Principal Texts

Tendai Buddhism holds numerous texts in high regard, the Lotus Sūtra being the pinnacle. Many Tendai principles and much of its philosophy stem from the Lotus Sūtra, such as the emphasis on Expedient Means, and the One Vehicle. Other influential texts include the Heart Sūtra, the Great Perfection of Wisdom Treatise, the Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna, the Mahāvairocana Tantra, and the Pure Land Sūtras, just to name a few. Tendai Buddhism is also richly influenced by the early Indian texts, such as the Āgamas.

The most influential writings of the founder of T’ian T’ai, Chih-i, are collectively known as the Three Major Treatises of Tendai:

  • The Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sūtra
  • Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sūtra
  • Great Śamatha & Vipaśyanā [Meditation Practice]

Three Truths

The Three Truths according to Chih-i are the following:

  • All phenomena are empty.
  • All phenomena have a relative (albeit temporal) existence.
  • Both are true at the same time – this is known as the Middle.

The first truth signifies that we are not a static, permanent entity that exists outside of anything. We are very much interdependent with all other phenomena and we are forever changing.

The second truth recognises that there is a relative existence. We can see a chair or ourselves in the mirror and recognise them. Existence is a temporary condition and relies on causes, subject to the laws of dependent origination. But we cannot deny it.

The third truth, known as the Truth of the Middle, recognises that both truths are simultaneously valid. Phenomena are both empty and temporarily existent, so, the Three Truths are One Truth, as the one contains the three and the three contain the one.

This concept is integral to Tendai philosophy and is practised as contemplative meditation in order to overcome wrong view.

The contemplation on emptiness is to overcome the wrong view of permanence and understand our relation with all phenomena in the chain of dependent origination.

The contemplation on relative existence is to overcome the wrong view of nihilism – the idea that because of the truth of emptiness, nothing really matters and effort is futile.

The third contemplation is to keep a balanced view, to understand one in three – three in one and realise our true nature.

Five Periods & Eight Teachings

Chih-i, using examples found in the Lotus and Nirvana Sūtras, classified Buddhist literature into Five Periods, or Flavours. These flavours start with pure milk and move through a process of cream, curd, butter and ghee, illustrating his understanding that the Five Periods are like stages for practitioners to go through.

He also divided the sūtras into eight categories, the so-called Eight Teachings, four of which represent methods of teaching, and four of which are the doctrine itself. These different categories are like a cooking recipe where different ingredients are combined to bring sentient beings to Enlightenment. Everyone passes through these stages, but those with higher capacities can penetrate the Dharmadhātu in any stage, there is no need to wait.

The Five Periods:

  • The Period of the Flower Ornament Sutra (Huayan)
  • The Period of the Deer Park (Āgamas / Pali cannon)
  • The Period of the Expanded Teachings
  • The Period of Wisdom (Prajñā)
  • The Period of the Lotus and Nirvana Sūtras

The Eight Teachings:

  • The Sudden
  • The Gradual
  • The Secret
  • The Variable
  • The Tripiṭaka
  • The Shared
  • The Distinctive
  • The Complete

The First Period – The Sudden Method, The Distinctive Doctrine

The First Period corresponds to the Flower Ornament Sūtra. Chih-i put the Flower Ornament Sūtra in the First Period as he believed it contained the first discourse of the Buddha, therefore it is called the Sudden Teaching. This sūtra was aimed to Bodhisattvas with superior abilities, a complete doctrine for those with high capacities, therefore it is considered combined with expediency. Thus, it is considered a Distinctive Doctrine.

The Second Period – The Gradual, The Secret, The Variable Method, The Tripiṭaka Doctrine

The Second Period, known as the Deer Park Period, corresponds to the Tripiṭaka Doctrine, representing a gradual method of teaching. According to Chih-i, the Buddha taught this method for those who do not yet have superior capacities. The Tripiṭaka Doctrine is for those who strive to become Arhats – those who escape cyclic existence, never to return. This teaching emphasises the non-self of the Five Aggregates, non-attachment, and the overcoming of suffering by reliance on the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination and the meditational techniques of the Pali Canon.

The Third PeriodThe Gradual, The Secret, The Variable Method, The Shared Doctrine

The Third Period still utilises the Gradual Method but further expands on the concepts of the Tripiṭaka. These texts typically praise Mahāyāna and criticise Hinayāna, and are called contrasting because they contrast the full words of the Mahāyāna with the half words of the Hinayāna. In other words, they contrast the Tripiṭaka, the shared, the distinctive and the complete teachings.

The Fourth PeriodThe Gradual, The Secret, The Variable Method, The Shared Doctrine

This Period corresponds to the Wisdom Sutras, which is said to wash away all delusions. This is seen by many as the start of the Bodhisattva ideal teaching – the desire to save all sentient beings. This period expands on the teaching of śūnyatā and illustrates how every phenomenon is empty. The realisation of these teachings is not through cognitive analysis but through insight, which gives way to Prajñā.

Contained in the First, Second, Third and Fourth Periods, we also have the Secret Method and the Variable Methods. It is called secret because it was only given to those able to understand it. Should those with no understanding hear it, they would lose faith and abandon the path. The Variable Method was taught through expedient means depending on the capacities of the listeners.

The Fifth Period – The Complete Doctrine

This Period is characterised by the Lotus and Nirvana Sūtras, in which the Buddha gives his final teaching. Although the preceding teachings seem contradictionary, their differences are merely expedient means enabling beings to witness the truth, which is revealed in the Lotus Sūtra and repeated in the Nirvana Sūtra. Chih-i further expanded this in his teaching about the Threefold Truth. What this teaching illustrates is that although the various doctrines represent expedient means, they are not false. This is the pure, complete doctrine that is contained in the Lotus Sūtra, establishing the Ekayāna, the One Vehicle of the Buddha.

Three Thousand Realities in a Single Moment of Consciousness

Whether we are conscious or not, three thousand realities are in each single moment of our consciousness. This is the foundation of Tendai philosophy. According to the Great Manual for Calming the Mind / Discerning the Real and based upon the Lotus Sūtra:

What we call Perfect Sudden is to relate our mind to reality from the very beginning, and visualize the object of the mind. Such is in fact identical with the Middle Way. This is not different from the conceptual truth. When our mind relates to the Dharma Realm even our visual forms and fragrance do not differ from the Middle Way. Our world, the world of the Buddha, the world of sentient beings, or the five aggregates, are all, in fact, the expressions of the Middle Way.

Three-thousand realities include every phenomenal existence. Our world consists of ten realms, each of the ten realms of beings includes the other nine realms. Accordingly, there are one-hundred realms in number. The Ten Suchness of the Lotus Sūtra are involved in the hundred realms. Thus, everyone conceives of one-thousand realms. These one-thousand realms are manifold in the three realms of existence i.e. the realms of sentient beings, non-sentient beings, and the five aggregates which constitute all beings, sentient or non-sentient.

In Buddhism, these are the ten realms or modes of existence: Hell, Hungry Ghosts, Animals, Ashuras, Men, Devas, Sravakas, Pratyekabuddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Buddhas.

Concerning the Ten Suchnesses, in the Lotus Sutra we read: Only a Buddha and a Buddha can exhaust their reality, namely the suchness of the dharmas, the suchness of their marks, the suchness of their nature, the suchness of their substance, the suchness of their powers, the suchness of their functions, the suchness of their causes, the suchness of their conditions, the suchness of their effects, the suchness of their retributions, the absolute identity of their beginning and end.