Notes and Key Terms REL101 Early Buddhism, Nagarjuna, Two-fold Truth

Mark Unno

Key Terms - Early Buddhism

Siddharta Gautama, born the son of a king, of the kshatriya or warrior class, became the "Sage of the Sakya Clan, the Awakened One," Sakyamuni Buddha

Mother - Queen Maya, Father - King Suddhodana, Wife - Princess Yasodhara, Son - Rahula

Four Noble Truths - Suffering, Cause of Suffering, Peace (Cessation), Path Out of Suffering

Anatman (No-self), Impermanence, Pratitya-samudpada (Dependent Co-origination)

Samsara - realm of suffering; nirvana - realm of peace, enlightenment

Buddha - Awakened one, Dharma - Teaching about awakening, reality, Sangha - religious community of Buddhist monks and nuns


Nagarjuna and the Mahayana Buddhist Philosophy of Emptiness and the Two-fold Truth

Recap of key ideas:

Two-fold truth (Truth which consists of two aspects of reality, inseparable from one another like the two sides of a coin.)

conventional truth/highest truth



distinctions/beyond distinctions

dualistic consciousness/nondualistic awareness

dichotomous thinking/thinking without thinking

(Analogy: My hand reaches for my keys spontaneously.)


Four-fold dialectic (tetralemma, Skt. catus-koti)

1. A exists. Form

This is known as naive realism in Western philosophy. There is believed to be a real thing A that corresponds to the word "A."

2. A doesn't exist. Emptiness

a) There is no fixed definition or essence. b) reality is beyond fixed definitions or distinctions and lies in a nondual awareness of reality beyond words, of oneness.

3.A both exists and doesn't exist. Form and emptiness

One can speak of things at the conventional level of language and dualistic thinking, but in speaking of things one lives in the world of nondual awareness, of highest truth. Analogy: A painter speaks of the beauty of the tree and is able to do so convincingly precisely because she knows the tree intimately, beyond preconceived notions of what the tree is or should be.

4. A neither exists nor doesn't exist. Neither form nor emptiness. Also emptiness of emptiness.

Nondual awareness of the two-fold truth is dynamic and continually unfolding. If I say, "I know what the two-fold truth is, it's that all things both exist and do not exist, that form is emptiness," then I have already fallen into a fixed idea of the two-fold truth. Such concepts as two-fold truth and emptiness themselves cannot capture reality; they are expressions at the conventional level of language used to help one attain or express awareness at the highest level of emptiness.


Taitetsu Unno, "Philosophical Schools." San-lun, T'ien-t'ai, and Hua-yen

In the early part of the development of Chinese Buddhism, philosophically sophisticated forms of Buddhist thought developed on the basis of the two-fold truth and its four-fold logic.

praj˝a nondual awareness, transcendental wisdom (transcends dualistic thinking)

dharma 1) Buddhist teaching, realization of Buddhist teaching

2) phenomena-things, beings, events


San-lun School: The Chinese extension of Nagarjuna

The San-lun school is the Chinese development of Nagarjuna's Emptiness school. All of East Asian Mahayana looks to Nagarjuna as their founding figure, but the San-lun remains close to his way of understanding emptiness.

Seeing without seeing, p. 345. Seeing without relying on objectifying, dualistic consciousness.

Four middles, p. 349. "Middle" generally has the connotation of the middle way which captures both form and emptiness. It also has the meaning of hitting the middle, hitting the mark, on target.

Comparative middle-achieves truth by avoiding extremes of eternalism and annihilationalism. This is very close to avoiding attachment to either form or emptiness. For example, I suffer if I am attached to life, to the beautiful flower, for example. I also suffer if I am attached to the idea that everything is meaningless since everything is destroyed, including the flower. I attain true awareness by appreciating the rare beauty of the flower against the deep void of the cosmos, the night sky.

Exhaustive middle-achieves truth by applying the comparative middle to different situations. The comparative middle is seen as an antidote to the poison of attached thinking. Therefore there is no fixed position called "middle."

Absolute middle-is absolute awareness, free of having to apply any formula or discursive logic to break through attached thinking. Residing in nondual awareness.

Creative middle-is the dynamic awareness or life of one who has no need to apply any formula or doctrine as an antidote or medicine for the illness of dichotomous thinking but lives creatively in the world of distinctions to free others from the ills of discursive logic.


T'ien-t'ai: The Buddhism of Evil Nature

Apophatic, p. 350 Expressing the truth through the use of the negative use of language, to indicate what the truth is not.

Kataphatic. Expressing truth through the positive use of language to describe and give substance to the truth.

Dependent co-arising, p. 350. In the world of flux of emptiness, words and the world defined by the distinctions of language exists contextually, dependent upon mutual definition.

Good depends upon bad, light depends upon dark. Reality lies both within this world of experienced distinctions and beyond it in nondual emptiness.

Amitabha Buddha. The buddha of infinite light, symbolic and expressive of cosmic nondual awareness which breaks through the dark ignorance of dualistic thinking.

Chih-i. Major T'ien-t'ai thinker who focuses the evil, deluded nature of human beings. According to Chih-i, the experience of delusion, of believing that one's world of ideas is itself reality, is more common to human beings than awakening to nondual awareness. For this reason, Chih-i focuses on what he calls the karmically evil side of human experience. This evil is the result of repeated effects of seeing and acting in the world based on one's preconceived notions of reality; thus, it is karmic evil, based on the effects of one own activities, thinking and acting. Of the many personifications of nondual awareness, Amitabha is particularly apt since this buddha of infinite light is also regarded as the buddha of compassion.

Samadhi, p 355. Deep absorption in meditation. Meditative state of tranquil nonduality.

Constant-sitting samadhi. Practice of focusing on the nondual infinite awareness of Amitabha. In this practice of sitting meditation, one realizes that blind passion (attachment to various desires based on distinctions) and enlightenment (awakening to nonduality) are one. This is like seeing that the turbulent waves on the surface of the ocean are inseparable from the tranquility of deep ocean currents. The deeper one plumbs the depths of the wave, the more apparent becomes the fact that it is just the tip of a vast and tranquil ocean.

Constant-walking samadhi. Practice of saying the name of Amitabha, Na-mo-a-mi-t'o-fo, repeatedly while walking in meditation around the statue of Amitabha. The name actually means "I take refuge in Amitabha," or "I take refuge in the boundless light of nondual awareness." Through this meditation one becomes aware that one's true self is not other than the personification of nondual awareness.

Combination of sitting and walking samadhi. Various rituals are performed while sitting, standing, and walking. These ritual practices are meant to transform one's dualistic consciousness to nondual awareness in every facet of life, moment to moment. In preparation, one repents or abandons the desire to fulfill the aims of dualistic thinking which craves fulfillment in the world of distinctions (food, sex, sleep, etc.).

The samadhi which involves neither walking nor sitting. Going beyond the boundaries of ritualized, formalized practice, one seeks to achieve nondual awareness in ordinary everyday activities. One observes in each moment the arising and passing away of both good thoughts (pleasant or joyful thoughts arising out of nondual awareness) and bad thoughts (unhappy or angry thoughts arising out of attached thinking). Once experience is transformed into thoughts, they are the same. Whether good or bad, they are empty, and one lets go of all thoughts so that they can return to the ocean of emptiness.


Hua-yen: The Buddhism of multiple interpenetrating phenomena

We will return to a more detailed study of Hua-yen Buddhism when we examine the Japanese Buddhist monk Myoe. In the meantime, we are introduced to Hua-yen Buddhism through the Chinese master Fa-tsang.

Based on again on form and emptiness, Fa-tsang provides another way to integrate the two-fold truth into one's awareness.

Mutual negation. Form and emptiness cannot be realized simultaneously. Analogy: I cannot meditate and do my taxes a the same time.

Mutual dependence. If, however, emptiness is the true nature of form, then I should be able to maintain the awareness of emptiness in the midst of distinctions. Analogy: I can talk about my taxes to my friend while I effortlessly negotiate freeway traffic.

All phenomena exist in mutual interpenetration.

a) At one level, emptiness remains hidden while form is established. Analogy: I am conscious of my taxes, and the emptiness of being-driving is hidden from my mind.

b) Form is hidden, emptiness is established. Analogy: I lose myself in contemplation of nature as I take a walk. The trees and birds are there, but I do not even notice them.

c) The world of form and emptiness are so seamlessly blended together that all talk of form and emptiness, established and hidden, is irrelevant, and abstraction. Analogy: Five friends have gotten together after not seeing each other for a year. Yet, the oneness of the friendship picks up where it left off. They pour drinks for each other without pause, talk, move around the room, and night has fallen before anyone notices.