Emptiness and Omnipresence: An Essential Introduction to Tiantai Buddhism

Emptiness and Omnipresence: An Essential Introduction to Tiantai Buddhism

by Brook A. Ziporyn


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Tiantai Buddhism emerged from an idiosyncratic and innovative interpretation of the Lotus Sutra to become one of the most complete, systematic, and influential schools of philosophical thought developed in East Asia. Brook A. Ziporyn puts Tiantai into dialogue with modern philosophical concerns to draw out its implications for ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics. Ziporyn explains Tiantai’s unlikely roots, its positions of extreme affirmation and rejection, its religious skepticism and embrace of religious myth, and its view of human consciousness. Ziporyn reveals the profound insights of Tiantai Buddhism while stimulating philosophical reflection on its unexpected effects.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253021083
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 05/02/2016
Series: World Philosophies
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Brook A. Ziporyn is Professor of Chinese Religion, Philosophy, and Comparative Thought at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago.

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Emptiness and Omnipresence

An Essential Introduction to Tiantai Buddhism

By Brook A. Ziporyn

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2016 Brook A. Ziporyn
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-02120-5



Letting Suffering Be in Early Buddhism


Buddhism begins and ends with the problem of suffering. More specifically, Buddhism begins with the Four Noble Truths. At first glance, the treatment of suffering in this teaching seems disappointingly simple, almost simplistic. The First Noble Truth tells us that all experiences necessarily involve suffering. The Second tells us why this is: suffering is caused by desire, or craving, and attachment to desire. The Third asserts that the end of this cause (desire), and hence of this effect (suffering), is attainable. The Fourth tells us how to go about attaining this end of desire and suffering.

Often this formula is understood in a very straightforward way: we suffer when things don't go the way we want them to. Suffering happens when we desire what is not the case. Usually when this happens, we try to make "what is the case" conform to our desire: we try to get what we want. In this interpretation the Buddha makes the surprise move of approaching the dissonance between desire and reality from the opposite side: instead of changing the reality, change your desire.

But this way of understanding the problem may strike many people as wildly unsatisfactory. For one thing, can we really change what we desire? Certainly not by simply deciding to desire something else or not to desire at all; our desire is not directly subject to our will. The traditional Buddhist answer, however, is that yes, our desires can be altered, and the Fourth Noble Truth outlines how this can be done: by following the Eightfold Path of wisdom, discipline, and meditation. It is a question, ultimately, of enlightened self-interest. This process involves coming to see clearly that all experience involves suffering and that our desire for certain experiences is based on a false belief — namely, that these desired experiences will actually save us from suffering. Our desire for something other than what is the case is based on a misconception. We come to see that it is unreasonable and not in our own interest to desire what is not the case. Once we see the desire and the desired thing as forms of suffering — once we actually perceive this suffering, suffer this suffering — we automatically no longer desire them, just as perceiving the pain of holding a red-hot ball of iron leads directly to a response: to feel that it hurts is to let go of it. We can change our desires by seeing things more clearly, by noticing what we had previously ignored.

Note, however, that this still means preserving and promoting our most basic desire: to avoid suffering. All of our endeavors are aimed at maximizing pleasure and minimizing suffering, in more or less complex or indirect ways. It's just that we sometimes do so in unskillful, self-defeating ways. But for any of our experiences to be any good to us — even the experience of the end of suffering — this desire to avoid suffering must remain in place. If we really "eliminate" all desire, there will be no desire present to receive, appreciate, and enjoy the end of suffering when we attain it. In that case the end of suffering will be in no way preferable to suffering, for what makes either one worth anything is simply that it gives us something we want.

This idea brings up a more searching problem in this understanding of the Four Noble Truths: isn't this "ending of desire" in order to end the suffering it entails kind of like cutting off your nose to spite your face? Or, more forcefully, a bit like cutting off your head to cure a headache? As Nietzsche said, we do not much admire a dentist who cures toothaches only by extracting the tooth entirely. This seems a crude, somewhat fanatical, almost violent way to solve a problem that requires a more nuanced solution. Do we really want to want nothing, to take no joy in things, to passively accept whatever happens and have no opinion about it at all, no will, no initiative, no desire?

Of course, this is a crude caricature of the Buddhist position. But it is one that sometimes lurks in the background of even relatively sophisticated presentations of Buddhist thought and practice. Even a perfunctory experience of Buddhist practice, however, reveals that something is wrong with it, because the end of desire turns out to be a distinctly enjoyable experience in a way that is not easy to describe or analyze within the terms of experiences of joy that are connected with desire in the more ordinary sense. One finds, to one's surprise, that this acceptance of things exactly as they are is itself an experience that is intensely satisfying, as satisfying as if one had attained something one had been fervently desiring without realizing it. It leads one to reevaluate what one means by desire, what one means by enjoyment, by satisfaction, even what one means by experience.

To try to get at why this is so, we must note that the Four Noble Truths actually present a profound paradox. Look at the logic:

It is by ending desire that suffering is ended.

But desire, by definition, is the attempt to get away from some suffering.

Desire is the desire to end suffering.

Therefore: it is by eventually ending the desire to end suffering that suffering can be ended!

Put another way, suffering can only be ended by no longer trying to end suffering!

A little more emphatically, we can say that even if we must first employ the "pure" desire to end suffering as a motivator that gets us to practice the Buddhist path at first, in the end it is the acceptance of suffering, the recognition of suffering, the full realization of suffering that finally succeeds in ending suffering. What can this mean?


In this paradox we find the seeds of a unique doctrine advocated by only one school of thought in Buddhist history, the Chinese Tiantai school: the idea that even Buddhahood, the highest possible state of enlightenment and liberation, always and inherently includes suffering within it. Suffering is ineradicable, and enlightenment does not mean eliminating it or even reducing it, but in a certain sense just the opposite: fully accepting it as literally omnipresent, just as the First Noble Truth proclaims.

Even if we can, with some strain, begin to see the logic of this position already, it may be harder to swallow the corollary: evil is ineradicable, omnipresent, and an essential element of Buddhahood. In a way this should come as no surprise to students of Buddhism, because in Buddhist psychology and ethics, evil and suffering are inextricably linked. "Evil" in Buddhism is simply defined as unskillful action that leads to suffering, for oneself, for others, or for both. In its root Buddhist sense, evil means nothing more than whatever causes suffering. In the framework of the Buddhist doctrine of causality, deeds have consequences — either observable negative events that are said to be brought about, through unseen workings of karma, by unwholesome thoughts and deeds or, more directly observable and perhaps more relevant to our concerns here, by unpleasant psychological results that are concomitant to mental dispositions of greed, anger, and delusion. Suffering is the result of evil — that is, of unskillful action, of misconceived attempts to attain happiness and avoid suffering. Evil and suffering are two ends of the same process. Evil is the beginning of suffering; suffering is the end of evil. So if Buddhahood inherently includes suffering, it must in some sense inherently include evil as well. Tiantai Buddhism proclaims "the evil inherent in the Buddha-nature" as its most distinctive doctrine, the full comprehension of which, it is claimed, is alone able to open up a realization of the deepest truths of Buddhist thought, practice, and experience.

But this perhaps just makes the situation even stranger. Isn't Buddhism all about precisely ending desire and therefore ending suffering? Yes, in a certain sense. However, that is not the whole story, even at the beginning of the story, in the earliest form of Buddhism embodied in the Four Noble Truths.

The Middle Way between Active Control and Passive Subjection

The Buddha's revolutionary discovery about desire is traditionally presented as a "Middle Way" between two opposite extremes. The legend of the Buddha's life outlines these two extremes in a mythical, hyperbolic fashion. First, we are told, this young prince lived a life of complete satisfaction of every desire, without ever experiencing or even being aware of frustration. The encounter with the inevitability of suffering — in the form of illness, old age, or death, which even the sheltered prince could not escape — is highlighted in contrast to this prior vacuum. Then, we are told, he left home in search of a solution, which took the form of complete renunciation of satisfaction, denial of desire, and extreme asceticism. These, then, are the two extremes in Tiantai Buddhism:

1. Indulgence and satisfaction of desire.

2. Rejection and suppression of desire.

The Buddha's enlightenment is the discovery of a third way, a Middle Way, that rejects both of these extremes. What else can one do with a desire other than try to satisfy it or try to destroy it?

Please note that these two extremes turn out to have something in common. Both are attempts to get rid of desire. To satisfy a desire is to get rid of the desire, to replace it with satisfaction. When the desire is satisfied, the desire as desire disappears. To deny a desire is also to get rid of it, to completely eliminate it; it is to be eradicated so that no feeling of desire remains. Neither extreme allows desires to simply be present as desires. It is this unsuspected allowing of desire that provides the key to the Middle Way.

Now we can begin to understand how the analysis of desire and suffering in the classical presentations of the Four Noble Truths is considerably more subtle than the simplistic advice amounting to "If you don't get what you desire, change your desire." Observe the standard wording of the Third Noble Truth: "And what, friends, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering? It is the remainderless fading away and ceasing, the giving up, relinquishing, letting go and rejecting of that same craving."

We see that this desire, characterized here as "craving," is indeed supposed to "fade away" and "cease." At this early stage in Buddhist thought, desire is apparently supposed to be brought to an end. But the process for doing so is explained in a puzzling way. The desire is to be "given up," "relinquished," one is to be "free from" it, "non-reliant" upon it. It is not the desired object (the "delight" or pleasure that one is desiring) that is to be "given up," but rather the desire itself. The problem is not attachment to what is desired, but attachment to desire. Evidently, we have been "reliant" not on the desired thing, but on the desire to get the desired thing. We are relying on desire. What is being claimed is that if we become non-reliant upon desire, if we give it up, if we let go of desire, the desire will "cease."

This is odd, isn't it? Let's try getting a little more literal-minded about this. Usually when we let go of something, doing so doesn't make that thing cease or fade away; rather, it just allows the thing to fall to the ground, to fly off into space, to spin off on its own, to do what it would do without our interference. When we let go of it, it is no longer under our control. Our grasp had held it in place; when we let go, it falls or rises according to its own intrinsic tendency. We had been controlling it; when we let go of it, far from disappearing or ceasing to operate, it is now freed to be itself, beyond our control.

Is the Buddha counseling us to "let go" of desire in the sense of letting loose, letting our desire go wild, rather than trying to "control" our own desire? That seems contradictory with our common understanding of the seemingly quite "controlled" life of the early Buddhist monastic. In fact, the Buddha has had an insight here. Desire does not expand and grow when it is "let go"; rather, it withers and dies. He means that it is precisely by letting go of desire that desire ceases. That means that what was perpetuating the desire, what was keeping it from fading away, was the very act of holding on to it, trying to control it. Why is this so?

To let go of something is to let it be itself, to let it do what it does without our interference. What does "a desire" do when not interfered with? We might think the answer is "Try to fulfill itself." A desire is by nature a tendency toward its satisfaction; that is what it "wants," after all, and what it will do if left to itself. So says our common sense, and this is indeed true when the satisfaction of a particular desire is immediately available. If there is a glass of water on the table in front of me, what my "desire to quench my thirst" will do, "if left to itself," is to simply develop into the impulse to grasp the glass, the action of raising it to my lips, the drinking of the water, the satisfaction of the desire. Nothing is really "added" to the desire in this case; nothing is done to it or about it; I need have no second-order attitude toward it or even think about it or notice it at all.

But it is not these unproblematic desires that the Buddha was really talking about. Desires that are immediately adjacent to their immediate satisfaction, that can be indulged and satiated without the least obstruction, do not cause the kind of impacted existential trouble denoted by the Buddhist term "suffering"; they flow smoothly into the adjacent gratification without a hitch. The entire situation, what is at this moment, includes both the desire and its present, one-time-only satisfaction in just this way, joined together naturally as a single moment of experience. What the Buddha is talking about instead is any desire that, for whatever reason, is not part of such a direct and immediate flow into satisfaction.

When a desire is frustrated, we have another situation entirely. First, we imagine the immediate gratification on the basis of past experiences of this kind. The problem is a holding over of this merging of desire and satisfaction from another time, applied in this case when something similar to one part of that past total experience of desire-and-satisfaction — namely, the "desire" part — is present, but nothing similar to the other part, the "gratification," can be found. We do not notice that the desire is something in its own right, separable from the gratification; in fact, we tend to experience our desire not as a desire, but as the desirability of the desired state or object. The individual event, "Desire for X is going on here," bleeds over in our apprehension into "X is desirable." "To let desire be" means, literally, to let the desire be, to be something in its own right, to be fully present as the experience that it is.

But in fact a desire that is in the process of being gratified in a way that requires any action on our part — any imagining of scenarios, remembering of precedents, or scheming about instrumental means by which it is to be gratified — is not being "left alone." It is being connected to something in a controlled and determined way. And indeed, when a desire is satisfied, this is a way of actively getting rid of the desire as quickly as possible. The desire as desire is not being let be; it is being papered over, squashed, shunned, obliterated. A second state is being urgently juxtaposed to the experienced mental state of desire in a way that will radically impact and change that desire — namely, the state of satisfaction of the desire. It is being collapsed into a memory or fantasy of its immediate merging with its gratification. It is not being appreciated, apprehended, let be as just what it is, this particular state of experience, imagining its gratification but without direct access to it. That state is something that happens. That state is something that exists. And after all, it is painful to desire something and not get it. A desire, considered in itself, is a psychophysical state with a particular tone, a tone of dissatisfaction and pain. It is hard to leave something like that, something painful, alone. One tries to do something to get rid of it. A desire, considered in itself, isolated from the prospect of its satisfaction, is a kind of suffering. It is "held on to" not in the sense of "trying to possess it," but in the sense of "trying to control it," trying to direct it in one particular direction in accordance with a second-order desire or attachment: the desire to get rid of the pain of desiring. More specifically, our attempt to make it go away is an attempt to control it. It is a kind of "holding on."


Excerpted from Emptiness and Omnipresence by Brook A. Ziporyn. Copyright © 2016 Brook A. Ziporyn. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

1. Just Here Is the End of Suffering: Letting Suffering Be in Early Buddhism
2. Rafts and Arrows: The Two Truths in Pre-Tiantai Buddhism
3. Neither Thus Nor Otherwise: Mahyna Approaches to Emptiness
4. Buddha-nature and Original Enlightenment
5. How to Not Know What You’re Doing: Introduction to the Lotus Stra
6. The New Middle Way: Highlights of the Lotus Stra in Tiantai Context
7. The Interpervasion of All Points of View: From the Lotus Stra to Tiantai
8. Tiantai: The Multiverse as You
9. Experiencing Tiantai: Experiments with Tiantai Practice
10. Tiantai Ethics and the Worst Case Scenario
Epilogue: So Far and Yet So Close
Bibliography and Suggested Reading

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author of Foundations of T'ien-T'ai Philosophy: The Flowering of the Two Truths Theory in Chinese Bu - Paul Swanson

Introduces new stories and expressions of rather arcane and often scholastic teachings, and succeeds in making the subject matter interesting and relevant, for the general reader as well as the specialist.

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