Tiantai or T'ien-t'ai (Chinese: 天台; pinyin: PRC Standard Mandarin: Tiāntāi, ROC Standard Mandarin: Tiāntái) is a school of Buddhism in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam that reveres the Lotus Sutra as the highest teaching in Buddhism. In Japan the school is known as Tendai, in Korea as Cheontae, and in Vietnam as Thiên thai.
The name is derived from the fact that Zhiyi (538–597 CE), the fourth patriarch, lived on Tiantai Mountain. Zhiyi is also regarded as the first major figure to make a significant break from the Indian tradition, to form an indigenous Chinese system. Tiantai is sometimes also called "The Lotus School", after the central role of the Lotus Sutra in its teachings.
During the Sui dynasty, the Tiantai school became one of the leading schools of Chinese Buddhism, with numerous large temples supported by emperors and wealthy patrons. The school's influence waned and was revived again through the Tang dynasty and also rose again during the Song dynasty. Its doctrine and practices had an influence on Chinese Chan and Pure land Buddhism.
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 native Chinese Buddhist school under the 4th patriarch, Zhiyi, who developed an original and extensive Chinese Buddhist system of doctrine and practice through his many treatises and commentaries.
Over time, the Tiantai school became doctrinally broad, able to absorb and give rise to other movements within Buddhism, though without any formal structure. The tradition emphasized both scriptural study and meditative practice, and taught the rapid attainment of Buddhahood through observing the mind.
The school 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 teachings" (jiaopan) 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.
The sixth century dhyāna master Huiwen (Chinese: 慧文) is traditionally considered to be the second patriarch of the Tiantai school. Huiwen studied the works of Nāgārjuna, and is said to have awakened to the profound meaning of Nāgārjuna's words: "All conditioned phenomena I speak of as empty, and are but false names which also indicate the mean."
Huiwen later transmitted his teachings to Chan master Nanyue Huisi (Chinese: 南嶽慧思, 515-577), who is traditionally figured as the third patriarch. During meditation, he is said to have realized the "Lotus Samādhi", indicating enlightenment and Buddhahood. He authored the Mahāyāna-śamatha-vipaśyanā. Huisi then transmitted his teachings to Zhiyi (Chinese: 智顗, 538-597), traditionally figured as the fourth patriarch of Tiantai, who is said to have practiced the Lotus Samādhi and to have become enlightened quickly. He authored many treatises such as explanations of the Buddhist texts, and especially systematic manuals of various lengths which explain and enumerate methods of Buddhist practice and meditation. The above lineage was proposed by Buddhists of later times and do not reflect the popularity of the monks at that time.
Scholars such as Paul Loren Swanson consider Zhiyi (Chinese: 智顗, 538–597 CE) to have been the major founder of the Tiantai school as well as one of the greatest Chinese Buddhist philosophers. He was the first to systematize and popularize the complex synthesis of Tiantai doctrine as an original Chinese tradition.
Zhiyi analyzed and organized all the Āgamas and Mahayana sutras into a system of five periods and eight types of teachings. For example, many elementary doctrines and bridging concepts had been taught early in the Buddha's advent when the vast majority of the people during his time were not yet ready to grasp the 'ultimate truth'. These Āgamas were an upaya, or skillful means - an example of the Buddha employing his boundless wisdom to lead those people towards the truth. Subsequent teachings delivered to more advanced followers thus represent a more complete and accurate picture of the Buddha's teachings, and did away with some of the philosophical 'crutches' introduced earlier. Zhiyi's classification culminated with the Lotus Sutra, which he held to be the supreme synthesis of Buddhist doctrine. The difference on Zhiyi's explanation to the Golden Light Sutra caused a debate during the Song dynasty.
Zhiyi's Tiantai school received much imperial support during the Sui dynasty, because of this, it was the largest Buddhist school at the beginning of the Tang and thus suffered because of its close relationship with the house of Sui.
After Zhiyi, Tiantai was eclipsed for a time by newer schools such as the East Asian Yogācāra (Fǎxiàng-zōng), and Huayan schools, until the 6th patriarch Jingxi Zhanran (711-782) revived the school and defended its doctrine against rival schools such as the Huayen and Faxiang. The debates between the Faxiang school and the Tiantai school concerning the notion of universal Buddhahood were particularly heated, with the Faxiang school asserting that different beings had different natures and therefore would reach different states of enlightenment, while the Tiantai school argued in favor of the Lotus Sutra teaching of Buddhahood for all beings. Zhanran's view of Buddha nature was expanded in his Jingangpi or "Diamond Scalpel," which is the 'locus classicus' of the doctrine of "the Buddha-nature of Insentient Beings." According to Shuman Chen, Zhanran:
provides his rationale primarily from the perspective of the all-pervasive quality of Buddha-nature, which he considers synonymous with suchness. This rationale indicates that external tangible objects like water, buildings, and flora, formless sounds and smells, and internal thoughts or ideas all possess Buddha-nature. This is because Sakyamuni Buddha and any other Buddha’s meritorious qualities in their practice leading to enlightenment and in the resultant realization do not reject anything, instead embracing all. In the Tiantai terminology, the Buddha and all beings mutually include, inter-pervade, and are identical to each other.
After Zhanran, Tiantai declined once again. Brook Ziporyn writes that this period has been seen as the second dark age of Tiantai, a state of crisis "extending from the Tang into the Five Dynasties and Northern Song, an age marked internally by the deterioration of distinctive Tiantai ideas and marked externally by the loss of crucial texts and monastic institutions, especially after the persecution of 845 (a period that saw the increased influence of Chan)."
During this period, Huayan and Chan influences made strong inroads into Tiantai thought. Zhanran's disciple and seventh patriarch Daosui, and syncretic figures such as Zhi Yuan (768-844) and Daochang Ningfen all combined Tiantai with Chan ideas (particularly of the Heze school). Daosui (Chinese: 道邃; pinyin: Dàosuì), is important because he was the primary teacher of Saichō, the founder of the Japanese Tiantai tradition (known in Japanese as Tendai). Other Tiantai syncretists include Deshao (881-972) who was associated with the Fayen branch of Chan and his student Yongming Yenshou (954-974) who attempted to unify Tiantai, Huayen and Yogacara teachings under a kind of idealism influenced by Zongmi, emphasizing what he called the "one pure formless mind".
This situation led to the famous debate within the Tiantai school known as the "home mountain" (shanjia) vs. "off mountain" (shanwai) debate. "Off mountain" supporters, as they were later polemically termed, supported these new doctrines (such as the "one pure mind") claiming they were originally Tiantai doctrines, while "home mountain" supporters saw the original Tiantai view as different and superior to this new view influenced by Chan and Huayan doctrines (especially by Zongmi's works). The most eminent figure during this debate was Patriarch Siming Zhili (960-1028), who wrote various commentaries on Zhiyi's works and defended the "Home mountain" view. Zhili's major criticisms included attacking Chan's failure to understand the necessity of the use of words and scriptural study as part of practice as well as criticizing Zongmi's view of a pure mind as the buddha-nature, arguing instead that the "three truths" as taught by Zhiyi are the ultimate reality. For Zhili, mind or consciousness has no special status relative to other types of dharmas, such as physical matter.
Over time, Zhili's "home mountain" view turned out to be victorious, and his works became part of the orthodox Tiantai canon during the Song dynasty. Ciyun Zunshi (964-1032) was another important figure in this second Tiantai revival. His work focused on the promotion of rituals for lay Buddhists and worked on converting the populace away from using blood, meat and alcohol for funerary and ancestral rites. Ciyi also promoted the practice of adopting local Chinese deities and spirits into the Buddhist religion as "vassals" or "retainers" and strongly promoted repentance rituals.
These two figures were also associated with the popularization of Pure Land practices through the foundation of lay societies (lotus societies, lianshe). Tiantai monk Mao Ziyuan (1096?-1166) took this one step further by establishing what became known as the "White Lotus Society" which allowed both men and women to attend together and even to preach and be in charge of society repentance halls as married clergy.
Due to the efforts of these major Tiantai figures, the school became one of the dominant forms of Buddhism during the Song, alongside of Chan.
The defeat of the Song dynasty was a serious blow to Tiantai which suffered another setback during the Yuan dynasty which supported Tibetan Buddhism, while Chan Buddhism continued to grow in popularity while attacking the legitimacy of other schools. This period saw the Tiantai figure Huxi Huaize (fl. 1310) write his polemical treatise Record of Tiantai’s Transmission of the Buddha’s Mind-seal as an effort to defend the Tiantai tradition against Chan critiques.
The Ming Dynasty saw further religious revivals among the major Chinese Buddhist schools, including Tiantai, particularly under the reign of the Buddhist friendly Wanli Emperor. One of the main figures of the Ming Tiantai Buddhist revival is Miaofeng Zhenjue (1537-1589), who lectured widely and whose students revived ancestral Tiantai monasteries such as Gaoming and Ayuwang. Youxi Chuandeng (1554-1628), a student of Miaofeng, was also another important figure who wrote a work entitled "On Nature Including Good and Evil" which presents his ideas on doctrinal classification, the principle of nature-inclusion, and the practice of the Dharma-gate of inherent evil attempting to harmonize these with Confucianism and the thought of the Śūraṃgama Sūtra. Chuandeng was also instrumental in rebuilding Gaoming monastery which had been abandoned by this time.
Tianxi Shoudeng (1607-1675) was one of the most influential teachers and exegetes of Tiantai during the Qing Dynasty.
The Tiantai school takes the Lotus Sūtra (Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra) as the main basis, the Mahāprajñāpāramitāupadeśa of Nāgārjuna as the guide, the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra as the support, and the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (The Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra in 25,000 Lines) for methods of contemplation. The Pusa yingluo benye jing (T. 24, No. 1485) is also a key text. Tiantai is often termed the ‘Four Sutras One Treatise School’ (四経一論) because of the strong influence of these texts on the tradition.
In addition to its doctrinal basis in Indian Buddhist texts, the Tiantai school also created its own meditation texts which emphasize the principles of śamatha and vipaśyanā. Of the Tiantai meditation treatises, Zhiyi's Concise Śamatha-vipaśyanā (小止観), Mahā-śamatha-vipaśyanā (摩訶止観), and Six Subtle Dharma Gates (六妙法門) are the most widely read in China. Rujun Wu identifies the work Mohe Zhiguan of Zhiyi as the seminal meditation text of the Tiantai school.
The Major Tiantai treatises studied in the tradition are the following works of Zhiyi:
Tiantai classified the Buddha's teachings in Five Periods and Eight Teachings. This classification is usually attributed to Zhiyi, but is probably a later development. The classification of teachings was also done by other schools, such as the Fivefold Classification of the Huayan school.
David Chappell lists the most important teachings as the doctrines of:
The Tiantai school took up the principle of The Threefold Truth, derived from Nāgārjuna:
The transient world of phenomena is thus seen as one with the unchanging, undifferentiated substratum of existence. This doctrine of interpenetration is reflected in the Tiantai teaching of three thousand realms in a single moment of thought.
While the Three Truths are essentially one, they may be recognized separately as one undertakes the Three Contemplations:
The Three Contemplations and Threefold Truth in turn form the basis of the Fourfold Teachings, making them "parallel structures".
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.
Regarding the functions of śamatha and vipaśyanā in meditation, Zhiyi writes in his work Concise Śamatha-vipaśyanā:
The attainment of Nirvāṇa is realizable by many methods whose essentials do not go beyond the practice of śamatha and vipaśyanā. Śamatha is the first step to untie all bonds and vipaśyanā is essential to root out delusion. Śamatha provides nourishment for the preservation of the knowing mind, and vipaśyanā is the skillful art of promoting spiritual understanding. Śamatha is the unsurpassed cause of samādhi, while vipaśyanā begets wisdom.
In Zhiyi's magnum opus, the "Great Samatha-Vipasyana", he outlined his meditation system as consisting of 25 preparatory practices, four kinds of samadhi and ten modes of contemplation. Zhiyi saw the four samadhis as the main pillar of Tiantai meditation practice. Zhiyi writes:
Now if you wish to ascend to the stage of wondrous realization, you will not be able to reach it unless you practice. But if you become skilled at stirring and agitating [the raw milk], then the essence of ghee may be obtained. The Lotus Sutra says, "I also see the sons of Buddha cultivating all manner of practices in order to seek the path to Buddhahood." There are many methods of practice, but we may summarize them under four sorts: (I) constantly sitting, (2) constantly walking, (3) part walking part sitting, and (4) neither walking nor sitting. By referring to them collectively as "samadhis," we mean [that one thereby] attunes, rectifies, and stabilizes [the mind]. The Ta-[chih-tu]lun ("Great [Perfection of Wisdom] Treatise") says, "Skillfully to fix the mind on one spot and abide there without shifting-that is called samadhi."" The Dharmadhatu is a "single spot," and through true discernment you can abide there and never stray from it. These four types of activity constitute the supporting condition [for meditation]. By discerning the mind and resorting to the supporting condition [of the four activities], one attunes and rectifies [the mind]. For this reason we call them samadhis."
The Tiantai school also places a great emphasis on Mindfulness of Breathing (Skt. ānāpānasmṛti) in accordance with the principles of śamatha and vipaśyanā. Zhiyi classifies breathing into four main categories: Panting (喘), Unhurried breathing (風), Deep and quiet breathing (氣), and Stillness or rest (息). Zhiyi holds that the first three kinds of breathing are incorrect, while the fourth is correct, and that the breathing should reach stillness and rest.
David Chappell writes that although the Tiantai school, "has the reputation of being...the most comprehensive and diversified school of Chinese Buddhism, it is almost unknown in the West" despite having a "religious framework that seemed suited to adapt to other cultures, to evolve new practices, and to universalize Buddhism". He attributes this failure of expansion to the school having "narrowed its practice to a small number of rituals" and because it has "neglected the intellectual breadth and subtlety of its founder".