Tendai Buddhism
Chinese Roots/Japanese Branches


Zhiyi (538-597)
Founder of Tiantai Buddhism
The other great Heian school, Tendai, takes its name from the Chinese Tiantai, after the mountain upholding its principle center. Its great Chinese exponents were Zhiyi (538-97) and Zhanran (711-82), whose writings reached Japan in the eighth century. There they so impressed the young Japanese monk Saicho (767-822) that he traveled to China to study further on the monastic mountain. On his return in 805, Saicho became the effective founder of Tendai as a Japanese denomination with imperial patronage, though the court seems to have been more interested in his performance of esoteric rites — even if he could not equal Kukai and Shingon in this regard — than in his philosophical teaching. ... Tendai offers a very expansive Mahayana vision. It affirms the deep unity of all Buddhist teachings and practices, and indeed of all existence as manifestations of the innate buddha-nature. To this end its teachers, like Kukai, ranked Buddhist schools on various levels of truth, but Tendai put the Lotus Sutra at the top, as the profoundest expression of the dharma in words. This powerful scripture emphasizes the universality and eternity of buddhahood or nirvana. Its expansive reality is not limited in space or time. All sentient beings can find buddhahood, indeed on a deeper level are buddhas, always have been and always shall be. The historical Buddha and all other buddhas are themselves but particular manifestations of this absolute reality for a particular time and place. But, the Lotus says, the true buddha-nature continually showers its grace over the entire earth like rain. (IJR, 112-3)

Establishing Unity from Diversity
The Five Periods of the Buddha’s Teaching
(Cf. SJT, 133-7)
During the late Northern and Southern Dynasties period (317-589), the practice of “classification of the teachings” (Ch: panjiao, J: hangyo) became the principal means by which Buddhist exegetes sought to deal with the overwhelming diversity of scriptures and teachings that poured into China between the second and sixth centuries. Motivated by the desire to explain the comprehensive design of the Buddha’s preachings as well as the most effective path to salvation, this classification of the teachings played a seminal role in reshaping Indian modes of Buddhist thought and practice into a distinctive Sinitic Buddhist tradition. (SJT, 133-4)

Immediately after his enlightenment, the Buddha (in his Vairocana body) preached the doctrine that the universe as a whole is a perfect expression of the absolute in which each individual thing both contains and is contained by all other things.
The jeweled net of Sakra is also called Indra’s Net, and is made up of jewels. The jewels are shiny and reflect each other successively, their images permeating each other over and over. In a single jewel they all appear at the same time, and this can be seen in each and every jewel. There is really no coming or going. Now if we turn to the southwest direction and pick up one of the jewels to examine it, we will see that this one jewel can immediately reflect the images of all of the other jewels. Each of the other jewels will do the same. Each jewel will simultaneously reflect the images of all the jewels in this manner, as will all of the other jewels. The images are repeated and multiplied in each other in a manner that is unbounded. Within the boundaries of a single jewel are contained the unbounded repetition and profusion of the images of all the jewels. The reflections are exceedingly clear and are completely unhindered.

If you sit in one jewel, you will at that instant be sitting repeatedly in all of the other jewels in all directions. Why is this? It is because one jewel contains all the other jewels. Since all the jewels are contained in this one jewel, you are sitting at that moment in all the jewels. The converse that all are in one follows the same line of reasoning. Through one jewel you enter all jewels without having to leave that one jewel, and in all jewels you enter one jewel without having to rise from your seat in the one jewel. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 473)
Over the next 12 years, the Buddha is said to have delivered all of the sutras contained in the Theravada canon or “tripitaka,” which is essentially identical to the Mahayana use of the term “4 Agamas” (4 types of sutras).

Over the next 8 years, the Buddha established some of the more basic teachings of the Mahayana tradition, such as the superiority of the bodhisattva vow of compassion for all sentient beings over the self-interested concern with one’s own emancipation as embodied in the Hinayana ideal of the Arhat.

The Expanded Teaching was then further expanded over the next 22 years to include the teachings contained in the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) sutras. The most fundamental Perfection of Wisdom concept is the notion of sunyata or “emptiness,” which was brilliantly elucidated by the 2nd century Indian thinker Nagarjuna.

The final and highest level of truth, however, is to be found in the Lotus Sutra, which the Buddha is said to have preached during the last 8 years of his life. In this final stage, the “negative” dimension of the Prajnaparamita teachings on the “emptiness” of all phenomena is balanced by a “positive” reaffirmation of their absolute identity with the true “Thusness” of Reality itself. Thus, Zhiyi emphasized the idea that “the three thousand worlds are immanent in a single instant of thought!”

Central to the expression of this truth is the dialectical statement known as the “perfectly harmonious threefold truth.” It goes like this. All separate things are empty of individual reality or self-nature, because any entity’s only true reality is as a part of the whole; its apparent separateness depends on causes. (For example, the biological causes that brought you and me into existence.) But at the same time, because causes have an effect, the things they produce do have an existence, though transitory. The third truth, then, is that all things are at once empty, temporary, and real. (IJR, 114)
To behold this identity between emptiness and phenomena is to see the suchness (tathata) of things. This suchness is the true nature of things that Tiantai calls Buddha-nature. Therefore, Buddha-nature is not something that one can see in itself, apart from phenomena. Given emptiness, Buddha-nature is not an independent thing, but is the essence of Buddhahood seen in the phenomena of the world. The metaphor that is used to express this presence of Buddha-nature in phenomena is water in waves. One cannot see water in itself apart from the forms it takes. So, too, the suchness of existence, Buddha-nature, is found when one sees the identity of emptiness and the temporary forms of life. (BIBE, 234)
On the path of dreams
My feet have run after you without rest
But that is not worth
Catching a single glance
Of you in reality.
(Lady Komachi in Kokinshu; quoted in IJR, 114)

From Philosophy to Practice
In Zhiyi’s time, Buddhist thought in South China was distinctly philosophical in character, while in the north Buddhists were developing a religion of faith and practice. Himself a product of the Southern Chinese gentry bu with a northerner, Huisi (514-577), as his teacher, Zhiyi came to the conclusion that the contemplative and philosophical approaches to religion were like the two wings of a bird. Consequently, the Tendai school is characterized by both a strong philosophical content and an even stronger emphasis on meditative practice. (SJT, 132)
Constantly Sitting
Constantly Walking
Chih-i identifies the first of the four kinds of samadhi [the samadhi through constant sitting] with the practice known as i-hsing san-mei, rendered here as one-practice samadhi.” ... As Chih-i describes it in the Mo-ho chih-kuan, one-practice samadhi is to be performed in a quiet room or a secluded and untrammeled spot. The essential requisite is that the immediate environs be free of any disturbance, human or otherwise. Only a single rope bed for meditation is to be placed in the hall; no other seats or daises should be added. The practice itself lasts for a fixed period of ninety days and may be performed alone or in a small group. Over the entire duration of this three-month period the meditator applies himself zealously to the practice of sitting motionless in the traditional lotus” meditation posture. With the exception of brief stretches of walking meditation and attending to such necessities as eating and relieving himself, he vows never to sleep, lie down, stand, wander aimlessly about, or lean against any object for support. For this reason the practice is referred to as constantly sitting.” ...

Chih-i distinguishes two basic approaches to meditative practice in this one-practice samadhi: the radical approach of directly contemplating the reality of the Dharma-realm (or the Dharma-body of the Buddha) and the more expedient approach of concentrating the mind on the name, idealized image, and merits (the body of form) of a particular Buddha. ...

Constantly walking samadhi is identified with the practice known as ... pratyutpanna samadhi, [shorthand for] the samadhi wherein one finds oneself standing face to face with all the Buddhas of the present age.” ... Like the one-practice samadhi, the pratyutpanna samadhi is to be performed in isolation. The meditator selects and adorns a hall for practice, prepares all the necessary accoutrements of offering, and lays out various delicacies, fruit, incense, and flowers. Having washed himself thoroughly, he changes into a new set of robes, which is to be worn at all times in the inner sanctuary where the practice is performed. Whenever he leaves this chamber to tend to necessities, he changes once again into an older set. The practice itself lasts for a fixed period of ninety days, over the duration of which the meditator must continuously circumambulate an altar to the Buddha Amitabha. He vows never to entertain worldly thoughts or desires, never to lie down or leave the hall, and, aside from the times when he eats his meals, never arbitrarily to sit down or stop to rest until the three months are completed. (The Experience of Buddhism, 303-4)

From Tiantai to Tendai
Saicho/Dengyo Daishi (767-822)


One interesting example of Tendai esoteric practice is the Kaihogyo, monks running around Mt. Hiei, stopping at a series of shrines on the way for brief devotions, is still performed today. This is no leisurely pilgrimage, but an intense marathon for which monks train assiduously, then run a course of increasing length for one hundred days a year over seven years; in the seventh year the daily run is 84 km or 52.5 miles.
       So the best runners in the world are probably not Olympic champions, but these marathon monks of Mount Hiei, who in the seventh year of their kaihogyo run a course twice the length of the Olympic marathon — not just once before cheering crowds, but every day for a hundred days, training on a vegetarian diet and with hand-made straw sandals as their running shoes. Moreover, in the fifth year had come the greatest trial of all, the doiri, a nine-day period of fasting without food, drink, or sleep, while reciting the Lotus Sutra and a mantra to Fudo, the latter 100,000 times.
       These are of course very exceptional practices, carried out by only a small minority even of Tendai priests and monks. Yet they are widely admired. They display a drive for testing one’s endurance and resolution to the extreme that not seldom surfaces in Japan, not only in Buddhist asceticism but also in the martial traditions, and elsewhere. (IJR, 115)