Tendai philosophy is based on the teachings of the T’ien-t’ai school, systematized by the Chinese monk, Chih-i (538-597). At the time of Chih-i, all the Buddhist texts came to China in no particular order. Chih-i set out to discover if there was any kind of chronology or inner consequence in all these teachings, and finally systematized them in the doctrine of The Five Periods. While it’s important to understand that later research has shown that his theories were not historically correct, this doctrine is still useful to get an overview of Chinese Buddhism.
The Five Periods are:
- the Flower Garland period, which only lasted a few weeks from the enlightenment of the Buddha. Here he taught the Flower Garland Sutra, speaking directly from his enlightenment, but people couldn’t understand him, so he realized he had to apply skilful means in his teaching.
- the Deer park period, which lasted for 12 years after the Flower Garland period. The Pali Canon and the Chinese Agamas belongs to this period.
- the Vaipulya period, covering the following 8 years, where certain Mahayana Sutras were taught, creating the foundation for the next, very challenging, period. In this section we find the Vimalakirti Sutra, the Pure Land Sutras, and the esoteric tantras.
- the Prajnaparamita period; 22 years of teaching the Prajnaparamita Sutras and their doctrines shunyata and non-dualism.
- the Lotus and Nirvana Sutras; the final teachings of the Buddhas, given in his last 8 years. Here he came full circle, back to his first teachings, and again spoke directly from his enlightenment.
It follows from this, that the Lotus Sutra is seen as very important in Tendai – it is the philosophical foundation for the school, with the teaching of the One Vehicle, the Ekayana, which incorporates al doctrines and practices and view the different teachings of the Buddha as an expression of the skilful means he employed when he adjusted his preaching to the capacity of the listeners. Another important Tendai doctrine is the Three Truths; the unification of the provisional and the ultimate in the truth of the Middle Way. The provisional truth is one we’re very familiar with; things exist, the chair I’m sitting on is certainly here, and so am I. the ultimate truth is the truth of shunyata; that all known phenomena are ‘empty’ – without substance or essence, merely passing, impermanent manifestations of an intricate net of causes and conditions. The Truth of the Middle Way is then the truth of the unification of the two other truths; everything exists, but only as ever-changing manifestations of causes and conditions. The direct experience (as opposed to the intellectual understanding) of the Truth of the Middle Way is one of the purposes of Tendai practice. Shikan meditation is one of the methods used to accomplish this, together with visualizations, mandala practices and many other practice-forms.
A third important Tendai teaching is the doctrine of Ichinen Sanzen; three thousand worlds in a single moment of thought, which is the philosophical explanation of the meditative experience that all co-exists – that the individual is important to the whole universe because all thoughts, words and deeds has consequences for both ourselves and others. Based on Ichinen Sanzen, Tendai also teaches the importance of all people lightening up their corner of the world. We all need to commit ourselves to work for the benefit of all sentient beings; work for their safety, happiness, and ultimately their enlightenment. This is about more than just social justice, it is about engaged spiritual practice, based on the personal acknowledgement that since no one lives in a vacuum, happiness is not possible for the individual alone; it must be for all beings.