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Tiantai School


Often described as the first genuinely Sinitic school of Buddhism, the Tiantai school traces its ancestry back to NĀgĀrjuna (ca. second century c.e.) in India, not by any direct transmission but through the reading of translated texts by its proto-patriarchs, Huiwen (Beiqi zunzhe, mid-sixth century) and Huisi (Nanyue chanshi, 515–577). Very little is known of these two figures. Huiwen in particular is little more than a shadowy presence; traditional biographies report that he was active during China's Northern Qi dynasty (550–577), stressed strict meditation practice, and initiated the characteristic Tiantai emphasis on triplicity. In particular, Huiwen is reported to have emphasized the "simultaneity of the three contemplations," namely, the contemplation of each object as emptiness, provisional positing, and the "mean," as derived from a strong misreading of works attributed to Nagarjuna. Huisi, on the other hand, authored several extant texts, and is credited with combining Huiwen's "three contemplations" with the teaching of the Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarĪkasŪtra), to which Huisi was especially devoted. This combination proved to be explosive.

Huisi interpreted the lotus from the title of this sūtra as a metaphor suggesting a special relationship between cause and effect, or practice and enlightenment. The lotus, he noted, is unusual in that it gives no flower without producing a fruit, that the fruit is concealed and copresent in the flower, and a single flower produces many fruits. This suggests that every practice leads to many different results, which are copresent in the practice, and yet unrevealed; every practice, even those that show no orientation toward buddhahood, lead to and are copresent with buddhahood. The translation of the Lotus Sūtra by KumĀrajĪva (350–409/413 c.e.) characterizes "the ultimate reality" (literally, "real mark") "of all dharmas" in terms of "ten suchnesses" (literally, ten like-this's). They are:

  1. like-this (suchlike) appearance
  2. nature
  3. substance
  4. power
  5. activity
  6. cause
  7. condition
  8. effect
  9. response
  10. equality of ultimacy from beginning to end.

Huisi developed a special reading of this passage, facilitated by the peculiarity of the Chinese translation, where each phrase referred to every element of experience simultaneously as "empty," in addition to its literal reference to each as provisionally posited, referring to each specific differentiated aspect (i.e., appearance, nature, etc.). In Zhiyi's exfoliation of this interpretative move, each was also understood as the "mean." This bold hermeneutic approach and its threefold implication formed the basis for what would develop into the distinctive Tiantai conception of "the ultimate reality of/as all dharmas."

The de facto founder of the school, from whose part-time residence—Mount Tiantai in modern Zhejiang—the school gets its name, is Zhiyi (Tiantai Zhizhe dashi, 538–597). It was Zhiyi's numerous and voluminous works, most of which were transcribed by his disciple Guanding (Zhangan dashi, 561–632) from Zhiyi's lectures, that become authoritative for all later Tiantai tradition.

Provisional and ultimate truth: The Lotus Sūtra and the classification of teachings

Zhiyi constructed a vast syncretic system of MahĀyĀna thought and practice that aimed at giving a comprehensive overview of all of Buddhism and that found a place for all known modes of practice and doctrine. Confronted with the massive influx of Mahāyāna texts translated into Chinese, many of which directly contradicted one another in matters of both doctrine and practice, Zhiyi was faced with the challenge of accommodating the claim that all these texts represented the authoritative teaching of the Buddha. The solution he arrived at can be described as an insight into the interconnection between two central Mahāyāna doctrines: the concept of upĀya (skillful means), particularly as presented in the Lotus Sūtra, and the concept of ŚŪnyatĀ (emptiness), particularly as developed in the Madhyamaka school. From the synthesis of these ideas, Zhiyi developed a distinctive understanding of the buddha-nature, rooted especially in the universalist exposition given in the NirvĀṆa SŪtra, and the identity between delusion and enlightenment as invoked in the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa and other sūtras, which entailed a reconfiguring of both upāya and śūnyatā as they had been understood in earlier Mahāyāna Buddhism.

The Lotus Sūtra asserts that the śrāvakas (HĪnayĀna disciples), who had hitherto been regarded as having no aspiration toward bodhisattvahood or buddhahood—indeed, as having explicitly repudiated these goals—are in fact bodhisattvas currently working toward buddhahood, although they are unaware of the real efficacy of their current practice. The text develops the idea that it is possible to be a bodhisattva without realizing it into a claim that in fact all Buddhist disciples are really bodhisattvas, and all who hear the Lotus teaching will finally attain buddhahood. Indeed, it is said in the text that no sentient being really knows what he or she is practicing, what the ultimate karmic efficacy of his or her deeds and cognitions is, nor what his or her own real identity is. Only buddhas know these things, and the real efficacy of all their deeds as thus known by the buddhas is that these deeds allow these beings eventually to become buddhas themselves. The non-bodhisattva practices and teachings are all skillful means provided by the Buddha, sometimes requiring an ignorance of the final goal in order to have efficacy toward reaching that goal. This is the teaching of the first half of the sūtra, which Zhiyi calls the "trace gate." Another wrinkle is given in the second half of the sūtra, which Zhiyi calls the "root gate." Here it is claimed that Śākyamuni Buddha did not attain buddhahood at Bodh GayĀ, but had actually been and would continue to be a buddha for countless eons, in spite of his apparent imminent decease. The implication is that while practicing the bodhisattva path, he was in fact already a buddha (leaving ambiguous his own degree of awareness of this fact at the time), and that being a buddha does not mean a transcendence of engagement in the intersubjective work of liberating sentient beings, but the mastering of all possible skillful means by which to accomplish this task, and a ceaseless indefatigable endeavor to do so.

Taken together then, the two halves of the sūtra suggest that all beings are bodhisattvas, and all bodhisattvas are buddhas. And yet this is only so if the division between them, the opacity and ignorance that keeps them from collapsing these identities, remains intact, just as the upāyas work only as long as they are not known as such. This means that the intersubjective liberative relationship between buddhas and sentient beings is primary and always operative, whichever role one may seem to be playing at any time. To be is to be intersubjective, and each being is always both liberating and being liberated by all others, even while also creating karma (action) and duḤkha (suffering). Ontology is here made soteriological: All existence is instructive and revelatory, and can be read as a salvational device put forth by a buddha to liberate sentient beings.

The relation between illusion and reality is thus reconfigured as the relation between provisional and ultimate truth in the Buddha's teaching. Zhiyi characterizes the Lotus teaching as the "opening of the provisional to reveal the real" (kaiquan xianshi), allowing one to see the provisional truths as both a means to and an expression of the ultimate truth. Provisional and ultimate truth are nondual, even while maintaining their strict opposition. Their relation is similar to that between the set-up and punch line of a joke; the punch line is funny only because the set-up was not, but once the punch line is understood, the set-up too is seen to have always been pervaded with the quality of humorousness, precisely by being contrastingly nonhumorous. On the basis of this doctrine, Zhiyi established a comprehensive system of "classification of teachings," which categorizes all Buddhist teachings as expressions of ultimate truth tailored to specific circumstances and listeners.

The Madhyamaka doctrine of "two truths" can be understood as asserting that ultimate truth is somehow more real than conventional truth, and indeed that while conventional truth covers both common language (i.e., the everyday use of terms like I, you, cause, effect, and the like) and verbal Buddhist teachings, the metaphysical claims of rival schools (i.e., attempts to make rigorous ultimate truths of causality, selfhood, a first cause, and so on) are not even conventional truth, but are simply falsehoods and errors. Zhiyi reinterprets the Madhyamaka position as implying the "three truths": emptiness, provisional positing, and the mean, which includes both and signifies their synonymy. The relation between these three is understood on the model of the Lotus Sūtra's doctrine of "opening the provisional to reveal the real," which annuls any hierarchy between conventional and ultimate truth, and also expands conventional truth so as to include any provisionally posited assertion or cognition without exception. Zhiyi's claim is that these three aspects are not only on precisely equal footing and of equal ultimacy, but that each is in fact simply a way of stating the other two; the three are synonymous.

The three truths and the doctrine of inherent entailment

The reasoning behind the three truths doctrine follows the traditional Buddhist doctrine of pratĪtyasamutpĀda (dependent origination), which holds that every element of experience necessarily appears "together with" other elements, which it depends upon for its existence and determinate character. These other, conditioning, elements, of course, also gain their determinate character only through their dependence on still other elements that simultaneously condition them. But it was this determinate character that was supposed to serve as a determining ground for the first element. If the determiner is not determinate, the determined also fails to be determined. Hence each element is coherent only locally, in relation to a limited set of these conditions; when all of its conditions—including contexts, components, and precedents—are considered, its coherence vanishes. There arises, then, no unambiguous particular element or entity with a univocally decidable nature. Precisely because all are determined in dependence on conditions, they are simultaneously without a fixed, determinate identity. This is the meaning of emptiness.

Elements of experience are normally taken to have definitive identities, to be determinate, to be finite, to have "simple location," and to have borders or boundaries between themselves and what is outside themselves. Tiantai meditation, however, calls for an inquiry into the borders between being X and not being X, either in time, space, or conceptual space (i.e., the arising of a given state from its qualitatively different antecedents, conceptual contrasts, or efficient causes). To appear in experience at all, X must be "non-all," must be contrasted to some non-X, and must have an "outside." But to necessarily have an outside means the outside is not really outside; the relation between the internal and the external is itself internal. One can always ask: Is the border (spatial, temporal, or conceptual) part of the inside or the outside, both, or neither? There is no coherent way to answer these questions if to exist is assumed to mean "simply located." Hence, the interface always proves unintelligible, and the outside proves paradoxically both ineradicable and impossible, since it always proves to be equally internal, and hence not an outside at all. Therefore, the inside (X) is equally ineradicable and impossible (bukede, bukeshe). Like space, each determinate existent is simultaneously a merely nominal reality, is unobstructed and unobstructing, is beyond being and nonbeing, and is all-pervasive, present equally in the opposite of itself, in contrast to which it was originally defined. Precisely the same analysis applies to the difference between those defining borders that "determine as X" and those that "determine as Y," which is why Zhiyi goes on to assert that to be determined as X is always at the same time to be determined as Y, and all other possible quiddities.

In sum, what is only locally coherent is thereby globally incoherent. It is what it is only because the horizon of relevant contexts has been arbitrarily limited, but the fact that all being is necessarily contextualized (arises with qualitative othernesses) means that any such limit is ultimately arbitrary, and there are more relevant contexts that can be brought to bear in every case. The "mean" signifies that these two are merely alternate statements of the same fact, which necessarily appears in these two contrasted ways. Determinateness, thought through to the end, turns out to be ambiguity, and vice versa. Hence, ambiguity and determinateness are no longer "other" to one another, and each is itself, just as it is, "absolute" (i.e., free of dependence on a relationship to an outside). Therefore, determinateness is a synonym for ambiguity, and either is a synonym for absoluteness (the ultimate reality and value, "eternal, blissful, self, and pure"). Any of these always signifies all three aspects. Moreover, determinateness is never simply "determinateness as such or in general": It always means precisely this determinateness and precisely all other possible determinateness, which Zhiyi formulates for convenience as "the three thousand quiddities." Any possible experienced content is necessarily dependently co-arisen, which is to be provisionally posited as precisely this (like-this appearance, etc.), which is to be empty, which is to be readable equally as provisional positing and as emptiness, which is to be readable as precisely every other possible determinacy.

It is from the "mean" that the Zhiyi deduces the claim that all things are everywhere at once. For if to be definitively X and not definitively X are merely alternate ways of stating the same fact about X, the contrast between the absence and presence of X is annulled, and X is no more present here and now than it is present there and then. It is "simply located" at neither locus, but "virtually located" at both. It pervades all possible times and places to exactly the extent that it is present here at all. It can be read into any experience, and is here and now only because it has been so read into the here and now. X, in other words, is eternal and omnipresent, but only as "canceled," divested of the putative opacity of its simple location.

As an exfoliation of these claims, Zhiyi develops his theory of "the three thousand quiddities in each moment of experience," which implies the interinclusion of the ten realms of sentient experience: purgatories, hungry ghosts, asuras, animals, humans, devas, śrāvakas, pratyekabuddhas, bodhisattvas, and buddhas. Each realm is a process of causes and effects that inherently entails all the other realms. Each of these realms can at each moment be characterized by the ten "suchnesses" from the Lotus Sūtra. All of these may be understood either in terms of the sentient beings experiencing these realms, the environment conditioning these beings, or these beings considered in terms of their components. Ten realms, each including all the others, makes one hundred; multiplied by the ten suchnesses, one gets one thousand, and multiplied by the three aspects, three thousand. Zhiyi asserts that all of these qualities, which indicate not merely all things as considered from a single perspective, but all processes as simultaneously understood from the perspectives of all the cognitive misperceptions of all sentient beings, are inherently entailed in each moment of experience undergone by any sentient being at any time.

The three tracks and buddha-nature

The three truths are a name for the ultimate reality of all dharmas, or the ultimate reality as all dharmas, since to be is to be determinate as just these particular things, in their ambiguity and conditioning relationships. From various perspectives, the three truths can be renamed as a number of other triads, all of which maintain the same relation of interpervasive identity as difference. Zhiyi calls these parallel triads the "three tracks," which he characterizes as:

  1. the track of contemplation and awareness (corresponding to emptiness)
  2. the track of conditions for actualization or practice (provisional positing)
  3. the track of the real nature or the absolute as such (the mean)

The triads belonging to these tracks include the three buddha-natures:

  1. buddha-nature as manifesting cause (the awareness that allows the omnipresent buddha-nature to be made manifest)
  2. buddha-nature as conditioning cause (practical and physical conditions that make this awareness possible)
  3. buddha-nature as proper cause (the omnipresent absolute reality to be realized)

but also the three virtues of nirvĀṆa:

  1. prajñā (wisdom)
  2. liberation
  3. dharmakayā

and the three paths:

  1. kleśa (delusion)
  2. karma (activity as cause of suffering)
  3. duḥkha (suffering)

Since all these triads are merely alternate names for the three truths and bear the same internally interinclusive relationship derived from the relation of upāya to ultimate truth, one arrives at the identity between delusion and wisdom, karma and liberation, dharmakāya and suffering. Each of these is eternal and omnipresent, always present in every possible quiddity. In addition, there is the identity between each of these as actualized realities and as potentials, between the virtues of nirvāṇa and the buddha-nature as potential, between buddha-nature and delusion-karma-suffering, and so on. These paradoxical identities between oppositely valued realities come to be the distinctive mark of the Tiantai school, culminating in its unique doctrine of "the evil inherent in the buddha-nature," the perfect interpervasion of delusion and enlightenment.

Zhanran and the buddha-nature of insentient beings

The Tiantai school fell into decline in the Tang dynasty (618–907), losing its imperial patronage and dominant influence to the newly arisen Huayan school and Chan school. Zhanran (Jingxi zunzhe, 711–782) is credited with revitalizing the tradition, meeting the challenges of the new schools and consolidating and reorganizing Tiantai doctrine. The bulk of his writings concentrate on detailed commentaries to Zhiyi's works, but he is also responsible for adopting and adapting Huayan terminology into Tiantai doctrine while reasserting the distinctiveness of the Tiantai school, particularly noting the uniqueness of its doctrine of the evil inherent in the buddha-nature.

In his work Jin'gangbei (Diamond Scalpel), his only noncommentarial composition, Zhanran makes a frontal attack on the Huayan and early Chan doctrine that views the buddha-nature as an aspect of sentience, reasserting the Tiantai view that the buddha-nature is necessarily threefold from beginning to end, omnipresent in all three aspects, and impossible to restrict to sentient beings only. In fact, the threefold buddha-nature is another name for the three truths, which are the reality of any content of experience whatsoever, mind or matter, sentient or insentient. To be any one among them is to be all of them, so there can be no division of buddha-nature as the unconditioned essence of sentience and awareness as opposed to the passive inertness of insentient beings. Whenever one being attains buddhahood, all beings are buddha; whenever one entity is insentient, all beings are insentient. This is the interpervasion of all realms as understood in a Tiantai perspective; all possible predicates are always applicable to all possible beings.

The Song dynasty (960–1279) schism

Zhanran had imported certain formulations from Huayan thought into his teaching, most notably an interpretation of mind-only doctrine not found in Zhiyi, including the phrase "unchanging but following conditions, following conditions but unchanging," as a characterization of the mind and its nature, respectively, as derived from the Huayan patriarch Fazang (643–712). In the Northern Song dynasty, some Tiantai writers later called the Shanwai (i.e., "off-mountain," or heterodox) began to adopt the privileging of "awareness" (zhi), or mind, that characterizes later Huayan and early Chan thought. Even in Fazang a similar tendency is arguably discernible. Here the mind in its present function is a transcendent category that produces all phenomena, and of which all phenomena are transformations; the mind is in this sense at least conceptually prior to these phenomena, and is their ontological base, although it is not a definite objective entity. Realizing this all-pervasive awareness as all things is equivalent to awakening, and so this mind is also called "ultimate reality." Praxis here means to see "the three thousand quiddities" as this present moment of mind, which is the transformation of mind, with nothing left out. Mind is the all-embracing "whole" that is uniquely capable of producing, determining, containing, and unifying all differentiated existences.

Zhili (Siming Fazhi fashi, 960–1028) led an attack on this interpretation of Tiantai thought, developing a position that was later called the Shanjia (Mountain Masters, or orthodox) position. Zhili holds fast to the traditional Tiantai interpretation of the claim in the Huayan jing (Sanskrit, Avataṃsaka-sūtra) that "there is no difference between the mind, buddhas, and sentient beings," holding that this means that each of these three may be considered the creator of the other two, and vice versa. This interpretation rejects the assertion that mind is the real source that is able to create, or manifest itself, as either buddhas or sentient beings (as the Shanwai, Huayan, and Chan putatively claim), depending on whether it is enlightened or deluded. On the latter view, although buddhas and sentient beings could still be said to be "identical" to mind and hence to each other, this identity would be mediated by a one-way dependence relation. Zhili holds that this would not be real "identity," for mind has at least one quality that the other two lack: It is creator, as opposed to created. In Zhili's view, each is creator, each is created, and none is more ultimate than the others.

Zhili's teaching combats a one-sidedly "idealist" interpretation of Tiantai doctrine. He holds that while it is true to say that mind inherently entails all entities, it is equally true to say that form or matter inherently entails all entities, and not merely because matter is actually nothing but mind. Here Zhili is echoing Zhiyi's teaching that reality can be spoken of equally as mind-only, matter-only, taste-only, smell-only, touch-only, and so on. Zhili also insists that Tiantai meditation is a contemplation of the deluded mind, not directly of the pure or absolute mind that is the source and ground of all existence. The object of contemplation is the deluded process of differentiation itself, which is to be seen as creating the particular determinacies of the experienced world, then as inherently including all these determinacies, then as being identical to them all, and finally as itself determined, hence conditioned, hence empty, hence provisionally posited, hence the "mean." Once this is done, all other contents are equally seen as the three truths, but the process of transformation must begin with the deluded mind, the mind that mistakenly sees itself as "inside" as opposed to "outside," which makes arbitrary distinctions, and which is conditioned in a particular manner by particular causes. Only in this way, Zhili thinks, is practice both possible and necessary.

Zhili also reasserts the centrality of the doctrine of inherent evil, as is particularly evident in his teaching of "the six identities as applicable even to the dung beetle." The six identities were propounded by Zhiyi originally to maintain a balance to the claims of identity between sentient beings and buddhahood. All beings are identical to the Buddha (1) in principle; (2) in name, once they hear of this teaching and accept it intellectually; (3) in cultivation; (4) in partial attainment;(5) in approximation to final identity; and finally (6) when Buddhist practice is completed and one becomes explicitly a buddha. Zhili asserts that these six levels of difference and identity apply not only to the relations between sentient beings and buddhas, but also to the relations between any two sentient beings, any two determinations of any kind, indeed, even between any entity and itself. This means that prior to Buddhist practice one is identical to, say, a dung beetle in principle only, but as one's practice continues, one finally attains a more and more fully realized identity with the dung beetle, so that all the marks and names associated with dung beetle-hood become increasingly explicit and fully realized as practice continues. Evil, in other words, is not only what is cut off, but also what is more fully realized with practice; all things become more explicit together, and this full realization of their own determinate marks, by virtue of the three truths, is their liberation and transformation. This is the real goal of practice; indeed this is buddhahood itself.

Transmission to and development in Japan and Korea

Much of Zhili's concern in his polemic against the Shanwai and his defense of the doctrine of "inherent evil" was to maintain the seriousness of Tiantai ritual practice, an evil that he saw threatened by the "sudden" doctrines of Chan and the Shanwai. Zhili and his dharma-brother Zunshi (Ciyun fashi, 963–1032) were instrumental in combining Tiantai contemplation with the practice of the Pure Land schools, particularly the visualizations of AmitĀbha, which were to be done in tandem with Tiantai doctrinal ruminations, "contemplating the image of the Buddha as an inherent aspect of the mind, utilizing the Buddha image to manifest the nature of mind." This was consistent with Zhili's general teaching that when any given content is made more explicit, it simultaneously makes all contents more explicit, as well as their interpervasion, the interpervasive three thousand being the realm of enlightenment.

In China, Tiantai and Pure Land practice came to be closely associated. A different development took place in Japan, where Tiantai, or Tendai in the Japanese pronunciation, became closely associated with esoteric Buddhism. Tiantai texts were first brought to Japan by the Chinese vinaya monk Jianzhen (687–763), but did not really take hold until the founding of the Japanese Tendai school by SaichŌ (Dengyo daishi, 767–822). Saichō combined the Tiantai teachings he had studied in Tang China under Zhanran's disciple Daosui with elements of esoteric and Chan Buddhism. The tradition he founded later split into several rival schools, but Tendai remained for centuries the mainstream of Japanese Buddhism, providing the theoretical foundation of Buddhist practice to a much greater degree than was the case in China, where Huayan and Chan understandings of Buddhist doctrine arguably took a more preeminent position. Later Japanese Tendai contributed distinctive developments to the doctrines of original enlightenment (hongaku) and the buddhahood of inanimate objects, on which it laid special stress. All of the Buddhist reformers who created the new Japanese sects in the Kamakura period, including HŌnen (1133–1212), Shinran (1173–1263), Nichiren (1222–1282), and DŌgen (1200–1253), were trained initially as Tendai monks.

Both Huisi and Zhiyi are said to have had direct disciples hailing from the Korean peninsula, and this tradition of exchange continued for many centuries. But it was not until 1097 that a separate Tiantai (Korean, Ch'ŏnt'ae) school was established there. Its founder, Ŭich'Ŏn (1055–1101), hoped the new school would help reconcile the long-standing conflict in Korean Buddhism between scholastic studies and meditative practice. Ch'ŏnt'ae became one of the two main pillars of Korean Buddhism, together with Chan (Korean, Sŏn). The schools were unified under the auspices of a reconstituted Sŏn school in the early fifteenth century.

See also:China; Japan; Korea; Vietnam


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