Tiantai Buddhism
The Unity of Diversity


The Tiantai Synthesis
Zhiyi (538-597)

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 discipline. Himself a product of the southern Chinese gentry, but 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 Tiantai school is characterized by a strong philosophical content and at the same time an even stronger emphasis on meditative practice. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 444)
Establishing Unity from Diversity
The Five Periods of the Buddha’s Teaching
(Cf. Sources of Chinese Tradition, 455-458)
This system, derived from the Nirvana Sutra but supported by parables from the Lotus, organizes the Buddha’s preaching career into five basic periods, which unfold one upon the other, leading the Buddha’s assembly of followers progressively to the highest and purest expression of the Buddha’s vision. That vision is the unadulterated preaching of the perfect teaching in the Lotus Sutra, wherein he reveals both the pedagogic strategy and the ultimate purpose of his teaching career. (SCT, 456)
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.
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).

3. Expanded Teaching

8 Years
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!”

The Teachings of Tiantai
In terms of its teachings, Tiantai presents the oneness of the Three Levels of Truth. The first level is the truth of emptiness, that all things (dharmas) are empty of own-being because they are all dependently arisen. The second level is the truth that all things possess a temporary existence due to dependent arising. The third level is that the nature of things is both empty and temporarily existing. This third truth is called the Middle Truth; to behold it, according to Zhiyi is to see all three truths as one.
          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.

This identity means that all living beings are embraced by the Buddha-nature, and so can attain Buddhahood. To further emphasize this doctrine of universal salvation, Tiantai points to its understanding of the world and the mind. The cosmos is said to be made up of 3,000 worlds. ...
Now, one mind contains ten dharma-realms, but each of these ten dhrarma-realms contains ten dharma-realms, resulting in 100 dharma-realms. One realm contains 30 kinds of worlds, hence 100 dharma-realms contain 3,000 worlds. These 3,000 worlds are contained in a fleeting moment of thought. ... All one can say is that the mind is all dharmas, and that all dharmas are the mind. ...
One implication of this notion of the interpenetration of worlds is that all living beings from the realms of hell to those of the Buddhas are found within the mind. This means that the innate suchness of all beings, Buddha-nature, and all the qualities of the Buddha realms are present in the mind. Therefore, Buddha-nature can be experienced in a moment of thought, a sensation of fragrance, or a perception of color. Each moment of one’s experience is united with the dependent arising of all forms of life in the cosmos expressing the suchness of existence, the Buddha-nature in all things. (BIBE, 234-5)
Each thought-moment of sentient beings in the nine deluded (or not fully awakened) dharma realms — that is, hell dwellers, hungry ghosts, animals, asuras, humans, gods, sravakas, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas — includes the buddha realm, and thus all beings have the capacity to manifest buddhahood. Similarly, even the Buddha retains within himself the potential of the nine deluded states and thus is able to exercise compassion toward all. In its refusal to privelege an abstract mind over concrete realities, Zhiyi’s perspective also revalorizes the phenomenal world, now seen not as the product of deluded discriminations but as the very locus of liberation. In this way, beginning with Zhiyi’s systematization, the Tiantai school interpreted the one vehicle of the Lotus Sutra as a framework that encompassed and integrated all Buddhist teachings by showing their true purport: to lead all beings to the buddha wisdom. (Readings of the Lotus Sutra, 38)
The spiritual goal of Tiantai is to awaken to this identity between the suchness of existence, the interpenetrating unity of life, the inner Buddha-nature, and the innate purity of mind. Therefore, Zhiyi was not only a philosopher but also a practitioner and teacher of meditation. ... The spiritual journey of Tiantai is intended to lead from the unenlightened life, conditioned by blind attachment to the world, to an enlightened vision of the world that brings inner freedom and outer harmony with the universe. To further this ideal, Zhiyi taught meditation methods that fostered both sudden and gradual attainment, tailoring them to the needs of his disciples. For example, he guided his monks in nondual forms of sitting meditation where one moves beyond the distinction between the meditator and the object of meditation to a more sudden experience of Buddha-nature. He also taught forms of quiet walking meditation with focus on one’s body and breathing for gradual deepening of concentration. And he taught his disciples how to use the ordinary events of daily life as objects of meditative reflection. All three of these kinds of meditation have enjoyed wide popularity in the Buddhist world of East Asia. (BIBE, 235-6)

Constantly Sitting
Constantly Walking

Chih-i identifies the first of the four kinds of samadhi [i.e. the samadhi attained 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, 304-5)