Kopf on Ziporyn, 'Emptiness and Omnipresence: An Essential Introduction to Tiantai Buddhism'

Brook A. Ziporyn
Gereon Kopf

Brook A. Ziporyn. Emptiness and Omnipresence: An Essential Introduction to Tiantai Buddhism. World Philosophies Series. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016. 336 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-253-02108-3; $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-253-02112-0.

Reviewed by Gereon Kopf (Luther College) Published on H-Buddhism (June, 2018) Commissioned by Rafal Stepien (University of Oxford)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=51179

In his recent Emptiness and Omnipresence: An Essential Introduction to Tiantai Buddhism, Brook A. Ziporyn tackles the enormous and indispensable but also thankless task of presenting classical Tiantai ideas to a contemporary anglophone audience. On the first page of his introduction, Ziporyn warns the reader that “it should be noted at the outset that many people, even those who are used to the complexities of Buddhist thinking and its sometimes surprising paradoxes, tend to find Tiantai claims wildly perplexing, contradictory, even shocking” (p. 1). The reason for this is threefold. First, Tiantai Buddhist thinkers have a reputation of using confounding concepts to describe reality, such as the infamous “yiniansanqian一念三千, The Presence of All Three Thousand Aspects of Existence as Each Moment of Experience” (p. 1). Second, these kinds of phrases, which are difficult enough to understand in their original context, are almost impossible to express and explain in English to an audience prone to applying a conceptual framework alien to the Tiantai texts. Finally, Ziporyn chooses as his testing ground the Tiantai idea with the single most potential to shock a contemporary anglophone audience, namely, the non-duality of happiness and suffering, good and evil, Buddha and Mara/devil.

Ziporyn proposes to read classic Tiantai texts and ideas in the context of early twenty-first-century intercultural and global philosophy. The context of this work is an intensified interest by anglophone scholars in Buddhist philosophy qua philosophy, as seen by an increase in journals, publications, conference panels, and academic societies dedicated to this topic. Of course, it is not the project of Buddhist philosophy that is new. Buddhist thinkers have engaged in philosophical analysis and made “philosophical claims” for over two thousand years.[1] In addition, scholars trained in academic philosophy, such as Fyodor Stcherbatsky (1866-1942) (see, for example, his 1930 Buddhist Logic) and David Kalupahana (1936-2014) (see, for example, his 1976 Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis), have long presented Buddhist thinkers and texts as philosophy in European languages. However, it is only recently that scholars of Buddhist philosophy have been included in philosophy departments at universities—University of Hawai’i is one of the trailblazers in this area—and that the scholarship of Buddhist philosophy that heretofore had been relegated to philology, area studies (mainly Indology and Tibetology), and religious studies is now being incorporated into the various discourses of academic philosophy. In other words, Buddhist philosophy is now increasingly recognized as a living and relevant philosophical tradition and its representatives and scholars as viable partners in philosophical discussions and as contributors to the solution of contemporary issues. In addition, it has been recognized that Buddhist philosophy is not limited to South Asia but expands to and has been practiced in East Asia as well. Subsequently, there has been a need for elaborations in European languages of Buddhist philosophy originating in East Asia. This is exactly wherein the significance of Ziporyn’s work lies.

In some sense, Emptiness and Omnipresence constitutes an introduction of Ziporyn’s early work as presented in his Evil and/or/as The Good: Omnicentrism, Intersubjectivity, and Value Paradox in Tiantai Buddhist Thought (2000) and Being and Ambiguity: Philosophical Experiments with Tiantai Buddhism (2004) to a wider audience. This is important to recognize when assessing the value of the current work for two reasons. First, while his earlier books developed the key concepts of Tiantai philosophy from the writings of Tiantai Zhiyi (538-97), Jingxi Zhanran (711-82), and Siming Zhili (960-1028), the designated goal of Emptiness and Omnipresence is to put the concepts developed in Ziporyn’s earlier work in dialogue with ideas and thinkers in the field of academic philosophy. In other words, while the presumed audience of the earlier two volumes were experts in Buddhology and/or Buddhist philosophy, the addressed readers of this later one are those with a background in academic philosophy who want to make sense of the rather confounding concepts developed in the Tiantai Buddhist tradition. The key question Ziporyn pursues in the current work is not so much “What did Zhiyi, Zhanran, and Zhili say?” but rather “How can we understand what Zhiyi, Zhanran, and Zhili said today?” The importance of this distinction lies not so much in the expectation a given reader may or may not have but rather in the scholarly method the author employs. And, of course, the methodological question is a serious and weighty one: how can one read and apply concepts developed in Tang and Song China within the contexts of contemporary philosophical discourses? This is an enormous task that, I believe, Ziporyn is exceptionally qualified to tackle.

Ziporyn tackles this momentous task in ten chapters: “Just Here Is the End of Suffering: Letting Suffering Be in Early Buddhism,” “Rafts and Arrows: The Two Truths in Pre-Tiantai Buddhism,” “Neither Thus nor Otherwise: Mahāyāna Approaches to Emptiness,” “Buddha-Nature and Original Enlightenment,” “How to Not Know What You’re Doing: Introduction to the Lotus Sūtra,” “The New Middle Way: Highlights of the Lotus Sūtra in Tiantai Context,” “The Interpervasion of All Points of View: From the Lotus Sūtra to Tiantai,” “Tiantai: The Multiverse as You,” “Experiencing Tiantai: Experiments with Tiantai Practice,” and “Tiantai Ethics and the Worst Case Scenario.” This outline combines a decidedly historical as well as guiding conceptual structure. In one sense Ziporyn traces Zhili’s dictum “outside of the devil, there is no Buddha and outside of the Buddha there is no devil” from the early Buddhist ruminations on suffering, via early Indian Mahāyāna conceptions of emptiness (śūnyatā) and “Buddha-Nature” (tathāgata-garbha) as well as Tiantai formulations of Buddhahood in the light of the “three truths” (sandi), to a post-Holocaust application of Zhili’s scandalous claim as what Ziporyn calls “Hitler-bodhisattva” (p. 260). In another sense he explores the Tiantai non-dualism of “evil and/or/as/good” in the light of the Buddhist notions of “suffering,” “emptiness,” “buddha-nature,” and what he calls the Tiantai conception of the “Multiverse” (p. 143).[2] In Ziporyn’s hands, these two approaches form a cone that takes the reader from general Buddhist ideas, via basic Mahāyāna and Tiantai conceptions, to Ziporyn’s specific application of Tiantai non-dualism to the problem of evil.

It is impossible to summarize this conceptual roller coaster in the format of a book review, so let me focus here on the highlights of this philosophical adventure. Ziporyn commences his analysis of Tiantai thought with the gateway concept of Buddhism, suffering. Starting with the Buddha’s mission to alleviate suffering captured in the four noble truths, Ziporyn articulates the first paradox of the Buddhist project. If suffering is caused by desire and, subsequently, the alleviation of suffering requires the suppression of desire, the attempt to alleviate suffering by suppressing desire is based on the desire to alleviate suffering/suppress desire. If all events are conditioned, so is the alleviation of suffering and, with it, nirvāṇa itself. The end of suffering, so states Ziporyn, lies in the awareness of suffering: “Awareness of the desire as desire is the only way to ‘let go’ of a desire” (p. 20). “‘Awareness’ is the name for this state of neither activity nor passivity” (p. 21).

The second piece of the conceptual puzzle, according to Ziporyn, is the notion of the “bodhisattva” ideal as articulated in the Lotus Sūtra. Since everything is empty and thus skillful, including the notions of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa, means that everything turns out to be “neither thus nor otherwise” (p. 54). Saṃsāra and nirvāṇa, “being sentient beings” and “being Buddha,” are not stages but lenses through which certain conditioned states are viewed: “All states are neither Nirvana nor suffering but are susceptible to be viewed as either, or as both. Nirvana neither begins nor ends. But it’s never ‘just there’ either. As the Mahāyāna texts like to say, it neither comes nor goes, but neither does it dwell or abide” (p. 58). Because of this, Ziporyn claims, we are all Buddhas. And this, to him, is the fundamental teaching of the Lotus Sūtra: “Buddha said, Buddhas teach only bodhisattvas” (p. 71). In other words, the Lotus Sūtra constitutes a conversation “among Buddhas” and every “interaction between Buddha and ourselves is the real Buddha” (p. 88). Ziporyn maintains that it is only Tiantai thinkers such as Zhiyi, Zhanran, and Zhili who drew the ultimate but necessary conclusion of the Mahāyāna non-dualism of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa: The cosmos constitutes an “interpervasion” of all Buddhas and all sentient beings (p. 117). “Every moment of experience is the ultimate reality of all things, because every moment of experience is the Buddha ... together with the Buddha.... As Zhiyi puts it, every moment of experience is the entire universe meeting the entire universe, with the entire universe arising as a result” (p. 189).

On this background, Ziporyn proceeds to analyze the most confounding of all Tiantai concepts, the “uniquely Tiantai claim that evil is inherent in and ineradicable from Buddhahood” (p. 237). This claim is as outrageous as it is profound, but no investigation of Tiantai philosophy can sidestep it. Metaphysically, this claim is contextualized in the non-duality of suffering and nirvāṇa. But its moral implications are tremendous and cannot be trivialized. David R. Loy and Ziporyn probed this moral scandal of Tiantai metaphysics in a heated exchange in Philosophy East and West.[3] The question addressed there is whether this non-duality encourages complacency and voids the quest for social justice. Ziporyn’s answer is a resounding “no.” In this exchange, Ziporyn proposed that Tiantai thinkers encourage us to empty evil ideologies by generalizing and recontextualizing them. In the current work, Ziporyn pushes his notions of such universalization and recontextualization to their extreme limit when he coins the provocative if not reprehensible term “Hitler-bodhisattva.” Ziporyn explains: “Hitler becomes a Tiantai bodhisattva by ‘succeeding’ in ‘murdering the Jews’ in the Tiantai sense: he succeeds if and only if this comes to mean for him, ‘To be a Jew is to be the Buddha: there is no Buddhahood outside of Jewishness, no Jewishness outside of Buddhahood’” (pp. 260-261). Ziporyn’s argument here is ultimately twofold. First, a dualistic rejection of evil does not erase evil but rather creates a form of denial. Tiantai omnicentrism, wherein every “moment is the entire universe,” forces us to face and overcome evil. Second, a Tiantai generalization/universalization of all aspects of life including evil turns racist ideologies against themselves and against the ideologue and thus empties them in a systematic reductio ad absurdum. Willing to think the Tiantai formulae to their bitter end, Ziporyn concludes that “after considering we may feel inclined to say of it what Churchill said of democracy—namely, that Tiantai ethics is indeed the worst possible response to the Holocaust, with the exception of all others” (p. 272).

Ziporyn’s exploration is shocking and forces the reader to think the unthinkable by facing the demons in the world and inside oneself. I think Loy’s question about the possibility of social justice in the context of Tiantai metaphysics is a cogent one, especially given the quietism that frequently emanated from thinkers in the Tiantai traditions in times of crisis and oppression throughout history. Loy is correct in insisting that we have to face questions of moral responsibility and accountability. Metaphysics, including speculations about the non-duality of good and evil, is not just a mind game but has real life consequences and thus moral implications. But Ziporyn’s response to Loy’s critique is creative, compelling, and consistent with the classical Tiantai texts. His willingness to apply these shocking concepts to the utmost horror of our times, the Holocaust, is impressive and laudable. Will it leave the reader in discomfort and unease? Yes, of course. But as he convincingly argues, the dualistic rejection of evil does not solve the problem of evil; it represses it; bans it into a different place at a different time; and, as Carl Gustav Jung would say (in The Undiscovered Self [1958]), causes more hatred, persecution, and destruction. Monism, in its radical form, denies the existence of moral evil altogether. The Tiantai/Ziporyn approach, on the other hand, acknowledges the existence of evil, moral and otherwise, in the present world and dares the reader to face and empty/overcome it. Ziporyn’s solution is courageous and honest even as it leaves a bitter taste in one’s mouth. It may not be ideal, but, as it seems to Ziporyn, on the present count it remains better than its alternatives.

Ziporyn’s exploration of Tiantai philosophy as a whole is, simultaneously, insightful, witty, and frightening. He succeeds in recontextualizing Tang and Song Buddhist ideas in a post-Holocaust world where we once again face global politics based on racist ideologies. He spices his philosophical analysis equally with excerpts from the Buddhist scriptures and his own analogies, and thus creates a Tiantai philosophy for the twenty-first century. At the same time, his attempt to develop a coherent system of Tiantai philosophy from a multiplicity of sources reflective of different historical and discursive contexts is open to potential objections. Thus, some readers may accuse Ziporyn of creating a grand narrative of Buddhist philosophy from its origins in the fourfold truth to the systematic treatments of the Tiantai thinkers Zhanran and Zhili. Reading this work, it seems at times as if the author were implying that there is just one interpretation of the Indian and Chinese scriptures referenced and used: the orthodox Tiantai doctrine. Similarly, Ziporyn may be charged with de-contextualizing Buddhist concepts to create a philosophical system that responds to conceptual and moral issues, as pressing as they may be, in a different place at a different time. A more extensive exposition of his own scholarly and philosophical method would have gone a long way to clarify the author’s intent and agenda, and preempted those kinds of criticisms. However, if one sees Ziporyn’s work not as a history but as a twenty-first-century re-reading of Buddhist ideas through a lens constructed from the writings of Zhiyi, Zhanran, and Zhili and applied to the problems of our time, his critical reflections bring to light an impressive if not brilliant philosophical system that helps us not only to understand these trailblazing texts from the past but also, and most of all, to make sense of the absurdities and horrors of our time. Isn’t this wherein the purpose of truly evocative and creative philosophy lies?


[1]. Kevin Schilbrack, “Metaphysics in Dōgen,” Philosophy East and West 50, no. 1 (2000): 34-55, quotation on 35. 

[2]. See the title of Ziporyn’s Evil and/or/as The Good: Omnicentrism, Intersubjectivity, and Value Paradox in Tiantai Buddhist Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).

[3]. See David R. Loy, review of Evil and/or/as The Good: Omnicentrism, Intersubjectivity, and Value Paradox in Tiantai Buddhist Thought by Brook Ziporyn, Philosophy East and West 54, no. 1 (2004): 99-103; Brook Ziporyn, “Hitler, The Holocaust and the Tiantai Doctrine of Evil as the Good: A Response to David Loy,” Philosophy East and West 55, no. 2 (2005): 329-347; and David R. Loy, “Evil as the Good? A Reply to Brook Ziporyn,” Philosophy East and West, 55, no. 2 (2005): 348-352.

Citation: Gereon Kopf. Review of Ziporyn, Brook A., Emptiness and Omnipresence: An Essential Introduction to Tiantai Buddhism. H-Buddhism, H-Net Reviews. June, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=51179

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