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Tiantai (Chinese: 天台宗pinyin: tiān tái zōngWade-Giles: T'ien T'ai) is one of the important schools of Buddhism in China, Korea and Japan, also called the Lotus School because of its emphasis on the Lotus Sutra. It was founded by Zhiyi (Chinese: 智顗pinyin: zhì yǐWade-Giles: Chih-I) (538–597) during the Sui Dynasty in China. During the subsequent Tang Dynasty it became one of the leading Chinese Buddhist schools, with many large temples supported by emperors and wealthy patrons, with many thousands of monks and millions of followers.

Tiantai is a Mahāyāna school established at Tiantai Mountain in what is now Zhejiang Province. Its headquarters temple was Guoqing Temple, which still exists and is a site of tourism. The official line of transmission lists the Indian Buddhist master Nagarjuna and Chinese monks Huiwen and Huisi as Zhiyi's predecessors; however, most modern scholars consider Zhiyi to be the founder of Tiantai. The school's sixth patriarch, Zhanran, is accredited for his clarifying commentaries on Zhiyi's writings.

The founding of the Tiantai school is viewed by some as a response to a growing challenge amongst Chinese Buddhists. Various Chinese pilgrims and translators had gathered and translated a huge body of Buddhist scriptures, commentaries and writings from India. However, due to the vagaries of ancient travel and communications, these texts were often collected in a very eclectic - or even haphazard - manner. Collections of texts were often gathered from multiple schools of Buddhist philosophy. Occasionally, incomplete collections were brought back to China, without awareness that significant texts were missing. Texts separated by generations of philosophical developments were lumped together as contemporaries. As more and more texts became available, it was increasingly clear that many of these texts could not possibly be reconciled with one another. Many Chinese Buddhists scholars wondered how the Buddha could have possibly taught all of these seemingly contradictory doctrines. More importantly, which teaching represented the Buddha's ultimate intentions?

Zhiyi's response was to analyse and organize all the Āgamas and Mahayana sutras into a system of five periods and eight types of teachings. For example, many elementary doctrines and bridging concepts had been taught early in the Buddha's advent when the vast majority of the people during his time were not yet ready to grasp the 'ultimate truth'. These teachings (the Āgamas) were an upaya, or skillful means, were simply an example of the Buddha employing his boundless wisdom to lead those people towards the truth. Subsequent teachings delivered to more advanced followers thus represent a more complete and accurate picture of the Buddha's teachings, and did away with some of the philosophical 'crutches' introduced earlier. Zhiyi's classification culminated with the Lotus Sutra, which he held to be the supreme synthesis of Buddhist doctrine.

Tiantai thus became doctrinally broad, able to absorb and give rise to other movements within Buddhism. Zhiyi emphasized both scriptural study and practice, and taught the rapid attainment of Buddhahood through observing the mind. He also took up a principle of triple truth derived from Nagarjuna:

  • Phenomena are empty of self-nature
  • Phenomena exists provisionally from a worldly perspective
  • Phenomena are both empty of existence and exists provisionally at once

The transient world of phenomena is thus seen as one with the unchanging, undifferentiated ground of existence. This doctrine was elaborated in a complex esoteric cosmology of 3000 interpenetrating realms of existence.

Most scholars regard the Tiantai as one of the first truly Chinese schools of Buddhist thought. The schools of Buddhism that had existed in China prior to the emergence of the Tiantai are generally believed to represent direct transplantations from India, with little modification to their basic doctrines and methods. The creation of the Tiantai school signified the maturation and integration of Buddhism in the Chinese context. No longer content to simply translate texts received from Indian sources, Chinese Buddhists began to apply new analyses to old texts, and even to produce new scriptures and commentaries that would attain significant status within the East Asian sphere.

See also


  • Foundations of T'ien-T'ai Philosophy, Paul L. Swanson, Asian Humanities Press, California, 1989. ISBN 0-89581-919-8.
  • Brook Ziporyn, Tiantai School in Encyclopedia of Buddhism, Robert E. Buswell, Ed., McMillan USA, New York, NY, 2004. ISBN 0-02-865910-4.

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