The Buddhas, the Most Honorable Bipeds,
Expound the One Vehicle because they know:
‘All things are devoid of substantiality.
The seed of Buddhahood comes from dependent origination.’ (The Lotus Sūtra p.43)

The Bodhisattva-mahāsattva also should know the following truth. All things are insubstantial. They are as they are. Things are not perverted. They do not move. They do not go. They do not turn. They have nothing substantial just as the sky has not. They are inexplicable. They are not born. They do not appear. They do not rise. They are nameless. They are formless. They have no property. They are immeasurable and limitless. They have no obstacle or hindrance. He should see all this. Things can exist only by dependent origination. Only perverted people say, ‘Things are permanent and pleasant.’ (The Lotus Sutra pp.211-212)

In this chapter the explanation of Mahāyāna Buddhism continues with the teaching of the “three truths.” Together, the three truths of “emptiness,” “provisionality,” and the “Middle Way” form the one truth of the true nature of reality. If you begin to understand the teaching of the three truths, then you will be well on your way to understanding the deepest insights of Mahāyāna Buddhism and especially the Lotus Sūtra.

Let us first revisit the origins of Mahāyāna Buddhism so we can see how this teaching developed. As described in the last chapter, Mahāyāna Buddhism is a movement that began a few hundred years after the Buddha passed away. This movement involved lay people and monastics who felt that the true spirit of Śākyamuni’s teachings had been lost in the Buddhism of the more conservative monastics. They saw this path, which they referred to as “Hīnayāna” or “Small Vehicle” Buddhism, as being overly scholastic and institutionalized. The conservative Buddhists had an oral tradition that consisted of three collections or “baskets” that together formed the Buddha Dharma. These three baskets consisted of the Buddha’s discourses; the precepts, or monastic rule; and the technical commentaries on the discourses, known as the Higher Dharma. The Mahāyāna Buddhists also had their own collection of the Buddha’s discourses. They felt these did a better job of preserving the deeper insights and true intentions of the Buddha than the three baskets of the Hīnayāna. Just like the three baskets, the Mahāyāna discourses of the Buddha were originally passed down orally, but were then written as early as the first century BCE. The Mahāyāna canon, as it stands now, includes such scriptures as the Flower Garland Sūtra, the Āgama sutras (which are the Hīnayāna sutras of the three baskets), the Pure Land sūtras, the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras, the Nirvāna Sūtra, and the Lotus Sūtra, as well as many others of varying significance.

Around the 2nd or 3rd century CE, a great teacher named Nāgārjuna appeared in India and wrote many commentaries on the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras. According to legend, he was invited to the undersea palace of the dragon kings who rule the oceans and rivers. There, he was taught the Mahāyāna doctrines. It was also there, in a cave, that he discovered the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras, that teach the emptiness of all phenomena. This may just be a fanciful way of saying that Nāgārjuna dreamed the whole thing up. It could also be a mythic way of portraying a more mundane form of transmission of the Mahāyāna teachings and the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras. In any case, Naāgārjuna went on to become the founder of the Madhyamaka School of Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism. “Madhyamaka” means the “Middle Way.” Nāgārjuna’s school was given this name because he expounded the Middle Way between the extreme views of existence and non-existence. For Nāgārjuna, the perfection of wisdom was about emptiness, a concept or anti-concept which he used to demolish all mistaken views about reality. Nāgārjuna’s success as a teacher was so great that he came to be regarded as a virtual buddha. Almost all Mahāyāna schools of Buddhism can be traced back to Nāgārjuna.

The Two Truths of Nāgārjuna

According to Nāgārjuna, there are two forms of truth: conventional truth and ultimate truth. Conventional truth is what is true according to our common sense views of the world and the conventions of language. Ultimate truth, on the other hand, refers to reality just as it is, without the mask of concepts and worldly conventions. One could say that the conventional truth about our lives is that we are born at a certain location to a certain family and that we go by a certain name or names. We then grow up and experience life and eventually we will die. This is all true, as far as it goes. It is also very helpful to think in these terms in order to develop a healthy sense of identity so we can function normally in the world. Beyond this is the ultimate truth that none of the ways that we define ourselves is really definitive. Who are we? Are we our bodies? Our bodies are constantly changing, from infancy to childhood to old age. Furthermore, every part of our bodies is built up from the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe. Our bodies are constantly expelling matter and consuming more as part of the metabolic process. Traditionally, it is said that every seven years the entire body is completely renewed. Science teaches us that, though this may not be literally true, it expresses the facts rather well. So what part of this constantly changing and environmentally interdependent process can we claim for our own? Are we our mind? Once again, the mind is constantly changing from moment to moment. Furthermore, it is built up of passing impressions, feelings, emotions, and ideas. These building blocks themselves are derived from our reactions to outside circumstances and the emotions and ideas of other people. Even our memory changes as we forget things in our past and remember other things differently than our original recollection. Of course, it’s very difficult to know this because one cannot remember something that one has forgotten or realize that one’s memory used to be different. Yet, through conversations with family and friends, we may realize that they recall certain shared experiences we no longer remember but must have had in our memory earlier on in our lives. So again, what part of our mental processes are we? Despite these various physical and mental processes we usually call the “self,” it seems that none of them are fixed or independent. How, then, can any of these phenomena be thought of as a static self? From this perspective, we cannot say that there is a static self that is born or that will ever die. There is only the process of life itself out of which we derive the concept of a self that is born and will have to die. This is the perspective of the ultimate truth. It defies our usual way of speaking about things. Yet, it is the deeper truth that we can know for ourselves in moments of peaceful reflection guided by the wisdom of the Buddha Dharma.

In the three baskets teaching (what the Mahāyāna calls the Hīnayāna teachings), selflessness is emphasized in order to liberate people from the self-centered views and desires which perpetuate suffering. According to these teachings, all things arise through dependent origination. Anything that arises through dependent origination is impermanent, therefore unable to provide lasting happiness or the basis for an eternal, independent and happy self. However, Nāgārjuna taught that, from the perspective of the ultimate truth, all phenomena without exception are empty of any kind of substantial existence. He said this because whatever one can point to or think of can only exist temporarily through the support of the various causes and conditions which brought it into being. Likewise, those same causes and conditions are are also empty. When thinking of things in terms of dependent origination, there is really only a process of cause and effect. The various things in life which we can think of or name, including ourselves, are just passing manifestations of the process.

On the other hand, we cannot say that things do not exist, because to do so would ignore the process of cause and effect. For instance, even though we cannot identify ourselves with any one part of the mind-body process and its interactions with the environment, there is in fact such a process and we can derive our sense of identity from it. Based upon our sense of who we are and how we experience life, we can come to a recognition of the Buddha Dharma and put it into practice. While we should not attribute any ultimate reality to our sense of self, it is useful and practical to think in terms of a self as long as we remember that it has no permanent or independent existence. This applies to everything. Nothing should be adhered to as having any substantial existence. Nonetheless, the conventional designation of things should be recognized so that we can live out our lives in a sane and responsible way, especially in a way that is in accord with the Buddha Dharma.

Nāgārjuna’s concern was to free people from the extreme views of existence and non-existence. This is why he taught that things exist in a conventional sense, in accord with the conventional truth that we use to guide our daily lives, but that they are nevertheless empty of any substantial existence, in accord with the ultimate truth. In this context, emptiness refers to the lack of substantial existence within the process of dependent origination. It does not, however, mean that things do not exist at all, nor that they are of no value nor that we can do as we wish because nothing matters. Nāgārjuna used emptiness as a cure for those who were attached to the view that there are substantial realities like God or an eternal soul that can be sought out and relied upon to find happiness. Nāgārjuna warned that emptiness itself should not be clung to as a kind of mystical reality or as the basis of a nihilistic view of life. Such misinterpretations make the medicine of emptiness itself into a poison, a poison almost impossible to cure. In order to prevent this, Nāgārjuna taught that even emptiness is empty. In other words, emptiness is not anything itself but only a characterization of dependently arising phenomena. According to Nāgārjuna, emptiness is the ultimate truth of the Middle Way that avoids the extremes of existence and non-existence.

The Three Truths of Chih-i

One should not be overly concerned if this seems confusing. The first Chinese Buddhists also found Nāgārjuna and the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras very difficult to comprehend. Despite the fact that Nāgārjuna had warned against equating emptiness with mere nothingness, the early Chinese Mahāyāna Buddhists tended to equate conventional reality with “being” and the ultimate truth of emptiness with “non-being.” For Nāgārjuna, the concept of emptiness was a method for transcending both the extremes of being and of non-being, not an affirmation of one at the expense of the other. For the early Chinese Buddhists, however, emptiness was the goal of realizing “non-being,” the primordial “no-thingness” which was the source of all things. Even worse, these early Chinese Buddhists interpreted Nāgārjuna’s teaching of the equality of emptiness with the Middle Way as merely negating conventional reality and social responsibility. This led to a philosophy devoid of any positive values or meaning of its own.

In the 6th century, this problem was resolved by another giant of Mahāyāna Buddhism, Chih-i, the founder of the T’ien-t’ai school of Buddhism. Chih-i was a Chinese monk who lived and taught at T’ien-t’ai Mountain. Chih-i, like Nāgārjuna, has also been considered a virtual buddha due to his genius and ability to discern the true meaning of the Buddha Dharma. Chih-i was one of the first Chinese Buddhists to make a systematic study of the entire Mahāyāna scriptural canon. It was he who first organized the canon so that one could follow the development of the Buddha’s teachings. Before Chih-i, the many teachings of the Buddha seemed incoherent and even contradictory. After Chih-i, Buddhists throughout East Asia were able to see not only the inner consistency of the Buddha Dharma, but also how different teachings were intended for different audiences with different needs and abilities. In fact, Chih-i’s teachings guided and inspired Nichiren and helped him to discover the preeminence of the Lotus Sūtra.

Chih-i understood Nāgārjuna’s teachings in terms of three truths: emptiness, provisionality, and the Middle Way. Chih-i utilized the three truths in order to lead Buddhists away from the error of using the “ultimate truth” of emptiness to deny the conventional truths of everyday life in an extreme view of non-being. He derived these terms from a line in Nāgārjuna’s major work, Verses on the Middle Way: “I declare that whatever is of Dependent Origination is Emptiness (nothingness); it is also a Provisional Name; it is also the meaning of the Middle Way.” (T’ien-t’ai Buddhism and Early Madhyamika, p. 30.) Chih-i taught that these three truths could be realized through a “threefold contemplation” cutting through the “three kinds of delusion” and giving rise to the “three kinds of wisdom.” Ultimately, Chih-i taught that the three truths are simply different aspects of the one true nature of reality which can be realized in a single moment of insight. In Nichiren Buddhism, attaining this single moment of insight is the goal of the practice of Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō.

First, let’s examine the truth of emptiness. According to Chih-i, emptiness is the cure for the delusions of self-centered grasping for what we crave and the cure for our rejection both of what we fear or hate and of our ignorance of the true state of things. The disciples, the solitary contemplatives, and those who have just begun the path of the bodhisattva must liberate themselves from these delusions. This liberation can be attained by realizing the empty nature of the subject that craves, rejects, and ignores and the objects which are grasped, rejected, or ignored. They can achieve this realization by contemplating the process of dependent origination; that is, how all things appear and disappear in accordance with causes and conditions governed by the law of cause and effect. They realize that anything which is a part of this process is only a passing manifestation of it, and dependent upon the support of other things for its temporary existence.

Once again, let’s think in terms of our own supposed self-identity. If we reflect on who we are, it becomes clearer and clearer that we are constantly changing. Our body is constantly getting older and replacing cells. In addition, it constantly needs food, drink, oxygen, and warmth. If we were to become isolated in a vacuum, we could not live for a second. Our minds are also constantly changing and taking in the thoughts and feelings of others which contribute to our own particular thoughts and feelings. Furthermore, if our minds were to be isolated from our bodies and our connection to the world and other people, we would lose our sanity because all the reference points for our thoughts, feelings and self-image would be gone. A little reflection should make it clear to us that the self we cherish so much is not a static thing but a constant process that is radically dependent upon the support of other beings and the environment. They, in turn, are constantly changing and dependent upon each other and us.

Subjects and objects are ever changing and interrelated, giving rise to each other and ultimately having no fixed or independent characteristics by which they could be differentiated. From the perspective of the wisdom of emptiness, all subjects and objects are united and equal. For instance, it is common sense to say that we are all separate from each other because we have different bodies, even if we do have things in common like bodies that age and require food and shelter. However, if we look more deeply into the nature of the body, we find that it is composed of cells, which are composed of molecules, which are composed of atoms, which are, in turn, composed of subatomic particles. At the level of quantum fields, we can no longer talk about things as such, but only processes and interactions which give rise to particles. Quantum physics tells us that these subatomic particles are actually events more than objects. According to the Buddha Dharma, this is the way of all things, not just particles in quantum fields. In other words, things are not really things, but events produced by the interactions of cause and effect.

Contemplating emptiness is really an exercise in shifting our perspective from the common-sense realm of static, isolated subjects and objects that can be differentiated to the realm of non-duality. Non-duality is the underlying dynamic mutual participation of the life process itself. Through understanding the emptiness of all things, including ourselves, we can open up our minds to a broader and more selfless view of reality and cut through the illusion of self-centered striving. After all, from the perspective of emptiness, there is no-thing to grasp, no-thing to reject, and no-thing to ignore. There is only the clarity of non-dual awareness of the selfless workings of cause and effect. In this way, the fires of greed, anger, and the more obvious forms of ignorance are extinguished and the peace of selflessness is attained.

We must not stop there, however. The peace which is attained through emptiness is merely the solitary nirvāna of one who has not yet cultivated the ability to work within the world for the benefit of others. This is the trap of clinging to emptiness: it results in total withdrawal and one sided rejection of the meaning and value of particulars. The true bodhisattva does not fall into this trap but perseveres on the way to perfect and complete awakening by contemplating the truth of provisionality. This contemplation recognizes that, as Nāgārjuna taught, emptiness is itself empty and dependent upon the things whose true nature it describes. In other words, it does not negate the existence of things. Rather, it points to the fact that they are manifestations of the process of dependent origination, and therefore have no substantial or permanent existence. In contemplating the provisional, one recognizes the usefulness of conventional language and concepts and reaffirms the meaning and value of subjects and objects once their provisional nature has been recognized.

We contemplate provisionality to develop practical and compassionate means for the application of our insight into the non-dual nature of reality and the workings of cause and effect. Whereas the contemplation of emptiness dispels the “illusions of false views and craving,” the contemplation of provisionality dispels “illusions innumerable as dust and sand.” These innumerable illusions represent the multitude of situations in life, each of which demands a unique response. Dispelling these illusions requires that we recognize the special needs of each individual. Though emptiness may be the field of equality and non-differentiation, there are innumerable ways and means of helping particular people in particular circumstances to see this for themselves. Sometimes an intellectual approach might be needed, sometimes a more devotional approach, sometimes a more activist response to injustice is called for and at other times calm consideration and watchfulness is best. The wisdom of provisionality is what enables us to know when to simply listen and when a kind word or a helping hand is needed. It is the wisdom which enables us to help others without losing a healthy sense of boundaries or encouraging dependence. Just as there are innumerable motes of dust and grains of sand in the world, there are also innumerable situations which require innumerable expedient methods of illumination based upon the Wonderful Dharma.

As aspiring bodhisattvas, however, we must be careful to always maintain insight into the emptiness of all things, even when dealing with the needs of daily life. We must be wary of slipping back into self-centered attitudes under the guise of “awakened activity.” We must also avoid becoming so immersed in the suffering of others that we regress into our dualistic habits of craving, fear, and suffering. The bodhisattva should not use the truth of provisionality to rationalize the pursuit of wealth, fame, or pleasure or to violently retaliate for perceived injustices or oppression. While the Buddha Dharma should be used to bring about positive change in the world, the changes should promote insight and loving-kindness, not the mere attainment of worldly benefits.

That such distortions of the Buddha Dharma can creep into the teachings and actions of even those who should know better shows that there is yet another class of illusions to be eliminated. These are the illusions which obscure the true nature of reality, culminating in the “fundamental darkness” which blots out the light of our buddha-nature. These are the subtle and deeply hidden delusions and complexes which lie in wait within the recesses of the subconscious mind. These illusions are the source of the illusions of self-centered thoughts and attitudes, as well as the innumerable biases and projections which prevent us from clearly assessing and responding to every situation in life. These subconscious illusions work behind the scenes of our conscious lives to twist and pervert every true insight and every good intention. If left unchecked they will sabotage and subvert our practice of the Buddha Dharma so that we will slip back into egocentric views and habits.

In order to keep on the right track and dispel this final class of illusions, the advanced bodhisattva must contemplate the truth of the Middle Way which is the full flowering of the Wonderful Dharma. The contemplation of the Middle Way is the simultaneous insight into the truths of emptiness and provisionality. This is what Śākyamuni Buddha realized when he attained buddhahood. The bodhisattva who sees the truth of the Middle Way sees the lack of permanence and independence in all things. That is, the bodhisattva sees that they are empty of inherent existence and accepts them as the changing and interdependent things that they are.

As an example, consider a glass of water. While the word “water” seems to designate a simple substance we can point to and identify, there is actually no such simple substance. For one thing, it is not simply “water,” but it is a collection of molecules, each composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. We also know that water can become a cloud or a block of ice under the right conditions of temperature and pressure. We also know that it is valuable because we need it to drink and to irrigate crops. If water were not composed of hydrogen and oxygen, or if it were not capable of changing into a solid or a gas, or if it could not be used as nourishment, it would no longer be what we think of as water. Water is not simply a static thing, the one we usually think of when we say “water,” because it has these “non-water” components and properties. Without these properties, it would be something else, even if it were called “water.” So, because water is not simply water, we can call it water. To say “water” and know that it is not just water is to recognize the truth of the Middle Way in regard to water.

So how does this help us? How does this dispel the illusions obscuring our buddha-nature? It helps us because the truth of the Middle Way gives us the wisdom to maintain a balanced, clear and holistic view of all things, including the illusions themselves. The wisdom of the Middle Way is open to the actual process of cause and effect in every moment. It cuts through self-centeredness with emptiness, and cuts through aloof detachment with provisionality. The Middle Way uses the wisdom of emptiness to bring clarity into every situation, and uses the wisdom of provisionality to provide a compassionate response. In this way, even the subconscious illusions obscuring reality are dissipated as they arise, because the wisdom of the Middle Way knows and maintains the balance between liberation and compassionate involvement. It recognizes the subtle influence of the illusions that distort liberation and compassion into less worthy goals. Every moment brings deeper insight and greater freedom as the wisdom of the Middle Way does its work. Ultimately, this wisdom is the light of buddhahood itself.

The three truths can be cultivated step-by-step, but they are actually three aspects of the true nature of reality. As such, they should ideally be realized simultaneously. Chih-i used the three terms “emptiness,” “provisional,” and “Middle Way” to correct and balance one another in order to prevent misunderstandings like those resulting from erroneous interpretations of Nāgārjuna’s teachings on emptiness. In fact, the proper understanding of any of the three would actually encompass the meaning of the other two. A correct understanding of emptiness is itself an understanding of the Middle Way that negates inherent existence but upholds the temporary and interdependent nature of provisional existence. A true understanding of the provisional is the Middle Way that apprehends and utilizes all things but does not cling to them because of their emptiness. The Middle Way is itself the recognition that emptiness and provisionality are as inseparable as two sides of the same coin. Chih-i taught that the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice is to realize the “unity of the three truths in a single moment of realization.”

According to Nichiren, Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō expresses the unity of the threefold truth. “Namu” or “Devotion” expresses our determination to realize the three truths and dispel the darkness of ignorance with the light of the Eternal Buddha. The characters myō and or “Wonderful” and “Dharma,” signify the truths of emptiness and provisionality. “Wonderful” refers to the wondrous and ungraspable nature of emptiness. “Dharma,” in this case, refers to the “dharmas,” the Buddhist term for conditioned phenomena. United as myōhō or “Wonderful Dharma,” they signify the Middle Way. Renge or “Lotus Flower” represents the blossoming of the Middle Way in the lives of all beings, while kyō or “Sūtra” represents our realization of the three truths when we receive the uphold the teachings of the Buddha.

A sacred writing of the Nichiren tradition states:

What is this myō, or “Wonderful,” that we are discussing? Myō is the mind of one thought’s inconceivable abiding. “Inconceivable” means neither mind nor words can attain it. Therefore, if we look for the mind of one thought, we find no form or quality, but if we say there is no mind then various phenomena still arise. Do not think we have mind and do not think we don’t have mind. The two concepts of existence and nonexistence are unattainable, the existence or nonexistence of the mind is also unattainable. Neither existent nor nonexistent, but then existing and nonexisting, we call this the inconceivable Middle Way One Reality of the Wonderful Essence of Myō. “Dharma” or is what we call this myō which is mind. In order to express the inconceivability of this teaching, we take a familiar thing and form a simile and so call it renge or “Lotus Flower.” When we know that one thought is myō and then consider the minds of others, we will realize that other minds are also myōhō. We call this realization the Wonderful Sūtra (kyō). Therefore this King of Sūtras is the direct way of becoming a buddha because it preaches that the essence of thought, the origin of both good and evil, is the reality of the Wonderful Dharma.

By having deep faith and chanting Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō there is no doubt that we can become buddhas in a single lifetime. Therefore, the sūtra says, “[The one] who keeps this sūtra after my extinction will be able to attain the enlightenment of the Buddha definitely and doubtlessly.” Never doubt this. Have the mind of faith to attain buddhahood in a single lifetime. Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō. (Issho Jōbutsu-shō, Shōwa Teihon p. 44. Listed in the Rokuge. )

When we chant Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, we should know that it is an act of celebration and realization of the three truths as the true reality of our lives. Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō impresses the insight of the three truths upon our minds, so that we can experience the freedom and non-duality of emptiness, utilize the countless teachings of the Buddha Dharma, and live in accord with the Middle Way.