Chinese Tiantai Doctrine on Insentient Things’
Buddha-Nature by Shuman Chen
This essay is an investigation into the concept of insentient things possessing Buddha-nature
with a focus on Jingxi Zhanran’s thoughts. In the history of Chinese Buddhism, Zhanran was
not the originator of such a concept; however, he was the first Tiantai thinker to advocate
this idea. He strongly argues that according to the Tiantai Perfect Teaching, Buddha-nature
certainly extends to insentient things, which refers to inanimate objects without a nervous
system, i.e., tangible or formless nonliving existents. This essay therefore aims at revealing
this intent of Zhanran by exploring his argument of insentient things’ Buddha-nature.
For Zhanran, the key quality of Buddha-nature is all-pervasiveness, and thus naturally, not
only animate beings but also inanimate things are imbued with Buddha-nature. According to
the principle of mutual inclusion, each dharma realm includes the other nine realms. Also,
because body and land are mutually identical, the bodies and lands of Buddhas are interfused
with those of the dwellers in the other nine realms. Thus, the inanimate lands also have Buddhanature.
Lastly, mutual inclusion reveals a two-way relationship between the sentient and the
insentient, thereby giving the possibility of reversing the positions of the subjective observer
and the objective phenomenon. As such, it is conducive to my conclusion that insentient things
can also take up an active role on the path of Buddhahood, as Zhanran contends that they
inherently possess the threefold Buddha-nature.