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Tiantai is an important school of Buddhism

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 Tiantai (Chinese and Japanese: ; pinyin: tiāntái zōng; ) is an important school of Buddhism in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. In Japan the school is known as Tendai, and in Korea it is known as Cheontae. 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 teaching" 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, and due to this text being the doctrinal basis for the sect, Tiantai is sometimes also called "The Lotus School". The nucleus of Tiantai's teaching is the doctrines of the Threefold Contemplation, the Threefold Truth, the Fourfold Teachings, the Subtle Dharma, and the Nonconceivable Discernment. During the Tang Dynasty, the Tiantai school became one of the leading schools of Chinese Buddhism, with numerous large temples supported by emperors and wealthy patrons, with many thousands of monks and millions of followers.

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".


The Tiantai school takes the Lotus Sūtra (Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra) as the main basis, the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Śāstra of Nāgārjuna as the guide, the Nirvāṇa Sūtra as the support, and the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra for methods of contemplation. David Chappell lists the most important teachings as the doctrines of the Threefold Contemplation, the Threefold Truth, the Fourfold Teachings, the Subtle Dharma, and the Nonconceivable Discernment. The Threefold Truth has its basis in the following Nāgārjuna quotation:

    All things arise through causes and conditions.

    That I declare as emptiness.

    It is also a provisional designation.


    It is also the meaning of the Middle Path.

While the three are essentially one, they may be recognized separately as one undertakes the Three Contemplations. The first contemplation involves moving from the world of provisionality to the world of emptiness, or shunyata. The second contemplation is moving back from the world of emptiness to the world of provisionality with an acceptance thereof. Finally, the third contemplation involves balancing the previous two by following the Middle Path. The Three Contemplations and Threefold Truth in turn form the basis of the Fourfold Teachings, making them "parallel structures".

Nan Huaijin summarizes the main teaching of the Tiantai school as the following: the One Vehicle (Skt. Ekayāna), the vehicle of attaining Buddhahood, as the main principle; the three forms of śamatha-vipaśyanā correlated with the meditative perspectives of emptiness, provisional existence, and the mean, as the method of cultivating realization.

The Tiantai school became doctrinally broad, able to absorb and give rise to other movements within Buddhism. The tradition emphasized both scriptural study and meditative practice, and taught the rapid attainment of Buddhahood through observing the mind. The Tiantai school also took up a principle of triple truth derived from Nāgārjuna: phenomena are empty of self-nature, phenomena exist provisionally from a worldly perspective, and phenomena are both empty of existence and exist provisionally at once. 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.


In China it has been traditionally held that the meditation methods of the Tiantai are the most systematic and comprehensive of all. In addition to its doctrinal basis in Indian Buddhist texts, the Tiantai school also emphasizes use of its own meditation texts which emphasize the principles of śamatha and vipaśyanā.

Of the Tiantai meditation treatises, Zhiyi's Concise Śamatha-vipaśyanā, Mahā-śamatha-vipaśyanā, and Six Subtle Dharma Gates are the most widely read in China. Rujun Wu (1993: p. 1) identifies the work Mahā-śamatha-vipaśyanā of Zhiyi as the seminal meditation text of the Tiantai school. 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.

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, unhurried breathing, deep and quiet breathing, and stillness or rest. 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.


Due to the use of Nāgārjuna's philosophy of the Middle Way, he is traditionally taken to be the first patriarch of the Tiantai school.

The sixth century dhyāna master Huiwen 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 the dhyāna master Huisi (Ch., 515-577 CE), 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 text Mahāyāna-śamatha-vipaśyanā.

Venerable Huisi then transmitted his teachings to Śramaṇa Zhiyi (Ch., 538-597 CE), who is 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. Most scholars consider Zhiyi to have been the major founder of the Tiantai school, since he did the most to systematize and popularize the doctrines and methods associated with it. At a later date, the school's sixth patriarch, Zhanran, would compose clarifying commentaries on Zhiyi's writings.

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 teachings (the Āgamas) were an upaya, or skillful means, were simply 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.

Most scholars regard the Tiantai as one of the first truly Chinese schools of Buddhist thought. 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. The creation of the Tiantai school signified the maturation and integration of Buddhism in the Chinese context. No longer content to simply translate texts received from Indian sources, Chinese Buddhists began to apply new analyses to old texts, and even to produce new scriptures and commentaries that would attain significant status within the East Asian sphere.