Clear Serenity, Quiet Insight

T'ien-t'ai Chih-i's Mo-ho chich-kuan, 3 Volume Set

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Paul L. Swanson
Nanzan Library of Asian Religion and Culture
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawai'i Press
    , October
     2280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Chinese monk Zhiyi 智顗 (538-597) was the principal founder of a tradition of Buddhism known as Tiantai 天台 (Japanese: Tendai), which has long been intellectually and institutionally important not only in China but also in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Zhiyi wrote two influential commentaries on the Lotus Sutra—the sutra most prized in Tiantai thought—and several other works. Among the latter is a massive, systematic treatise on meditative practice, The Great Cessation-and-Contemplation (Mohe zhiguan 摩訶止觀). This three-volume work by Paul L. Swanson provides the first complete translation of this treatise—and much more besides.

The Mohe zhiguan ostensibly takes Buddhist monastic practice (as opposed to thought or doctrine per se) as its main topic. Yet it is hardly a manual. If a novice opened this work expecting to find step-by-step instructions on what to do as a Buddhist, or on how to meditate, he or she would, I suspect, be utterly lost. What is this work, then? It might be characterized as a virtually encyclopedic, synthesizing doctrinal and textual commentary on Buddhist practice as understood at a very high intellectual level in late 6th-century China. The text works its way systematically through many aspects of Buddhist practice, including but hardly limited to meditation itself, and as it does so it often quotes lines from a variety of sutras and alludes less directly to an even wider swath of previous literature. It is, in short, in Swanson’s words “a comprehensive philosophy of Buddhist practice” (45). One of Zhiyi’s purposes seems to have been to shoehorn all of monastic practice into the key Tiantai doctrine of three truths (conventional, ultimate, and middle—an elaboration of the classical Indian Mādhyamika theory of two levels of truth) and the corresponding three discernments. The work thus has the features we might expect to find in a scholastic summa in any religious tradition: it is exhaustive, systematic, and dense, sometimes to the point of unreadability. Some Buddhist texts make for powerful, moving reading; some are even world literary masterpieces. Mohe zhiguan is not one of them.

Readers who are not specialists in the higher reaches of Tiantai thought will nevertheless find a great deal of value in this work, on which Swanson has spent many years. The first volume opens with an introduction by Neal Donner and Daniel B. Stevenson, both of whom have similarly worked on Tiantai texts for decades and who jointly published a translation of the first chapter (around 15 percent) of Mohe zhiguanin 1993. Their essay is followed by an introduction by Swanson himself, which focuses not so much on the background or reception of the text or the life of Zhiyi as on the challenges he faced in preparing his translation. Then follows Swanson’s translation of the introduction written by Zhiyi’s disciple Guanding 灌頂 (d. 632), which sets the work in a long lineage of masters and teachings. Finally we move into the translation of the Mohe zhiguan itself, which runs through the end of the second volume for an astounding total of over 1500 pages. The third volume, which adds 645 more pages to the total, is taken up with supplementary material (more on this below).

It would be a resolute scholar who took up the task of reading through this book from start to finish. These volumes are perhaps more likely to function as reference tools. Swanson has ensured that they can profitably be approached in either way. On every page of the translation we find extraordinarily rich annotation. These notes include material of four types: (1) glosses of technical terms, helpfully including the Chinese characters; (2) cross-references to other Buddhist texts; (3) citations of relevant modern scholarship in Japanese, Chinese, English, French, and German; and (4) translations of whole passages from the other texts that Zhiyi alluded to, or which were the sources of, Zhiyi’s text. In this latter category we often find not one but two translations of the same passage. For example, Étienne Lamotte’s magnificent French translation (published in five volumes from 1944 to 1980) of the Da zhidu lun 大智度論 (Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom, attributed to Nāgārjuna, translated into [or composed in] Chinese by Kumārajīva [d. 413]) is often quoted at length, followed by Gelongma Karma Migme Chodron’s unpublished English translation from Lamotte’s French.

Beyond the translation and annotations of Mohe zhiguan, Swanson has provided further, quite extensive reference materials in the third volume. First, there is a section comprising supplementary texts (running to two hundred pages—this material, with the addition of an introduction, could easily stand alone as a book). Here one will find well-annotated translations (or in a few cases summaries) of portions of ten other texts that are directly relevant to parts of the Mohe zhiguan. They are: The Teachings of Mañjuśrī (T 232); The Pratyutpanna Samādhi Sutra (T 418); The Questions of Mañjuśrī (T 468); The Great Vaipulya Dhāraṇī Sutra (T 1339); the Xiao zhiguan 小止觀 (T 1915; this selection alone runs for a full one hundred pages, and for readers seeking a simpler, introductory, much more manual-like text on sitting meditation, this one could well be used for that purpose); Jueyi sanmei 覺意三昧 (T 1922); Guoqing bailu 國清百錄 (T 1934), a very interesting compilation of documents including ritual manuals and inscriptions from the Guoqing temple on Mount Tiantai; Fangdeng sanmei xingfa 方等三昧行法 (T 1940); Fahua sanmei chanyi 法華三昧懺儀 (T 1941); and Fahua xuany i法華玄義 (T 1716), portions from one of Zhiyi’s two commentaries on the Lotus Sutra. (These numbers are the ones assigned in the widely used Taishō-period Sino-Japanese canon.) 

Following these supplemental translations are further reference materials: a detailed topic outline of the Mohe zhiguan; an index of Chinese characters for Tiantai terms; a glossary of the same (with generous definitions, indicating passages in which they appear that is well coordinated with the preceding character index); a list of Buddhist sources quoted in the Mohe zhiguan—that is, other primary texts, with their locations in the Sino-Japanese canon, their titles, translators, and brief comments on their contents or on how they figure into Mohe zhiguan; charts giving visual renderings of some of the key lists of doctrines that structure the text; a bibliography; and a comprehensive index.The main thing to say in response to such a major publication is simply that we owe Paul L. Swanson respect and gratitude for this long-awaited labor of love—and a debt of thanks as well to the University of Hawai’i Press for making such a costly work available (and in paperback!). I hope it is not unseemly to mention that, in my view, the book could have been improved in two main ways. First, it is no criticism of the earlier work done on Mohe zhiguan by Donner and Stevenson to say that their introduction, which is republished here, could have used a lot more updating than it received—or, better, could have been replaced with a new essay. Swanson notes that “the content remains mostly unchanged, with the exception of minor revisions … largely in the interest of more recent developments in Tiantai scholarship” (1). But, even if our understanding of Tiantai Buddhism has not greatly changed in the quarter-century since the Donner and Stevenson introduction was published in 1993, certainly there have been major changes in the study of Buddhist history and texts (not to mention in the study of religion overall) that are simply not reflected in either the Donner/Stevenson or the Swanson introductions. Reading them, one not only has a slight feeling of entering a time capsule; it is, further, a time capsule stored deep in the tunnel of acutely specialized Tiantai studies. 

To give just one example of the difference this makes, readers would have been well served by some attention in the introductions to the nuanced thinking about writing, reading, and citation practices that has been done in recent years with regard to Buddhist (and other premodern Asian religious) texts, and how this might enrich our understanding of this particular text. What sort of access did Zhiyi have, for example, to sutras, and what does the effective canon of works he cites look like when compared to our best estimate of the total number of Buddhist writings available in late 6th-century China? To what extent did his monastery function as a scriptorium for the making of further copies of texts of various kinds? Was the making of a text such as this one itself a ritualized practice accompanied by gestures of ritual framing, devotion, or veneration? To what extent did Zhiyi modify passages in quoting them, and how do we know this, and what difference does it make? (Swanson deals with this question at p. 49-53, but it seems to me a richer and more detailed treatment would have been helpful.) 

Secondly, not only general readers but also specialists would have benefited from a broader introduction that stepped much further back from the details of the Mohe zhiguan, Zhiyi, and Tiantai to put these into some wider contexts, perhaps addressing (for example) the longer arc of Buddhist history and the history of the making of such exhaustive texts about practice; what is known about the contemporary audience for such a text and the reasons for writing it; comparisons between this text and other medieval attempts to systematize practices in texts and in systems of ideas; the roles this sort of textualization of practice might have played in monastic life or in contestation among competing lineages and monasteries; and, most broadly, some theorization of the relationship between writing about practice (especially the sort of hyper-systematizing, densely commentative and scholastic writing found here) and the actual doing of (non-textual) practice.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert Ford Campany is Professor of Asian and Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University.

Date of Review: 
June 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul L. Swanson is a Permanent Research Fellow at the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture, Nanzan University.


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