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  • Setup, Punch Line, and the Mind-Body Problem:A Neo-Tiantai Approach
  • Brook Ziporyn

This essay will attempt to apply certain general principles and ideas deriving from the Tiantai Buddhist tradition to the classical mind-body problem, an issue that is not posed as such in the tradition but that nonetheless is given an implicit solution there. It is my contention that this implicit solution can provide us with a new and exceptionally useful insight into this old riddle.

The Tiantai tradition is a complicated phenomenon, both historically and philosophically. It reached its first full flowering in the works of Tiantai Zhiyi (538-597), was developed along new lines by Jingxi Zhanran (711-782) partially in response to the ascendancy of the Huayan and Chan movements in the mid Tang, and became the site of a bitter but philosophically fruitful schism in the Song. Tiantai is generally considered the first truly "sinicized" school of Buddhism, laying the theoretical groundwork for all later developments of East Asian Buddhism in one way or another, either as inspiration or as foil. Its Japanese form, Tendai, shaped the mainstream of traditional Japanese Buddhism, in the bosom of which Kamakura reformers such as Hōnen, Shinran, Nichiren, and Dōgen were nurtured and against which, to some extent, they proposed their reforms. Its influence on other forms of East Asian Buddhism, then, has been extensive and multifarious; but its own internal development also represents a broad array of positions developed in the course of intricate ideological struggles, most notably the so-called Shanjia-Shanwai debates of the Song dynasty already mentioned. It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that Tiantai represents the most comprehensive and intricate system of thought, played out in the richest and/or most prolix technical vocabulary, of any indigenous East Asian school of thought, Buddhist or otherwise. From among the leavings of this whirlwind of intellectual and spiritual activity, particularly as interpreted by the Song Shanjia school, represented by Siming Zhili (960-1028), I have chosen one or two strands that I find useful in considering the present question, that is, the mind-body problem.

In particular, I will be focusing on the implications of two central Tiantai notions. The first of these is the doctrine of the Three Truths, usually considered the central pillar of the Tiantai edifice. These are the Truths of Emptiness (kong), Provisional Positing (jia), and the Mean (zhong), and are understood most straight-forwardly as the claim that all determinacies that appear in experience—let's call them quiddities—are, since they invariably arise conditionally, without self-nature, without any characteristic independent being—hence "empty." In spite of being empty, however, quiddities appear qua temporary and conventional designations—hence "provisionally posited." [End Page 584]

To this standard Mādhyamikan observation, Tiantai adds a decisive twist: there is no hierarchy of reality between these two contrary statements. The first is not more true than the second; it does not indicate a deeper or even spiritually more important aspect of reality. Moreover, the first implies the second, and the second the first. To be empty is to be provisionally posited and vice versa. This consideration is what is referred to as the Mean. Of this there are, in Tiantai thought, several types. An "Exclusive Mean" (dan zhong) reestablishes the hierarchy of levels of reality in a new register: the Mean is more true than its two forms of appearing. The truth is that something that is neither Emptiness nor Provisional Positing appears as these two alternate aspects and thereby underwrites their identity to one another. On the other hand, a Nonexclusive Mean, characteristic of the Integrated Teaching of the Tiantai school, eliminates this hierarchy as well. The Mean—the identity between the two opposed terms—is no longer any more real than the terms, and the "reduction" of the apparent to the real here proceeds in all directions at once: the Mean is nothing but the identity between Emptiness and Provisional Positing, but likewise Emptiness is nothing but the identity between Provisional Positing and the Mean and, mutatis mutandis, for Provisional Positing.

It is important to note here that this final elimination of levels of reality is not...


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