Tendai Practices

The Tendai school is known for a wide variety of practices, handed down from Chih’i, Saicho, Annen and others.  By tradition, the practices currently observed by monks in training on Mt. Hiei in Japan have served as a template for practices in North America.  And while practices have been adapted to meet the changing needs of priests and lay practitioners, they remain essentially unchanged.  A description of several practices follows:



The meditation method, shikan, is based on the teachings of Chih-i and used by Saicho. Shi (shamatha-calming the mind) meditation is the fundamental practice of “just sitting.” Letting thoughts arise and fall away without grasping onto or being swept away by them calms the mind and develops peace and equanimity. Shamatha is practiced during the first period of the meditation service.

Kan (vipashyana-discerning the real) meditation is designed to lead the practitioner to intuitively experience the “true nature” of reality, without judgment, preconception or wishful thinking. Several varieties of vipashyana meditation are noted below:

  • The Five Classic Meditations: These are practiced as antidotes for the various “poisons” including; 1. Following the breath against dispersion; 2. Suffering and Compassion against anger; 3. Ten Decreptitudes (death and decomposition of the body) against desires; 4. Five Elements against conceit; and 5. Dependent Causation against spiritual confusion (ignorance).
  • Contemplations: In these experiences, the meditator is guided to contemplate a particular distinction, a passage of sutra, or some other aspect of doctrine.
  • Guided Visualizations: In this type of meditation the leader guides the meditator through the use of visual imagery. For example, a bodhisattva manifestation such as Avalokitesvara is visualized in order to manifest her qualities.
  • Koan Practice: The koan, a question with no logical answer, is used to frustrate the intellect and allow direct experience to become apparent.
  • Loving-Kindness: Specifically to bring love, good will, kindness and compassion for all sentient beings to overcome division and hatred. This meditation may include contemplation and visualization.
  • Chanting: While not often thought of as “meditation”, chanting sutra or mantra are included to bypass the intellect and allow the content to sink deeply into the meditator’s being.
  • Kinhin: Walking meditation in a slow, deliberate fashion or at a rapid pace brings meditative awareness ‘off the cushion’ and into the world, and serves as a bridge between formal practice in the shikando and the practice of everyday life.


Ritual and Esoteric Practices

Ritual practice involves body, speech and mind, thus opening additional channels for spiritual development. While participating in group ritual, proper comportment becomes a devotional practice, showing respect and gratitude for the opportunity to practice. By moving in harmony with others, a group-mind is developed which eclipses one’s desire for autonomous existence. The chants and recitations contain, express and convey dharma teachings. Most importantly, the practices are consciously performed for the benefit of others and not for one’s own well-being.

Ritual also includes use of mudra (hand-gestures) and mantra (phrases, generally in Sanskrit) that contain the essence of a particular Buddha, Bodhisattva, or dharma practice. By performing these gestures and reciting the phrases, one is imbuing one’s being with those qualities and acts as a conduit for them so they may be experienced by other sentient beings. Again, the underlying intention is that the practice is performed for the benefit of others.

The Daily Liturgy is in itself a complete ritual practice and contains elements common to other rituals a practitioner may learn. It includes Goshimbo (offerings and purification), Samborai (refuge), Sangemon (repentance), Kaikyoge (recited before sutra, study and work practice to express gratitude for the opportunity to hear the dharma and to remind oneself of the rarity of this opportunity), the Heart Sutra (a succinct statement on the nature of shunyata and an expression of the Middle Way), deity visualization, Hogo (a veneration of the lineage whose existence enables us to practice in this way and which we will maintain so that future generations will have the same opportunities we have had) and Soeko (transference of merit).

The Morning Service is one of two daily services. It is an extended repentance practice based on the teachings of the Lotus Sutra and, like all ritual, is performed for the benefit of all sentient beings. In addition to repentance, the Morning Service contains elements of devotion, offerings, and sutra chanting and the use of mudra and mantra.

The Evening Service is the second service performed on a daily basis. It is a veneration of Amitabha and was developed from Pure Land teachings that came from China and were later reified in Japan. Like the Morning Service it, too, contains devotional practices, offering, sutra chanting and use of mudra and mantra.

Other esoteric practices, for ordained, advanced practitioners, include Goma (a fire purification ceremony), meditation of the Taizo-kai (Womb-world) and Kongo-kai (Vajra) Mandalas, and Juhachi-do, the foundational practice that forms the basis for the others.

Devotional Practice

While ritual and esoteric practices contain devotional elements, several practices are explicitly devotional in nature. Additionally, esoteric practices require long periods of concentrated study, typically limiting the number of practitioners who may access them. For example, those practitioners considering taking formal vows as priests will perform 108 prostrations, three times a day, while chanting the appropriate mantra, for the first three years of their attendance at training sessions or until ordination. The prostrations are a veneration of the Buddhist path and a means of expressing gratitude for the opportunity to study and practice. Performed by the group in harmony, the formal prostrations develop a sense of shared experience and community. After ordination, priests may continue this practice if they desire. However, this devotional practice, like many others, may be useful for other practitioner at certain times.

Nembutsu is a Pure Land practice reciting the name of and visualizing Amitabha Buddha while circumambulating in a clock-wise direction. It can lead to experiential wisdom in the non-intellectual realm and is performed by advanced students for the equivalent of a meditation period to realize and manifest Amitabha’s qualities. Western practitioners may find this form of devotional practice unusual and difficult, especially because it requires significant energy and perseverance.

Shomyo practice is devoted to the practice of singing sections of various rituals and services in the formal Japanese style. Many of the sections of the Morning and Evening Rituals have now been translated into English for the shomyo practice. Shomyo is normally performed by priests in Japan. However, this truly moving practice may now be performed by lay people willing to attend a series of workshops and regular rehearsals.

Devotional practices such as prostrations, Nembutsu and shomyo practice develop faith, gratitude and positive emotions. They allow one to set aside the personal self and express appreciation for one’s present condition and the opportunities it provides for transformation. This is true even in those circumstances conventionally seen as negative, leading to a greater ability to maintain equanimity regardless of surrounding conditions.


While the essence of the Dharma must be experienced, there is a wealth of written material covering philosophy, history, the arts, sutra (words of Shakyamuni Buddha and important disciples) study, commentary, scholarly research, and rules of conduct. We are the beneficiaries of 2,500 years of Buddha Dharma, 1,500 years of T’ien-t’ai and 1,200 years of Tendai Buddhism. The writings of past masters and present scholars summarize this experience and make it available to us. Study prepares the ground for practice in a Western context where, unlike students in Asia, we often ask our teachers, “Why?” or “How come?” or “What does this mean?” Study and questioning support and provide deeper understanding of Tendai practices, meditation and ritual.


The kaihoyo is a full-day event, walking meditation through the country-side, for a distance of about 17 miles. Kaihogyo practice too, is based upon Chih-i’s method of samadhi while constantly walking and follows the similar practice held on Mt. Hiei. Meditation in motion out-of-doors offers fertile ground for myriad contemplations and includes esoteric practice, devotion and veneration of nature. It is also a pilgrimage and practitioners discover sacred spots and often stop for the recitation of mantra and the visualization of deities.

Body Practice

Body practice is incorporated into the other practices such as Nembutsu and is done while walking, doing prostrations while chanting, and kaihogyo. The body, along with the faculties of speech and mind is yet another channel by which to experience and manifest the dharma. By engaging all three simultaneously, the effect is synergistic, each reinforcing the other. Practitioners often find that one channel seems more beneficial than another, but practicing all three simultaneously will yield a balanced development.

Work Practice

Cleaning bathrooms, sweeping floors, cleaning the Shikando and butsudan, grounds-work or any other daily task may be seen as work practice if accomplished in a mindful way. Accomplishing the task itself is a secondary benefit. A practitioner must be present in the work task, noticing when the mind travels elsewhere, when emotions arise and, when these things occur, must return awareness to the activity at hand. Paying attention to what is actually being done trains the mind to be in the ‘here and now’ and develops equanimity which transforms the hindrances of the mind into their corresponding wisdoms.

Other Practices

In general, the Tendai practitioner follows the Eight-fold Path, the Six Paramitas and is engaged in a variety of community projects to relieve the suffering of sentient beings. A Tendai practitioner keeps the Five Precepts, striving to live a healthy lifestyle, to do no harm and to live in harmony with the environment.