TIANTAI – FOUR WAYS OF UNDERSTANDING THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS
By Seishin Clark
The Four Noble Truths are the first teachings of the historic Shakyamuni Buddha. They are;
1. The truth of dukkha*
2. The truth of the cause of dukkha
3. The truth of the end of dukkha
4. The truth of the way/path to end dukkha (The 8 Fold Path)
In the Moho Chih-Kuan (Maka Shikan), Chih-i proposes four ways of understanding the Four Noble Truths. But first, let us look at how he interprets the reasons behind “noble” and “truth”.
What is translated into English as “Noble” is the Sanskrit “ārya” (ariya in Pali) which can also mean “worthy”, “honourable”, “excellent”, “wise”, “suitable” and many more other adjectives. The picture we are getting here is that these truths are praise worthy and to be held in high regard. In Chinese, Noble is translated as 聖 shèng, meaning “holy” or “sacred”. The word for truth, in Sanskrit is “satya” (sacca in Pali), which can also mean “genuine”, “valid”, “pure”, “honest”, “virtuous” and many more. In Chinese, Satya is translated as 諦dì, meaning “truth”, “meaning”, or “signigicance”. I can’t be sure that these are the exact words that Chih-i used, but let’s assume these are correct.
Chih-i gave only one reason for the word “noble” (sheng) – that is, they are noble in contrast with heretical teachings.
For “truth” (dì), Chih-i gave three reasons;
1) They are true because they refer to reality as it is, which is neither nothingness nor substantial being, whilst simultaneously empty and conventionally existing. “If dharmas have origination, they will have extinction. As dharmas essentially do not originate, they will not extinguish” (T’ient-t’ai Buddhism and Early Madhyamika, by Rujun Wu). This is the essence of the Middle Way.
2) They are true because one gains insight into these four truths, which lead to enlightenment
3) They are true because, through these four, one is able to manifest truth to others. That is, we become teachers of the dharma. (Foundations of T’ien-T’ai Philosophy, by Paul Swanson)
The Four ways of understanding the Four Noble Truths:
1) Arising and Perishing
2) Neither Arising nor Perishing
These Four ways mirror Chih-i’s classification of the sutras and tie in to Chih-i’s own understanding of the Dharma.
1) Arising and Perishing, is the understanding by those who still haven’t perceived the ‘real*’ truth, because their understanding of the Four Noble Truths is still with a dual mind – that is cause and effect, start and end, arising and perishing etc. (*real here is understood as the Middle Truth in the Tendai philosophy). In Chih-i’s classification, this corresponds with the ‘Tripitaka’.
2) Niether Arising nor Perishing, is the understanding by those who have a basic, rudimentary understanding of the ‘real’ truth, because they have an understanding of the Four Noble Truths in terms of sunyata (emptiness). That is to say, they understand the Dharma is empty of an eternal, substantial being, but have yet to fully penetrate it. This corresponds to the ‘Shared teaching’ and the Mahayana teaching on sunyata.
3) Immeasurable, is the understanding by those whose understanding of emptiness is flawed, so they are caught up in the relative existence and only understand the Four Noble Truths in terms of phenomenal appearances. It is understood as immeasurable because the variety of delusions associated with this understanding is innumerable, therefore there needs to be innumerable (immeasurable) teachings to overcome this delusion. This corresponds to the ‘Distinct teaching’ and the Mahayana teaching on relativity.
4) Spontaneous, is the understanding by those who have a good understanding of the ‘real’ truth, but have not yet fully penetrated, perfected nor have complete insight into reality, which is beyond words and conceptualization. It is spontaneous because “there is no conceptualization, no thought, no-one who creates or makes”. This corresponds to the ‘Perfect teaching’. (Foundations of T’ient-t’ai Philosophy, by Paul Swanson.)
However, Chih-i does not stop there with his understanding of the Four Noble Truths. He says, in order to fully penetrate them, we need to understand that these different ways are also one whole, not separate. He also goes on to classify the Four Noble Truths in terms of the Five Flavours, their ultimate unity and finally, as a contemplation in ‘Three Thousand Worlds in a Single Thought’ (ichinen sanzen).
Sources: Foundations of T’ient-t’ai Philosophy, by Paul Swanson.
T’ient-t’ai Buddhism and Early Madhyamika, by Rujun Wu
Sudden and Gradual: Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought, by Peter Gregory
*Dukkha can mean “suffering”, “anxiety”, “uneasiness”, “dissatisfaction”, “unsatisfactoriness”, http://www.urbandharma.org/udharma2/fourtruths.html