Sandai – Three Truths

The Three Truths are an important element in Tendai Philosophy and practice. It could be argued that Ven. Chih-i’s teachings revolve around the Three Truths. Here, in this short article I shall try to explain this important teaching.

The Three Truths are :
1) The Truth that all phenomena are empty (kū 空),
2) The Truth that all phenomena have a relative (albeit temporal) existence (ke 仮),
3) The Truth that both are true at the same time – this is known as the Middle (chū 中).

The first truth – ‘All phenomena are empty’ – is a well known Mahayana teaching, also known as sunyata. The complexities and deep meaning of sunyata are too much for this brief article, but in basic terms it illustrates that all phenomena (including us) are a compound of many different elements, causes and conditions. We are not a static permanent entity that exists outside of anything. We are very much interdependent with all other phenomena and we are forever changing, therefore we cannot say there is a permanent “I”, or say that “this” is who we are, because “it” is always changing.

The second truth is not often heard in a Buddhist context, but slightly more easy to understand – that there is a relative existence. We can see a chair, or a car or ourselves in the mirror and recognize it and know what it is. This “existence” is of course temporary and relies on causes, conditions and the interconnectivity of all other phenomena, however we cannot deny its relative existence.

The third truth, known as the ‘Truth of the Middle’ is that both truths co-exist at the same time. Phenomena are both empty and temporal at the same time, so in fact the Three Truths are One Truth, as the one contains the three and the three contains the one (ichi-san, san-ichi 一三、三一).

This concept is integral to Tendai Philosophy and is practiced as contemplative meditation in order to overcome wrong view.
The first contemplation on emptiness is to overcome the wrong view of permanence and to understand our relation with all phenomena.
The second contemplation on the relative is to overcome the wrong view of nihilism – the idea that because all is empty then nothing matters.
The third contemplation is to keep the mind and ones views balanced, to understand one in three-three in one and realize our true nature.

Further reading:
Chih-1’s Interpretation of jneyavarana
Foundations of T’ien t’ai Philosophy (Chapter 8)


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