From SamuraiWiki
Jump to navigationJump to search
  • Chinese: 天台 (tiāntái)

Tiāntái is one of the earliest and most prominent sects of Chinese Buddhism. Developed by Zhiyi in the 6th century, it was introduced to Japan in 805 by Saichô, as Tendai. The sect takes its name from Mt. Tiantai, where its head temple is located.

At its inception, Tiāntái represented a combination of the philosophical and religious aspects of early Buddhism, emphasizing both philosophical approaches and spiritual contemplation. At that time, in 6th century China, Buddhism remained chiefly a philosophy in southern China, while in northern China, it was beginning to develop into a religion. Zhiyi, a southerner, was a disciple of a northerner named Huisi (514-577), and so Zhiyi's teachings came to include both elements of pure philosophy and contemplation, and beliefs about the structure of the three thousand realms, and the ten paths of beings.

The sect takes the Lotus Sutra, a north Indian or Central Asian text, as its chief sacred text, asserting that it represents a fifth and final, most complete version of the Buddhist teachings, whereas all earlier texts, from four previous periods of history, were tentative or provisional versions. Three discussions of the Lotus Sutra written by Zhiyi are also central to the sect's beliefs; they are "The Words and Phrases of the Lotus" (Fahua wenju), "The Profound Meaning of the Lotus" (Fahua xuanyi), and "The Great Calming and Contemplation" (Mohe zhiguan).


One of the sect's beliefs is known as the Perfectly Harmonious Threefold Truth. It states that (1) all things, or dharmas, are empty, in that they are thought up by Man, or otherwise produced within certain conditions, and thus do not possess their own self-nature; (2) their temporary existence is nevertheless real; and (3) to be both "empty" and yet " tentatively real" is the very nature of the dharma, and is the Mean. All three of these are intertwined, one in three and three in one.

Tiantai teachings also describe ten realms of beings, including hell dwellers, hungry ghosts, animals, human beings, asura (warrior spirits), heavenly beings, arhats, pratyeka-buddhas (those who enjoy personal private enlightenment and keep it to themselves), bodhisattvas, and Buddhas. These are then expanded to three thousand realms, by considering that each of the ten has a hundred aspects, and is divided into three, between living beings, space, and the dharma.

These three thousand realms are considered to be intermingled within every thought-moment, in other words to be ever-present within thought, and thus, Zhiyi argues, the Buddha-nature is within all beings, and thus all beings can be Saved. This, he writes, is the ultimate message of the Lotus Sutra.



  • "The Lotus School: The Tiantai Synthesis," Sources of Chinese Tradition, 444-445.