Contemplation of The Deluded Mind: A Brief Introduction to Tiantai Meditation

Everyone, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike, knows impermanence. It is universal and directly perceivable. Whatever appears will vanish, whatever is present will someday be absent. Even the universe itself is fleeting; it will succumb to entropy and end in either cold stillness or the inverted bang of the Big Crunch. And for this reason, the recognition of impermanence was both the point of departure for Shakyamuni Buddha's own journey of spiritual discovery and the gateway into his teachings. It is the first of his three "marks" or characteristics of existence, and leads directly to the other two: suffering and nonself. In fact, the three marks are mutually reducible to each other--three different ways of indicating the same thing. To be impermanent is to suffer, to experience decay, death, and loss. To suffer is to be unfree, to be conditional, which is what "nonself" means in this sense. To be a self is to be autonomous and unconditional, to be the sole cause of one's identity and actions. But we are not our own causes; our existence arises from and is sustained by an indefinite list of overlapping conditions. These conditions, too, are impermanent. When they vanish, so will we.

From the Abhidharma to the Mahayana, subsequent Buddhist traditions have explored and elaborated upon the notion of impermanence in diverse and often head-spinning ways. One of the most unique takes on transience is that of Tiantai Buddhism, an early Chinese school which is still practiced today as its Japanese offspring, Tendai Buddhism. Like the Buddha's marks of existence, Tiantai truth is also threefold: form, emptiness, and zhong (the "Mean"). The Mean is a common and important term in the history of Chinese thought, used by Confucians, Taoists, and Buddhists alike. In this case it means that form and emptiness are identical, a Mahayana concept made familiar by such texts as the Heart Sutra, and taken to necessary extremes by the Tiantai school. Like impermanence, suffering, and nonself, these Three Truths are mutually reducible, findable in each other--to name one is to indicate all three. Perhaps the best preliminary way to visualize the Threefold Truth is the classic Gestalt model of perception, of the relationship between figure and ground, or focus and field. Every perception has a focus (form), and every focus is carved out from an open-ended periphery or contextual background (emptiness), and these two aspects are not only simultaneous, but identical in their contrast (the Mean). Tiantai takes this meta-level framework of the Three Truths and applies it to each and every conceivable contrast. When applied to classical Buddhist impermanence, a startling and apparently nonsensical conclusion is reached: To appear is to vanish. To vanish is to appear. The more present something is, the more it is absent, and vice versa.

Let me explain. Any act of interpretation requires a contrast, and a contrast is a relation between at least two terms within a field or context, with one term acting as the focus or center which unifies and gives meaning to the rest of field. This is a necessary structure of experience. All other terms within this field of differences are defined by their relationship to this central term, as either a component, a cause, or an excluded opposite. At the same time, this center or focus receives its content and meaning from all of the other terms which it unifies. In everyday experience, this center is whatever object or entity is of interest at any given moment--say, a dark chocolate truffle. This truffle both describes and is described by all of the non-truffle things which compose it, cause it, or are excluded from it.

In a sense, everything we perceive is an expansive identity looking for confirmation "outside" of itself, in relationships of sameness, similiarity, or difference to other identities. The more we get to know someone or something--the more familiar or "present" they become--the more we compare and contrast them to other entities, and our ability to do so becomes more nuanced. Sooner or later, most identities seem to hit a wall in this self-confirmation process, a limit to the other identities which they can include in their own. But what happens when a given center is completely successful in this endeavor, when it manages to re-define the entire field in its own image? It vanishes. More precisely, it empties itself of all meaning, revealing itself to be each and every non-central term in the field. Consider, for example, the way that big picture terms like "life" or "reality" or "existence" are used in conversation. "That's life!" What's life? My job? My society? The laws of physics? Love? Heartbreak? That cat? That apple? A galaxy? A grain of sand? Birth? Death? Yes, all of that. Life is everything and therefore nothing. Once a defining center fully succeeds, and swallows up that last, opposing otherness, then the bottom falls out and it vanishes, appearing instead as everything else.

So there you go. To appear is to vanish. The more present something becomes, the more that a particular focus comes to dominate the field of perception, the more it negates itself. This discovery is the basis of Tiantai's unique form of meditation, and shapes its attitude toward the common Buddhist goal of liberation from suffering. To be free from something, one must "fully realize it." Instead of contemplating the "pure" or enlightened mind, Tiantai contemplates the deluded mind. Instead of attempting to break free from delusion, to leap out all at once, Tiantai dwells in it, and sees it everywhere. The deluded mind is the discriminating mind, the mind which categorizes and makes distinctions, the mind of tastes and preferences. Mind is an active process of creation: the "carving" of objects of desire and aversion out of an ambiguous and infinite background (the real meaning of Buddhist emptiness is that all contexts are relevant), the arbitrary narrowing of horizons which we call the self. Therefore, the focus of Tiantai meditation is, well, the act of focusing itself--each "moment of mind," this moment of mind. This moment of delusion, of selfhood, is the arbitrary starting point, the object of contemplation. This moment of selfhood is the center which unifies a diverse field of distinctions, and when it is pushed to the limit and made absolute--universalized to include the entire field of nonself components, causes, and oppositions--it collapses. And this collapse does not leave in its wake some transcendental, unconditional state of blank purity. It leaves behind only the countless nonself forms in which it was expressed, perfectly preserved just as they are and yet made absolute themselves. For when this or any other universal crashes, it empties itself into its expressions, and the terms becomes reversible, interchangeable. Self and nonself are revealed to be distinct yet nondual, capable of appearing in and as each other. There is neither self nor nonself, there is both self and nonself, there is only self, there is only nonself.

The above conclusions lead Tiantai to a position on self-knowledge which is radically different from other Buddhist schools. The self is not impossible and unknowable ("an eye that cannot see itself"), elusive and unfindable in the concrete objects of experience. On the contrary: everything you encounter is your essence, your own secret identity.

1 comment:

Zakaj said...

Excellent write-up. Is there any good books on this other than Ziporyn?