Version: v1, Published online: 1998
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7. The Chinese Buddhist Schools: Tiantai
Though considered its third patriarch, the intellectual founder of the Tiantai school was Zhiyi (538–97). Responding to the proliferation of different Buddhist theories and practices, he proposed a masterly, detailed synthesis that definitively set Chinese Buddhism in its own direction. To the question of why there was an abundance of incommensurate teachings despite the fact that there could only be one dharma, Zhiyi replied that all the different vehicles of Buddhism were ultimately one vehicle (eka-yāna), an idea championed by the Lotus Sutra. More specifically, he offered a panjiao, or classificatory scheme of teachings, to explain the discrepancies. His panjiao was complex and brilliant (and further refined much later by Chegwan, a Korean Tiantai monk in China), but in simple form it can be summarized as follows.
Buddha offered different teachings to different audiences based on the differing capacities of audiences to comprehend what he preached. According to the basic narrative, which became the way all Chinese Buddhists thought of Buddha’s teaching career, upon reaching enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, Buddha, enraptured by his new vision, began to describe that vision in immediate and exuberant terms. This became the Huayan Sutra. (In reality, this ‘sutra’ is a collection of disparate texts – none probably composed earlier than the third century ad – that were gradually compiled together over several more centuries.) When he finished (it took two or three weeks) he realized that no one had understood the sublime meaning of his words, and immediately began to teach a simplified, preparatory teaching which became the Hīnayāna teachings. After twenty years of preparatory teachings, he introduced the next level, beginners’ Mahāyāna (basically Yogācāra and Madhyamaka). In the next period he introduced advanced Mahāyāna (the Vaipūlya Sutras), and finally in his last days, having now trained many advanced students, he preached the Lotus Sutra and the Nirvāṇa Sutra. In effect this panjiao asserts that the two highest sutras offered by Buddha were the Huayan and Lotus; but whereas the Huayan was too sublime to be understood by any save the most advanced or enlightened students, the Lotus represented Buddha’s most comprehensive, cumulative, mature and accessible teaching, every bit as sublime as the Huayan, but now presented in a pedagogically effective manner. For that reason, Zhiyi made the Lotus Sutra the foundational text of Tiantai. As for the remaining teachings, as the Lotus itself explains, different ‘truths’ can be superseded once they have served their task of raising one to a higher level where a different ‘truth’ holds sway. Buddhism, according to the Lotus and Tiantai, is a system of expedient means (upāya) leading one with partial truths to ever greater, more comprehensive truths. Tiantai teachings are ‘Round Teachings’, meaning that they encircle or encompass everything and, lacking sharp edges, are therefore Perfect. Other forms of Buddhism are not ‘wrong’, but are only partial visions of the One Vehicle that Tiantai most perfectly and completely embodies.
Zhiyi, based on an exhaustive exposition of a verse from Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka-kārikās (24: 18), devised a theory of three truths: provisional, empty and middle. The first two are mirror images of each other, two ways of speaking about causes and conditions. A table can provisionally be called a table, since its perceptible form has arisen through causes and conditions, and it only exists provisionally on the basis of those temporary conditions. The table is empty because, being the product of causes and conditions, it lacks its own intrinsic, independent nature. It is ‘middle’ because neither the provisional nor the empty truth about the table fully captures its reality. It is both provisional and empty, and simultaneously neither provisional nor empty. As Zhiyi put it, ‘wondrous being is identical to true emptiness’. Zhiyi sought many ways to express the nondual middle truth. For instance, rejecting the obvious dualism of the distinction most of his contemporaries made between pure mind (xin) and deluded thought-instants (nian), Zhiyi declared that every deluded thought-instant was identical to three thousand chilicosms. The details of the formulas he used to arrive at the number three thousand is less important than fact that it is meant to encompass the full extent of Buddhist cosmological metaphysics. The whole universe in all its dimensions is entailed in every moment of thought. Rather than attempt to eliminate deluded thinking to reach a purified mind, Zhiyi claimed each moment of deluded thinking was already identical to enlightenment. One merely has to see the mind and its operations as they are. This idea was later taken over by the Chan (Zen) school, which expressed it in sayings such as ‘Zen mind is everyday mind’.
The middle approach is also evident in the Tiantai notion of three gates, or three methods of access to enlightened vision: the Buddha-gate, the gate of sentient beings and the mind-gate. The Buddha-gate was considered too difficult, too abstruse, too remote; one had to be a Buddha already to fully comprehend it. The sentient-being gate (the various methods taught and practised by any sort of being) was also too difficult because there are too many different types of sentient beings all with their own types of delusions, so that this gate is a confusing cacophony of disparate methods, some which may not be appropriate for some beings. The easiest and hence preferable gate was the mind-gate. It is no more remote than this very moment of cognition, its diversity can be observed in every thought-instant, and nothing could ever be more appropriately suited for an individual than to observe one’s own mind. Tiantai cultivated many types of meditation for that purpose.
Lusthaus, Dan. The Chinese Buddhist Schools: Tiantai. Buddhist philosophy, Chinese, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G002-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/overview/buddhist-philosophy-chinese/v-1/sections/the-chinese-buddhist-schools-tiantai.
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