Ziporyn on Swanson, 'Clear Serenity, Quiet Insight: T’ien-t’ai Chih-i’s Mo-ho Chih-kuan'

Paul L. Swanson, trans. and commentator
Brook Ziporyn

Paul L. Swanson, trans. and commentator. Clear Serenity, Quiet Insight: T’ien-t’ai Chih-i’s Mo-ho Chih-kuan. Nanzan Library of Asian Religion and Culture Series. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2017. 3 vols. vii + 2,256 pp. $90.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8248-7377-6.

Reviewed by Brook Ziporyn (The University of Chicago Divinity School) Published on H-Buddhism (July, 2018) Commissioned by Rafal Stepien (University of Oxford)

Printable Version:

First, the obvious and unquestionable: Paul L. Swanson’s translation of Tiantai Zhiyi’s work, the Mohezhiguan,[1] is a heroic and masterful work of scholarship, the result of several decades of painstaking research, consummate sensitivity to the challenges of translation, and deep knowledge of Buddhist scripture and Buddhist thought, executed with assiduous attention to detail and innovative solutions to thorny interpretive conundrums. The work has long been a fabled work in progress avidly anticipated by all students of Tiantai and Tendai thought and indeed of East Asian Buddhism in general, and its arrival after this long wait is a cause for unambiguous and emphatic celebration. In my view, this is a major cultural event, marking a hugely consequential new channel of cultural exchange, on a par with the translation of Hebrew scriptures into Greek to create the Septuagint in the third century BCE, or the translation of Aristotle and other classical Greek works into Arabic in the eighth and ninth centuries CE. In a very real sense it is only now that a large-scale Anglophone dialogue between East Asian Buddhism and Western philosophy and religion can even begin.

We might even say something similar about the dialogue between East Asian Buddhist thought and Indo-Tibetan thought. Swanson’s work makes it possible for the first time for scholars of these other lines of Buddhist thinking to glimpse the full sweep of architechtonic structure and the virtuosic intricacy of method of the pinnacles of Chinese Buddhist forms of textual exegesis, and the ways in which this is deployed in the formation of creative synthesis and interfusion of various levels of theory, and of Buddhist theory and praxis more generally. The relatively similar methods and orientations and concerns of Indo-Tibetan Buddhisms and Indo-European philosophical traditions have led to the unmistakable prominence of the former in the struggle undertaken by some brave if perhaps quixotic souls to put Buddhist thought into a form that will make it recognizable and respectable to the eyes of modern Anglophone philosophy departments, leaving the East Asian traditions, with their more outlandish conclusions and their less recognizable methods of exposition and argument and seemingly baffling criteria of validity, out of the discussion, either for fear of embarrassing the project or out of sheer exasperation. One of the obstacles to the full appreciation of East Asian Buddhist philosophical achievement is the form in which it is expressed: not necessarily in the straightforward presentation of theses and arguments but in the structural architecture of the whole, how the parts fit together, the motions from one theme to another in the course of exegesis, the commentarial reversals and transfers of emphasis, the transitions and tensions, the conceptual rhymes and resonances. Having the full translation of the Mohezhiguan available in English may not reverse this situation—indeed, it might exacerbate it!—but it will at least provide the possibility to reconsider the narrative, reveal the alternate world of thought to which the East Asian works open the door, and perhaps provide enough detail to allow those not already comfortable in these waters to at least see how they are swum in. The newly translated masterpiece is one of the defining texts of all East Asian traditions of Buddhism—arguably, with Seng Zhao’s treatises, the first creative Sinitic breaks from Indian Buddhist conventions and conclusions, opening the road to all further developments in East Asian Buddhism. The Mohezhiguan is a truly seminal text in every sense; no later Buddhist in China, Korea, or Japan was uninfluenced by it, or could completely avoid dealing with its effects in some way. Cultural history tells us that one of the things this weird marvelous text does is to start things, new things, enduring things, huge things. May it now start such things in English too.   

Swanson has gone far beyond the call of duty in producing this massive work. This is much more than a translation of the Mohezhiguan, in several senses. First, as if he did not already have enough work to do, Swanson has seen fit to include in his third volume two hundred pages worth of translations of additional texts relevant to Tiantai meditation practice and theoryfour sutras (The Teachings of Mañjuśrī, The Pratyutpanna Samādhi Sūtra, The Questions of Mañjuśrī, and The Great Vaipulya Dhāraṇī Sūtra) and full or partial translations of five other Tiantai works (Xiao Zhiguan 小止觀 Jueyisanmei 覺意三昧, Guoqingbailu 國清百錄, Fangdeng sanmei xingfa 方等三昧行法, Fahua sanmei chanyi 法華三昧懺儀, and Fahua xuanyi 法華玄義)The remaining four-hundred-plus pages of volume 3 are filled with reference materials: a detailed outline of the Mohezhiguan, a Chinese character index of Tiantai terms, a glossary of Tiantai terms, Buddhist sources, charts, a bibliography of Tiantai related materials, and a cumulative index. 

The second way in which Swanson has gone far beyond merely providing a translation is seen in his magnificent footnotes. Here we find not merely the bare clarifiers disambiguating some tricky turn of translation or referring the reader to a citation of a relevant work or reporting what the allusion to the text might be. Rather, Swanson has chased down pretty much all the references to Buddhist scriptures and treatises, as well as secular Chinese classics, made by Zhiyi’s text—whether quoted, paraphrased, or merely alluded to—and not only identifies them, not only summarizes them, but in most cases actually translates them too. (It should go without saying that Zhiyi and his scribe Guanding were often not very interested in citing their sources precisely, or even identifying them.) That means these extensive footnotes are a treasure trove of original translations of passages from Chinese Buddhist sources, many for the first time, doing as much as could possibly be done to provide for the English reader the rich intertextuality and deep cultural background that are constantly surrounding and undergirding and lining and intersecting with the text, and without which its claims and its thinking are scarcely discernible, let alone intelligible. There is indeed no other way to get near to this dimension of the text’s modus operandi. But before seeing it actually done, one would have perhaps assumed that no one would have the courage and persistence to attempt such a thing. Swanson has actually accomplished it.[2]   

A third great contribution Swanson has made that goes beyond simple translation is his organization of the text by adding section headers that lay bare the inner rhythm and unmarked structure of the exposition in a way that is indeed usually intuitive to a reader of the Chinese familiar with Tiantai styles of thinking but that would almost certainly have been untraceable in an unadorned English translation. Besides providing the simple summarizing headers that help organize the material and highlight the thread of an extended exposition, Swanson has taken the fully justifiable liberty of indicating the unannounced structural transitions embedded in Zhiyi’s exegesis on almost every topic. In particular, he flags for the reader with these headings the many places where consecutive sections touch in succession on the same topic in three different ways, in accordance with (to use Swanson’s excellent translation) the Threefold Truth of Emptiness, Conventionality, and the Middle (空諦, 假諦, 中諦), or again when four consecutive sections walk us through the unfolding of a particular topic in terms of, respectively, the Tripitaka, Shared, Special, and Perfect Teachings (藏教, 通教, 別教, 圓教) that form the main pillar of Tiantai “classification of teachings” (panjiao 判教).  

This not only is extremely helpful for following the strategies and arguments being developed in the text, and for appreciating their consistency and intricacy, but also in places allows for some actual scholarly discoveries and hermeneutic breakthroughs. The most impressive example of this appears in Swanson’s footnote to one of the most famous and important passages in all Tiantai literature, the locus classicus of the flagship doctrine of 一念三千yiniansanqian (in Japanese, ichinensanzen), the claim that, in his translation, “these three thousand [worlds] exist in a single momentary thought,” in the section titled “Contemplation of Objects as Inconceivable” (p. 816, insertion original). In the footnote to the translation of this passage, on page 816, Swanson points out that although this notion has been singled out since the time of Zhanran (711-82) as the pinnacle and core of Zhiyi’s teaching, it appears here as part of a pattern that Swanson convincingly argues identifies it, by virtue of its position in the pattern rather than by explicit labeling, as merely the exposition of the contemplation in terms of Conventionality—which is then followed by a treatment of the same topic first in terms of Emptiness and finally in terms of the Middle. That means that the passage should be read not as the culmination of the discussion, and hence not as the pinnacle and core of the teaching, but rather as the starting point of a three-part exposition that does not reach its climax until the section on the Middle. There we are told not merely that the three thousand worlds exist in (or, as I would prefer to put it, as) any single momentary thought, but further that this exact relation of simultaneous oneness and difference, unity and diversity, exists between any possible two relata: between any part and any whole, and between any two parts of any whole.   

This is indeed an important discovery, and though it is not the only possible interpretation of the structure at work in this passage, it is both feasible and interesting, and I will here take it to be correct for the purposes of this review. The consequences of this plausible interpretive move are, in Swanson’s own view, quite large; Swanson’s aforementioned footnote on page 816 suggests that, given this discovery, Zhanran’s focus on the “three thousand” passage as the flagship of Tiantai thought is a kind of puzzling riddle—implying perhaps that Zhanran and hence all later Tiantai and Tendai traditions are distorting Zhiyi’s meaning.   

I will take the bait and jump in here (as below) as a defender of later Tiantai orthodoxy. Swanson’s subdivisions of the text, far from showing Zhanran’s focus on the “three thousand” passage to be evidence of a blunder or of a distorting private agenda, open up for us a novel and quite persuasive mode of interpretation of the entire passage, one that only shows us all the more the importance and insight of Zhanran’s interpretive choice. Indeed, Swanson himself shows the way to the solution in the selfsame footnote on page 816, again going beyond the call of duty: for there he calls attention to the fact that the sequencing of sections here, going Conventionality-Emptiness-Middle (C-E-M), seems to break ranks with Zhiyi’s usual sequencing (E-C-M). Swanson suggests that “one may argue that this reflects the importance of ‘contemplating conventionality’ over the more abstract contemplation of emptiness and the Middle” (p. 816n). I believe Swanson is on to something here, in effect offering an answer to his own seemingly contentious querying of the appropriateness of the later tradition’s obsession with this passage. It is in the “Conventionality” passage on yiniansanqian that what is really distinctive to Tiantai thought is laid before our eyes, informing us of how the more standard Madhyamaka reductio ad adsurdum arguments for the Emptiness of all dharmas, which come in the later Emptiness section, and the direct invocations of omnidirectional interpervasion of the Middle section, are to be understood. This is where Zhiyi walks us through his new and utterly original method of contemplation, which radically reconfigures previous Buddhist theory and practice.   

The first thing we notice here, if we follow the implications of Swanson’s method of dividing the sections and refrain from the usual practice of supposing that Zhiyi means to imply or invoke his elaborate claims and arguments from elsewhere in the text, is that in this entire Conventionality section, there is no explicit reference to Emptiness and no deployment of Emptiness arguments, and no explicit reference to the Middle and no deployment of Middle-related arguments. The entire description is offered purely in terms of Conventionality itself. This includes the climactic assertions about yiniansanqian: the identicalness of the mind and its contents, and the interpervasion of all the realms, is presented here not as the conclusion to logical or metaphysical arguments based on an understanding of Emptiness, but purely in terms of phenomenological description. Taken literally in accordance with Swanson’s method and stringently refraining from filling in arguments where Zhiyi does not give them, it is an exposition in terms of Conventionality, showing that, considered purely as such, in terms of a particular Conventional relationship between definite Conventional entities (in this case specifically a single definite momentary thought and all its definite impermanent objects and contents), Conventionality delivers the full “Inconceivability” that will later be reclaimed in terms of traditional Emptiness arguments, and a directly experiencable form of interpervasion that discloses the structure to be applied universally in the Middle section. Dividing the text in this way, we see that the Conventionality section shows that Conventionality, considered strictly as such, leads to Emptiness: 從假入空. The Emptiness section shows how Emptiness, considered purely as such, leads to Conventionality: 從空入假. The identity of the two opposite sides, each turning out to be the other, is the culminating vision of the Middle. This is indeed one of Zhiyi’s unique contributions to Buddhism.  

To clarify this point, let us summarize the steps of this unique exposition of Conventionality. Swanson’s header has it begin on page 815 (T46.54a5)—but we might extend his insight and see the entire preceding setup, the detailed description of the entire Buddhist cosmos, as an elaboration of Conventionality, beginning on page 795 (T46.52b18). For throughout this setup to the main contemplation as well, Zhiyi never deploys nor recommends Emptiness or Middle arguments or contemplations, though he describes them as Conventional objects belonging to various realms of beings and their practices: they are among the Conventional objects of contemplation here rather than the proposed method of dialectic or contemplation. Zhiyi starts by announcing the goal of this exposition: to describe the “Contemplation of the Inconceivability” of the “skandhas, entrances and sense fields,” in other words, of all aspects of experience. In particular, he selects out thoughts, or mind, the skandha of “consciousness,” as the first and most appropriate object of contemplation, to reveal its Inconceivability, thereby to reveal the Inconceivability of the rest of experience. But, he tells us, because Inconceivability is difficult to grasp, he will do this by first explaining mind and thoughts insofar as they are conceivable, as the contrast, as what are meant to be negated when they are later seen as Inconceivable. The mind as conceivable is the mind as presented in earlier “Hīnayāna” and Mahāyāna teachings, in both cases the idea that “mind produces all dharmas” (心生一切法) (p. 795). First is the “Hīnayāna” doctrine that our thoughts create our karma, leading to rebirth in the six realms, from hell to gods. Then is the Mahāyāna teaching that mind produces all dharmas in all the ten realms, from hell to Buddhahood, including all the Emptiness experiences of śrāvakas and pratekyabuddhas (where both the producing mind and the produced dharmas are already seen as empty), the exclusive Middle experience of bodhisattvas (attached to neither Emptiness nor being but compassionately inventing infinite empty entities for the salvation of all sentient beings), and the nonexclusive Middle experiences of Buddhas (in Zhiyi’s description here, this is where there are no fixed identities, none saved and none saving, none good and none evil, where all is nondual and all things are ultimate reality itself, are aspects of Buddhahood itself). The mind that does all this, that produces all these states—even though that mind is long since seen as empty (starting already at the “Shared Teaching” exposition of the Two Vehicles), then as neither empty nor non-empty (“Separate Teaching,” bodhisattvas), and then as Buddhahood and ultimate reality itself (“Perfect Teaching,” Buddhahood)—is also still classified as conceivable. And all of these states this conceivable mind produces, including the Buddha state, as separate and determinate states, are also merely conceivable. Zhiyi walks us through each of these conceivable realms produced by conceivable mind. Then he abruptly tells us, “This is not what is contemplated in the current cessation-and-contemplation” (p. 799, T46.52c5.)   

On this basis he then turns to the mind as Inconceivable. But here, too, we continue our detailed tour of all forms of Conventionality. He starts by quoting the Avataṃsaka Sūtra’s claim that “the mind is like an artist that creates [造, not 生] the various five skandhas.... In all the world there is nothing that is not created through the mind” (p. 799). Evidently, what is meant here is not the mind as karmic agent producing actual rebirths into various states by means of its intentions and deeds, but the mind as conceiving and imagining and perceiving these same objects moment by moment, with a stress on the variety signaled by the scriptural phrase 種種五陰. The issue put before us is a phenomenological one-many problem. Here, instead of looking at how a thought produces a rebirth, with each type of thought leading predictably and linearly to one particular outcome, we will have a single thought that creates a dizzying diversity of bodies and minds. These are just the same objects as listed in the conceivable section: the five skandhas are the ten realms already described as conceivable, including the Buddha realm with its “Perfect Teaching” experience of Inconceivability. It is mind as creator of all of these different conceivable states, as thinker of the thoughts about those states and about the various minds that create them, that is the Inconceivable object to be contemplated here as Inconceivable.   

From here we get a much more detailed description of the specific characteristics of each of the ten dharma realms—again, dwelling on the separate, definite, Conventional attributes of all possible states. It is here that we get Zhiyi applying the famous math that yields the notorious “three thousand”—ten realms of sentient beings, three different takes on the specific types of environments in which each of these types of sentient beings dwells, each with its own ten forms of characteristics and causality (the ten suchlikes from the Lotus Sūtra). Our minds as readers are here walked through every type of sentient experience, in each of its aspects—a celebration of the power of our own minds to posit specific experiences, to imaginatively engage them, to transform itself through state after state of Conventionality. It is as if Zhiyi were saying, “Think now about each and every thing that exists in the universe, and of all the aspects of all the experiences of all sentient beings throughout the universe, as you believe the universe and those sentient beings to be. Think right now about everything you think to be true.” Here again, this set of objects to be thought includes even the descriptions of Emptiness and Middle that pertain to bodhisattva and Buddha realms, and to the tenth suchlike—all of these types of Emptiness and Middle are arrayed here as what is created Conventionally by the mind, not as the method by which we are being enjoined to contemplate them. Rather, our focus is to be on our own mind or thought as creator of all this. And by entertaining each of Zhiyi’s descriptions in turn, we have just ourselves experienced this creative capacity of mind as we have considered them in all their specific differences.   

Then Zhiyi casually declares, out of nowhere, a seemingly new twist (p. 815, T46.54a5, where Swanson’s “Contemplation of the Conventional” header finally appears): “A single thought includes the ten dharma realms.” Why does he say this? Here, too, we can remain true to our Swanson-inspired section categorization and think entirely in terms of the Conventional and immediate experience, rather than searching for any sort of theoretical explanation involving Emptiness or the Middle. We do not have to assume that anything novel or unconventional is going on in this claim, but see it simply as what could be assumed as a familiar observation to a Buddhist practitioner, the old Buddhist notion of the momentary nature of experience. Since we can only experience one moment at a time (as is even tautological in Zhiyi’s Chinese, 念 nian meaning both “thought” and “kṣaṇa,” both a unit of cognition and a unit of time), whatever multiplicities we are experiencing must be experienced in a single moment. If we are aware of any multiplicity, we have ipso facto some experience of multiplicity, and since it is an experience and thus a single moment, that multiplicity must be experienced in some single moment. This passage should be compared to Zhiyi’s surprising intervention on the issue of the knowability of past and future times, found in the discussion of “the samādhi of following one’s own thoughts” both in this text (pp. 346-348, T46.15b23ff) and in the Jueyisanmei (pp. 1769-1770, T46.623b8ff), where he harshly rejects an “annihilationist” understanding of this momentariness—in other words, an understanding that would regard this singularity as the exclusion of the multiplicity of contents belonging to past and future. The point in both cases is to bring to light the necessary singularity and the necessary multiplicity of every experience. For awareness of this immediate paradoxicality of every moment of time is the most direct mode of access to the liberating inconceivability enacted by Buddhist practice. There is necessarily always only the present moment, but the present moment is necessarily also always more than the present moment, is always also the past and the future. In the “three thousand” passage, Zhiyi is saying, as it were: for you the reader, for the contemplator who is doing the contemplation and has just followed the preceding walk-through, retrospect right now on that experience of thinking about all that you think exists, and notice that something weird happens already. All that multiplicity of divergent and specific conceivable Conventionalities is now present to you as “what I was just thinking about,” which is a single present apprehension of a complex past twenty minutes or so of thinking and imagining and visualizing. Since all experience is happening only when it is happening, all experience is experience of the present. Thus any contents projected as belonging to the future or retrojected as belonging to the past must be done so as aspects of the present experience. The past and future must be apprehended in the present. In this case, we are directed to the immediate past: the exercise of thinking about the various experiences of all reality and all beings in the ten realms. Since you are indeed aware of all that content, as “what you were just thinking about,” that content must be part of an awareness happening now. Just as you were during those twenty minutes thinking of many bodies and many minds with your one body and mind, you are now thinking of all those diverse momentary thoughts you were having about other bodies and other momentary thoughts with this one present momentary thought. Your thought is thinking about thinking those thinkings, and about what those thinkings were thinking about.

And then Zhiyi throws in another twist: “A single dharma realm includes the [other] ten dharma realms, so there are one hundred dharma realms” (p. 815, insertion original). Note that Zhiyi offers no argument and no explanation for this stunning claim, on which so much will subsequently hang. He does not say, “Because they are ultimately empty and non-obstructive, we can conclude that they include each other,” or anything of the sort. Rather, if we follow the insight brought by Swanson’s division of sections, reading this purely in terms of Conventionality, we must understand this move as still applying completely to Conventionality, to mere description and noticing of manifest phenomena, without any arguments about deep truths. 

Why then does Zhiyi say this? Because these objects that our minds have just created, our imagined tenfold world, is not a world of ten types of object but of ten types of sentient beings and their worlds. It is a single momentary thought about, among other things, many diverse momentary thoughts. That means that there is subjective (deluded, Conventional) apprehension going on in each of these imagined thought-about-objects (i.e., the diverse momentary thoughts of all those diverse sentient beings) that is analogous to our own imaginative positing of them as Conventional realities. In our Conventional positing of specific realities, we have posited Conventional positers of further Conventional realities as well. We are imagining imaginers. Since we are imagining each as having a specific skandhic profile, with ten distinct forms of suchlikes, describing their distinct forms of appearance, nature, activity, karma, and so on, we are already imagining them all imagining differently. When they conceive of the universe they live in, as we are doing now, they will imagine it differently, and they will imagine each other, and they will imagine us. So in walking through the possible states of being in the universe with Zhiyi, our mind is creating a world of creators of alternate worlds, who can also creatively and Conventionally imagine us and one another. Again, this remains entirely a description in terms of Conventionality—we might say involutedly inter-nested hyper-Conventionality—with no reference to Emptiness or the Middle, and further, no need to assert that any of it is true: Conventionality is enough. “Inclusion” is here just a description of a particular subsuming feature of phenomenal consciousness, as it appears to us Conventionally: in the most naïve possible sense, a single mind has many other minds “in it,” a single sentient being (and his dharma realm) has many other sentient beings, and their dharma realms, “in him” (and his dharma realm). Thinking of a thinker is thinking of an includer of other thinkers. Thus we are reminded to notice that each realm possesses all ten realms, giving us a hundred rather than ten realms. From here we get not a thousand worlds but three thousand, all created in “a single momentary thought”—the thought that is thinking about all this right now.   

Zhiyi adds just one more important premise, in the next sentence: “If there is no thought, that is the end of the matter” (若無心而已) (p. 815). This too is a purely phenomenological, Conventional description, meant to be taken with maximal shallowness: it is just how things appear, not a deep insight or a claim to a deep truth. It just means “where there is no notice of something, there is no experience.” It is in this sense alone that the mind “creates” all these three thousand: a mental event is happening, and thereby all these different forms of creators and their creations manifest for me, in this present moment of imagining them, of merely thinking about them. We are asked to notice the transition from not-yet-thinking-this to thinking-this—and of course we only notice this within this single-thought-thinking-this. Its difference from the prior state of not-yet-having-happened is also among the things that belong to this Conventional description of one momentary thought. To be aware of awareness is to be aware that without the awareness, its experiences are not being experienced.   

He continues: “If there is even an ephemeral thought, this includes three thousand [realms]” (介爾有心即具三千) (p. 815, insertion original). If there is no thought, then nothing, but if there is any thought about anything, then it is also about everything else. Now this claim would indeed follow from an argument about, say, the indivisibility of all particular contents from another, the incoherence of dividing boundaries and mutually exclusive definite identities, and so on, and Zhiyi does in fact have such arguments up his sleeve. But he does not invoke them here. Instead, continuing to follow the new interpretive angle opened up by Swanson’s presentation of the divisions of the text, he remains at the Conventional level: he is not stating that the three thousand intersubsume because of their Emptiness and Middle, so that awareness of any one brings with it all the others indivisibly, as a deep fact about the ten realms. Rather he is just repeating what he said a moment ago: each imagined realm includes the other ten, because we are imaging them as inhabited by sentient beings with minds of their own, and we are thinking of all the varied realms in a single thought whenever we recollect the process of our own thinking. We are not told why; we are just told to notice the sense in which this seems, Conventionally, to be so.

Then the climax of the exposition: Zhiyi shows us how this thought that is creating all these thoughts of various minds and their wildly different worlds is Inconceivable, purely as observed, as immediately present, as Conventional. This is where Conventionality, taken on its own terms and with its own Conventional premises, crashes to reveal the Inconceivability usually presented as characterizing Emptiness. But here Conventionality itself, is Inconceivable, and this is what it means to say that Conventionality and Emptiness are identical. Here the exposition turns from the one side to the other: “Conventionality enters Emptiness,” in the Tiantai phrase. The argument is not logical, as in the Emptiness section, but phenomenological. The relation between the mental event and its various experienced contents turns out to be incomprehensible: the mental event phenomenologically seems to “create” its experiences, as just noted, but it cannot actually precede those experiences. Or the experiences seem to create the mental event, but they cannot actually precede it either. This is the sole actual “argument” offered anywhere in the Conventionality section: if either preceded the other, neither would exist as Conventionally posited. Neither can produce or contain the other: Zhiyi concludes that these two, thinking thought and thought-about world, clearly and irreducibly opposite and mutually exclusive precisely because they are both specific Conventional posits, are nevertheless somehow two alternate descriptions of the same thing. Zhiyi then goes on to give the observed reason for this within that Conventional relation itself, without reference to Emptiness. He does this by comparing the relation between the momentary thought and all its cognized phenomena to the relation of any process (i.e., any impermanent “thing”) to the aspects or phases of its arising, abiding, changing, and perishing. This provides an immediate and intuitive model for the key Tiantai notion of full identity-as-difference, full difference-as-identity: it is presented as a question of what philosophers of perception nowadays sometimes call “aspect change.” What we regard as “the process” can also be regarded as “the phases of change,” and vice versa. Again, the process is neither prior nor posterior to its changes, nor are the changes prior or posterior to the process. As Zhiyi remarks, if either were prior to the other, and therefore independent of the other, it would mean that the changes did not alter the process, that the occurrence of the process from beginning to end involved no undergoing of change, which is impossible. For if the process were prior to its arising and perishing, it would not be affected by the arising and perishing and thus would not be made to arise by its own arising, which is absurd; but if the arising and perishing were prior to the process, if the process were a separate product of the phases of its transformation, if the changes produced a process that was other than the changes, these changes would not be the changes that changed the process and we would have to then look at another set of changes to find out whether the process had undergone the change that constitutes it—and the same question would then be applied again there. “The process that changes” is just another name for “the change undergone by the process,” and vice versa. They are synonyms. The key line states this explicitly: 秖物論相遷, 秖相遷論物. This means, “It is just the thing that we describe as the passing of these aspects, it is just the passing of the aspects that we describe as the thing.”[3] Analogously, “one momentary mental event” (the experiencer without which there is no experience) and “its entire experienced world” (its experiences, including all it imagines or conceives) are two names for the same thing, two alternate descriptions of the same event. No reference to Emptiness or the Middle here. It is just observed that, purely in terms of how things appear to us, without an experiencer there are no experiences, and without experiences there is no experiencer. The experiencer does not possess or include or produce his experiences; the experiences do not possess or include or produce the experiencer. Nor can we say that “there is only experience, and no experiencer,” or “there is only an experiencer, and no experiences.” Rather, both are unmistakably present and unmistakably distinct, for they are Conventional and determinate. But they are at the same time, right before us, impossible to disentangle, even in their distinctness. The experiencer is the experiences; the experiences are the experiencer. They are fully identical and fully reversible, being only two alternate names for the same thing. Both are always present, yet each is always reducing into the other, like the two sides of a Mobius strip.

This is precisely what “identity” between seemingly mutually exclusive things, usually denoted with the copula 即, means in Tiantai contexts, notably in the rest of the Mohezhiguan itself—a topic to which we will return shortly. And this undecidable identity of ostensible opposites is the Inconceivability noticed here in the Conventional phenomena as such, in the specific instance of the relation of everyday thinking, nay perceiving, nay fantasizing consciousness to its thoughts, perceptions, and fantasies. The Inconceivability is the result we would expect from Madhyamaka dialectics demonstrating the Emptiness of self-nature, but these are not applied here; instead, we are simply describing what is present to consciousness. The Inconceivability, usually the description of Emptiness, is directly present to be experienced in the deluded and Conventional fantasizing consciousness and its relation to any Conventionally imagined world.   

This way of reading the section shows us all the more how right Zhanran was to think that this is what is truly distinctive to the Tiantai exposition, particularly when viewed in light of the manner in which it is subsequently and separately joined to the demonstration in the following Emptiness section—where the same results are derived from the other direction, from Emptiness to Conventionality: Emptiness itself, considered alone, renders the full panoply of Conventionally definite entities (via the four siddhāntas)—and then how this relation between the Conventional and Emptiness is subsequently and separately what is invoked in the Middle section, in the form of a re-evocation and expansion of both sides and the second-order relation of undecidable reversibility between these two, which is what is meant by their mutual identity: annulling the separation only on the basis of having first posited it, and also preserving it in the indecidability of the result. It is in the Middle section that Zhiyi gives us, as Swanson correctly points out, the application of the usual third step to the exposition: in this case, showing that the two opposite Inconceivabilities of the prior two sections (i.e., from Conventionality to Emptiness and from Emptiness to Conventionality) are themselves reversible, are identical-as-different, another Mobius strip, introducing a new level of Inconceivability.  

The Emptiness section makes the same point as the Conventionality section, but in reverse: starting with Inconceivability, it endeavors to show that this entails the positing of the full variety of all conceivable things, and remains identical to them all, this time not through phenomenological description beginning with Conventionality per se, but from the logical realization of Emptiness via arguments, showing that all possible conceivable causal descriptions contradict themselves and fail. But as part of Buddhist practice and the compassionate commitment to teaching of a bodhisattva, this Emptiness then legitimizes rather than negates the redescription of that Inconceivability in every possible conceivable way, showing how Emptiness is also Conventional positing, finishing the Emptiness section with an extended discussion of the four siddhāntas, which tells that all the various ways of description of these empty and indescribable phenomena—thought and world—can be valid under the right upayic circumstances. We move here not from Conventionality to Emptiness (Inconceivability) but from Emptiness to Conventionality—which is also and additionally Inconceivable.

It is for this reason that I am now, regrettably, obliged to record my first objection to the text under review. The rhetorical structure of Zhiyi’s text, just elaborated with the help of Swanson’s invaluable inspiration, is somewhat obscured by Swanson’s own interpretative orientation. The section on Emptiness ends with a phrase that again invokes the three thousand, perched precisely on the verge of entering into the discussion of the Middle. This line is in the form of a rhetorical question, literally, “How much more so for [the idea of] three thousand dharmas that arise in a [single] thought?” (p. 829, insertions original). Swanson, to his great credit, allows the line to stand in its full ambiguity in his main text. But he alerts us in a footnote that he reads this final line, following some modern scholars (Ikeda) but contradicting others (Kanno), to intend a denial of the validity of the idea of three thousand arising as a single thought; for Swanson, this is where that merely Conventional idea is definitively put to rest, clearing the air for us to move into the Middle section: “or, to translate more plainly, ‘What need is there to speak of three thousand dharmas that arise in a [single] thought? [Answer: none.]’” (p. 829n, insertions original). In terms of the interpretation we have developed above, however, as for mainstream Tiantai tradition, also followed by Kanno, this line has precisely the opposite meaning: this is reasserting the validity of the previous way of speaking in terms of one thought “giving rise to” three thousand dharmas, in spite of the fact that this formulation, like any other possible formulation, is merely Conventional. The text seems to warrant a strong argument in favor of this traditional reading. For just as the Conventionality section ends by showing Conventionality also to entail Emptiness, here the Emptiness section ends by showing that Emptiness also entails Conventionality. Each is both, and it is to thematize this point that the next section, in Swanson’s division of the text, begins with the Middle, which will then, in the same fashion, be shown to inherently include both Conventionality and Emptiness. This is made quite clear by the context of the line in question, for what we find the text doing there is asserting the validity of all alternate approaches, claiming that the Supreme Method Siddhānta (第一義悉檀) is not a rejection of all forms of speech and conception, rejecting even Emptiness and all the more so all lesser concepts, but rather an affirmation that all of them are ways to “insight into truth,” to reproduce Swanson’s own translation of the phrase 見理 in the sentence 是名第一義四句見理: “the Supreme Method is to use each and any of the four types of statement denied in the tetralemma (i.e., arising from cause—in this case, the one momentary thought; arising from conditions—in this case external dharmas; arising from both; and arising from neither) as ways of reaching insight into truth” (compare with Swanson’s translation, pp. 828-829). The very next sentence is the contested line about the three thousand: 何況心生三千法耶. This is clearly one more example of one of the four wings of the (already falsified but nonetheless Conventionally upayically valid) tetralemma, that is, the idea of all dharmas being born only from the primary cause, from one momentary thought, and having just established that all of them in all their crazy randomness and vast diversity reveal the truth, it is a no-brainer that this one small Conventionality also reveals the truth: 何況. It is part of the turn, within the Emptiness section, from Emptiness to Conventionality, parallel to the turn, within the Conventionality section, from Conventionality to Emptiness. It is a move to omnicataphasis rather than into further apophasis, and that is precisely how it serves as a bridge to the section on the Middle. The denial of the tetralemma in the Emptiness section denies that anything arises from cause alone, from condition alone, from both, or from neither. In this context, as Zhiyi makes quite clear, this means it denies that the mind of three thousand dharmas arises from the mind alone, from the dharmas themselves alone, from both, or from neither. But now the implication of Emptiness is seen to be the ambiguity of these four options, such that any one of them is a way of seeing this truth.   

The passage spanning the transition thus goes as follows: 云何第一義悉檀. 心得見理. 如言心開意解豁然得道. 或說緣能見理. 如言須臾聞之即得究竟三菩提. 或說因緣和合得道. 如快馬見鞭影即得正路. 或說離能見理. 如言無所得即是得. 已是得無所得. 是名第一義四句見理. 何況心生三千法耶佛旨盡淨不在因緣共離. 即世諦是第一義也. 又四句俱皆可說. 說因亦是緣亦是. 共亦是離亦是. 若為盲人說乳. 若貝若粖若雪若鶴. 盲聞諸說即得解乳. 即世諦是第一義諦. I would suggest we translate and interpret this as follows: what is the Supreme Method Siddhānta? The mind alone (i.e., the idea that all dharmas are caused by just the “primary cause” [因] alone) can be presented as bringing insight into truth, as in the saying “the mind opens and the thought understands, and one immediately obtains the way.” Or else we can say that the conditions can reveal the truth, as when the scripture says “anyone who hears this for an instant has precisely obtained Supreme Enlightenment” (i.e., the causality now said to be entirely on the side of the external phenomenon, the sound or words heard, the secondary conditions of this consciousness, its 緣). Or we can say that the coming together of cause and condition 因緣 (i.e., mind and external dharmas) is what reveals the truth, as in “When a fast horse (i.e., mind, primary cause) sees the shadow of a whip (i.e., the three thousand dharmas, the secondary condition), it finds the right road.” Or we can say that freedom from both cause and condition is what reveals the truth, as when we say “to obtain nothing is precisely to obtain it, for one thereby has attained the unobtainability.” This is called the Supreme Method: insight into truth via any of the four parts of the tetralemma. How much more so the idea of one mind giving rise to three thousand dharmas! (Right here is where Swanson locates the transition to the exposition in terms of the Middle). The Buddha’s meaning is completely pure, and does not reside exclusively in the cause, the conditions, both, or neither—precisely the worldly truth is the Supreme Method. Moreover, any of the four can be preached. It is right to say it is due to cause, to condition, to both, or to neither. It is like telling a blind man about milk, saying that it is like a shell, like rice powder, like snow, like a crane, and the blind man hearing these various explanations comes to understand milk. Precisely the worldly truth is the ultimate truth.

Swanson has to twist and turn to avoid the clear meaning of that last sentence. What he gives us is: “[This illustrates that] the worldly truth is indivisible from the supreme truth [and vice versa]” (p. 829, insertions original). The sentence in Chinese is 即世諦是第一義諦. Even given Swanson’s aggressively deflationary interpretation of 即, demoting it from its plain sense as “identical to” into the much tamer “indivisible from,”—which I will discuss at length below—this reading is plainly impossible. Here he is not only translating 即 as “indivisible from” instead of “identical with,” but even translating 即X 是Y, with the even more unmistakable copula 是, not as “X is precisely identical to Y” but as “X is indivisible from Y.” It is hard not to see a private philosophical agenda getting in the way of an unbiased translation here. The same even more blatantly goes for the prior occurrence of the almost identical sentence 即世諦是第一義也, which again Swanson finds himself obliged to translate away, although here his insertion of an added bracketed phrase shows more clear awareness of unease at this distortion of the plain sense of the text: “the worldly truth is [taught on the basis of] the supreme truth” (p. 829, insertion original). But the text clearly says only what is not in the brackets: the worldly truth is the supreme truth. Thus we can say that mind is prior and thus that all is mind, or we can say that world is prior and thus that all is world. The only determinant of which is to be preferred is the upayic perspective relevant in the given situation: what makes it valid to say it is all thought, that all reduces to thought, that thought is prior and the three thousand are posterior, is that there is first some one thought that disambiguates things in that way. One thought makes all things thought, in this very limited way. This presents no theoretical difficulty, for this is precisely the point being made here: one thought giving rise to three thousand worlds—or alternately, being identical to the three thousand, or alternately inherently entailing them and being inherently entailed, or alternately being neither identical nor giving rise to any dharmas—are all worldly truths, and therefore all are supreme truth. The reason Zhiyi does not worry about this landing us in a position of mistaking the part for the whole, taking any one of these separately as the whole truth, is what is given in the next section.

For what follows is the culminating section on the Middle, demonstrating that the previous two sections were alternate ways of saying the same thing, in opposite directions: that Conventionality (leading to Emptiness) and Emptiness (leading to Conventionality) are reversibly identical to one another. But precisely this fact, brought out in Swanson’s discovery of the structural preeminence of the Middle section over the Conventional passage, tells us how the climactic passage of the Middle section should be understood: 一心一切心, 一切心一心, 非一非一切, 一陰一切陰, 一切陰一陰, 非一非一切, etc. Swanson translates, “One thought is all thought, all thoughts are one thought, and these are neither one nor all; one skandha is all skandhas, all skandhas are one skandha, and these are neither one nor all” (pp. 831-832, T46.55b), and so on. Here, too, I am afraid I must register some objections to the interpretation informing the translation. As Zhiyi explicitly tells us a few lines later, the first phrase in each triad is a summary of the Conventionality section, the second Emptiness, the third Middle. Given our previous analysis of the Conventionality section, there is perhaps a way to make sense of the seemingly weird claim that “one thought is all thoughts”: the Conventional one thought described in that section imagined all the sentient beings of the three thousand worlds, and thereby also imagined all their minds likewise imagining all sentient beings, and saw there that all of that was another name for the one momentary thought itself: all the thoughts of those Conventionally posited sentient beings are thus aspects of that one thought. This is indeed part of the meaning here, though it would be bizarre to single out the one thought’s identity only to all other thoughts, which are merely a subset of the totality of what it was shown to be identical to. But if “one thought is all thoughts” is taken as the meaning of the phrase, there is some danger of making the passage imply only intersubsumption within classes or kinds: all thoughts intersubsume only with other thoughts, all skandhas intersubsume only with other skandhas. But what about thoughts and skandhas—do they intersubsume with one another? Are we to take this as simply moving to broader and broader classes of entities, until we reach full intersubsumption of all possible phenomena in the phrase 一相一切相, 一切相一相, 非一非一切? It is not clear how this would follow from the preceding exposition; the connection is tenuous at best. This may seem to be full intersubsumption, since it applies to all attributes as such, and “attribute” would refer to any and all identifiable phenomena, including both thoughts and things. But what this would have to do with the exposition of Conventionality and the Middle just given remains incoherent; how do we move from “all thoughts being one thought” to the conclusion that “therefore all attributes are one attribute,” etc.? And why would we have to start with this other list of narrow categories of intramural intersubsumption? If this were all the phrase were saying, the next phrase, and the entire climactic passage on the Middle, would be a plain non sequitur. Why does the establishment of the point that “one thought is all thoughts” lead to the next statement, “one skandha is all skandhas”? Is it merely by a parallelism, an analogy, that Zhiyi jumps from the one point to the next, or is there any more rigorous connection? Swanson himself seems a bit concerned over the abruptness and illogicality of this transition, reaching for an ad hoc explanation for it in the footnote to this sentence, which says, “note that this section is on ‘contemplation of the objects of the skandhas and sense fields (skandha-āyatana-dhāta [sic: dhātu])’” (p. 831n). That remark seems to be acknowledging that, as translated and interpreted, “one thought is all thoughts” and “one skandha is all skandhas” have no intrinsic connection, and the jump must be attributed to the predetermined section heading.   

But we do not have to reach for this rather disappointing expedient if we examine this phrase more closely and translate it in accordance with Zhiyi’s characteristic usage of its peculiar linguistic structure 一X 一切X, revealed in his other deployments of this abbreviated rhetorical form. Doing so, indeed, reveals anew the riches of the Middle section, for which we must again be grateful for Swanson’s organizational intervention. A close consideration of the other usages, along with the context of this usage and the others, strongly suggests that the phrase 一心一切心 should be understood to mean not “one thought is all thoughts,” but rather “whenever there is one thought, all things are just that thought.” The structure of the Chinese phrase here is often found in Zhiyi’s works. For example, later in the Mohezhiguan we have the following, applying the method of “Contemplation of the Inconceivable” to “Demonic Forces”: 若即此魔事具十界百法. 在一念中. 一切法趣魔. 如一夢法具一切事. 一魔一切魔一切魔一魔. 非一非一切. 亦是一魔一切魔. 一佛一切佛. 不出佛界即是魔界. 不二不別. Here, too, Swanson translates in the same way, mutatis mutandisIf you [contemplate] these demonic matters as the ten destinies and the hundred realms interpenetrating [each other], as [all] existing in a single thought, that all dharmas have an inclination toward Māra and the demonic, as one dream includes all things, one demon is all demons, all demons are one demon, it is neither one nor all, and it is both one demon and all demons, and one Buddha is all Buddhas. There is nothing that is apart from the Buddha realm, so it is indivisible from the realm of demons; [the realm of Buddhas and of demons] is neither two nor distinct” (p. 1402, insertions original, emphasis added).[4] But translated in this way the passage seems to be a non sequitur: why should “all demons are one demon” have anything to do with “one Buddha is all Buddhas,” and how would that lead to the conclusion that there is nothing apart from the Buddha realm, which is thus indivisible from (literally “identical to”—as I keep saying, we’ll return to this below!) the demon realm? The answer is that it does not follow.

But that appearance of non sequitur is due to the interpretation of the meaning of the 一X一切X structure. Let us go back to 一心一切心, and then we can return to understand the logic of this argument about 一魔一切魔 and 一佛一切佛. The sentence 一心一切心 is intended as a brief recapitulation of the exposition in the Conventionality passage on the three thousand. There we were told that when there is the slightest momentary thought, it inherently entails the three thousand, which are then seen to be neither prior nor posterior to it: it is in this sense that all are within this one thought, are present as this one thought, are precisely none other than this thought. This is the same thing that is meant by一心一切心: it is a conditional statement redescribing the conclusions of the Conventionality section, meaning not “one thought is all thoughts,” but rather “if there is a single momentary thought, then all things are (aspects of, identical to) that thought.” The swift vigor of Zhiyi’s language here bears a distant but unmistakable relation to a usage of 一 still very much alive in modern spoken Chinese, for example, 一看就懂, which is perhaps literally “with one look, it is understood,” or more colloquially, “as soon as (I, he, she, they) saw it, (I, he, she, they) understood,” or 一有錢就花掉: literally I suppose, “with a single instance of having money, (I, he, she, they) spend(s) it all,” which is to say, “as soon as (I, he, she, they) get(s) any money, (I, he, she, they) spend(s) it all.” The phrase 一心 somewhat similarly means here, “With a single instance of mind, of thought,” in other words, as soon as there is even one moment of thought: the same meaning as 介爾有心. The following phrase is what happens if and when there is any one thought: all things (not only other minds or other thoughts) present themselves as inseparable aspects of it, neither prior nor posterior to it; they “are” all this one thought, as we saw in the Conventionality section. In contrast, the meaning of the phrase in Swanson’s interpretation would be that, given the total set of all thoughts existing in the world, already constituted as “thoughts” to begin with, this one thought is identical to all of them. But the further implication would then be, it is not identical to anything that is not a “thought” already; nothing is said about its relation to any non-thought entities in the universe. But this is certainly not what Zhiyi means here. Rather, the phrase 一心一切心 is an exact synonym for the phrase 介爾有心即具三千 in the Conventionality section: “if there is the slightest appearance of any momentary thought, it is identical to and inherently includes the three thousand”—which includes all of those bodies, minds, actions, thoughts, affects, and physical lands just described. 一心一切心 recapitulates precisely this meaning: 一心 means 介爾有心. 一切 means 三千. 一切心 means 即具三千.[5] The phrase means, “If there is any single momentary thought, then all dharmas—both mental and physical, all three thousand—are part of this mind, are aspects of this mind, have the character of being mental in just this way.” That this thought is identical to all other thoughts of all sentient beings is thus of course part of the meaning here, inasmuch as all thoughts of all sentient beings are a subset of all entities included in the three thousand. But the three thousand includes not only the sentient beings and their thoughts but also their environments, their appearances, their natures, their powers, their activities, and so on. This phrase is a recapitulation of 一念三千. The implicit copula falls between 一切 and 心, not between 一心 and 一切: to spell it out in modern Chinese grammar, the structure is (有任何) 一心 (則) 一切 (皆即此) 心, not 一心即是一切心. The same applies to all the parallel statements in the series: (有任何)一陰 (則) 一切 (皆即此) 陰, and so on: if there is any aggregate, then all things are that aggregate, and so on.

If we were to add modern Chinese specifiers throughout to bring out the implicit grammar and implications, we would have (只要介爾有) (念) 心 (則) 一切 (法皆是此一念) 心 (所造, 所具, 所即,就是說是此一念的產物,或其中的一部分, 或一投射,或一面向, 或一屬性), (而此) 一切 (屬於) 心 (或帶有心性的法其實則不過是原來的那) 一 (念) 心 (的部分, 或所投射, 或面向,或屬性,所以不是真的有如此法各自存在,都是空的), (故無論一心或一切法皆) 非一 (念心) 非一切 (心具之色法、心法). The passage works exactly the same way if we replace 心 with 陰, and all the rest of the listed alternatives in the Middle section (pp. 831-832). 

In English this structure is harder to render, but, again leaving English equivalents of the original words in bold, it would be something like this: “(Whenever there is any) one (momentary) thought, all (dharmas) are (this one momentary) thought (in the sense of being its projections, its parts, its aspects, or its attributes: considered first as created by it, then as inherently included in it, then as identical to it). All (these) thought (-dependent and thought-natured or thought-identical dharmas, which are to be taken as either projections of the momentary thought or parts of it or aspects of it or attributes of it) are (reducible to that previously mentioned) one (momentary) thought (and thus are themselves empty, having no real existence of their own). (Thus both the one momentary thought and all its dharmas) are neither the one (momentary thought) nor all (those dharmas).” In Japanese it would perhaps be something like this: 一 (念の)  (がある時はいつも), 一切 (の法がこの一念の) 心 (の中の一部分, 一投射, 一属性, 一側面) となる. この心 (に属し, または, その心の性質を有する) 一切 (の法) とは (実に, 最初の) 一 (念) 心 (の部分, 投射, 属性, 側面である. そのため, これらの諸法は自存する本質を持たない.) (したがって, 一心と一切法は皆, その) 一 (念の心) でもなく, (これらの) 一切 (法) でもない.

This explains why Zhiyi insists that the first phrase (“if one is X then all are X” as I read it, not “one X is all Xes”) is a reference to Conventionality, with which it seems to have little to do if the meaning is “one mind is all minds” or “one thought is all thoughts.” Rather, to say that all dharmas, mental and physical, are (aspects of) one momentary thought is a statement about Conventionality, about how provisional characteristics are bestowed upon dharmas projectively. The world of any mind or any thought is saturated, to that mind, with mentalness and relevance to mentalness, appears to it only as aspects of mind, as mental, and as determined and disambiguated by the particular karmic structure of that mind and that thought. More specifically, the world of a hungry thought of a hungry ghost is saturated with hunger and relevance to hunger—it is the three thousand comprising the dharma realm of hungry ghosts. When this is extended to all dharmas in the Middle section, this is seen to apply also to less obvious, non-phenomenologically available cases than the projection of mentalness onto mental contents, which we see in the case of the Conventionality section: each skandha, each sentient being, each realm, each type of land, also saturates the universe with its own specific totality of qualitative characteristics. The world of a devil is saturated with deviltry and relevance to deviltry, and so on.    

This reading also explains more forcefully why Zhiyi insists that the second phrase is stated unequivocally to be a reference to Emptiness, even though it says nothing about Emptiness or reduction to Emptiness, but in each case instead delineates the reduction of everything to any one specific Conventional reality—not the reduction of all to “none,” or to “Emptiness itself,” but to one definite Conventional thing, for example, to one thought, to one skandha, to one land, and so on (一切心一心, 一切陰一陰, etc.). Their Emptiness is shown insofar as they are projections or aspects of whatever determining Conventional dharma was provisionally disambiguating them—in the first case, because they are all identical to the one thought. It is precisely because they were ostensibly non-thoughtlike things (i.e., all three thousand dharmas including material dharmas) that their reduction to the one thought is a display of their Emptiness: they turn out not to be what they appear to be. The meaning is not merely “these apparent Xes (thoughts) turn out not to be multiple instances of X, but one totalized instance of X, though their essential nature of being X (e.g., minds, thoughts) remains unchanged” but rather “these apparent Xes turn out to be non-Xes.” The negation is far stronger and more comprehensive in the latter case, the reading I am advocating here. The three thousand dharmas, including minds and bodies and lands, are seen not to be self-standing and self-determining minds and bodies and lands, but rather to be insubstantial and ambiguous, because I have now seen them to be really identical to something of a totally different character, to this one thought. This also means that when I characterize them as mental, as the first sentence claims, I see that they are presently disambiguated that way merely in relation to this one thought, which also means they are alternately disambiguable by alternate Conventional entities. Thus this phrase, “all (those so-called) Xes are (really) this one X,” gives us the meaning of Emptiness.   

This reading allows us to understand the immanent transition from one interpervasion to the next, without having to invoke the expedient of a random switch to cover a preassigned topic. From here, the formula moves to the third phrase, expressing the Middle, which is the same in each case: 非一非一切. The convergence of these two points, of Conventionality and Emptiness, leads to the Middle, which is the transition from the first instance of reversibility of Conventionalities (between Conventionally designated thought and Conventionally designated world) to reversibly intersubsumptive Conventionalities in all directions. Because all things are the one thought, one thought is also all things; outside of the one thought, they are nothing, and outside all things, it is nothing. There is no thought left over when you take away things; there are no things left over when you take away the thought. So the thought is not the (self-standing, self-natured, exclusive of otherness) thought, and the things are not (self-standing, self-natured, exclusive of otherness) things. Hence the reduction of all non-thought things to a thought not only shows the Emptiness of the non-thoughts, it also shows the Emptiness of the original thought. All that was required for all things to be saturated with any Conventional characteristic was one single instance of that characteristic, for example, this one thought. But then this one thought, too, is in the presence of other Conventionalities, precisely the ones it deludedly posited. By positing this multiplicity of othernesses in contrast to itself, reducible to itself, it has made itself also reducible to any of them. Identity of X and non-X, such as established in the yiniansanqian passage, means that neither the one nor the other is the foundation, the cause, the substance of the other: they are reversibly aspects of one another. Since the Emptiness critique cuts both ways, since not-X being X is also X being not-X, mind is also non-mind, the one thought is also non-thought. And it is this idea of the Middle that establishes the transition to the next phrase, from 一心 to 一陰 and so on, which otherwise comes out of nowhere. Since the totalizer, the one thought, is now seen not to be specifically a thought, but can equally be read as any other thing, as an aspect of any of its aspects, we can now say “one skandha is all skandhas” 一切陰一陰 and so on. The one thought posited not only thoughts but also all the other skandhas among its three thousand aspects. Since those three thousand are the thought itself, they are not the three thousand—they are not what they appear to be, they are empty. But likewise, since those three thousand are the thought itself, the thought itself is the three thousand, so it is not what it appears to be, it is not the one thought. Hence Zhiyi says that neither the one nor the all is actually exclusively or definitively the one or the all. The Middle is only demonstrated if the “one” and “all” here are understood as an initially mutually exclusive contrast and negation, as two opposite qualities, like thought and world, self and other, mind and matter, as in the reading we propose. “Neither one nor all” then means “neither X nor non-X”—the Middle, which is just what Zhiyi tells us this phrase is supposed to mean. Only thus does the transition from one Middle to the next make sense.   

From there, the same logic applies in all the parallel cases: given any one skandha, say a particular physical body, all things both internal and external, both physical and mental, are inextricable aspects of that physical body, just as all things are (even conventionally experienced as, without theoretical intervention) present as one thought. Let us take the case of the skandha of rūpa, materiality, in some hell-being a million miles away: a faraway body in great suffering. The one thought posited not only thoughts but also all the other skandhas among its three thousand aspects, including this faraway body in pain. Since those three thousand are the thought itself, this faraway body in pain is empty, belying its appearance of being a faraway body in pain—actually it is identical to my one thought. But likewise, since those three thousand are the thought itself, the thought itself is the three thousand, and likewise among any possible putative boundary among them, any one in relation to all the others. All it took for all things to be shown to be identical to the thought was the presence of the thought: it turned out that the thought that first appeared to be side by side in the world with its objects was observed to be reversibly identical to them: given this thought, all things are this thought. Given this faraway body in pain, all things are this faraway body in pain, including this thought. In the presence of this thought of the faraway body in pain, all things, including this one thought, are aspects of the faraway body in pain. The one thought is as much the faraway body in pain as it is this one thought, and the faraway body in pain is as much the one thought as it is this faraway body in pain. Neither one is exclusively that faraway body in pain or exclusively this one casual thought. Thus all those other things are not what they appear to be: they are reducible to the faraway body in pain, are mere projections or parts or aspects of its world, marked by its particular Conventional characteristic: 一陰一切陰, 一切陰一陰, 非一非一切. Because there is nothing to constitute that faraway body other than all the dharmas of its world, that faraway body is empty as well, is not merely a faraway body, is neither X nor non-X, and thus we continue to transition down the list, which each Middle term handing off the Middle function to another new Middle.   

To return to the usage of this structure in the demon passage, we can now see its logic. For in the same way, 一魔一切魔 means “as long as there is any single demon, then all things are (aspects of, projections of, specifically relevant to, made demonic by) that demon.” That is followed by, “But all these demon(ic)s are thus (i.e., disambiguated so as to manifest as demonic) by the one demon,” that is, as long as there is any single demon, all things are demonic; but they are only demonic in terms of the one demon—they are in themselves empty. Thus they are neither the all (including all three thousand, including the Buddha realm), nor the one (the demon), nor both—this is the Middle. Thus even the demon is not just demon: he is also part of the Buddha realm. Since this discloses the way in which all things are both demon and Buddha, and the reversibility of these two propositions, it also discloses what is concluded in Zhiyi’s passage: when one is Buddha, all are Buddha, and the realm of the demon is identical to the demonic realm—which is to say, the realm of the three thousand, which is both demonic and buddhific. The transition from 一魔一切魔 to  一佛一切佛 read in this way is no longer a non sequitur, but actually makes perfect sense. The phrase 一切法趣魔 in the passage states the meaning of 一魔一切魔 explicitly and unmistakably: all dharmas, not just priorly existing demons, are identical to and reducible to the one demon. The same, I submit, applies to all uses of the “one X all X” structure throughout Zhiyi’s work.

Flying in the face of his own previous practice, Swanson himself translates the structure in just this way a bit later, in the wrap-up to the exposition of the Middle. 一空一切空 is there rendered “The emptiness of one [thing] is the emptiness of all” (p. 832, insertion original)—not “one emptiness is all emptinesses,” as if the “all emptinesses” preexist the “one emptiness” and then they are all in addition made identical to it, having nothing to do with anything that is not, prior to this operation, already an “emptiness.” The same correct interpretation is given to 一假一切假 and 一中一切中. In all cases, the structure means “Given that one is X, all are therefore X,” not “one X is all (things that are already) Xes (and is not identical to anything that is not already X).” The sentence that follows in all three cases is a common Chinese double negative structure: 無X而不Y, which means simply “There exists no X which is not Y”—all X is (also) Y. That is precisely the meaning all along of 一X一切X. Whatever is non-X is also X. Swanson arrives at the same meaning, in this passage, in a somewhat more roundabout way, translating without reference to the double negative and thus having to add rather a lot: “just because there are the meanings of conventional existence and the Middle does not mean that they are not empty” (p. 832). Nevertheless, this is the meaning: Conventionality and the Middle are themselves empty, or Emptiness. And so for all three. Exactly the same structure is what we have in the initial passage on the Middle in the section on Contemplation of Objects as Inconceivable. Seeing this from any side enables the reversible subsumption that reveals the same from any other side. Hence, 一心一切心, 一切心一心, 非一非一切, 一陰一切陰, 一切陰一陰, 非一非一切 should be understood to mean, “Whenever there is a single thought, all things are aspects of that thought, but all are aspects of that thought only as functions of that thought, and thus (both the one thought and the all “non-thought” dharmas that are aspects of it) are neither the one thought nor the all (i.e., the non-thought dharmas). Whenever there is a single skandha of any kind, all things are aspects of that skandha, but all are aspects of that skandha only as functions of that skandha, and thus all are neither the one skandha nor the all (that is not that skandha).” And so on. It is not that all thoughts are one thought: it is also that all skandhas are the one thought, and all thoughts are one skandha, and so on. Such is the Middle.

But it must again be stressed that this culmination of the contemplation described in the Middle section is a universalization of the reversible identity structure uniquely advanced in the Inconceivability of Conventionality section on yiniansanqian, that is, the reversible neither-same-nor-different relation between a momentary thought and its three thousand contents, now applied to all other Conventional relata (i.e., to all skandhas, to all entrances, to all sense realms, to all sentient beings, to physical lands, and so on). What exactly that relation of paradoxical identity-as-difference is, when dealing with any two definite (i.e., Conventional) entities, is given initially and most unmistakably, and in its most uniquely Tiantai way, in the three thousand passage in the Conventionality section, and the range of the relata to which it is finally to be applied is spelled out only there. For though the Emptiness section ends by bridging to Conventionality, it is only because the one momentary deluded thought thinks itself, however deludedly, to be subsuming all worlds, mental and physical, that it is also thinking the thought, however deludedly, of the other worlds also subsuming it, and all the other realms. The bridge from Emptiness to Conventionality also entails the bridge from Conventionality to Emptiness, and this loop is the bridge to the climax of the Middle section, where the very fact that “one momentary thought” contains all dharmas is seen to also mean that one anything contains all things as internal to itself, including the original momentary thought—for that “anything” too was “fully identical” to the initial thought, in other words, intersubsumptive of it. It is the Conventionality section that provides the grounds for the motion from the purely “mental” application of intersubsumption (yiniansanqian) to the omnidirectional global application of intersubsumption, now realized both phenomenologically (from the Conventionality section) and logically (from the Emptiness section)—these two aspects are also as intersubsumptive of one another. For this reason I again gladly take up the mantle of Tiantai orthodoxy. For from this point of view, it would seem to be highly appropriate that Zhanran and later Tiantai tradition would zero in on the yiniansanqian passage as the key distinguishing moment of the Tiantai exposition, not because it is the culmination of the exposition, but because it is what most unmistakably reveals the form of reversible identity between any and all possible determinate Conventional entities, leaving none out no matter how real or apparent, which distinguishes Tiantai thought from that of all other schools, a form that is then universalized to full inter-nested reversibility in the culminating Middle section, where any dharma is shown to be a Middle, a subsuming source that is also reversibly the subsumed result of whatever it Conventionally determines, with respect to all other possible entities, in just the way a momentary thought is with respect to all its own contents and objects.

The implication here might be clearer if, in his translation of the Middle section on page 831, Swanson had stuck to the excellent choice he had made and rightly explained in the footnote at the beginning of the Conventionality section on page 815, to translate 心 not as “mind” or “thought” generally, but as a synonym throughout this passage for “a single momentary thought” (i.e., for 一念). The point of both passages is not an idealist or panpsychic or panlogicist claim that all things are thought, and thought is the basis or real nature of all things, as we might think from Swanson’s translation of the key line in the Conventionality section, 秖心是一切法. 一切法是心 (p. 816): “It is just that thought is all phenomena, and all phenomena is thought,” if that translation is taken in isolation. Rather, the meaning here is the Conventional phenomenological meaning just presented: “It is just that that given momentary thought is all phenomena, and that all phenomena are that precise momentary thought.” Please note the emphatic and unevadable assertion of full reversible identity, an issue to be returned to again and again below. It is this meaning, of the full reversible identity between Conventional entities as delineated phenomenologically in the Conventionality section, that is brought to its full omnidirectional expression in the Middle section. We should note again, therefore, that the “Conventionality” passage begins by talking about Conventional entities—the three thousand, the momentary thought—and ends by showing their “Inconceivability,” that is, their Emptiness, purely in terms of the very process of Conventional positing, the illusory discriminations of the mind itself, without, however, having to invoke separately the traditional arguments for Emptiness. Conventionality considered alone yields Emptiness, and its own identity to Emptiness, which is the Middle. For this is just what Zhiyi means by the “interfused Three Truths” (圓融三諦): each of the Three Truths considered separately is all three of the Three Truths collectively, each one alone has all three functions. The next passage, regarded plausibly by Swanson as the Emptiness passage, proceeds in the opposite direction: it starts with Emptiness, and then shows that this, considered on its own terms, also yields infinite provisional Conventional positing. For Emptiness alone is also all Three Truths, has all three functions: negating (Emptiness), positing (Conventionality), and unifying-negation-and-positing (The Middle). The initial contemplation in terms of reduction of Conventional dharmas to Conventional thought is merely the first exemplar, and the one most directly and accessibly related to meditation practice, which is then universalized into the omnidirectional reduction of the Middle.

That this is the intended structure here can be further confirmed by noting that this procedure is frequently found in Zhiyi’s works. It is easily missed here only because of precisely the complexity of structure that Swanson has pointed out and partially remedied. The point is made much more directly and perhaps unmistakably elsewhere. For example, in Zhiyi’s Liumiaofamen (六妙法門), regrettably but understandably not included among Swanson’s supplementary text translations in volume 3, we have a penultimate contemplation, the section on guanxin (觀心) “contemplation of mind” (section 8), which demonstrates how all dharmas are inseparable from the thinking mind (離心之外更無一法, T46.553c), followed by the pinnacle of the contemplation, called yuanguan (圓觀), “the perfect/comprehensive contemplation” (section 9), which not only applies this reduction to the case of mind and dharmas but also makes it reversible between these two and among all categories: 夫圓觀者. 豈得如上所說. 但觀心源. 具足六妙門. 觀餘諸法不得爾乎. 今行者觀一心. 見一切心及一切法. 觀一法見一切法及一切心. 觀菩提. 見一切煩惱生死. 觀煩惱生死. 見一切菩提涅槃. 觀一佛見一切眾生及諸佛. 觀一眾生. 見一切佛及一切眾生. 一切皆如影現. 非內非外. 不一不異. 十方不可思議. 本性自爾無能作者. 非但於一心中. 分別一切十方法界凡聖色心諸法數量. 亦能於一微塵中. 通達一切十方世界諸佛凡聖色心數量法門 (T46.554a).

How could the Perfect Contemplation be the same as that described above? Just contemplating the mind as source we saw how it completely entailed all six wondrous gates—could it be that we would not find the same when contemplating any other dharma? Now the practitioner in contemplating one momentary thought sees all thoughts as well as all dharmas. In contemplating one dharma he sees all dharmaas well as all thought. In contemplating Bodhi, he sees all afflictions and saṃsāra. In contemplating afflictions and saṃsāra, he sees all Bodhi and nirvāṇa. In contemplating a single buddha he sees all sentient beings as well as all buddhas. In contemplating a single sentient being, he sees all buddhas as well as all sentient beings. All are like manifestations of reflections and shadows, neither internal nor external, neither the same nor different, so that all in the ten directions is Inconceivable, just so from their own nature and not able to be made by any maker. It is not just that in any momentary thought he can discern the full diversity of all mental dharmas and all physical dharmas of all the sages and all the ordinary beings in all dharma realms in all the ten directions; he can also comprehend in any single physical atom the full diversity of the dharma gates of all mental dharmas and all physical dharmas of all the sages and all the ordinary beings in all dharma realms in all the ten directions. 

Here, too, what was seen first in contemplating mind—the reversible reduction of all things to any thought, or any thought to all that is thought—is now applied in all directions and to all things. All things are one physical atom in just the same way as all things are one momentary thought. This is precisely the structure of the exposition given in the Middle section of the Mohezhiguan: the reversible intersubsumption previously seen only in the case of the dyad of mind and dharmas is now seen, because of that first intersubsumption, to apply to any dyad, any relation. Just as any Conventional instance of mind bodies forth a mental universe in which all non-mental entities are also mental in just that way, any Conventional instance of physical matter bodies forth a material universe in which all non-physical entities are also physical in just that way.   

Hence we can see that the Middle section is meant as an omnidirectional universalization of the exposition of precisely “the three thousand worlds in a single momentary thought” of the Conventionality section, and here we discover still another strong reason it was rightfully singled out by later tradition. For it is not a flabby “all things” that are meant by the yiqie here, as one might imagine if looking at the Middle section alone, but precisely the exact specificities of the three thousand already intersubsumptive worlds painstakingly elaborated in the Conventionality section. This reveals what is both brilliant about Zhanran’s singling out of that passage, as tradition avers, and also what is problematic about it, as Swanson avers. Zhanran is forever right to have noticed that merely broadcasting the Middle section would not have made what is truly distinctive about Zhiyi’s thought accessible: without the previous exposition that showed in meticulous detail what the yiqie refers to in this context, in all its specificity, all the ten realms in all their aspects walked through one by one, it would sound like a limited intersubsumption within type, and of a general “all” that could be as differentiated or undifferentiated as one liked. It might turn out, indeed, that there were only ten realms, not a hundred; that the delusions that sentient beings have about their world were not among the things intersubsuming since they do not really exist; and thus that the whole point and the beating heart of Tiantai contemplation would be lost. That beating heart lies in the way in which the Middle section recapitulates the already established and assumed Conventionality and Emptiness sections, and by touching on their reversibility arrives at the “Perfect Contemplation” of all phenomena in each, minds in atoms as well as atoms in minds. 

On the other hand, the danger in this move that seems to worry Swanson is also very real, and we might say that this is one of the things proved by the schism between “Shanjia” (山家) and “Shanwai” (山外) Tiantai exegetes in the Song dynasty. For the singling out of the passage about reducible reduction of all things to mind in the Conventionality section as the culmination of the contemplation did indeed smooth the way for more idealism-friendly or idealism-adjacent readings of Zhanran and the Tiantai tradition as a whole propounded by the Shanwai exegetes. Read in isolation, the yiniansanqian Conventionality passage does seem to suggest some especially important status for thought, for mind, over all other dharmas, even as it is attempting to demonstrate the opposite. Swanson’s intervention here shows the sagacity of the Shanjia rejoinder to this move: the reversible reduction to mind is proposed by Zhiyi, they say, not to show the ultimate uniqueness of mind or its ultimate role in the construction of all dharmas, but as a first exemplar that is particularly relevant to certain sentient beings—us—on a Conventional level, as the focus of our particular practice, and one that leads beyond itself to the full mutual reversibility of the Middle—indeed, say these Shanjia exegetes, for other sentient beings, the beginning point would surely be “the Three Thousand Worlds in a Single Physical Atom,” likewise leading to the full intersubsumption of both physical atoms and thoughts in the Perfect Contemplation of the Middle.

I have had to be critical of some translation choices in the above. I take no pleasure in doing so, because I admire this work and its creator so much, and because in a certain sense I literally think there is no more important work that a human being can do than translate the Mohezhiguan. I also know what it is like to have critics nitpick one’s translation of a profound and profoundly complex text, even though one has explained clearly the basis of one’s choices and justified one’s theory of translation at length, and also bent over backwards to mark these choices in the footnotes and other apparatuses. I have had this frustrating experience with my translation of the Zhuangzi, sometimes aghast that a reader has missed what I was doing here and there; and Swanson has done much more than I ever did to dispel misunderstandings, not only with his epic footnotes but also with his marvelous discussion of the art of translation in his “Translator’s Introduction.” This should be required reading for any translator, particularly translators of classical Chinese. In particular, he has written beautifully and with great insight there to establish two great principles: there is no one-to-one correspondence between words of different languages, and there is never only one correct translation. I heartily agree with everything Swanson says there. Furthermore, on page 56, to his enormous credit, he uses as an example exactly the choice I want to take issue with here: the translation throughout of 即 not as “identical to” but as “indivisible from.” Swanson is fulfilling his responsibility as a scholar here, with flying colors: he is aware that this choice is controversial and requires special justification, and he lays it out in detail, noting also, in footnote 16, that this flies in the face of later Tiantai and Tendai tradition. This is all one can ask of a scholar: there must be controversial choices, and all that one is required to do is to spell out explicitly one’s reasoning in arriving at them. As a result, the work marks itself as having made this choice and alerts the reader that other choices are also defensible. Generally, this would be the end of the matter, and I would not insist on dwelling on the point.

But in this case, precisely because of the importance and greatness of Swanson’s work, I think an extended discussion of what is at stake here is in order. For the enormous achievement we have before us here, and the incredible time and exertion and erudition that were required to accomplish it, all but guarantee that we are unlikely to have a new translation of this work anytime soon. We can expect Swanson’s translation to be the only full translation of the Mohezhiguan into English for perhaps the next hundred years at least, which means it will be the first and authoritative resource for many new learners of Tiantai tradition for many generations to come. Since in some black moods I think this is about the only cultural matter of any real importance for the future of human civilization, I think it is important to have on record for any serious beginning student in the future what is happening when the text translates this key term in this way.   

As Swanson’s footnote, just cited, makes clear, he is aware that the interpretation of the word ji in Zhiyi’s works, used over and over to link apparent opposites as a mark of the Perfect Teaching, is a topic of intense discussion in later Tiantai tradition. Siming Zhili (四明知禮) (960-1014) asserts what would become the orthodox interpretation for all later Chinese Tiantai as follows: 應知今家明即永異諸師, 以非二物相合, 及非背面相翻, 直須當體全是方名為即 (T46.707a). “What must be understood is that in our (Tiantai) school the understanding of this term ji is forever different from what is taught by all other teachers, because for us it does not mean two things that are joined, nor two sides of a single thing. It must be understood to directly mean that this thing itself just as it is is completely the other—only that is called ji.” This is the “total and non-dual identity of opposites” Swanson attributes to “later Tiantai and Tendai” exegetes in footnote 16 on page 56. Exercising his rightful prerogative as a scholar, Swanson takes the tradition to have gotten Zhiyi wrong, and shows his involvement with exactly the kind of question a new critical edition of a canonical text should concern itself with: what was the original meaning of this text, before it became a sacred and heavily interpreted part of a faith tradition? But Swanson has philosophical reasons of his own to want to draw back here, in spite of his explicit recognition that the text does not require this intervention—for it is particularly in the crucial statements about the identity of the value opposites of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa, or afflictions and wisdom, or devils and buddhas, or good and evil, that Swanson insists on the radically deflationary translation of “indivisible from”: “In these cases, despite many passages that could easily be interpreted as such, I would argue that Chih-I [Zhiyi] does not mean that there is no difference between the two opposites and that they are totally interchangeable. Rather, using such paradoxical phrases as ‘neither one nor different’ 不一不異, he argues that they are ‘indivisible’—they have no meaning apart from each other; they are not exactly overlapping equivalents of each other” (p. 56).

I suspect that the reason Swanson does not want to depict Zhiyi as saying that these value opposites are “exactly overlapping equivalents” is because he thinks this claim is either ethically or logically or ontologically problematic, or all three—he believes he is allowing Zhiyi to come off as less crazy or less dangerous than a literal translation would. This may be motivated by a laudable desire to make Zhiyi’s thought more accessible and acceptable to modern English readers, who are after all the target audience of this English translation. The ethical concern perhaps has roots in Swanson’s attention to the critiques coming from the twentieth-century Japanese movement of “Critical Buddhism” (批判佛教), which take medieval Japanese Tendai’s notion of “original enlightenment” as a betrayal not only of the original teaching of Buddhism and of Zhiyi’s own intentions but also of human ethical responsibility in general. The broader philosophical concern may be based on a view that contradictory statements cannot be true, and thus that if Zhiyi is making such statements he cannot be taken seriously philosophically.   

My own position, as I have expressed in many works on the topic,[6] is at the opposite extreme of these views: I think Critical Buddhism fails to understand original enlightenment correctly, and I think modern philosophy fails to understand how and why and to what extent self-contradictory statements are true—and how especially the full identity of value opposites found in the value paradoxical statements of Zhiyi are of the utmost importance for ethics. For me, this is sort of the whole point of Tiantai thought, and if Zhiyi were saying merely “indivisible from” instead of “identical to” in all these places, he would be a much more boring and shallow philosopher, and maybe not much worth bothering to figure out. For this reason, this issue matters a lot to me, and I cannot not address it. But at the same time, this makes me a questionable choice as a reviewer of this work, for there is no possible way I could be less than outraged by what to me will inevitably feel like a tragic watering down of the most important thing in Zhiyi’s work, succumbing to pressure from the much shallower thinkers of the modern age. For me this is bound to feel like a painful missed opportunity. Mutatis mutandis, I would hate to have a reviewer like that for my own work, that is, one who was completely unsympathetic and opposed to my most central first principles (and I have: it is infuriating). So it is with a lot of ambivalence that I engage in this part of the discussion.

Nonetheless, a few words about this. First I ask any impartial reader to go through all the uses of ji in Zhiyi’s text. I have noted a few of these already in the discussion above. Even Swanson knows that it becomes instantly and obviously ridiculous in most cases to translate it as “indivisible from.” That is simply not the meaning of the Chinese word. But this is exactly why Swanson uses this case as his example of the principle that the same word cannot always be translated in the same way. I quite agree with the principle, but not with its application in the present case. The issue is philosophical. We have seen above already what Zhiyi means by ji: he means identity in the exact sense spelled out in his discussion of the Contemplation of Objects as Inconceivable, in terms of the Three Truths. Swanson is therefore quite right to emphasize that when Zhiyi says ji he does not mean to deny difference—and to the extent that “indivisible from” is able to avoid the misunderstanding that it means “identity to the exclusion of difference,” we must approve the intention. The Tiantai doctrine of Three Truths is precisely a way of formulating a structure of thinking to denote “neither same nor different.” But this does not mean that the two opposed relata joined by the copula ji “are not exactly overlapping equivalents.” They are. The whole point of the Three Truths is that “being exactly overlapping equivalents of each other” and “involving differences from each other” are not mutually exclusive—in fact, they are synonyms! In a very real sense, all of Zhiyi’s innovative formulations of Buddhist categories are attempts to illustrate this point in one way or another. Put simply but paradoxically, the “difference from itself” of any thing is not external to the thing itself. Each thing is the three thousand—is both itself and otherwise. Any other thing is an exactly overlapping equivalent, extended over exactly the same range of entities and meanings, for it is also the three thousand. The two things are also “interchangeable,” in the same way that the Three Truths are interchangeable: each is all three, so the full realization of any one of them is the realization of all of them. Each is itself as well as the other two, so no matter what determination is adduced, it must also be different from the others, and since the others are also revealed to be itself, it is different from itself. So all these opposite entities are “neither same nor different,” which means they are also “entirely overlapping and interchangeable.”   

The point is easily expounded in terms of “aspect change” as in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous duck-rabbit: the whole duck is the whole rabbit, and in that sense they “completely overlap.” I believe we can charitably read Swanson’s claim as willing to go at least this far: I would prefer to think that he does not mean merely that the two opposites “have no meaning apart from each other” in the way that “long” and “short” have no meaning apart from each other. In that case, we might imagine a long thing and a short thing but merely be saying that the recognition of the longness of the one is meaningless without the recognition of the shortness of the other. Longness stays over there in the long thing, and shortness stays over here in the short thing, and the only place they interact is in the “meaning” given to each, presumably in some third locus like our own minds, or the realm of abstract concepts. I could be wrong, but I do not think Swanson’s “no overlap” wants to go this far in watering down Zhiyi’s identity claims, landing in a truly sub-Buddhist dualism of distinct entities with their own separate qualities, perfectly separated in reality even if admittedly they are conceptually indivisible from one another. Rather, I would like to think he has something more like the duck-rabbit model in mind: overlap in the case of the thing, but no overlap in terms of the distinct aspects. And if this were all there were to Zhiyi’s claim, we might say that Swanson’s choice is still quite defensible: after all, although it is one and the same figure that is viewable either as rabbit or duck, “rabbitness” and “duckness” are quite distinct concepts, with no overlap. In a jargon I do not favor but that may have some heuristic value here, the duck and the rabbit are two distinct “senses” (Sinne) given to a single “referent” or “meaning” (Bedeutung). The referent, the figure itself, is wherein resides the indivisibility of the two senses, the rabbitness and the duckness, two completely different qualities that are, however, in the concrete figure, indivisible from one another. We might think here of any two aspects of a thing, for example, the loudness and the pitch of a musical note. These are two aspects of the same thing, and each pervades the entire thing, and yet loudness is not pitch, and pitch is not loudness. They are inseparable in the note, and one can shift one’s attention from one to the other and in each case still be regarding the entire note, but they are cleanly and fully distinct aspects.  

This may be what Swanson takes to be Zhiyi’s idea of “indivisibility” of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa, or good and evil. But Zhiyi’s claim goes further. The two opposed sides are not indivisible from one another in the manner of two alternate but indivisible aspects of a single more inclusive thing, like two sides of a piece of paper, but in the manner of two sides of a Mobius strip, which has two opposed sides at every point, though each of the sides turns out to be identical to the other side if traced far enough. Their difference is in this sense only a partial apprehension, though a necessary one, of what they are: thought through, that is, tracked through their entire extent, either side is already both sides, and yet the opposition between them is also always present. The further point is that these two distinct aspects are in fact interchangeable, because “the necessity of aspect change” is here, in Zhiyi’s thought, regarded as intrinsic to what it means to be either of the opposed aspects. If we need another example of this conception, we should think not of the duck-rabbit, nor of a note with a certain loudness and pitch, but of an equilateral triangle. An equilateral triangle is also an equiangular triangle. I can look at the whole triangle in either of the two ways. So in both cases I can say that the referent is the same but the sense or aspect is different; there is complete overlap of the duck and the rabbit, but not of the duckness and the rabbitness; there is complete overlap of the equilateral triangle and the equiangular triangle, but initially, it would seem, not of equiangularity and equilaterality. But I cannot say that equiangularity per se is wholly distinct from equilaterality per se in the same way that I can say that duckness per se is wholly distinct from rabbitness per se, or loudness per se from tone per se. For equilangularity of a triangle inherently entails equilaterality, and vice versa; they are two ways of referring to the same fact. Even at the level of the abstract conceptual qualities, they are not two different things, but two names for the same thing, distinguishable not with respect to content but only with respect to a difference in rhetorical emphasis. Depending on what point I want to make or what function I have in mind, I may refer to this quality as either triangle-equiangularity or triangle-equilaterality, but it is one and the same property of the triangle I am referring to in either case. Thinking through either one, tracking it in the full extent of its contents, it is revealed to be the other one as well. As soon as we consider closely what a “measure of an angle” of a triangle is (i.e., a way to describe the disposition of its sides) and what a “length of the sides” of a triangle is (i.e., a way to describe the disposition of its angles), we see that “triangle-equilaterality” and “triangle-equiangularity” mean one and the same thing. They are as synonymous as any two terms can be, if we allow that the very presence of two terms to be determined as synonymous or not in every case denotes some difference in emphasis between them. “Synonymous” already includes a reference to both difference and sameness, as does “being identical with”: for one thing to be identical with another, we must admit at least the appearance of two contrasted names, aspects, descriptions, forms, emphases. Indeed, in that sense, to say “X is identical to Y” already means that X and Y are “neither same nor different”—a point that is particularly evident in a Tiantai context, where equal ontological rights are granted to all levels of appearance (all are equally real and equally unreal). The difference in name or aspect or sense is thus as real as the identity in substance or referent. We do not say they merely appear to be different but are really identical. “They” are “identical” means they are both a “they”—and thus that a difference exists between them—and also are identical. They are neither one nor different. Being equiangular is being equilateral in a way that is not true for being rabbit and being duck, even if the latter are two alternate descriptions of the same ambiguous figure. It would be as if simply thinking through “what it is to be a rabbit” revealed “duckness” and vice versa, as with the two sides of the Mobius strip. What it is to be saṃsāra is/reveals what it is to be nirvāṇa—they are not merely two alternate ways of reading a single ambiguous fact. What it is to be good is what it is to be evil. Hence, of the equilaterality and equiangularity of the triangle we really can say: wholly overlapping, wholly interchangeable, and neither one nor different. We can say the same thing of the two sides of the Mobius strip: wholly overlapping, wholly interchangeable, since either side is both sides, and yet also not one, for they are always and at every point opposed, and there are never less than two sides anywhere. In Zhiyi’s case, this applies three thousandfold. Each of the three thousand wholly overlaps with all the others, and they are wholly interchangeable, since each is all three thousand, but precisely because each is all three thousand and no less, there are never less than three thousand sides anywhere, always and at every point opposed. And yet there is only the one neither-identical-nor-different three thousand, not two “indivisible but different” three thousands, one here and the other there, as if they were different ranges of entities merely impossible to conceptually separate, for the very weak and feeble reason that “they have no meaning apart from the other.” For that would still leave room for the possibility that one could be experienced in some cases without simultaneously experiencing the other, as long as one restricted one’s experience to just the “part” of the indivisible whole that included one instead of the other. This would undermine the entire point of Zhiyi’s thought, and turn him into little more than an unnecessarily prolix and muddle-headed neo-Madhyamaka thinker.  

Simply to say that all things are conceptually “indivisible from” each other does not say very much—indeed, falls far short even of Madhyamaka thought. Even to say they are not only conceptually but actually indivisible from each other would only get us as far as a very bad reading of Spinozistic necessitarianism (and in my view this is a shallow misunderstanding of Baruch Spinoza himself). We see some of the unfortunate consequences of this when Swanson insists on using this translation even in less explicitly value paradoxical statements. Consider the translation Swanson gives us of the line 佛即法界 from the “Constant Sitting Samādhi” section: “The Buddha is indivisible from the dharmadhātu” (p. 257). This is obviously not a translation of this sentence, and moreover makes the logic of the next sentence completely impossible—indeed, much worse, it sounds like the kind of thing that would probably be quite acceptable to a monotheist theologian to say about God in his immanent aspect: he is, in some sense, indivisible from the world, for the world’s existence depends on its creator and sustainer, and it cannot exist without him. This sort of indivisibility of world and highest value-exemplar—as if the latter were a principle on which all uniquely depends, whether as immanent reality or as first cause—would be a profound misrepresentation of Zhiyi’s thought. Consider Swanson’s translation of the entire passage. “The Buddha does not ‘attain’ enlightenment; this is extraordinary. Why is this so? The Buddha is indivisible from the dharmadhātu 佛即法界It is an absurdity to think that you can attain the dharmadhātu by means of the dharmadhātu. There is [ultimately] neither enlightenment nor attainment” (p. 257, insertion original). This could not be clearer: dharmadhātu cannot attain dharmadhātu. Hence the Buddha does not attain enlightenment—because he is dharmadhātu. A thing cannot attain itself. The repetition of the word dharmadhātu demonstrates beyond any doubt that exact totally overlapping numerical identity is indeed precisely what is intended. Otherwise the logic of this passage makes no sense. And indeed, none of Tiantai thought makes any sense! The entire passage is as much of a smoking gun on this issue as can be imagined. The Buddha cannot realize enlightenment, because he is enlightenment. He cannot know the world, because he is the world. He cannot cut off the evil, because he is the evil. He cannot dispel illusion, because he is illusion. The same goes for all things. All possible verbal relations require two distinct entities, but what is really happening in any event is the “Inconceivable” meeting of the dharmadhātu with the dharmadhātu, thereby giving rise to the dharmadhātu. 法界對法界起法界. All are the same completely overlapping whole, which, however, is not a single thing—a duck or a rabbit, triangle-equiangularity or triangle-equilaterality—but always both, always all three thousand alternate ducks and rabbits and demons and buddhas and delusions and awakenings and equilateralities and equiangularities. This is exactly how the neither same nor difference of the Three Truths works, by totally interchangeable overlap: because every event is the whole encountering the whole, it is both “not” that event (Emptiness) and “precisely” that event (Conventional), and moreover that event is what is present on both sides of the relation, everywhere, in all times and places, unconditionally (the Middle). Realization does not happen, because realization realizes realization. Realization is everywhere at all times, because realization realizes realization. Neither same nor different, but totally overlapping and totally interchangeable.

I will soften this just a bit. It is possible to understand the idea of “indivisibility” in a more radical sense, which would perhaps get us to the same place. But that would require that there can be no sense of “two indivisible parts of a larger whole,” and certainly much more than merely that “they have no meaning apart from each other.” It would require that every “partial” experience of either would also require an experience of the entirety of itself and an experience of all parts of the other. Further, it would mean every aspect of X would be indivisible from every aspect of Y, so that to come into contact with any aspect or part of X would be to come into contact with every aspect and part of Y. They cannot even be mutually exclusive sides of a single indivisible whole, let alone parts of it or even coextensive but conceptually distinct aspects. But this sense of indivisibility is precisely identity: whatever is really indivisible from every instance of a thing, in every relation, which cannot be eliminated without eliminating the thing itself, is that thing’s essence, is simply “what that thing is.” It is just what Zhili meant when he cautioned that we cannot understand ji to mean merely two things joined together, or two mutually exclusive sides of a single thing. But if that is what Swanson means, surely “indivisible from” is far more misleading than “identical to.” Both terms, admittedly, are misleading in their ordinary meaning, for Tiantai thinking is precisely engaged in overturning these meanings. If “identity to” is taken to exclude difference, we are indeed misled. If “indivisible from” is taken to mean nonoverlapping parts or aspects or sides, we are again misled. The only remedy would be to read Zhiyi’s works themselves and see what he means by the term.

There is only one other really problematic thing about this translation, for my money: the use of the Wade-Giles romanization of Chinese. Perhaps this is another sign of how long the work has been in process, as Swanson himself notes on page 59: he is well aware that, between the inception of the work and its publication, Wade-Giles has become almost entirely obsolete in sinological scholarship, even in Taiwan and Hong Kong. This will be a bit of an obstacle for newer students of Chinese, who are no longer taught how to read this romanization and tend to find it wildly counterintuitive and alienating to the eye. To address this, Swanson has again gone the extra mile and provides a glossary of pinyin transliterations in volume 3. So perhaps we can ask some enterprising soul to prepare a pinyin version of Swanson’s translation for easier access to younger readers—and I will go ahead and suggest also that, while you are doing the global find-and-change turning all the Wade-Giles words into their pinyin equivalents, do a global change of every instance of “indivisible from” to “identical with”! Then we will have a flawless work that will set the tone for the next few hundred years of Tiantai and Tendai studies. The world should be deeply grateful to Swanson for giving it this work. I certainly am.


[1]. I use the pinyin romanization for the title and for Chinese terms throughout this review; in the Wade-Giles romanization, adopted by Swanson, the title is Mo-ho Chih-kuan.

[2]. The one set of important background materials I was not able to find translated or otherwise adequately represented was perhaps the relevant passages from the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra on liaoyin (了因), yuanyin (緣因), and zhengyin (正因) as the raw materials going into Zhiyi’s creative reinvention of the idea of “Buddha-nature.” The work is massive, though, so this is perhaps due to my own oversight rather than Swanson’s omission.

[3]. My translation. Swanson’s translation possibly obscures this point, without entirely losing it: “It is just that things are said to change by passing through these aspects, and these aspects are said to occur to things” (p. 816).

[4]. Note that Zhiyi does not say “neither same nor different” (不一不異) here, but “neither two nor distinct” (不二不別).

[5]. Modern editions of Mohezhiguan in both Chinese and Japanese tend to leave this phrase untranslated, an option that English translators of course do not have. But that the implicit grammar is still entirely discernible to a modern Chinese reader is evident from one of the rare attempts to actually translate the passage, 王雷泉 Wang Leiquan’s modern translation of the text in the Foguangshan edition from Taiwan, which renders the line (若解)一心一切心, 一切心一心, 非一非一切 into modern Chinese exactly as I am reading it here, as follows: (如果理解到) 一心即具足一切心造三千法, 一切心造三千法即歸結於一心, 而又既非一心又非一切心造三千法. (王雷泉釋譯, 摩訶止觀. 台北: 佛光經典叢書, 1997, p. 262).

[6]. See my Evil and/or/as the Good: Omnicentrism, Intersubjectivity, and Value Paradox in Tiantai Buddhist Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000); Being and Ambiguity: Philosophical Experiments with Tiantai Thought (LaSalle, IL: Open Court Press, 2004); Beyond Oneness and Difference: Li and Coherence in Chinese Buddhist Thought and Its Antecedents (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013); and Emptiness and Omnipresence: An Essential Introduction to Tiantai Buddhism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016). 

Citation: Brook Ziporyn. Review of Swanson, Paul L., trans. and commentator, Clear Serenity, Quiet Insight: T’ien-t’ai Chih-i’s Mo-ho Chih-kuan. H-Buddhism, H-Net Reviews. July, 2018. URL:

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