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Śāntideva then states, “The Buddha is not a self either, he benefits others selflessly just as a wish-fulfilling gem or a magical tree, or an anti-poison pillar does.” (IX.35-37) To which the hīnayāna advocate rejoins, “How could worship offered to something which has no consciousness be beneficial?” (IX.38) Śāntideva replies, “Whether or not the Buddha is present or already achieved final nirvana, whether only an appearance or truly existent, worship of the Buddha is a meritorious act.” (IX.38-39) Like the Consciousness-Only advocate, the hīnayānist seems to equate the self with consciousness, but Śāntideva has already argued that it makes no sense to say that consciousness is a self or has a self-nature. Instead, he is pointing out that it is not the reality or instrinsic existence of the Buddha that matters, but the intention of the practitioner who has a high regard for the Buddha and what the Buddha represents. To have and express faith in the Three Treasures will lead to the bodhisattva being motivated to practice and achieve buddhahood. Put simply, it is not the kind of existence that counts (real or provisional), it is the thought that counts.

The debate then turns in verses 40-56 to the question of whether the Mahāyāna sūtras and the teaching of emptiness they convey is authentic and whether it is necessary for attaining liberation. The hīnayānist states, “Liberation comes from understanding the [Four Noble] Truths,” and then asks, “What is the point of understanding emptiness?” Śāntideva appeals to the testimony of the Mahāyāna sūtras, saying, “The reason is that scripture states that there is no awakening without this path.” The hīnayānist, however, does not accept the Mahāyāna sūtras as canonical and asks, “Surely Mahāyāna scripture is not established?” Śāntideva replies, “In what way is your scripture established?” The hīnayānist says, “Because it is established for both of us.” In other words, all Buddhists accept the pre-Mahāyāna sūtras as canonical. Śāntideva points out that “It was not established for your at first! Apply your criteria for the acceptance of it to Mahāyāna scripture also. If something is accepted by two different parties even texts such as the Vedas would be true. If your objection is that Mahāyāna scripture is controversial, reject your own scripture since it is contested by non-Buddhists, and any part in that scripture contested by your own people or others.” The point here is that it is not the number of people who agree or disagree that something is authentic, the criteria is the validity and efficacy of what is taught.

Śāntideva then criticizes the arhats, saying that because they do not contemplate and realize emptiness they are still deluded. “The dispensation is rooted in the monkhood and the monkhood itself is imperfectly established. Even the enlightenment of those whose minds grasp onto entities is imperfectly established. If your objection is that liberation results from the destruction of the defilements, then it should happen immediately afterwards. Yet one can see the power over them even of undefiled action. If you put forward the argument that they have no craving leading to grasping, our response is: Even if their craving is undefiled, does it not exist as delusion? Feeling causes craving, and they do have feeling. A mind which has objects will get stuck on one or another. Without emptiness a mind is fettered and arises again, as in the meditative attainment of non-perception. Therefore one should meditate on emptiness.” (IX.44-48) He says this because the arhats are recorded as still being under the power of old habits, and even though they are free of the obstacle of the defilements of greed, hatred, and more obvious forms of delusion by realizing no-self, they have not yet broken through the obstacle to knowledge (or the obstacle of clinging to lesser knowledge) by realizing emptiness. Therefore they still have not freed themselves of fundamental ignorance and still have attachment for nirvana and aversion for samsara.

He goes on to say, “You accept that whatever text might be in accordance with the discourses was spoken by the Buddha. So why are the Mahāyāna scriptures not accepted as equal in value to your own discourses? If the whole is faulted because one part is not accepted, why not treat the lot as spoken by the Conqueror because a single part is the same as in the discourses? Who will bar acceptance of the teaching over which those led by Mahākāśyapa hesitated, simply because you do not understand it?” (IX.49-51) Śāntideva is pointing out that it doesn’t make sense to accept or reject everything simply because you accept or reject one part. It also doesn’t make sense to reject something simply because you don’t understand it at first, as Mahākāśyapa and the other arhats admitted to doing in the Lotus Sūtra.

In conclusion he says, “Remaining in cyclic existence for the benefit of those suffering through delusion is achieved through freedom from the two extremes, attachment to nirvana and fear of samsara. This is the fruit of emptiness. So, that being the case, there is no valid objection to the emptiness position. Therefore, emptiness should be meditated upon without reservation. Since emptiness is the countermeasure to the darkness of the obstacle to knowledge and the obstacle of the defilements, how is it that one who desires omniscience does not make haste to meditate upon it? Granted that something which causes suffering causes fear – but emptiness allays suffering. So why does it cause fear? Granted, too, fear may come from any quarter whatsoever if there is something called ‘I.’ If your position is that there is no ‘I,’ who can be afraid?” (IX.52-56) So there is no reason to fear emptiness, because it is emptiness frees  those who contemplate it from fear and its contemplation is necessary to follow the way of the bodhisattva. Even hīnayānists have no good reason to fear emptiness because they agree that there is no self that can be harmed by it.

Śāntideva states, “Merit comes from a Conqueror who is like an illusion in the same way as it would if he was truly existent.” (IX.9) In other words, you do not need to posit the inherent existence of even the Buddha for there to be merit and demerit. Merit and demerit are dependently originated and have no inherent existence, but they are certainly phenomena that are experienced.

This leads to the first question, which is “If all is illusory, how can there be karma and rebirth?” This is considered to be asked by hīnayāna Buddhists who believe that the dharmas intrinsically exist. The reply, “Even an illusion persists for as long as the concurrences of its causes” (IX.10) means that while inherent existence is illusory, there is certainly a continuum of states that nominally can be called a sentient being.

The next question is asked by an advocate of the Consciousness-Only school of Buddhism. “If consciousness does not exist, then there is no evil in, for example, murdering an illusory man.” (IX.11) Does the teaching of emptiness really mean that we are unreal in the same way that characters in a video game are unreal? If this is true, then killing other people would be of no more consequence than killing people in a video game. The response of Śāntideva points out that the crucial difference is that living beings are sentient, they can feel fear and pain. (IX.11) The ability to feel and think does not make sentience any less illusory. In other words, while a crucial difference morally, sentience is still dependently originated and not inherently existentent.

The Consciousness-Only advocate is convinced, however, that consciousness is the one thing that is real. So it responds, “An illusory conscious mind is not possible, since spells and the like cannot produce such an illusion.” (IX.12) Today we might similarly argue, that since we do not have the technology to create actual sentience or an authentic AI, so the sentience of living beings is not illusory the way video game characters are, therefore the analogy that sentient beings are like illusions is false. There must be some quality of consciousness that is truly real because we cannot replicate it. However, Śāntideva replies, “Illusions are of different kinds, arising from different causes. Nowhere is there a single cause which has the power to produce everything.” (IX. 12-13) The point of the analogy is not that sentient beings are merely magical illusions or like video game characters (which pushes the analogy too hard). The point is that sentient beings can seem to be one way (inherently existent) but actually be another (caused and conditioned). Like video game characters, sentient beings arise due to causes and conditions, but unlike video game characters the causes and conditions are of a kind that produces sentience, a kind that is so complex that even today we are still not able to replicate true sentience.

 The Consciousness-Only advocate then asks, “If one liberated according to ultimate truth remains subject to cyclic existence according to conventional truth, then, in that case, even a Buddha would be subject to cyclic existence. So what is the point of the path of conduct leading to Awakening?” (IX.13-14) In other words, ultimately everything is empty of inherent existence and there is no bondage to samsara or liberation through nirvana, but conventionally there is the experience of the sufferings of samsara and the liberation of nirvana. The question can be restated as “If we are ultimately already free of samsara because everything is only emptiness, then why practice Buddhism?” Śāntideva responds, “Because illusion is not stopped unless its causes are stopped, whereas, even according to conventional truth, illusion is not possible when its causes are destroyed.” (IX.14-15) It is a mistake to think that even though ultimately samsaric existence is not intrinsic existence, that does not mean we do not need to practice to get rid of delusion. Delusions are not inherently existent but they will persist if their causes and conditions persist. Buddhist practice will prevent the causally conditioned arising of delusion, and thus samsara. There is no contradiction between the ultimate lack of inherent existence and the causally conditioned persistent delusion that beings and things have inherent existence and therefore can be objects of attachments or aversion, and this delusion can be eliminated by eliminating its causes. The Tiantai view of this would be that illusions will not completely cease to exist, but will be transformed into magical displays of skillful means utilized by the advanced bodhisattvas and buddhas who have awakened to their lack of inherent existence. The view presented by Śāntideva seems to be the view of the ultimate as “mere emptiness.”

The Consciousness-Only school then asks, “When even false perception does not exist, by what is illusion perceived?” (IX.15) In other words, the Consciousness-Only school insists that there needs to be a real perceiver, or mind, even if there are no real objects but only illusory objects. Śāntideva asks in return, “When, according to you, illusion itself does not exist, what is perceived?” to which the Consciousness-Only advocate replies, “It is an aspect of the mind itself, even if it is different from reality.” (IX.16) In other words, the inherently existing mind mistakenly perceives itself as the multitude of external objects. Śāntideva then replies, “If illusion is the same as the mind, what is seen by what? Moreover, it is taught by the Protector of the world that mind does not perceive mind.” (IX.17) The claim that mind perceives (or misperceives) itself doesn’t make sense because the subjective mind cannot make of itself an object, and there is nothing else for it to perceive according to the Consciousness-Only school. The point here is that experience arises due to the causes and conditions of a relation between a perceiving subject and a perceived object and neither of those needs to be inherently existent for there to be such a relationship. In fact, perceiver and perceived can only be spoken of in terms of an interrelationship and so neither can simply be what it is without the other. To state this even more simply: a subject cannot objectify itself. Perception is always relational and therefore rules out the inherent existence (which is not relational but independent and unchanging) of either a subject or an object.

The argument about the ability of the mind to perceive itself continues in verses 18-22. Śāntideva uses two analogies. The first is that of a knife that cannot cut itself. The second is that of a flame or ray of light that cannot illuminate itself because it was never concealed in darkness in the first place. The Consciousness-Only advocate objects by appealing to a different analogy, that of a blue stone that is not made blue by something else. What is meant is that some things, like a blue stone, can confer a quality upon themselves, like blueness. Therefore, there can also be a consciousness that is simply conscious of itself. Śāntideva responds by pointing out that blue stones do not turn themselves blue or bring themselves into being, so the blue stone is not a valid example of independence or something conferring or turning its own quality upon itself. He continues to press the point that you need a mind to know that something is illuminated, but you cannot catch the subjective mind that knows as an object to be known. To speak of mind or consciousness in and of itself (without a relation of knower and known) is as nonsensical as speaking of a barren woman’s daughter. As soon as you turn the subject or knower into an object or something known, then it is no longer the subject or knower. The knower cannot be the known in the very same act of knowing. Consciousness is always consciousness of another. It could also be pointed out that what we know in any given moment is not even the present moment but the end product of a process of perception that began in a previous moment, even if the time lag is measured only in milliseconds. Again, the point is that consciousness cannot catch itself in the act of knowing.

The Consciousness-Only advocate then asks, “If there is no self-perception, how is consciousness remembered?” Śāntideva replies, “Memory comes from connection with another experience; just as a bear that wakes up from hibernation feels the effects of having been bitten by a shrew while it was asleep.” (IX.23) What the Consciousness-Only advocate is asking is how can we be self-conscious or self-aware if mind or consciousness doesn’t perceive itself. Śāntideva’s then uses the analogy of a hibernating bear that is unaware of being bitten by a shrew, but feels the effect of the bite when it awakens, which is to say that mind or consciousness only indirectly knows itself, as it remembers or is conscious of previous moments of being conscious of something else. It is not, however, directly aware of itself in the present moment, though the immediate past measured in milliseconds or even seconds ago may seem like the present moment.

The Consciousness-Only advocate then insists, “The mind must be able to perceive itself because it knows the existence of other minds, for instance through ESP gained through yogic concentration.” (IX.24) According to the sutras, one of the supernatural powers attained by yogic practitioners as well as arhats, advanced bodhisattvas, and buddhas is the ability to read the minds of others. The Consciousness-Only school takes this as proof that mind can perceive mind, but Śāntideva responds, “Seeing distant things does not necessarily mean you will see things that are closer, just as when you use a magic eye-balm that enables you to find buried treasure you will not see the balm itself.” (IX.24) A more contemporary analogy would be a contact lense that we do not see but which enables us to see other things more clearly. The point being that what enables perception may not itself be perceivable, so the psychic ability of a mind to perceive other minds does not prove that a mind can perceive itself.

Śāntideva then clarifies his position, saying, “It is not the process of perception that is being contested here, but what is being refuted is the belief that the process involves anything with an inherent existence, as that is the cause of suffering. It is inconsistent to claim that illusory appearances are the same as the mind but also different. Just as an illusion can be experienced even though it is not real in the same way as it appears, the mind that perceives illusion is not real in the way it seems to be. You think that without inherent existence there would only be space and no knower or known, but if there is only mind, how do the supposed non-existent illusory appearances arise at all? If you depend on things beings inherently real, then in saying that only the mind is real that means it is always free of delusions, everyone is already a buddha and there is no point in following even the Consciousness-Only teaching.” (IX.25-29) There is no need to establish an inherently existent real thing in order to establish the flow of causality, wherein there is delusion and awakening. In fact, trying to establish something as inherently real will instead lead to the kind of contradiction which is pointed out here – where Buddhism becomes unnecessary because only mind is said to be real and delusions are unreal so there cannot really be a deluded mind at all.

The Consciousness-Only advocate then asks, “Even if we recognize that everything is like an illusion, how does this help get rid of defilement, when lust for a woman who is an illusion still arises in the one who created her?” (IX.30) The issue here is whether or not it really does anyone any good to realize that everything is empty. Śāntideva responds, “That happens because the influence of the defilements and what is cognized has not been destroyed in her creator, so that at the time of seeing her the influence of emptiness in him is weak. The influence of phenomena is removed by employing the influence of emptiness, and even that is later eradicated by inculcating the realization, ‘nothing really exists’ (in its own right, or inherently).” (IX.31-32) This means that if we contemplate the truth of emptiness long enough we will overcome our instinctual assumption that there are instrinsically existing phenomena. Finally, we must realize that even emptiness is itself empty of any intrinsic existence as noted above. The Consciousness-Only advocate then asks, “But if nothing really exists then how do we perceive anything?” (IX.33) To which Śāntideva replies, “When neither an inherently existent entity (being) nor the non-existence of an entity (non-being) preoccupies the mind, since there is no other alternative, having nothing more to grasp, the mind becomes tranquil.” (IX.34) Basically, Śāntideva is saying that there is no need to worry about it. From the perspective of Buddhism, the important thing is not to figure out out how or why the process of perception works, which would be the proper subject for neurology, but how to overcome our attachment and aversion and above all the underlying instinctive assumption that there are real things with intrinsic existence to be attached to or have aversion for. When this instinctive assumption is overcome by realizing the truth of emptiness, then we will stop worrying about whether things really exist or not and will attain true peace of mind.

The Two Truths

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Chapter nine begins with the statement, “It is for the sake of wisdom that the Sage taught this entire collection of preparations. Therefore, in the desire to put an end to suffering, one should develop wisdom.” (IX.1) Śāntideva now turns to the cultivation of the perfection of wisdom as understood from the Consequentialist (S. Prāsaṅgika) sub-school of the Middle Way (Madhyamaka) school of Mahāyāna Buddhism. The Middle Way school focuses on showing that all phenomena are empty of intrinsic existence, and therefore there is not only no self, but no phenomena at all that can be grasped or held to have a simple, uncompounded, and unchanging essence or self-nature. The Consequentialist sub-school furthermore takes the ironic position that it need not take a position or prove that all things are empty of intinsic existence. Its proponents simply have to show that no view that upholds the concept of a self-nature can withstand analysis. In other words, they use the method of reductio ad absurdum, to show that the consequences or conclusions of the views of those who believe that there are things with a self-nature are all contradictory and/or nonsensical.

I believe that it is vital for Mahāyāna Buddhists who wish to understand any of the Mahāyāna sūtras, including the Lotus Sūtra, to have more than just a passing familiarity with the teaching that all things are empty of intrinsic existence. Śāntideva argues in this chapter that even the goal of attaining nirvana sought by the voice-hearers and privately awakened-ones cannot be achieved without understanding emptiness, That emptiness was necessary to attain any kind of liberation was also taught by Tiantai Zhiyi. If emptiness is not understood, then one will misread the Mahāyāna sūtras and believe either that they are advocating nihilism, or that emptiness is some kind of mystical energy field out of which things arise and to which they return, but these are the false views of annilationshism and eternalism that the Middle Way teaching of emptiness is meant to correct.

Śāntideva begins with an explanation of the two truths saying,

It is agreed that there are these two truths: the conventional and the ultimate. Reality is beyond the scope of intellection. Intellection is said to be the conventional. In the light of this, people are seen to be of two types: namely, the spiritually developed and the spiritually undeveloped. Of these, the world-view of the undeveloped is invalidated by the world-view of the spiritually developed. Even the views of the spiritually developed are invalidated by the superior understanding of those at successively higher levels, by means of analogies accepted by both parties, irrespective of what they intend to prove. (IX.2-4)

This means that there are different levels of perceiving truth between ordinary people, and successively advanced practitioners. Conventional truths are agreed upon truths, worldly concepts and conventions that enable us to talk to each other. Conventional truths do not, however, deal with any kind of ultimate reality that can resist analysis. Ultimate truth is that all phenomena are empty of inherent existence. The direct perception of this emptiness is the end-point of any kind of analysis.

Verse 4 speaks of “analogies accepted by both parties.” Śāntideva and his contemporaries would argue their points by appealing to analogies that would either prove or disprove their points. Several of these kinds of analogies will appear throughout chapter nine, and while they may have made sense in northern India in the ninth century, the point of them is hard to grasp by modern readers in English translation, even apart from the fact that the analogies are sometimes not even fully explained but only alluded to in passing.  And of course it was as true then, as now, that all analogies break down. I will do my best in what follows to explain these analogies and what they were trying to prove or disprove as we come to them.

Ordinary people see existent things and also imagine them to be real, that is to say, not as an illusion. It is in this regard that there is fundamental disagreement between the ordinary person and the spiritually developed. Even that there are objects of direct perception, such as visible form, is a popular misconception, like, for example, the popular view that impure things are pure. The Protector taught in terms of existent things in order to guide people. If it is objected on the basis of conventional usage that in reality these entities are not momentary, [the fact is that] there is no fault in the use of conventional truth by the spiritually developed. They understand reality better than ordinary people do. Otherwise ordinary people would invalidate the definition of women as impure. (IX.5-8)

This means that those who are spiritually developed, such as the Buddha, know how to use conventional language without making the mistake that words refer to things with inherent existence.

To show that the views of ordinary people cannot be relied upon the unfortunate example is given of how ordinary people would “invalidate the definition of women as impure.” This is a terribly misogynistic statement, but in the context of a celibate monk speaking to other celibate monks in ninth century India, it is referring to the principle that celibate Buddhist practitioners took as axiomatic that the body is full of distasteful substances. In order to be attractive and comfortable, bodies require good hygienic practices such as constant washing and maintenance. So while the perspective of an unreflective heterosexual male housholder would be to find an attractive female purely and simply desirable, the celibate monk’s perspective is that this perceived “purity” is a delusion because it overlooks all the unwanted substances that bodies (male or female) are composed of and also the fact of their constant deterioration. Ultimately bodies are not simply “impure” anymore than they are “pure,” as all such characteristics are as empty of any intrinsic reality as the phenomena they characterize.

Conventional truth, then, is what is true only from a conventional or worldly perspective. It is not the truth revealed by a deeper analysis. Ultimate truth is the truth that no claim of anything having an intrinsic existence can withstand thorough analysis. Śāntideva alludes to the successively higher levels of development among the spiritually developed but does not elaborate on what those levels and changing perspectives of what is ultimately true might be. Here I will leave Śāntideva briefly in order to present Tiantai Zhiyi’s differentiation of the two truths into seven different levels, and his further elaboration in terms of five categories of the threefold truth. In doing this, I hope to show that through continuing contemplation a Buddhist practitioner can progress from the crude understanding of the two truths of pre-Mahāyāna Buddhism to the perfected understanding of buddhahood.

According to Zhiyi, conventional truth deals with such things as the twelvefold chain of dependent origination, whereas the ultimate truth deals with the “sign of the nature of reality.” This is understood in seven different ways depending upon the ability and level of progress of the Buddhist practitioner. Within the last five of the seven levels are five categories of understanding the threefold truth, which will also be explained below.

The Seven Levels of the Two Truths and Five Categories of the Threefold Truth:

  1. Tripitika: This level is the perspective taken in the Buddha’s teaching of the three baskets of pre-Mahāyāna sutras, or discourses; vinaya, or precepts; and the abhidharma, the systemization and technical commentaries on the discourses. The Tripitika teaching was directed towards the voice-hearers, those of the Buddha’s disciples who wished to become arhats and forever leave the cycle of birth and death within the six destinies of the hells, hungry ghosts, animals, fighting demons, humans, and gods. At this level, conventional truth refers to the practitioner’s belief that the various elements of the chain of dependent origination (such as ignorance, action, consciousness, name and form, and so forth) are things that have a real existence, even if the “self” that one had thought existed on the basis of those elements does not have its own real or intrinsic existence and is just an abstraction. The ultimate truth is that through Buddhist practice and realization, the existence of these things can be extinguished (or be nirvanized). Frankly, I have to say that I think this is a misrepresentation of the pre-Mahāyāna discourses, wherein the Buddha is careful to state that nirvana is the extinction of greed, hatred, and delusion and not the annihilation of anything with a real existence. However, it is undoubtedly true that some Buddhists have themselves misunderstood the pre-Mahāyāna teachings in this way and have both naively assumed that the categories of abhidharmic analysis were things that had a real existence and nihilistically sought to put an end to all of it as nothing more than suffering and the cause of suffering.
  2. Shared: This level is the perspective taken in those provisional Mahāyāna teachings the Buddha provided to the arhats and those starting out on the bodhisattva-vehicle. At this level, conventional truth is to recognize the illusory existence of the elements of dependent origination. The ultimate truth is to realize that these elements of dependent origination are all empty of intrinsic existence. This is what Śāntideva will be arguing throughout chapter nine, but Zhiyi characterizes this kind of emptiness as “mere emptiness” or a “one-sided emptiness” because it is solely negative. Even though the practitioner at this level may succeed at getting rid of even attachment to emptiness through the realization that even emptiness is empty of intrinsic existence (it is really just a description of how phenomena do not have the intrinsic existence they seem to have, and not a thing in and of itself), non-emptiness has not yet been realized. In other words, the practitioner at this level has not yet realized the positive value of conventional existence. This can undercut the motivation to progress in practice, to continue striving for the complete liberation of oneself and others, and to remain fully and skillfully engaged with conventional reality.
  3. Shared to Distinct: This level pertains to those bodhisattva who are transitioning from the perspective of the Shared teaching that focuses on how all things are empty and the Distinct teaching that focuses on skillful engagement with conventional reality in order to liberate all sentient beings. Here the conventional truth remains the recognition of illusory existence. The ultimate truth, however, shifts to a focus on “non-emptiness.” This means that they focus on illusory existence as manifesting a Middle Way that transcends mere existence or mere emptiness. This is the first glimmer of understanding the Middle Way, but it is not yet fully understood, let alone integrated with emptiness or conventional reality.
    This level is also the first category of understanding the threefold truth. The threefold truth consists of the truth of emptiness, that there is no phenomena with intrinsic existence; the truth of provisionality, that dharmas or phenomena arise and cease nevertheless in accordance with causes and conditions; and the truth of the middle, that there is a Middle Way. These three truths serve as a corrective to each other in that the truth of emptiness corrects the tendency to eternalism, the belief that there are phenomena that exist forever without changing. The truth of provisionality corrects the tendency to nihilism, the false view that nothing persists in any way whatsoever, which is sometimes how the teaching of emptiness is misconstrued. The truth of the middle corrects the tendency to overemphasize either emptiness or provisionality and preserves the balance between those two truths which are actually two different ways of saying that phenomena is causally conditioned – therefore provisionally existent and empty of intrinsic existence. In this category the three truths that comprise the threefold truth are viewed as three distinct truths or insights that have not yet been fully integrated, let alone understood in a non-conceptual intuitive manner. In particular, the truth of the middle is seen as an exclusive middle, which is irreducible to either emptiness or provisonality.
  4. Shared to Perfect: This level pertains to those bodhisattvas who are transitioning from the Shared teaching directly to the Perfect teaching. Here again the conventional truth remains the recognition of illusory existence. The ultimate truth, however, shifts to the realization that all dharmas or phenomena are empty and yet not-empty. All phenomena are the Middle Way which is the buddha-nature of which all dharmas are partial manifestations.
    This level is also the second category of the threefold truth. In this category, the truth of the middle is understood to embrace all phenomena and the bodhisattva begins to realize the total integration of the threefold truth.
  5. Distinct: This level pertains to those bodhisattvas who have advanced to the Distinct teaching, embarking upon the long course of cultivating innumerable skillful means in order to attain liberation for themselves and others. At this level, conventional truth is to recognize illusory existence and also its emptiness of inherent existence. The ultimate truth is to realize that ultimately phenomena are neither existent nor empty but transcend such characterizations.
    This level is also the third category of the threefold truth. In this category, the bodhisattva realizes the threefold truth but sees each of the three as distinct from one another as explained under the first category of the threefold truth.
  6. Distinct to Perfect: This level pertains to those bodhisattvas who are transitioning from the Distinct teaching to the Perfect teaching. Here again the conventional remains the recognition of illusory existence and its emptiness of inherent existence. The ultimate truth, however, shifts to the realization that all dharmas or phenomena are included in the Middle Way that is both empty and yet not-empty.
    This level is also the fourth category of the threefold truth. In this category, the bodhisattva begins to realize the total integration of the threefold truth.
  7. Perfect: This level pertains to those bodhisattvas who have advanced to the Perfect teaching. They realize that reality includes provisional existence, emptiness, and neither existence nor emptiness. They have a spontaneous and intuitive inconceivable understanding of the two truths as distinct and yet non-dual.
    This level is also the fifth category of the threefold truth. In this category, the bodhisattva fully realizes the total integration of the threefold truth. Each truth of the threefold truth is integrated and mutually implicative of the other two. The threefold truth is one and yet three, three and yet one. All of reality is empty, is conventionally existent, and is the Middle Way. Here the truth of the middle is realized as an inclusive middle that embraces both emptiness and provisionality.

Zhiyi’s points is that only in the Perfect teaching is provisionality or conventional existence fully rehabilitated, put on a par with and fully integrated with the reality that all phenoena are empty of intrinsic existence and the Middle Way. Only when there is an awakening to the Perfect teaching can all three truths of the threefold truth be intuited in a non-conceptual manner. At that point, there is no longer any need to compare and contrast them, as they each fully implicate one another without becoming indistinct. This is the subtlest, most refined, and perfect understanding of the two truths according to Zhiyi. On this level, the buddhas are perfectly liberated from phenomena (even free of the views that there are or are not anything to grasp as phenomena) and yet perfectly able to embrace and be embraced by all phenomena.

The rest of chapter nine takes up a series of questions dealing with the truth of emptiness. In Zhiyi’s presentation of the four doctrinal teachings (the Tripitika, Shared, Distinct, and Perfect) emptiness is first approached analytically, then intuitively, then in terms of non-emptiness (i.e. provisionality and the middle), and finally as totally integrated with the truths of provisionality and the middle in the threefold truth. The analytic approach of the Tripitika teaching to emptiness means to break down a phenomena into its component parts in order to see that there is not a single unchanging thing that can be identified as its essence or self-nature. The intuitive understanding of emptiness of the Shared teaching is when the practitioner realizes that there can be no end to analysis and that all phenomena on any level of analysis can be broken down into a set of relationships of other factors which are in turn analyzable and so on. At this point, one can let go of analysis and attain liberation from the false view that there is any such thing as an unchanging, uncompounded, and permanent essence or self-nature. Getting to this point is what chapter nine is aiming for. What Zhiyi would call the Distinct and Perfect teachings are not dealt with here, but it would be futile to try to understand the perspectives taken in those teachings if one has not yet comprehended and realized the truth of emptiness. So Tiantai or Nichiren Buddhism might view this chapter as lacking those two higher or more subtle forms of the Buddha’s teachings, but at the same time the chapter deals with the indispensable first two teachings that the bodhisattva must traverse to get to the last two.