Report on “The Ways of Absorption and Interpretations of Prajna and Nagarjuna’s Philosophy in Tian Tai Buddhism”

Report on “The Ways of Absorption and Interpretations of Prajna and Nagarjuna’s Philosophy in Tian Tai Buddhism”

Image credit: Long Gu


by Long Gu, East China Normal University

Prajna is one of the sources of Zhiyi’s thoughts. Lü Cheng believes that Tiantai Learning mainly comes from Prajna and the Lotus Sutra (1979). Although Tiantai takes the Lotus Sutra as the fundamental classic, when constructing the meaning of the sect, it draws extensively from other scriptures, among which Prajna classics, such as Great Prajna Sutra, Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra, and Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, are widely quoted to prove the core ideas of Tiantai such as “one mind and three contemplation” and “one mind and three wisdoms.”

According to Sato Tetsuhide’s statistics, Zhiyi cited Great Wisdom Theory 274 times and Dapin Prajna Sutra 194 times in the three major volumes (2005). Zhan Ran, an important Tiantai developer in the Tang Dynasty, said: “Take the Lotus Sutra as the foundation, Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra as the guide, the Great Nirvana Sutra as the guide, and Great Prajna Sutra as the method of contemplation, cite all the scriptures to increase credibility, and cite various treatises to help achieve success. Contemplating the mind as the scriptures, all dharmas as the weft, weaving into a book.” Here, Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra and Prajna Sutra respectively play the role of “guide” and “contemplation” in the system of Tiantai Learning.

In addition, in the early history of Tiantai Studies, Huiwen “one mind based on interpretation theory” and invented “one mind and three wisdoms” when reading the Prajna Sutra. Huisi used Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra and Prajna Sutra as the method of contemplation, and developed a theory called sudden cessation and contemplation. After leaving Huisi’s Sangha, he went to Jinling to teach meditation to scholars in the Southern Dynasties It can be seen that Prajna thought played an important role in Tiantai philosophy.

The main goals of this research shall be summarized in following aspects:

  1. Zhiyi regarded Nāgārjuna as the first master of Tiantai Buddhism, while he judged Nāgārjuna’s thoughts as “Shared Teaching.” How should we deal with this contradiction? We may need a broad horizon to consider Zhiyi’s interpretation of Nāgārjuna’s thoughts and the deep roots of Zhiyi’s whole teaching analysis doctrine.
  2. Compare Prajna and Nāgārjuna’s thoughts with Zhiyi’s “Perfect Teaching,” and reconsider Mou Zongsan’s “perfection of function” and “perfect of Lotus Sutra” which were used to show the difference between these two teachings mentioned above.
  3. Examine how Zhiyi applied Prajna and Nāgārjuna’s thoughts to “purify” and reinterpret the thoughts of Tathāgatagarbha (Buddha Nature) during the historical process of the establishment of perfect teaching.
  4. Figure out the influence of the linguistic characteristics of Prajna and Nāgārjuna on Zhiyi’s perfect teaching.

Examining the influence of Prajna and Nāgārjuna’s thoughts in the doctrine of Zhiyi is of great significance for understanding all of Tiantai Buddhism. Zhiyi said: “Bow to master Nāgārjuna and wish to achieve sudden enlightenment.” Therefore, we could see the significant effects of Prajna and Nāgārjuna’s thoughts on Tiantai Buddhism as a whole. Besides, some of Zhiyi’s core thoughts, such as “threefold truth,” “attainment of Wisdom in a single mind,” and “threefold contemplation in one mind,” were inspired by Prajna and Nāgārjuna. Based on Tiantai Buddhism’s predecessors, my project is to further explore the roles, functions, and forms of existence of Prajna and Nāgārjuna’s thoughts in Tiantai Buddhism, and to examine how Zhiyi interpreted Nāgārjuna’s thoughts and the parts that Zhiyi developed.

Prajna or Nāgārjuna’s thoughts was a very important Mahayana development which had significant influence in Chinese Buddhism and even on Chinese culture and society, as Nāgārjuna was highly regarded as the common first master of eight Chinese Buddhist schools. Studying how Prajna or Nāgārjuna’s thoughts were interpreted and absorbed by Tiantai Buddhism could be a important angle to consider the specific ways that such Buddhist thoughts were localized and absorbed by Chinese Buddhism. Therefore, we could give a clear picture of their influence on Chinese Buddhism which may help us have a deep understanding of Chinese Buddhist history.

The characteristics of Zhiyi’s Tiantai theory lay in the creation of the Truth of Perfect Teaching, rather than the classic interpretation of one school and one theory. It cannot be classified into any system such as Prajna, Buddha-nature, or even the classic interpretation of the Lotus Sutra. Therefore, exploring how Zhiyi examined Prajna and Buddha-nature under the perspective of the Truth of Perfect Teaching can give us a better understanding of Zhiyi’s absorption and interpretation of many Buddhist thoughts that flowed eastward from India, as well as the theoretical functions of the two major thoughts of Prajna and Buddha-nature in Zhiyi’s Tiantai, so as to better reveal the ideological quality of the Truth of Perfect Teaching.