Zhanran's Arguments in Support of His Buddha-Nature Theory, as Presented in His Diamond Scalpel Treatise: Starting from an Analysis of the Title

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Zhanran's Arguments in Support of His Buddha-Nature Theory, as Presented in His Diamond Scalpel Treatise
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Citation: Pap, Melinda. "Zhanran's Arguments in Support of His Buddha-Nature Theory, as Presented in His Diamond Scalpel Treatise: Starting from an Analysis of the Title." Paper presented at the International Symposium of Tiantai Studies: From Tiantai to Hiei; Transborder and Transcultural Spread of Tiantai/Chontae/Tendai/ Buddhism and East Asian Societies, Peking University, Beijing, China, Dec. 6–8, 2019.

Article Summary

The Sinicised schools of Buddhism – such as Tiantai 天台 – are deeply rooted in the Indian Buddhist teachings, but at the same time, their masters reinterpreted the inherited teachings, and attributed new meanings to the translated texts, by shifting the emphasis, changing the point of views, etc. Through the process of interpreting and reinterpreting, some new theories emerged having diametrically different ideas from those of the original Buddhist teachings. All of them are original and intriguing examples of a Chinese way of thinking and worth of being subjects of a more detailed examination. When creating commentaries to the Indian sūtras and treatises, the Chinese masters elaborated their own theories. Rather than the word by word, sentence by sentence type of commentaries, these commentaries attempting to explain and expand the 'subtle' meaning of a parable, a symbol or certain characters, proved to be more adequate to the purpose of elaborating original, ingenious ideas, reaching far beyond the original textual meaning, and the presupposed intention of the author or translator.[1] A typical example of such approach is the magnum opus of the de facto founder of the Tiantai school, Zhiyi 智顗 (538–597), The Subtle Meaning of the Lotus Sūtra (Miaofa lianhua jing xuanyi 妙法蓮華經玄義; T33: 1716), where the author presents the basic tenets of the Tiantai school, in the form of explaining the character 'miao' 妙 (meaning 'subtle' or 'wonderful'), the very first character of the most well-known Chinese translation of the Lotus Sūtra.[2] In the eyes of the author (and his followers), this single character offers sufficient basis to expound his novel insights, in a way that, despite their novelty, are at the same time linked to the Buddhist tradition. A substantial part of the lengthy commentary is centered on the 'explanation' of the term 'subtle'. According to Zhiyi, this notion is the best expression of ultimate reality. 'For Chih-i the word 'subtle' symbolizes and summarizes that which is beyond conceptual understanding, and thus it is the word most appropriate to describe reality, which is ultimately indescribable.'[3]
      From this, we can draw the conclusions that for a Tang Dynasty (618–907) monk, trained on the teachings and traditions of a Sinitic school of Buddhism, the title of a Buddhist writing is highly important, for mainly two reasons: (1.) it can bear the very essence, the 'subtle' meaning of the whole work, and (2.) it can serve as an anchor, that bounds it to the 'original' Buddhist teachings, serving as a means of legitimatisation, at the same time. These two aims can be detected in Zhanran's[4] 湛然 (711−782) choice of the title for his Diamond Scalpel (Jin’gang bei 金剛錍; T46:1932) treatise. The Diamond Scalpel treatise, in one fascicle, written in his old age, is a relatively short work, compared to his lengthy commentaries, yet well deserves to be considered his most creative, genuine work. The main theme of the treatise is the Tiantai interpretation of the teaching of Buddha-nature, as inherently including insentient realm, as well as all sentient beings. While expounding the topic, and presenting his arguments, the main tenets of the Tiantai school emerge one after the another, offering the reader a complete picture of the self and the world, suffering and the ways to liberation, etc. – i.e. problems of utmost importance for a Buddhist practitioner –, as seen by a Tang Dynasty Buddhist monk. At a first reading, the title of the treatise does not seem to tell us a lot about its content, but taking a closer look, and applying a more careful, meticulous examination, we find that Zhanran's choice of title must have been the result of a thoughtful consideration, for it perfectly suites the above mentioned two criteria. Following Zhiyi’s legacy, Zhanran chooses a title, which 'symbolizes and summarizes' the main issues to be discussed in his treatise. More precisely, first of all, it hides an allusion to a simile from a mahāyāna sūtra (thought to render the words of the Buddha), and thus anchors, bounds the whole work to the 'original' teachings of the Buddha, and secondly, after decoding the symbols and references, and interpreting them in the light of Tiantai philosophy, we find that these three characters can truly be regarded the quintessence of the work, the very argument in support of the theory of Buddha-nature of the insentient. Zhanran, following the example of his great predecessor, Zhiyi, expounds and argues based on the most important texts and tenets of mahāyāna Buddhism, while interpreting, reinterpreting, and often furnishing these with new, ingenious meanings.
      First, we are going to examine the provenance and possible interpretations of the title – i.e. the context in which the basic notions appear, before Zhanran's time –, Zhanran's own explanation of the title, i.e. the very first paragraph of his work, and further interpretations of the title (and its explanation) found in later commentaries, written to the treatise, by Tang and Song Dynasty monks. Through this one, particular example we can get a glimpse into the complex process of how Chinese monks interpreted and reinterpreted the texts inherited from India, the way in which through focusing on, and/or consciously selecting certain motifs, similes or even terms, embellished these with new meanings, which were further used as tools to prove their own ideas and theories, as if these were identical with the original teachings of Buddha Śākyamuni. Secondly, we are going to examine the most important arguments Zhanran is using to prove his theory about the Buddha-nature of the insentient. I will argue that these arguments can be grouped around two key concepts, already concealed within the title. (Pap, "Zhanran’s Arguments in Support of his Buddha-Nature Theory," 129–130)
  1. For a comprehensive study of Chinese Buddhist commentaries, see: Hamar 2003: 259-271.
  2. The most popular translation of the Lotus Sūtra (Saddharmapuṇḍarīka) is Kumārajīva’s (344–413 / 409) work, entitled Miaofa lianhua jing (T09: 262), literally 'The Lotus Sūtra' of the Subtle Dharma’ .
  3. Quoted from: Swanson 1989: 14.
  4. Zhanran was the ninth patriarch of Tiantai school, according to the traditional lineage, conferring the title of the first patriarch to the Indian Nāgārjuna (2nd Century AD). Zhanran was the second most influential figure of the school, after the de facto founder, Zhiyi, to whom the Tang Dynasty renaissance of Tiantai philosophy is credited. Following Zhiyi’s footsteps, he further elaborated the system of classification of teachings (panjiao 判教), and entering into debate with influential scholar monks of his time, brought forth a solid argumentation in favor of the theory of the insentient world having Buddha-nature. For Zhanran’s life see: Penkower pp. 10-141.