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  • Ontological Indeterminacy and Its Soteriological Relevance:An Assessment of Mou Zongsan's (1909-1995) Interpretation of Zhiyi's (538-597) Tiantai Buddhism
  • Hans-Rudolf Kantor

Introduction: The Concern with Ontology in Tiantai Buddhism

The issue of ontology in Zhiyi's Tiantai teaching is the central focus of Mou Zongsan's study Buddha-nature and Prajñā wisdom (Foxing yu bole).1 This study represented the first time in the scholastic tradition of Tiantai Buddhism that the subject had been dealt with in depth, yet no subsequent studies dealt critically with the issue, contributing either a new point of view or substantially developing Mou's.2 Rather, the works of Mou's Taiwanese disciples emphatically supported their master's views, providing only some exegetical explanations.3 In contrast to Mou Zongsan, Wu Rujun (also known as Ng Yu-Kwan), a Buddhist scholar and Mou Zongsan disciple from Hong Kong, denies that ontological speculation plays a crucial role in this system of Tiantai teaching, although he borrows some important insights from Mou. Rather than ontological issues he stresses the importance of the epistemological and soteriological aspects of Tiantai teaching.4

In fact, there is just one English article, written by Mou Zongsan's disciple Wingcheuk Chan, relating Mou Zongsan's conception of ontology in Tiantai Buddhism to Heidegger's thoughts on fundamental ontology.5 Chan's study essentially attempts to point out the similarities between the theoretical speculation in Tiantai teaching and Heidegger's views on the concepts of "world," "truth," and "Erschlossenheit."

Mou's view of Tiantai Buddhism represents an important part of his general reconstruction of Chinese philosophy, which also includes his reflections on Confucianism and Daoism. In his concern with the issue of ontology in Tiantai Buddhism, he is influenced by a certain scholastic movement that started to assert itself in the Chinese intellectual environment at the beginning of the twentieth century. Three generations of Chinese scholars have focused their efforts on reconstructing the entire system of Chinese philosophy, referring both to the three traditions of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism and to the essential differences between Chinese and Western philosophical traditions. This New Confucian Movement () is concerned with reconstructing a "Chinese philosophy" that mainly relies on Chinese traditions and is supposed to be essentially distinct from Western philosophy, although it is nonetheless believed to represent a universal type of modern humanism.6

The initial inspiration came from first-generation thinkers like Liang Shuming (1893-1988), Ma Yifu (1883-1967), Xiong Shili (1885-1968), and He Lin (1902-1992). [End Page 16] Mou Zongsan (1909-1995), Tang Junyi (1909-1978), and Xu Fuguan (1903-1982) represent the most important thinkers of the second generation. Particularly, Mou Zongsan and Tang Junyi developed comprehensive systems of their own that integrate various elements both from the three Chinese traditions and from Western traditions. Mou Zongsan's system eventually proved to be the most influential. Conceptions of a distinctive type of Chinese philosophy based on third-generation thinkers like Tu Wei-ming (1940- ) and Liu Shuxian (1934- ) were crucially influenced by Mou Zongsan. In spite of their diverse approaches and divergent interpretations, there is one major issue of agreement among these Chinese thinkers: Chinese traditions have developed a certain type of philosophy that is essentially distinct from that developed by Western traditions of philosophy.

Mou Zongsan's philosophical speculation focuses particularly on the question of metaphysics and ontology in relation to ethics in the three Chinese traditions. In his discussion of a distinctive type of Chinese metaphysics, Mou points out that the three Chinese traditions follow a common pattern of ontological speculation that can be precisely delineated by contrasting the speculative components of these traditions with Kantian thinking.7

Based on his interpretation of the three Chinese traditions, Mou Zongsan claims that there is a bipolarity of finite and infinite dimensions constituting and penetrating human existence. In this twofold pattern of ontology, which he presents mainly in his work Phenomena and the Thing in Itself, he assigns the Kantian thing in itself (non-empirical noumena) to the infinite, and the Kantian phenomenon (empirical object) to the finite.8 The two poles oppose one another and therefore refer exclusively to one another; as in a dialectical...


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