Tiantai School of Buddhism in China


The school of Tiantai Buddhism is largely based on the teachings of Zhiyi, Zhanran, and Zhili, who lived between the 6th and 11th centuries in China. These teachers took an approach called “classification of teaching” in an attempt to harmonize the numerous and often contradictory Buddhist texts that had come into China. This was achieved through a particular interpretation of the Lotus Sūtra.

Unlike earlier schools of Chinese Buddhism, the Tiantai school was entirely of Chinese origin. The schools of Buddhism that had existed in China prior to the emergence of the Tiantai are generally believed to represent direct transplantations from India, with little modification to their basic doctrines and methods. However, Tiantai grew and flourished as a natively Chinese Buddhist school under the 4th patriarch, Zhiyi, who developed a hierarchy of Buddhist sutras that asserted the Lotus Sutra as the supreme teaching, as well as a system of meditation and practices around it.

Born with the surname Chen (陳) in Huarong District, Jing Prefecture (荊州華容), Zhiyi left home to become a monk at eighteen, after the loss of his parents and his hometown Jiangling that fell to the Western Wei army when Zhiyi was seventeen. At 23, he received his most important influences from his first teacher, Nanyue Huisi (慧思) (515–577 CE), a meditation master who would later be listed as Zhiyi’s predecessor in the Tiantai lineage. After a period of study with Huisi (560-567), he spent some time working in the southern capital of Jiankang (建康). Then in 575 he went to Tiantai mountain for intensive study and practice with a group of disciples.

Zhiyi focused a lot on the study of the Lotus Sutra.

The Lotus Sūtra (literally “Sūtra on the White Lotus of the Sublime Dharma”) is one of the most popular and influential Mahayana sutras. The Lotus Sūtra is significant because it reveals that women, evil people and even animals have the potential to become Buddhas.

This Lotus Sūtra is known for its extensive instruction on the concept and usage of skillful means, the seventh paramita or perfection of a Bodhisattva – mostly in the form of parables.

The sutra emphasizes that all these seemingly different teachings are actually just skillful applications of the one Dharma and thus all constitute the “One Buddha Vehicle and knowledge of all modes”.

Zhiyi was the student of Nanyue Huisi who was the leading authority of his time on the Lotus Sūtra. Zhiyi’s philosophical synthesis saw the Lotus Sūtra as the final teaching of the Buddha and the highest teaching of Buddhism. He wrote two commentaries on the sutra: Profound meanings of the Lotus Sūtra and Words and phrases of the Lotus Sūtra. Zhiyi also linked the teachings of the Lotus Sūtra with the Buddha nature teachings of the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra and made a distinction between the “Eternal Buddha” Vairocana and the manifestations.

Zhiyi developed a curriculum of practice which was distilled into the ‘Four Samadhis’ (四種三昧). These Four Samadhi were expounded in Zhiyi’s ‘Mohe Zhiguan’ (摩訶止観).

The “Samadhi of One Practice” (一行三昧) which is also known as the “samadhi of oneness” or the “calmness in which one realizes that all dharmas are the same”, is one of the Four Samadhi that both refine, mark the passage to, and qualify the state of perfect enlightenment expounded in the Mohe Zhiguan. The term “Samadhi of Oneness” was subsequently used by Daoxin.

The Four Samadhis:

  • ‘Samadhi of Constant Sitting’ (常坐三昧) or ‘One Round Samadhi’ (一行三昧);
  • ‘Pratyutpanna-samadhi’ (般舟三昧) or ‘Prolonged Samadhi’ or ‘Samadhi of Constant Walking’ (常行三昧);
  • ‘Samadhi of Half Walking and Half Sitting’ (半行半坐三昧)
  • ‘Samadhi at Free Will’ (隨自意三昧) or ‘Samadhi of Non-walking and Non-sitting’ (非行非坐三昧).

In order to provide a comprehensive framework for Buddhist doctrine, Zhiyi classified the various Buddhist sutras into the Five Periods and Eight Teachings (五时八教). According to Zhiyi, the five periods of the Buddha’s teachings were as follows:

  1. The Flower Garland period – taught immediately after the Buddha attained Enlightenment, lasting 3 weeks. The teachings at this time were incomprehensible to all but advanced bodhisattvas, and thus Shakyamuni Buddha started over with more basic (the Agama) teachings.
  2. The Agama Period – taught at Deer Park, and lasting 12 years. These consisted of the most elementary teachings of the Buddha including karma, rebirth, the Four Noble Truths, etc.
  3. The Correct and Equal Period – lasting 8 years. This marks the Buddha’s teachings that begin to transition from so-called “Hinayana” teachings to Mahayana ones.
  4. The Wisdom Period – lasting 22 years. The teachings here consist of the Perfection of Wisdom teachings among others. Here, the teachings were intended to demonstrate that the classifications of Hinayana and Mahayana were expedient only, and that were ultimately empty.
  5. The Lotus and Nirvana Period – lasting 8 years. The teachings of this final period mark the most “perfect” teachings, namely the Lotus Sutra and the Mahayana Nirvana Sutra, which encompass the Buddha’s original intention.

These were compared in order to the five stages of milk: fresh milk, cream, curds, butter and ghee (clarified butter).

Further. the teachings of the Buddha were organized into four types based on the capacity of listener:

  • Sudden teachings
  • Gradual teachings
  • Indeterminate teachings
  • Secret or “esoteric” teachings.

and four types of sources:

  • Hinayana
  • Mahayana
  • Teachings found in both
  • Teachings that transcend both (e.g. Lotus Sutra)

Together these were the Eight Teachings of the Buddha attributed to Zhiyi.

During the Tang dynasty, the Tiantai school became one of the leading schools of Chinese Buddhism, with numerous large temples supported by emperors and wealthy patrons, with many thousands of monks and millions of followers.

According to Charles Luk, in China it has been traditionally held that the meditation methods of the Tiantai are the most systematic and comprehensive of all. Tiantai emphasizes śamatha and vipaśyanā meditation.

Edited from Wikipedia


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