Chinese Foundations

Tendai in China: The Tiantai School

Quoqingsi Temple, Mt. Tiantai, Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Beginning around the first century CE, Indian and Central Asian Buddhist texts and lineages began to flow into China. Buddhism spread throughout South Asia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia NOT through conquest or forced conversion, but through intercultural dialogue. With Buddhist cultural diversity came an explosion of new approaches to the Dharma. New traditions, new texts, new teachings, and new practices spread throughout Asia.

It was Mahayana Buddhism that most caught the attention of Chinese Buddhists. The diversity of Mahayana Buddhism, however, posed something of an obstacle. There are hundreds of sutras that sometimes contain radically different teachings. Which ones were correct? How did they fit together? Did they fit together? To answer these questions, Chinese Buddhist thinkers developed doctrinal classification systems (panjiao) and new theories of Buddhist study and practice.

Zhiyi 智顗 (538–597) of Mt. Tiantai

Zhiyi, the founder of the Chinese Tiantai School, Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Zhiyi 智顗 (538–597) of Mt. Tiantai was one of the first and most influential scholar-monks in the history of East Asian Buddhism. Today he is regarded as the founder of the Tiantai School of Chinese Buddhism, the parent tradition of the Japanese Tendai School. Zhiyi’s thought also greatly impacted East Asian traditions like Huayan, Chan, Pure Land, and Esoteric Buddhism.  Study and Practice: The Two Wings of the Buddha-Dharma Central to Zhiyi’s thought is the notion that meditation and study form the two wings of one’s practice of the Buddha-dharma. If one becomes unbalanced, you will not fly straight. In his day there were some meditation masters who focused exclusively upon meditation and neglected the study of the Buddhist scriptures. Similarly, there were some scholar-monks who were merely Buddhist bookworms who neglected to put into practice what they had learned. Zhiyi practiced what he preached, and during his lifetime he was a widely respected scholar, teacher, and meditation master.    

Mohezhiguan 摩訶止觀

Mohezhiguan 摩訶止觀 Zhiyi’s systematic approach to Buddhism is contained in his work the Mohe zhiguan, which has recently been translated into English: Clear Serenity, Quiet Insight: T’ien-t’ai Chih-i’s Mo-ho chih-kuan, 3-Volume Set, Paul Swanson, trans. The Mohe zhiguan is named for the two forms of meditation central to both Mahayana and non-Mahayana Buddhist traditions: Shamatha and Vipashyana (zhiguan).

Shamatha (zhi)

The mind is sometimes compared to a bowl of water. The water in this bowl is murky, and the water is being jostled around. If, however, one were to set the bowl down in a quiet place, and let it sit peacefully, then eventually the ripples would disappear, and the silt would settle to the bottom, leaving behind crystal clear water. Shamatha (pronounced: “sha-ma-ta”) refers to the cultivation and calming of the mind. The Chinese character zhi can actually mean “stop.” This “stopping” leads to clarity and peace, and allows the naturally luminescent quality of one’s very own mind (your “Buddha nature”) to shine through. Shamatha meditation is sometimes described as “calm-abiding.”

Vipashyana (guan)

Once one has honed their mind’s ability to reach a state of “calm abiding,” or attentive stillness, then one is able to engage in contemplative or analytical meditation. Vipashyana refers to contemplation or analysis of reality, and the attainment of insight and wisdom into the nature of reality. (For more: Basic Buddhist Teachings and Basic Buddhist practices)

Four-fold Samādhi (si-zhong sanmei 四種三昧)

The Four-fold Samādhi is one of the foundational approaches to meditation devised by Zhiyi in the Mohezhiguan. Four 90-day periods of constant practice: 1) 90 days, Constant Sitting Samādhi 常坐三昧 2) 90 days, Constant Walking Samādhi 常行三昧 3) 90 days, Half-Walking and Half-Sitting Samādhi 半行半坐三昧 4) 90 days, Neither Walking nor Sitting Samādhi 非行非坐三昧 Zhiyi drew upon the Pratyutpanna Samādhi Sutra (Banzhou sanmei jing 般舟三昧經) in developing this meditation practice. In the Pratyutpanna Samādhi Sutra, the Buddha recommends both the contemplation of the Buddha Amitābha, and the recitation of his name. Zhiyi also recommended contemplation of this Amitābha, thus influencing the development of Pure Land Buddhism throughout the history of East Asia.

Resources for Further Study

For a more thorough explanation of Tiantai meditation practice, please consult your local Tendai sangha leader and read the following books:

However, the Mohe zhiguan is not merely a guide to meditation, but rather consists of a comprehensive introduction to Buddhism and Zhiyi’s approach to Buddhist thought and practice more broadly.

The One Vehicle (eka-yāna; yisheng 一乘) and Buddha Nature (tathāgata-garbha; rulai zang 如來藏)

Zhiyi argued that the Lotus Sutra (Saddharma-puṇḍarīka-sūtra; Miaofa lianhua jing 妙法蓮華經 ) and the Nirvana Sutra (Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa sutra; Da banniepan jing 大般涅槃經) together constituted the ultimate teachings of the Buddha. The Lotus Sutra promotes a universalistic view of Buddhism, arguing that all paths ultimately converge on the same path. This all-inclusive path is called the Eka-yana, “One Vehicle,” a synonym for the Mahayana. Behind the diversity of the many Buddhist paths, there is a unity that binds them. The Nirvana Sutra and Lotus Sutra both promote the idea that all beings have the potential to attain Buddhahood. These two teachings, the unity of the vast Buddha-dharma and the inherent capacity for all beings to attain awakening form the basis for later Chinese Tiantai and Japanese Tendai Buddhism.

Three Truths (san-di 三諦)

Chinese Tiantai was highly influenced by the Indian school of Buddhist philosophy known as Madhyamaka. Madhyamaka thinkers look to Nagarjuna as their founder. Nagarjuna taught that all things are Shunyata, or lacking an inherent unchanging essence. This “ultimate reality” is somewhat at odds with our “conventional reality.” We tend to see the world as we want to see it, not as it truly is. The point of Buddhist practice is see the world as it truly is. For Mahayana Buddhists, influenced by Nagarjuna, we aspire to see the Shunyata in our ordinary “conventional” reality.  Nāgārjuna famously said, “for whom Shunyata is possible, all things are possible.” In other words, when you see things as fixed and rigid (“conventional” reality), there is no hope for change. However, when you see things as they truly are, constantly changing and fluid (Shunyata), then anything is possible. The Bodhisattva (enlightening being) perceives this reality, and is therefore free from fear and pain. Chinese Tiantai Buddhist thinkers elaborated on this “Two Truths” view of reality, and posited that there were three truths:

  1. The Truth of Shunyata (kongdi 空諦)
  2. The Truth Conventional Reality (jiadi 假諦)
  3. The Truth of the Middle (zongdi 中諦)

The third truth, the “middle,” signifies the ability to abide in two worlds simultaneously: to function on the level of conventional reality and yet perceive ultimate reality. In other words, both conventional reality and ultimate reality have a kind of reality from different perspectives. The Bodhisattva knows how to put these two views together to more effectively alleviate suffering in the world.

To See the Three Thousand Worlds in a Single Thought Moment (yi-nian san-qian 一念三千)

Zhiyi and later Tiantai scholars argued that microcosm and macrocosm are connected. Past, present, and future, and every aspect of reality, all things in existence are interconnected. In other words, the whole is in the part and the part is the whole. In a single moment of thought, all aspects of reality are present. Nothing exists by itself but all things are dependent upon and connected with each other. Even in the ordinary mind, even a single thought, contains the whole of the universe (or “multi-verse” in the case of Mahayana Buddhism).

Five Times and Eight Teachings (wushi bajiao 五時八教)

One of the hallmarks of Zhiyi’s teachings is a comprehensive approach to Buddhism. This comprehensive framework, upon which Zhiyi’s disciples and interpreters elaborated, divides the whole of the Buddha-dharma into “five times and eight teachings.” The Buddha is commonly compared to a doctor who dispensed remedies as appropriate for particular afflictions. For spiritualists the Buddha taught the doctrine of “no-self,” while to the materialists he taught the doctrine of “Buddha nature.” In other words, the truth and even the meaning of a teaching is dependent upon context and audience. Zhiyi developed a comprehensive system encompassing the Mahayana and non-Mahayana teachings delivered by the Buddha throughout his lifetime. Zhiyi organized the teachings into “five times” and “eight teachings.” The five times refers to five time periods in the Buddha’s life during which, Zhiyi believed, the Buddha delivered particular teachings. The eight teachings refers to the differing ways the Buddha taught and the different ways disciples understood the content. For a more detailed overview of the five times and eight teachings, as well as other aspects of Tiantai and Tendai Buddhist thought, see the following resources:

Below is a short summary of the Five Times and Eight Teachings framework with links to available English language resources for further study:

The Five Times 五時

1. Avataṃsaka 華嚴 Period

Following his awakening under the Bodhi tree (Life of Buddha), the Buddha preached what came to be known as the Avataṃsaka-sūtra (Huayan-jing 華嚴經, “Flower Ornament Sutra”) for 21 days. This teaching was intended for Bodhisattvas of very high attainment, as it presents a complex interconnected view of the universe and the path to awakening.

2. Deer Park 鹿苑 / “Āgama” 阿含 Period

Realizing that the complexity of the “big picture” as presented in the Avatamsaka would be too much for most people, the Buddha spent 12 years explaining some of the basic insights he had gained, using his skills in upaya, or skillful means. These teachings took place at Deer Park, and were collected in the Āgamas (which roughly correspond to the Nikayas of the Pali Canon of the Theravada tradition).  

3. Expansive Teachings Period 方等時

Next, for eight years the Buddha began to introduce the “expansive” (vaipulya) Mahayana teachings. Some of the sutras taught during this period include, but are not limited to, the following:

4. Perfection of Wisdom Period 般若時

Having introduced some of his disciples to the profound teachings of the Mahayana, the Buddha went on to expound “perfection of wisdom” (prajñāpāramitā) for the next twenty-two years. The texts in this division are focused primarily on outlining the Bodhisattva Path and Shunyata (Section in Mahayana Basics)

5. The Lotus and Nirvāṇa Period 法華涅槃時

Lotus Sutra presents the idea that all paths fit together and ultimately lead to Buddhahood. The Nirvana Sutra presents the notion that all beings possess as their fundamental nature Buddhahood. Zhiyi suggested that taken together, the Lotus Sutra and the Nirvana Sutra constitute the pinnacle of the Buddha’s teachings. Zhiyi believed that these teachings were delivered by the Buddha toward the end of his life. Historically the Tiantai tradition has placed somewhat more emphasis on the Lotus Sutra. Popular English Language Translations of the Lotus Sutra

Introductions to the Lotus Sutra

Popular Nirvana Sutra Translations

The Eight Teachings 八教

Just as the teachings of the Buddha may be organized chronologically, so too may they be organized according to the ways the Buddha accommodated the teachings to the specific needs of his audiences, and the differing approaches the Buddha used to teach different groups of people. Taken together, these constitute what are known as the Eight Teachings:

Four Approaches to Teaching 化儀四教 (huayi sijiao)

  1. Sudden Teaching 頓教: This teaching corresponds to the Avataṃsaka-sūtra, which Zhiyi believed to have been taught by the Buddha immediately (or “suddenly”) upon the attainment of awakening to Bodhisattvas of the highest capacities.
  2. Gradual Teaching 漸教: This teaching includes the gradual revelation of the teachings, progressing from non-Mahayana teachings (the “Deer Park Period”) to the full Mahayana teachings (“Perfection of Wisdom Period”).
  3. Indeterminate Teaching 不定教: The Buddha teaches beings according to their individual capacities. Though beings may hear the same teaching, they derive from that teaching different truths depending on their karmic inclination. This does not refer to a specific set of scripture, but rather serves as a recognition of how beings encounter the Dharma. The teaching is not set in stone, but subjective, or “indeterminate.”
  4. Secret Teachings 祕密教: The so-called secret teachings are also referred to as the “secret indeterminate teaching.” Beings may hear the same teaching, but they comprehend the teaching differently. Because beings are unaware of these subjective differences, some of these indeterminate teachings tare called secret teachings.

Four Ways of Accommodating the Teachings 化法四教

  1. Tripiṭaka Teachings 三藏教: These are the teachings given for the benefit of those who are not yet studying the Mahayana teachings. These include the “Deer Park” period teachings listed above.
  2. Shared Teachings 通教: These are the teachings that are taught for both Mahayana and non-Mahayana Buddhists.
  3. Distinct Teaching 別教: These are the teachings that are designed to speak directly to students of the Mahayana teachings.
  4. Perfect Teachings 圓教: These include teachings of the Lotus Sutra, and other Mahayana sutras to greater or lesser degrees.

Guanding 灌頂 (561–632) and the Tiantai School


Following Zhiyi’s remarkable career, his disciples systematized and promoted his comprehensive approach to the study and practice of Buddhism. It should be remembered that Zhiyi likely did not regard himself as a member of something called “the Tiantai School.” The idea of a Tiantai School was constructed over time by later generations of thinkers who saw themselves as members of Zhiyi’s lineage. Guanding 灌頂 (561–632) was Zhiyi’s close disciple. Most of what we know about Zhiyi comes from documents written by Guanding, and many of Zhiyi’s major works were actually compiled and edited from Guanding’s notes taken during Zhiyi’s many lectures. For more information on Guanding’s foundational role in the creation of the idea of the Tiantai lineage, see: Linda Penkower, “In the Beginning … Guanding 灌顶 (561-632) and the Creation of Early Tiantai”