The Comparison And Research of Aristotle's "Theory of Four
Causes" And Master Chi-Yi's "Three Causes of the Buddha Nature"


By Lee Chi-fu





According to the metaphysics of Greek philosopher Aristotle, 384-322 B.C. the formation of the universe was due to Four Causes, i.e., Eidos, the Formal cause; Hule, the Material Cause; Arkhe, the Efficient Cause; Telos, the Final Cause (1).


Chinese Master Chi-yi, 538-597 A.D., of the Ten-Tai school in Sui Dynasty concerning the practice of Buddhism advocated :The Theory of Three Causes of the Buddha Nature;, i.e. Zheng4 Yin タ]; Liao3 YinF]; Yuan2 Yin t] (2).                                                               


Despite the above-mentioned theories of Four Causes and the Three Causes of the Buddha Nature can all be applied to metaphysics, cosmology, even to the activities of daily life; however, the Master put much emphasis on the sense of Buddhism practice. The Theory of Four Causes and the Theory of Three Causes, when compared, are not found to be identical, even though their basic lay-out seems to be of the same type.      


There is a difference of 981 years between the philosopher・s birth and the master・s death. During this time, China had not developed close contact with the western cultures and thoughts, hence the master could not be possibly influenced by Aristotle. If there ever be an analogy between them, it would be just like what Song Dynasty・s scholar Lu4 Xiang4 Shan stated: :Saints are born either in east or in west, but their ideal truths are not different from those of one another (3).



I.       Aristotle・s Theory of Four Causes (4)

According to Aristotle: The blueprint of a house in an architect・s mind is the Formal Cause; bricks, tiles K. are the Material Cause; the bricklayers are the Efficient Cause; the house built having living value is the Final Cause (5). In chapter I of his :Metaphysics;, Aristotle spoke of the reality of both form and material. The reason that an architect・s blueprints in mind can set up houses combined with bricks, tiles K. lies in :Immanent Finality; (6).


Aristotle in his :Metaphysics; chapter IV inferred that the changing cosmos must have a nonalterable and still entity, possessing divinity (7). God is every form・s form, and :form; is to feel the Immanent Essence among objects (8). For instance, :Socrates (469- 399 B.C.) was a being;, the :being; was the inner form of Socrates who would not have been able to exist if without the form of a being (9).


    To further what has been mentioned, like, :the whole universe is formed by the form of God; (10), supposedly God・s form to be ridded, the whole universe would fail to exist. Shortening the statement, like, :the snake is egg-born animals;, if there were no class of animals on earth, neither were the category of snakes. Basing on the belief of Aristotle, thereby, God, human beings, and animals are all different levels of the Formal Cause; besides, the universe, Socrates and snakes are naturally the Material Cause. Aristotle believed that original materials can relate to every single Particular whose lowest level can touch on the class or universal that every single Particular formed, also its largest material can be traced back to the entire cosmos, and its highest form can be dated from God.


As for the Efficient Cause, Aristotle reckoned that God initially had created the orbit movement, all the universal variation was set forth afterwards (11). Therefore, not only is God the first Formal Cause or the ultimate Final Cause, but also is the first Efficient Cause (12). So far as the power of each level・s generating and changing within the universe is concerned, apart from the Final Cause, there is also the :Mechanical Cause; which triggers :Fortuitous; movement (13). Hypothetically, however, if there lacks God・s first Efficient Cause, the whole universe would remain still.


II. Master Chi-yi・s Three Causes of The Buddha Nature


The Master in the Saddharma Pundharika Sutra Xuan2 Yi4 k仇gトqdiscussing                     


 :Three Relative Buddha Nature; 寵qT鬧 of .Three Profound Dharma・ TМk asserted: :The True Rule is Zheng4 Yin Xing4 タ]; the Meditating Rule is Liao3 Yin Xing3 F]; the Effectuating Rule is Yuan2 Yin Xiang4 t]; (14). Then, how to explain the Three Rules? In his explanatory .Three Profound Dharmas・, the Master mentioned, :Three Dharmas denote Three Rules 15.; So to speak, the .rule・ is a rail, the rail is a tenet, a principle, also can be thought as a method. The Master categorized Three Rules into different levels. In his .Three Separate Understandable Dharmas・ 醸OTk, it can be divided into Zang4 , Tong q, Bie2 O, Yuan2   four doctrines (16).


According to Zang4 Doctrine if followers practise True Rule, their knots b would be untied and reals would be unveiled; through the practice of Meditating Rule one can observe that nothing is permanent; via the practice of Effectuating Rule one can fulfill virtue (17).


According to Tong Doctrine if believers practise True Rule, their essence would be made void, that is, reason and real; Meditating Rule is wisdom composed of emptiness; Effectuating Rule is to pursue all the sacred deeds (18).


Bie2 Doctrine regards wisdom as True Rule; emptiness as Meditating Rule; all deeds as Effectuating Rule (19).


Yuan2 Doctrine・s True Rule is motionless essence, which is the substance with permanent Zheng4 Yin, namely body; Meditating Rule is emptiness with great functions, which is the first esoteric one, namely phenomenon; Effectuating Rule, which conceals all deeds, is the Tathata Womb, namely function. The substance, phenomenon, and function are three in one which is non-one, non-dual, beyond thoughts.


Chi-Yi・s Three Rules of Yuan2 Doctrine is too in short the Three Rules that he claimed, to sum them up, which are Incredible Real Profound Dharma, its chart is displayed in the followings (20):



  Real Rule           Zheng4 Yin is permanent        i.e. oneness                                 

  Meditating Rule     the First profound emptiness     i.e. non-oneness    incredible                                                              


  Effectuating Rule    Tathata Womb                 i.e. non-oneness,    not non-oneness   


The Master in Understanding Beginning And Ending (l苛) categorized Such Embodiment (pO悼) of Ten Such So (QpO), and Middle Path (いD) of Inevitability of Them All (pOセソ汽) as True Rule; categorized Suchness, Phenomenon, Power, Function, Primary Cause, Environmental Cause, Effect, Karmic Reward (pO, ,O, @, ], t, G, ,) as well as Emptiness () and Falsehood () of Inevitability of Them All (pOセソ汽) as Meditating Rule and Effectuating Rule, below is given (21):


   Three Rules of Beginning and End:


        Realm of Such Ten                                          Three Rules                                                                


   1. Such Embodiment                                             True Rule

   2. Such Nature                    Nature Within                 Meditating Rule

   3. Such Phenomenon              Phenomenon Without         Effectuating Rule

   4. Such Power                     Liao3 Yin                     Meditating Rule

   5. Such Function                  Ceaseless Struggle             Effectuating Rule

   6. Such Primary Cause            Acquired Cause                Meditating Rule                                                    

   7. Such Environmental Cause      Karmic Reward               Effectuating Rule

   8. Such Effect                     Acquired Effect                Meditating Rule

   9. Such Karmic Reward            Acquired Karmic Reward     Effectuating Rule

                                       Emptiness                     Meditating Rule

  10. Inevitability of Them All        Falsehood                     Effectuating Rule

                                       Middle                        True Rule


By carefully reading the above-mentioned Three Separate Understandable Dharmas and Understanding Beginning And Ending two passages, the so-called Three Rules are nothing but three relative concepts; just like Three Causes of the Buddha Nature is namely Three Rules, so that Three Causes of the Buddha Nature is merely three relative concepts. Again, as for its Three Relative Wisdom 寵qT覘Y, Real Wisdom is the objective, also True Rule; Meditation Wisdom is intelligence, also Meditating Rule; sign wisdom is action, also Effectuating Rule (22). If we relatively regard Saddharma Pundharika Sutra as the objective, True Rule, and Zheng4 Yin; regard understanding the sutra as wisdom, Meditating Rule, and Liao3 Yin; regard analyzing sign structures and grammar of the sutra as action, Effectuating Rule, and Yuan2 Yin, in such a way, they are to be concluded in relative cases and events. It therefore can be seen that Three Causes of the Buddha Nature can be modeled as the highest pale of cultivating practice, can be brought into daily life・s routines as well.


III. The Comparison And Analysis of Both Theory of Four Causes And Three Causes


1.      The Accordance of Both:

Aristotle considered every objects all having form and material as two realities, Efficient Cause and Final Cause exist only attaching to the Formal Cause (23). The highest form is God, God is nothing but a pondering embodiment, and only ponders himself (24). Form is the goal of generating, God is the highest form, that is, the ultimate goal. All the Efficient Cause, as a result, returns to the Final Cause; the Final Cause is back to the Formal Cause (25), after all, they all go back to the highest Formal Cause-God.


So far as cosmology is concerned, every phenomenon and all manifestations of the

universe are achieved owing to the Formal Cause and Material Cause; as for metaphysics,

they have one last common intention, that is to say, trending to the unified highest form

of the cosmos, also knowing the thinking embodiment itself, i.e.,God.


The Master・s Three Causes of the Buddha Nature whose Zheng4 Yin is True Rule, namely Empty Quality, Tatathata, in other words, One Reason. If following the above- mentioned statement, Aristotle・s God-the first Formal Cause can be regarded as One Reason, then the Master・s Zheng4 Yin Buddha Nature and Aristotle・s God, in terms of essence, all appertain to One Reason, both can be taken as completely agreeing.


Once again, the Master・s Meditating Rule and Liao3 Yin Buddha Nature are similar to Aristotle・s Efficient Cause in the hope of attaining Zheng4 Yin Buddha Nature. As for the matter of phenomena, Aristotle・s example of bricklayers constructing houses is in order to reach the blueprints in architects・ mind, which is also the Master's Zheng4 Yin.


    The Master・s Effectuating Rule and Yuan2 Yin Buddha Nature possess something which resembles the Final Cause and Material Cause of Aristotle. It too may be expounded with Aristotle・s instance of setting up houses. Aristotle held beliefs that due to bricks, tiles and some other materials having the inner Final Cause, so that constructing    workers can basing on architects・ blueprints build up houses. To the Master, it is what principal and subsidiary causes form, Yuan2 Yin Buddha Nature, which is applied to effectuate the establishing of a house.


   The comparative relation between Three Causes of the Buddha Nature and the Theory of Four Causes is as followings:


   Three Causes of Buddha Nature (Three Rules)       Theory of Four Causes


   Zheng4 Yin Buddha Nature (True Rule)            God (the First Formal Cause)   


   Liao3 Yin Buddha Nature (Meditating Rule)         Efficient Cause


   Yuan2 Yin Buddha Nature (Effectuating Rule)        Final Cause


                                              Material Cause 


Furthermore, as far as the Master taking Yuan2 Doctrine to discuss Three Causes

of Buddha Nature as non-one and non-dual is concerned, Aristotle・s Efficient Cause

could bring back to the Final Cause, the Final Cause again can be restored to the Formal           

Cause, insofar, the three ones are neither one nor dual.


It can be realized from the above, the Master・s Three Causes of the Buddha Nature

harmonizes Aristotle・s Theory of Four Causes; in nature, they are tantamount.


2. The Differentiation and Reconciliation of Both:


Aristotle considered the form as well as the substance (material) as two major root principles, also known as the ultimate real (26); the Master regarded True Rule and Zheng4 Yin Buddha Nature as Empty Quality, Reality too. Except both of them said having great dissimilarity toward substance, the real of Formal Cause parallels much the theory of Reality and Emptiness of Zheng4 Yin Buddha Nature. In the sense of logic, they all are Real Concept, absolutely not like the airy lotus of False Concept. Insomuch, the real is to be partaken with the Formal Cause and Zheng4 Yin Buddha Nature.


There is, nevertheless, one Material Cause affirmed by Aristotle, the form and material are combined to constitute all objects of reality. The Master ensconced material problems within Yuan2 Yin, since what can be formed as Yuan2 Yin, and can be constituted as Zheng4 Yin Dharma Body, is the potency of self-deeds along with all external forces, in which the Material Cause is naturally embraced. If extending it to entire Buddhism, various universal manifestations are made of earth, water, fire and wind (27), the Master・s thoughts were propped by general theoretic bases of Buddhism,           through which the Material Cause of Aristotle can be more closely approached. Aristotle ascertained that the linkage of original materials and coldness, hotness, dryness, and wetness of Material Cause engenders the Four Elements-earth, water, fire, and air (i.e., wind), namely, Four Elements; then the inorganism and organism are to be created out of which, mankind as well (28).


IV. The Mutual Extension of Thoughts of Both Theory of Four Causes and Three               

   Causes of Buddha Nature


Though Aristotle・s Theory of Four Causes is a type of metaphysics, the Master・s Theory of Three Causes is from the point of view of practice. The highest pale that Aristotle・s Theory of Four Causes pursued was, yet, striving after the Efficient Cause to return to the Final Cause, and the Final Cause returning to the Formal Cause; its last form is also recognized as :the form・s form;, a.k.a. God. If people relying on it exercise religious practice, his Theory of Four Causes can turn into a certain kind of formula for practice. Even though Aristotle・s God is only a thinking body, not a creator or a personified god that people can worship; however, would not such a thinking body get even closer to the Master・s Zheng4 Yin Buddha Nature? Consequently, Aristotle・s Theory of Four Causes can amplify, extend and analyze the Master・s Three Causes of the Buddha Nature.


Relatively, the Master・s Three Causes of Buddha Nature can too depend on Aristotle・s Theory of Four Causes to form a set of metaphysics and cosmology, yet merely omitting the practice of religion, and expanding the method of analyzing and deducing. This, to Three Causes of Buddha Nature, has a great deal of value of supplementing and availing.


Regardless of Aristotle or the Master, they both possess own series of complete theoretic system to support either theory, interacting, and never existing alone. This text only tries to make some simple comparison and discussion of both theories, it would be hard to pass a fully explicit condensation, thus, if any suspicion rises that the author garbled any statement or context , please condone. Nonetheless, this text merely intents to provide a standpoint, bear some information, and help interested scholars who would like to take on further research on the topic obtain several hints.



V. Conclusion


It would be so difficult to strictly distinguish philosophy from religion, but both are one kind of thought. Thoughts form beliefs, if one puts them into practice, religions are usually formed, such as Buddhism, Jainism , Taoism K. etc.. Religions・ development through rational thinking and learning, as a result, forms philosophy, e.g. academic philosophy, Islamic philosophy, Buddhist Studies K. etc.


So Aristotle・s Theory of Four Causes although is philosophy, if endowed with beliefs and practice, which would be a religion. But Aristotle・s intention was not religions but philosophy, his Theory of Four Causes stayed with philosophy only. At the outset, if Aristotle had done what the Master did, or Aristotle・s students could do it for him, we

would customarily witness a religion formed out of Aristotle・s philosophy.


And the Master・s Three Causes of the Buddha Nature is religious, moreover fulfilling. For the sake of making the most of his religion and school, he evolved its teachings as well as thoughts, seeing his Three Causes of the Buddha Nature can serve as a school of philosophy and metaphysics.


As far as philosophy and metaphysics are concerned, there are, by all means, interactive portions between Aristotle・s Theory of Four Causes and Master Chi-yi・s Three Causes of the Buddha Nature. This text solely suggests some probing paths with directions over this interaction.





1.  As the author is not well-versed in Greek, the following works have been consulted:


(1) :A History of Philosophy;, Volume I, by Frederick Copleston, S.J., 

The Newman Press, Westminster. Maryland, 1959.       

(2) :Western History of Philosophy;, by Fu4 Wei3-xun, the first edition was done

in July of 1965, issued by San Ming2 Bookstore.                                                         

(3) :Western History of Philosophy;, Volume I, by Frank Thilly, translated by

Chen2 Zheng4-mo2, issued by San Wu4 Bookstore in 1936.

2.   Self-written :A Research on Saddharma Pundharika Sutra Xuan2 Yi4;, Volume II, the first edition was done in February of 1997, printed by Editorial Society of .Chinese Buddhist Literature. This book has already covered relevant essential literature; nowadays, it is the one which can most assist one studying relative thoughts of Master Chi-yi・s :Saddharma Pundharika Sutra Xuan2 Yi4;, so no other works need to be referred.                 

3. The 36th chapter, Nian2 Pu2 of :Lu4 Xiang4 San・s Complete Series;.

4. Same as footnote 1. (1), .The Metaphysics of Aristotle・ PP. 287-319, P. 306;

  Same as footnote 2. (2), P. 127-137;

  Same as footnote 3. (3), P. 94-97.

5. Same as footnote 1. (1), P. 313-314;

  Same as footnote 1. (2), P. 129.

6. Same as footnote 1. (1), P. 313;

  Same as footnote 1. (2), P. 134.

7. Same as footnote 1. (1), P. 291;

  Same as footnote 1. (2), P. 129-130;

  Same as footnote 1. (3), P. 97.

8. Same as footnote 1. (1), P. 294;

  Same as footnote 1. (2), P. 133, 131.

9. Same as footnote 1. (1), P. 295;

  Same as footnote 1. (2), P. 131.

10.      Aristotle once took oaks, marbles, paintings K. etc. for examples, the reason that oaks can grow as oaks, marbles can be carved into different statues, and a painter can paint a picture is because of their Formal Causes and Final Causes. Each object has its own Formal and Final Causes. God is, is to be, the ultimate Formal Cause and Final Cause, for God himself is :goodness;, the utmost end, God is self-centered. Same as footnote 1. (1), P. 314; Same as footnote 1. (2), P. 133: :God himself is motionless, also the most impeccable and perfect Entelecheia K. and Aristotle・s concept of :God; may also be named as Plato・s "Form of Goodness." Same as footnote 1. (3), P. 97.

11. Same as footnote 1. (1), PP. 310-315;

   Same as footnote 1. (2), P. 134.

12. Same as footnote 1. (1), PP. 314-315;

   Same as footnote 1. (2), P. 133;

   Same as footnote 1. (3), P. 97.

13. Same as footnote 1. (1), P. 314;

   Same as footnote 1. (2), P. 136.

14. Same as footnote 2. P. 699.

15. Same as footnote 2. P. 667.

16. Same as footnote 2. P. 672.

17. Same as footnote 2. PP. 673-674.

18. Same as footnote 2. P. 674.

19. Same as footnote 2. PP. 675-677.

20. Same as footnote 2. PP. 668-671.

21. Same as footnote 2. PP.689-693.

22. Same as footnote 2. PP. 700-701.

23. Same as footnote 1. (1), P. 314;

   Same as footnote 1. (2), P. 132.

24. Same as footnote 1. (1), P. 316;

   Same as footnote 1. (2), P. 136.

25. Same as footnote 1. (1), P. 313;

   Same as footnote 1. (2), PP. 134-135.

26. Same as footnote 1. (1), P. 314;

  Same as footnote 1. (2), P. 132.

27.      :Theory of Four Elements : by and large exists within all the Buddhist Sutras. Like :Complexing Agama; mentions: :The venomous snake is similar to Four Elements- earth, water, fire, and wind;. ( :Buddhist Enlightenment Canon. Agama. Complexing Agama I; , P. 435).

28. Same as footnote 1. (1), 307;

   Same as footnote 1. (2), P. 133.