the kind of dualism that often postulates some 'higher' transcendental reality corresponding to a 'higher' ultimate truth. Instead, the 'higher' is not separate from the provisional and conventional, but the truth (whether realized or not) is that the whole 'ultimate' is completely contained within each conventional part or provisional position.
Dōgen somewhere makes the point that the goal is not to eradicate concepts (which is a dualistic approach to practice, seeking a purified mind that transcends language) but to liberate concepts. What becomes important is our ability to move [End Page 348] (and play) freely among the multiplicity of linguistic possibilities—in Ziporyn's terms, to 'recontextualize' without getting stuck in any particular context or conceptual system. Nothing is lacking in any of these possibilities; in terms of Indra's Net, each node manifests the whole. We are not liberated from language, except in the sense that we are not trapped in any particular language game; rather, we are liberated in language. We should not blame the victim: the problem is not language itself, but our tendencies to cling to some concepts, et cetera, more than others- including, for example, our dualistic tendency to discriminate between 'good' and 'evil' in order to identify with the former by annihilating the latter (a very timely topic, unfortunately).
But good and evil for Ziporyn are more than interdependent. He claims that they are identical, and that is where difficulties arise. The epistemological point about the identity of the two truths becomes more problematical when we move into ethics, where the 'cash value' is somewhat more obvious and immediate, in the sense that we need ethics to help us cope with moral choices that we find ourselves required to make in daily life, in circumstances not always...