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Orthodox Chinese Buddhism - What Are the Truths of Buddhism?

In the “Tattvārtha” chapter of the Yogācārabhūmi Treatise <瑜伽真實義品> truth is called “reality” (S. tattva; C. zhenshi). Four broad categories of reality are discussed:

1. Reality according to worldly consent refers to reality as understood by ordinary beings who understand things based on categorizing and on common sense arising from habit. This reality is further divided into two groups: (a) reality as understood by unenlightened, non-human species; and (b) reality as understood by unenlightened humans, whose illusory understanding stems from what they observe in nature and from habit.

2. Reality accepted according to logical reasoning refers to reality expressed as theories which scholars arrive at by research and/or reasoning. It includes four kinds: (a) truths scientists reach by experimentation; (b) truths philosophers reach by intellectual inquiry; (c) truths theists reach through contact with a God or gods; and (d) truths reached through meditation by those who practice mental stabilization and concentration.



3. Reality of cognitive activity purified of the afflictive hindrances refers to the reality realized by the transcendent noble ones through liberating insight. This reality is subdivided into two categories: (a) the truth of the emptiness of self (S. pudgala-nairātmya or ātmanairātmya; C. wokong) realized by śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas of the Nikāya path; and (b) the truth of the emptiness of self partially realized by Mahāyāna noble ones.

4. Reality of cognitive activity purified of the noetic hindrances refers to the reality of the emptiness of phenomena (S. dharma-nairātmya; C. fakong) realized by the full enlightenment of Mahāyāna noble ones. This reality is also subdivided into two categories: (a) the reality of a bodhisattva’s partial realization of the emptiness of phenomena; and (b) the reality of the emptiness of phenomena realized by a completely enlightened Buddha.

Buddhists do not arbitrarily form opinions, and do not rashly deny the truths of others. Instead, they categorize and rank various kinds of truth, putting each in its appropriate place and giving each the value it deserves. One kind of theistic religion frequently rejects the value of anything different from its own beliefs, calling such things “satanic.” Buddhists will never act in such an imperious manner. They accept all four types of reality discussed above as truths: it is just that some truths are more lofty and profound than others.

Among the so-called truths in this world, those least able to stand up to testing are the truths of common sense. What’s accepted as common sense in the past often becomes today’s joke, and what people believe is common sense in one place is often a topic of humorous gossip elsewhere. Truths discovered by students of various disciplines— whether discovered through experiment, reasoning, mystical experiences from contact with a God or gods, or cultivation of body and mind through breathing exercises and meditation—may be true to a certain extent, but such truth is always temporary, illusory, partial, and provisional; it is not eternal and unchanging.

Attaining the highest truth of Buddhism is a result of having realized the emptiness of self and of phenomena. Upon realizing the emptiness of self, one breaks off the afflictive hindrances and is liberated from samsāra; upon realizing the emptiness of phenomena, one breaks off the noetic hindrances and will not abide in nirvāna.


The Diamond Sūtra <金剛經> explains [how an enlightened one perceives] the emptiness of self with the phrase “there is no conception of a self, an individual identity, a being, or a personal soul.”Moreover, the expression“afflictions are precisely bodhi (enlightenment), and samsāra is precisely nirvāna (perfect quiescence)” describes the state of having realized the emptiness of phenomena. The subtle principle of the middle path, not falling into either extreme of nonexistence (S. abhāva; C. kong) or [inherent] existence (S. bhāva; C. you), can only be attained by those who have realized the emptiness of phenomena.

The ultimate truth in Buddhism—the realization of the two emptinesses—is beyond mundane phenomena and beyond description. This truth that is said to be “separate from verbalization and conceptualization” is the final truth; if we insist on labeling it, we could call it the One True Dharma Realm (yizhen fajie) (一真法界) or the Substance- Principle of Suchness (zhenru liti) (真如理體). The ultimate reality in Buddhism, though ineffable, is not separate from worldly phenomena. Each of the myriad phenomena of this world is one part of the ultimate reality.

Therefore, Chan Master Huineng said that “the Dharma is of the world; enlightenment is not realized apart from the world. If one seeks bodhi [enlightenment] outside the world, it is like searching for the horns on a rabbit.”

The reason Buddhism talks about emptiness is so that both the afflictive hindrances of self-attachment and the noetic hindrances of attachment to dharmas can be dissolved or “emptied”—it is not to deny the existence of worldly phenomena. The truth in Buddhism lies in enlightenment. Only after one has enlightened oneself can the cycle of birth and death be transcended. Only after one has enlightened oneself and can preach the liberating Dharma to others can one deliver sentient beings. Only after one has completed an enlightened course of action to perfection can one become a Buddha.

Resources

Orthodox Chinese Buddhism, What Are the Truths of Buddhism? , pp. 28-30.

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