What is Tendai?

The Tendai School 天台宗

  • Chinese: Tiantai Zong
  • Korean: Cheontae Jong
  • Japanese: Tendai Shu
  • Vietnamese: Thien thai tong

The word “Tendai,” is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese term “Tiantai.” Tiantai is the name of a mountain range in eastern China where the “Tiantai School” of Chinese Buddhism first developed in the 6th century. The Chinese Tiantai School was one of the first and most influential East Asian Buddhist lineages to synthesize the diversity of Indian and Chinese Buddhist practices and teachings. Tiantai lineages eventually spread to Korea (where it is known as Cheontae), Vietnam (where it is called Thien thai), and finally Japan, where it is known as Tendai.

Tendai Buddhism blends together Indian and Chinese philosophical and religious ideas. Drawing upon the thought of the Indian Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna (c. 150-250 CE) and the concept of shunyata, Tendai Buddhism was founded by Zhiyi (538-597 CE), a Chinese scholar-monk and meditator who lived in the Tiantai mountains in China, and transmitted to Japan by a monk named Saichō (767-822 CE), who founded Enryakuji Temple on Mt. Hiei, Japan.

Tendai Buddhism teaches a balanced approach to the study and practice of Buddhism. Core ideas include:

  • Eka-yana: “One Vehicle”
    • Tendai Buddhists seek to understand the inherent unity within the diversity of Buddhist traditions. To study Tendai is to study Buddhism as a whole, while also finding an approach to study and practice that works best for you.
  • Ichinen sanzen: “Three thousand worlds in One Thought Moment”
    • Tendai Buddhists seek to understand the interconnectedness of all things
  • Tathāgata-garbha: “Buddha Nature”
    • Tendai Buddhist thought and practice is rooted in the notion that all beings possess the infinite potential to discover the truth together.

Tendai Buddhism also takes a comprehensive approach to the study and practice of Buddhism. Tendai Buddhism incorporates insights from Indian and Chinese philosophical traditions, the study of the Lotus Sutra and other Buddhist texts, meditation traditions like Zen as well as Calming and Insight Meditation (shamata-vipashyanna)Pure Land and Tantric practices. Thus, in consultation with a teacher, one’s own personal practice may be customized to fit your needs as an individual.

The Buddhist traditions of China, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam have thoroughly integrated the teachings of Tendai Buddhism across lineages and traditions, and Tendai revivals are currently underway in China and Korea. In Japan, Tendai developed into a distinct school that profoundly impacted and influenced Japanese art, history, literature, philosophy and religion. The largest schools of Japanese Buddhism today (Zen, Pure Land, and Nichiren) were all founded by Tendai Buddhist monks. Therefore, Tendai teachings remain influential across Japanese traditions as well.

We invite you to “light up your corner” of the world by learning about Buddhism through the study of Tendai.