ZHIYI (538–597), third patriarch of the influential Tiantai school of Chinese Buddhism. This man is often regarded as having united Chinese Buddhism into a coherent whole by resolving doctrinal and practical strains that had plagued Buddhism virtually from the time of its introduction into China. His literary output was prodigious: about one thousand pages of the Taishō edition of the Chinese Buddhist canon are devoted to his extant works, a sum that would correspond to about nine thousand pages in unannotated English translation.
More important, however, than the sheer volume of his works is their synthesizing nature. Zhiyi was born at a time when Chinese Buddhism was beginning to move from unquestioning fidelity to Indian Mahāyāna doctrines and practices toward a more mature synthesis of Indic and Chinese religious values. Zhiyi was not the only man of his era to contribute to this synthesis: it is well known, for instance, that he borrowed heavily from the "three southern and seven northern" teachers in constructing his own system of doctrinal classification (panjiao ). However, Zhiyi's scheme of doctrinal classification proved to be more comprehensive and influential than those of his predecessors and contemporaries, in part because of his success at incorporating religious practice as well as doctrine into his great synthesis. In short, he is credited with having united practice with doctrine and doctrine with practice, whereas his predecessors had attempted only to arrange the various doctrines in the sūtras into an understandable and consistent whole. His role in uniting these two tendencies in Chinese Buddhism has often been compared to the political achievement of his patron Sui Wendi, the first emperor of the Sui dynasty, who succeeded in uniting the north and south of China for the first time in some three and a half centuries. The analogy is apt in that Buddhist historiography commonly views the north of China before the Sui as having been oriented toward the practical side of Buddhism, just as its leaders were men of action, often non-Chinese in ancestry, while the South then tended toward the theoretical or doctrinal side, its leaders and upper classes being aristocrats and Chinese scholar-officials. Thus in uniting doctrine and practice, Zhiyi united southern and northern religious cultures in a way comparable to the feat of his imperial patron. In his own words, these two aspects of Buddhism must be considered analogous to the "two wings of a bird" or the "two wheels of a cart," each valueless without the other. Zhiyi, therefore, was a kind of nodal point in the development of Chinese Buddhism, embracing in his synthesis virtually all that went before, and influencing virtually all that came after.
In terms of formal lineage Zhiyi stands third in the line of Tiantai patriarchs, following the semilegendary Huiwen and the historically attested Huisi. However, Zhiyi is generally regarded as the de facto founder of the Tiantai school, named for the mountain where Zhiyi built his most important monastery. Because it was associated so closely with the rulers of the Sui, Tiantai suffered an eclipse with the rise of the Tang dynasty (618–907 ce), whose rulers were eager to dissociate themselves from the ideological underpinnings of Sui rule. The school was revived a century and a half later by the monk Zhanran (711–782), one of whose disciples transmitted the Tiantai teachings to the Japanese monk Saichō (767–822). Saichō in turn introduced the lineage to Japan, where it soon became the dominant tradition. Its center, Mount Hiei near Kyoto, became the training ground for most of the key figures in the development of Kamakura Buddhism. The Tiantai lineage continues to the present day, with active branches in Taiwan and especially Japan, although nothing is known about the situation in China proper.
Among Zhiyi's works the two most prominent are the Fahua xuanyi (Profound meaning of the Lotus Sūtra ) and the Mohe zhiguan (The great calming and contemplation, or The practice of meditation according to the Mahāyāna). The former is his principal work on doctrine, the latter his principal work on practice, but Zhiyi was careful to relate each aspect to the other in both works. He applied a tripartite analysis to both doctrine and practice, which he classified as sudden, gradual, or variable. The "sudden" doctrine (or teaching) refers to the Avataṃsaka Sūtra, understood by Zhiyi and some of his predecessors as the text expounded by the Buddha to a mostly uncomprehending audience immediately after his enlightenment. It is referred to as "sudden" because it purports to reveal the Buddha's direct experience of enlightenment just as it is, without making any concessions to the need of its audience for a more "gradual" exposition of the nature of the experience. "Gradual" doctrines (or teachings) refer to the succeeding four stages of the Buddha's teaching, during which he was said to have gradually trained his listeners, in sūtra after sūtra of deepening truth, for the final revelation of the Lotus and Nirvāṇa Sūtra s, commonly believed to be the last discourses of the Buddha. "Sudden meditation" is the kind of meditation expounded in the Mohe zhiguan, in which preliminary practices are dispensed with and "ultimate reality is taken as the object of meditation from the very beginning." Gradual meditation, like the gradual teaching, moves step by step toward the goal. Finally, by "variable" Zhiyi meant certain texts and practices that could function as either sudden or gradual, depending upon the level of religious attainment of the practitioner.
The strength of Zhiyi's system lies in its comprehensiveness. By showing how a variety of disparate texts and practices, each of which had its own adherents, could be the product of a historically continuous revelation, beginning with the Buddha's preaching of the Avataṃsaka Sūtra and culminating in the message of the Lotus and Nirvāṇa Sūtra s, Zhiyi was able successfully to integrate them all into a single, coherent system. His great synthesis made it possible for the many branches of Chinese Buddhism to be regarded by their adherents as aspects of a loosely integrated, self-consistent whole.
A related and highly influential teaching of Zhiyi is the doctrine of the Three Truths: Empty, Provisional, and—Zhiyi's addition—Middle. This may be regarded as a Chinese emendation, or even improvement, on the pivotal Indian Mahāyāna concept of the Two Truths, first expounded by Nāgārjuna. While the Indians discerned two levels of meaning in the sūtras (i.e., in the Buddha's pronouncements) and regarded the Empty (śūnya ) as superior to the Provisional, Zhiyi and the Chinese Buddhist tradition after him were uncomfortable with this Indian equation of ultimate truth and emptiness. To them, such a formulation seemed too nihilistic. Zhiyi was able to find passages in Nāgārjuna's works that justified the addition of a third Truth, namely the Middle, which he also styled the Perfect Teaching. This third level of truth became characteristic of the fundamental orientation of Chinese Buddhism, affirming as it does that ultimate reality (or truth) is not to be found apart from mundane reality (or truth), that the world as it is is already identical to the Absolute. The corollary of this doctrine is the assertion that all beings have the buddha nature, that is, that without exception all beings have the capacity for buddhahood. Scarcely any school or teacher in East Asian Buddhism has deviated from these two related teachings, and their influence upon Chan and Zen was particularly significant. While Zhiyi cannot be said to have originated them—he was always careful to provide scriptural citations for his doctrines, and other Chinese monks were exploring similar notions before him—he argued them with greater eloquence and made them an essential part of his incalculably influential summation of Buddhist doctrine and practice.
Ch'en, Kenneth. Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey. Princeton, 1964. The most readable and comprehensive survey available on Chinese Buddhism. One chapter is devoted to Tiantai and discusses Zhiyi.
Hurvitz, Leon N. Zhiyi (538–597): An Introduction to the Life and Ideas of a Chinese Buddhist Monk. Brussels, 1962. A wealth of biographical information. However, the sections on Zhiyi's teachings must be used with caution, as the "five periods and eight teachings" delineated here have recently been found to represent not Zhiyi's thought, but that of a much later Korean Tiantai monk.
Donner, Neal, and Daniel B. Stevenson. The Great Calming and Contemplation: A Study and Annotated Translation of the First Chapter of Zhiyi's "Mo-ho chih-kuan." Honolulu, 1993.
Penkower, Linda. "In the Beginning… Guanding (561–632) and the Creation of Early Tiantai." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 23, no. 2 (2000): 245–296.
Swanson, Paul L. Foundations of T'ien-T'ai Philosophy: The Flowering of the Two Truths Theory in Chinese Buddhism. Berkeley, 1989.
Swanson, Paul L. "Understanding Zhiyi: Through a Glass, Darkly?" Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 17, no. 2 (1994): 337–360.
Swanson, Paul L. "What's Going On Here? Zhiyi's Use (and Abuse) of Scripture." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 20, no. 1 (1997): 1–30.
Neal Donner (1987)