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    The Tendai School of Buddhism is one of the most important sects of Japanese Buddhism, established in the 8th Century CE. Its origins are firmly rooted in both the Dharma taught by Shakyamuni Buddha - the historical Buddha - as well as the Mahayana school of Buddhism and China's T'ien-t'ai Buddhist doctrine. Named after the sacred mountain in southeast China and popularized by the philosopher, teacher and practitioner Chih-i (538-597) and the Japanese monk Saicho (767-822), the Tendai school gave rise to other important schools of Japanese Buddhism, including the Jodo (Pure Land), Jodo Shin-Shu (New Pure Land), Soto Zen, Rinzai Zen and Nichiren schools. The history of Tendai Buddhism thus encompasses the stories of both Mahayana Buddhism and Japanese Buddhism. 

    The T'ien T'ai school of Buddhism was initiated by the Chinese monk Zhi-yi, whose efforts to classify the growing body of Buddhist schools and scriptures into a single system of thought, placing it all in an understandable context, characterized the comprehensive nature of T'ien T'ai philosophy throughout its subsequent history. However, it was the work of the monk Chih-i, the third Patriarch of the T’ien T’ai school, which defined the particular T'ien T'ai school philosophy, thus establishing the first Chinese school of Buddhism and giving rise to the phrase Ekayana (“Round School”) teachings. Where Nagarjuna, the principal architect of Madhyamaka philosophy, had set forth the Two Truth's theory, (i.e. there are two levels of truth in the Dharma, the direct truth and the provisional truth), Chih-i set forth an additional new formulation of reality, the "Perfectly Harmonious Threefold Truth." Specifically:

  • All dharmas (phenomena) are empty because they are produced through causation and thus have no self-nature; 
  • They do not have temporary existence either; 
  • Therefore being both empty and temporary is the mean state of affairs for sentient beings. 

This syncretic doctrine illustrates the encompassing spirit of T'ien T'ai Buddhism. Another example of this syncretic spirit was the T'ien T'ai affirmation of the value of a wide range of Buddhist Sutras. While affirming the Lotus Sutra as the principal text of the Mahayana school, T'ien T'ai scholars also studied other Sutras, especially the three "Pure Land" texts. Consequently, the T'ien T'ai school endorsed the value of a wide variety of Buddhist spiritual practices, such as meditation, chanting, and various kinds of devotional practices. In this fashion, T'ien T'ai Buddhism developed into a kind of matrix school of Chinese Mahayana thought and practices. It was this “Ekayana” school of Mahayana Buddhism which the Japanese monk known today as Dengyo Daishi, encountered when he visited China in 806 C.E.

 

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