The Three Truths About Existence

The question: “what is the truth about object (A)?” can be answered in two ways:

  1.    Through observing the physical or materiall features, of (A) 

  2.    Through observing the mental aspect of relationships  of (A) - with other things.

Buddhism views any object from the two aspects of physical and mental, but also adds the perception of its uniqueness among all other things. Each object has a unique entity - having the three aspects of:

1. The Physical Aspect

  1. 2.The Inner Aspect

  2. 3. The Entity of both.

1.  The Physical Aspect

In order to know the truth about a certain object or phenomenon, we have first to define it, discerning its existence - as being distinguishable from other things.  We distinguish things through analysing information provided by the five senses (and their extensions of tools and instruments). That which is “physical” is necessarily discernible by the senses and their extensions.

Scientific observation investigates objects and phenomena in the spatiotemporal domain, because the five senses (and instruments or tools used to enhance the senses) - operate in the spatiotemporal domain. In other words, scientific observation is relevant to the world, which is strictly governed by the laws of matter. 

The common truth about anything physical is that it changes with the passage of time.  This means that in terms of existence, the nature of what we observe through the physical aspect - is temporary. 

Any object comes first into existence (in the physical reality), but at some stage, it declines and disintegrates. This pattern, which all objects manifest is the pattern of birth and death,  or : emergence into being (birth) then withdrawal into extinction (death) – and it is a universal pattern: all phenomena, plants, living beings, stars and planets, etc. express this pattern of the physical aspect: ‘appearance in the physical reality - then extinction in the filed of death.

Our awareness about the external world is maintained through the information gained through the physical aspect of the five senses, but it does not answer deeper questions about the inner essence of observed objects.

2.  The Inner Aspect

While the Physical Aspect of observed object highlights its distinction from the surrounding, the Inner Aspect reveals its dependence on the surroundings. 

What is the origin of what we observe? 

For example, observing a tree, we know that it is dependent on the soil holding its roots, and on air and sunlight, as well as on moisture, chemicals, and various lifeforms affecting its growth. Interdependence of a thing on the existence of other things means that nothing can claim independent existence.

Nothing can ever exist independent of other things.  In other words, a thing originates in reality because of its ability to connect and to interact with other things, which are themselves dependent on other things, and which are also dependent on other things, and so on.  In Eastern philosophical perspectives, this elementary principle of existence, which was introduced by Mahayana philosopher Nagarjuna of India between 150 and 250 CE – is called Dependent Origination:

Dependent Origination simply means: because of the interconnectedness of things, nothing can originate by itself:

“… the concept of “dependent origination,” …. holds that nothing exists in isolation, independent of other life. The Japanese term for dependent origination is engi, literally “arising in relation.”

In other words, all beings and phenomena exist or occur only because of their relationship with other beings or phenomena. Everything in the world comes into existence in response to causes and conditions. Nothing can exist in absolute independence of other things or arise of its own accord”.

The existence of object (A) is possible only through availability of causes and conditions; it has no inherent existence or absolute identity of its own, separate from others. This perspective enables viewing things through a flexible perspective of possibilities – rather than fixed causes. 

For example, what makes a tree (A) exist is an integration of certain condition -  of moisture, temperature, wind, etc. and which are in constant dynamics of change.  We can also predict the range of possible conditions necessary to makes a tree grow.  For example, a possible change in soil chemicals would cause the tree to lose or  to increase  its ability to produce fruits. In this example, the observed tree (A) can exists in one of two possibilities: one potential is a tree blooming with fruits, the other without flowering.  In any case, the actual situation of tree (A) is not fixed, but is slowly changing following the changes of elements participating in its makeup.  Similarly, any object is conditioned by relationships with other things, which affect its ‘essence of being’ in various degrees.

The Inner Aspect of an object is a dynamic field of information and potentials related to the object, a field called Sunyata.

Many names of the same field

Any object can be described by its information about its features and potentials.  This field of information about any object reveals that the object is interdependent, it has no actual existence of its own.  Its essence or meaning is devoid of matter.  For this reason, various sources in literature use the word void or ‘emptiness’ (emptiness of physical matter) to refer to the field of information describing the features, function and potentials of objects.  Because potentials are states of information, then the spectrum of potentials (about an object’s future state) has no material substance - and for this reason it is called the field of non-substantiality. The Sanskrit word for the field of potentiality is Sunyata.

Perhaps it is a good thing that there are several words of translation trying to explain the original Sanskrit word Sunyata, because (taking the essence of all the given descriptions), we can get their gist or essence, and what they imply.  The gist of this field of information  about object’s essence and relations is described by the words Emptiness, Void, Latency, Potentiality, and also the field of Non-substantiality. The common feature between all these words, struggling to convey Sunyata is that: Sunyata is information, it is not a description of a physical material aspect.

The essence (or the truth) of an object therefore, is moire than the physical aspect, and for this reason it cannot be detected by the five senses.  Detection of information by the sense organs is based on sampling matter from the external world, while - as Buddhist scholar Nichiren (1222 – 1282) points out on this subject, quoting from Mahavariochana Sutra, that: the field of information about the essence of being is discerned by the mind, not by the five senses;

       “Emptiness is by nature removed from the sense organs and their objects. It has no form or

         boundaries.  It represents the ultimate in the absence of individual nature.

The example of dreams, memories and imagination

As an example of the field of information, which is undetectable by the senses (as the physical aspect is) - stands the example of our dreams. 

If we remember a dream, we see it now as a ‘story’ - taking place in a void.  This void, occupied by the flow of images of dream, is vibrant yet lacking hard physical substance, and hence cannot be detected by the senses.

In such a field of information (nonSubstantiality) - time and space are not the same as we have them in the domain of the physical aspect. Therefore, the contents and scenarios, which can be contained in this field of non-substantiality, allow for unlimited combinations of possibilities.  Various scenarios of possibilities, and our imagination – all dwell in this field.  Our memory is recalled within this field of non-substantiality, and also our creativity and imagination of numbers and mathematical concepts – all are inhabitants in this ‘world of potentiality’:

“According to David Loy the English word emptiness has a more nihilistic connotation than the original Sanskrit. The Sanskrit root “su” also conveys the concept of being swollen with possibility [LOY 1996]. It is therefore most important not to confuse emptiness with total nothingness”.

The nature of our mind is informational, vibrant with potentials.  According to Nichiren:

“When we look into our own mind at any moment, we perceive neither color nor form to verify that it exists. Yet we still cannot say it does not exist, for many differing thoughts continually occur. The mind cannot be considered either to exist or not to exist. Life is indeed an elusive reality that transcends both the words and concepts of existence and nonexistence. It is neither existence nor nonexistence, yet exhibits the qualities of both”.

We usually use the word “existence” to describe things in the physical world, but mind-images do not have material substance to refer to their existence in the same way as we do for physical objects.  Hence, we can describe the emergence of thoughts and potentials as neither existing as physical items do, nor can be denied as nonexisting.

The Power of Potentiality

In a general term, it is possible to consider a potential as a certain kind of a 'scenario', connecting its elements through images of causes and conditions.  A potential can be a ‘story’ associated with how things may change in the environment, or it can be an ‘inclination’ - created by inner tendencies and desires operating within one’s life.

The superposition of all potentials and all information associated with objects and individuals – dwell in the field of Sunyata without interfering with each other.  A useful metaphor to explain this is a comparison of the field of potentials with the field of radio signals filling the space all the time, without mixing with one another.  Only one radio station at a time can be tuned to – and this resembles turning a certain potentially-existing broadcast into a physical effect (which can be perceived by the senses).  As Japanese educator, Josei Toda explained:

“[Mr] Toda used the analogy of radio waves to explain life in the state of non-substantiality [or Potentials].  In this day and age, it may make more sense to use the example of television…. Broadcast waves of various wavelengths from stations from many different countries crisscross the world. When you take a television receiver and tune it to the wavelength of the broadcast you want to receive, you hear sound and see images.  Through the external cause of the receiver, the silent and invisible waves become audible sounds and visible images. It could be said that this represents the transformation of wavelengths from [potentiality] to life.” (*)

(*) The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, Vol 4, p. 265.  D. Ikeda - Study Department Discussion, World Tribune Press, 2002,  

ISBN 0-915678-72-1

Each person possesses this field of potentials, which is interconnected with the field of potentials of others.  Even plants and insentient things - each has their field of possibilities. It is inevitable for any object to have a field of potentials inseparable of it. 

What does the Field of Potentials (Sunyata) offer?

-Observing our life within the field of Sunyata, we see that we exist only because of a network of relations and activities with other people and phenomena.  This sophisticated network of connections with others is not fixed, and changes according to circumstances. If, for example, we experience an event of emotions, such as anger, then this event must have involved others as well, and it exists as a common memory in the life of people with whom we shared events. There is no marked separation between our life and the life of others.  Beyond the dominant view seeing others as separate individualities, in the world of Sunyata we can see the flow of our life intermingling with the flow of other people’s lives - and theirs within our life, creating a one great whole of interconnected lives.

-The field of Interconnectedness penetrates not only our relations with others, but it also describes our material possessions: the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the items we use, etc., have been the result of immense networks of efforts involving other people:

Any item shows that a huge amount of work had to be done to make the item manifest  -  staring from the processes of extracting minerals from the earth, the making of tools, designing, manufacturing, transporting and selling the items we use.  Each object is the result of a chain of invisible to us processes. Every physical item has its own history that led to its existence through processes, which took place over a long time and in various places.

  1. -The most important, perhaps, benefit from applying the perspective of Sunyata - is in regard to understanding the concept of ‘self’ of the individual.  To think that one has a fixed individual self of its own – is a mistaken thinking.  It is an illusion, which can lead to clashes with reality.  Without relationships with others, the individual is no one. 

It is of course true that each person has a private perception of own uniqueness from others, however uniqueness from others requires the existence of others (to be unique among them).  The awareness of self-existence and awareness of one’s origin is the awareness that it is impossible to exist without others. 

In Sunyata we perceive a shared life with others rather than focus on our ego and shallow individualism. The idea of having a ‘fixed individuality’ becomes like a prison.  Sunyata opens the field of possibilities allowing for creation of potentials aiming for realisation of the possibility for inner freedom and growth over limitations. 

Nothing stays the same, and no attachment is permanent.  Hence, there is a possibility for self-change towards eliminating rigidity and attachments to ego – and a possibility for realizing desirable potentials hidden in our life. 

Applying the concept of Potentiality is very important:

The practical purpose behind the teaching of non-substantiality lies in eliminating attachments to transient phenomena and to the ego, or the perception of self as an independent and fixed identity”.

The Field of Potentiality and the State of Enlightenment

The question: is there a possibility to transform one’s situation of suffering into beneficial experiences leading towards Enlightenment? - this question has immense value for the life of the individual. The Inner State of an individual contains the whole spectrum of possibilities (the spectrum of the inner worlds, or - according to Nichiren Buddhism: the Ten Worlds of Life).

The Ten Worlds classify the major currents of tendencies - acting within the Inner Aspect of the individual.  According to the concept of the Ten Worlds, the highest state for a human being to achieve (that of Buddhahood) - is a possibility existing within the Inner Aspect of the individual. 

All Mahayana schools of Buddhism teach that the state of Enlightenment is a possibility that can be achieved, but they differ in the way of what to practice and for how long.  Some schools teach that the practice to realise the inner state of Enlightenment requires many lifetimes of practice to purify one’s karma or past causes.  Nichiren Buddhism is based on the Lotus Sutra, which teaches that it is possible to manifest the potential for enlightenment in this lifetime and in one’s current form.

In this perspective, the state of Enlightenment is a latent possibility and it can become manifest in reality.

The concept of the Field of Potentials becomes a vehicle for exploring one’s inner world of possibilities, and among various possibilities, a potential exists for pursuing the path, which can lead to higher degrees of maturity, value, self-esteem and self-development as a human being.

3.  The Truth of the Entity

(The Middle Way)

There could be no dispute that each individual possesses the two features of the Physical and Inner Aspects of existence, and which are inseparable. 

Whatever the connection between the two aspects, both aspects are inseparable. In philosophical debates, for example, the trend of Physicalism, assumes that the Inner Aspect supervenes over the Physical, but this also means that the two are inseparable.  They are not two separate aspects - as the perspective of non-duality explains.

Nonduality integrates both aspects.  The focus on just one of the two aspects (physical or material and mental or spiritual) - would lead to an unbalanced (and extreme in nature)  perception of things.  Nagarjuna (c 150 – c 250 CE) noted that an individual cannot be fully described by either aspect alone, and that the individual is the integration of the two aspects in one entity.  He called this integration the Middle Way between extremes:

“Nagarjuna explained it as the Middle Way, a perspective that regards the categories of existence and nonexistence as extremes, and aims to transcend them”.

The Middle-Way is not a concept of making ‘an average’ or becoming a ‘middle’ of ‘half of this and half of that’, it rather expresses the fusion of two extremes as being “neither this nor that”. 

One of the ways to understand the concept of integration of the material and mental aspects of the individual – is through observing behaviour.  Behaviour of a person reveals the mental values embedded within the physical action.

The Middle Way is a denial of bias to the two extremes of the substantial (physical) and the nonsubstantial (mental). This perspective, which melts both aspects together integrating them into one entity - is manifest and witnessed in the reality of daily life in the phenomenon of voice.  The phenomenon od voice integrates both the physical aspect of acoustical vibrations and the mental aspect of meaning and emotions, which are inviarbly encoded within voice.

The integration of the two extremes of the physical and mental was touched upon in Western philosophy as found in Aristotle’s view of the Golden Mean:

“[The Middle Way] implies a balanced approach to life and the regulation of one's impulses and behavior, close to Aristotle's idea of the "golden mean" whereby "every virtue is a mean between two extremes, each of which is a vice." .

The Unification of the Three Truths

According to Nichiren Buddhism - the three truths (about an object or an individual) being the physical aspect, inner aspect and both together as an entity - each of these three  truths necessitates the others. Each aspect requires the other two to exist.

The Inner essence (which is unseen to the senses) of an object we observe, is referred to in Nichiren Buddhism by the character (Myo), while its appearance of the observed object - is referred to by the character (Ho), meaning manifestation

The integration of the mental aspect (Myo) and the physical manifestation (Ho) results in the existence of the Entity of a living organism (MyoHo).

Nichiren explained that the Three Truths should be viewed as inseparable oneness:

“The three truths that form a unity may be compared to a jewel, its brilliance, and its precious nature. Because it has these three virtues, it is called a wish-granting jewel, and it can serve as a symbol for the unity of the three truths. But if these three virtues were taken apart and treated as separate entities, then the jewel would be of no use.

It would then be comparable to the various schools that expound expedient teachings in which the three truths are regarded as separate from one another.” WND2 p. 835

Separation of the spiritual aspect from the physical aspect is found in the philosophy based on dualism, implying the existence of ghosts (spirits) for example.  Nichiren Buddhism explains that this  separation of the spiritual and physical is the result of duality in thinking, and that it can lead to illusions. 

The principle of the oneness of mental and physical leads also to the concept that attaining enlightenment of the mind is possible within the curent physical body of the individual.