Based on Heidegger’s account of the hermeneutic circle, Gadamer emphasizes that prejudices are necessary and primary conditions for our understanding. All types of prejudices occur with our efforts to understand our existence. This existence is linguistically disclosed, and since language unceasingly accumulates and transmits, it constitutes the historical setting of our existence. Therefore language, history and culture account for the prejudices in all of our understanding and in the ways we exist. This paper tries to achieve insight into issues related with the hermeneutics in Zhiyi’s “contemplation of mental activity,” also called “threefold contemplation within/qua one instant of mental activity,” by resorting to Gadamer’s account of understanding and prejudices. I believe that Tiantai Buddhism may agree with Gadamer’s view on the relevance of prejudices for our understanding, and that it also harmonizes with the historicity of our understanding and our existence; however, it definitely would not agree with Gadamer’s claim that being is indivisible from its historicity, otherwise the practice of liberation in Buddhism would immediately become impossible.
There are differences between the Tiantai and Indian Mahayana traditions regarding the “two truths.” Indian Buddhism considers both language and our existential habitat linguistically construed to be illusory, and revealing this illusion already qualifies for liberation. Tiantai Buddhism, however, goes one step further and develops its concept of the “threefold truth perfectly integrated,” that is, it understands anything we encounter in our existential habitat according to the hermeneutics in the “contemplation of mental activity” based on the “threefold contemplation within/qua one instant of mental activity”; moreover, it proposes that, except for deconstructing prejudices sustaining our understanding, or falsity in culture and history, one must also immerse oneself into this falsity and actively participate in the salvation of sentient beings utilizing “provisional designations,” in order to go beyond the polarity between “emptiness and existence as provisional designation,” achieving the realm of the “middle way perfectly integrated” in which “emptiness and existence” are extinguished, and simultaneously realizing that actual “affliction and delusion” inversely embodies “nirvana and wisdom.” According to the Tiantai Buddhist viewpoint, it is not a matter of concern that prejudices in our existence and understanding are simply to be extinguished, it rather matters how they are properly utilized in order to save sentient beings. Viewed from that standpoint, Zhiyi’s Tiantai Buddhism (in contrast to the Indian tradition), reaffirms the necessary role that language, history, and culture play in realizing liberation.
Tiantai; understanding; prejudice; Linguistics; hermeneutic circle; Philosophical Hermeneutics; Hermeneutics of “Contemplation of Mental Activity”