Tiantai Buddhism and the Three Marks of Existence

Tiantai Buddhism was the first natively “East Asian” Buddhist school in Chinese history, and by extension the rest of East Asian Buddhism. Its founder, a monk named Zhiyi (538–597, pronounced “Jih-ee”), didn’t borrow existing Indian systems of understanding of the Buddhist teachings, but developed a system of his own to make sense of the massive amounts of content that had been imported from India, and to develop a system of understanding based around this new classification.

Among the most important innovations made by Zhiyi and early Tiantai thinkers was the Three Marks of Existence (三諦, san-di):

  • 空 – Existence is empty (lit. Śūnyatā in Sanskrit), that is to say they have no lasting, permanent substance.
  • 仮 – Have phenomena have a provisional existence, meaning they depend on external causes and conditions to sustain them.
  • 中 – All things exist as a middle ground between empty and provisional.

For Tiantai Buddhism (incl. Japanese Tendai Buddhism), being able to not just know this intellectually, but be able to perceive all this leads to the highest awakening.

Further, this lead to another related teaching call the “3,000 realms in a single thought”. Meaning, that within a single thought-moment, one can manifest any number of states, including:

  1. The ten paths of living: hell, hungry ghosts, animals, asuras, humans, devas, buddhist disciples, pratyeka-buddhas, bodhisattvas, and buddhas.
  2. The potential for transitioning to any of the other ten paths.
  3. The ten factors of life, which appears near the beginning of the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra:

    The true entity of all phenomena can only be understood and shared between Buddhas. This reality consists of the appearance, nature, entity, power, influence, inherent cause, relation, latent effect, manifest effect, and their consistency from beginning to end.translation by Burton Watson

  4. And finally (I promise) the three realms of existence: self, other and the greater environment.

So, according to Zhiyi 10 × 10 × 10 × 3 equals 3000 possibilities at any moment, all within one’s mind, constantly shifting and transitioning from one state to another, from one perspective to another, and so on.

If that gives you a headache, you’re not alone. Feel free to sit down and have a drink, I’ll wait.

What makes Zhiyi and the Tiantai school of thought so interesting is the powerful schema they used to describe the world, and how to apply it. These teachings aren’t just fun mental exercises for philosophers, they were meant to be applied. By grasping the three truths, even if only partially, one can avoid getting caught up in a lot of silly minutiae, and by practicing the Buddhist teachings (applying them to real life), one at least can grasp their own latent potential for being a buddha, even if only for a thought-moment.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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