Nichiren was ordained and trained as a Tendai monk, so much of his teachings and arguments are incomprehensible without at least a rudimentary understanding of T’ien-t’ai Buddhism. In this chapter I provide a brief history of the T’ien-t’ai school in China and Japan. In the next two chapters I will cover the T’ien-t’ai teachings relating to the classification of the Buddha’s teachings and the various practices of meditation that Nichiren alludes to throughout Kanjin Honzon-shō.

In the 6th century, the Chinese monk Chih-i (538-597) established a teaching center on Mt. T’ien-t’ai. He was later known as the Great Master T’ien-t’ai, founder of the school of the same name. Chih-i was a great scholar and meditator who wanted to systematize all the seemingly contradictory teachings that had been translated into Chinese. To do this, he classified the Buddha’s teachings into five flavors and eight categories of teaching. Chih-i was a practitioner as well as a scholar. He put equal emphasis on meditation practice and doctrine in order to create a balanced system whereby doctrine would inform practice and practice would actualize doctrine. The concept of the “3,000 worlds in a single thought-moment” that is discussed at the beginning of Kanjin Honzon-shō was part of his explanation of the sudden and perfect method of tranquility and insight meditation. He also spoke of awakening in terms of realizing the unity of the three truths of emptiness, provisional existence, and the Middle Way in order to clarify the true meaning of the teachings of the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras and Nāgārjuna’s (2nd-3rd century) teachings regarding emptiness, causality, and the Middle Way. He derived the unity of the three truths from a line in Nāgārjuna’s major work, Verses on the Middle Way: “Whatever is dependently co-arisen/That is explained to be emptiness./That, being a dependent designation,/Is itself the middle way.” (Garfield, p. 304) Chih-i taught that these three truths could be realized through a “threefold contemplation” cutting through the “three kinds of delusion” and giving rise to the “three kinds of wisdom.” Ultimately, Chih-i taught that the three truths are simply different aspects of the one true nature of reality that can be realized in a single moment of insight.

Chih-i lost his parents when he was seventeen years old, during the turbulent end of the Southern Liang Dynasty (502-557). Soon after, he sought ordination as a Buddhist monk. In 560 CE, Chih-i visited Nan-yüeh Hui-ssu (515-577) on Mount Ta-su, and studied the Lotus Sūtra under him, and, as a result of intense practice, he was said to have attained awaking through this phrase of the “Medicine King Chapter” of the Lotus Sūtra: “The Buddhas of those worlds praised him, saying simultaneously, ‘Excellent, excellent, good man! All you did was a true endeavor. You made an offering to us according to the true Dharma.’” (Murano 1974, p. 301) His awakening was certified by Hui-ssu. With the recommendation of Hui-ssu, Chih-i left Mount Ta-su and went to Chin-ling and stayed at Wa-kuan-ssu where he lectured to clergy and laity over a period of eight years. During this time he greatly impressed the literati and monks whom he came in contact with.

There are several well-known monks that are associated with Chih-i, such as Fa-chi, who was skilled in meditation, Fa-lang, who was the great master in the San-lun tradition, and Pao-ch’iung and Ching-shao, who were distinguished monks in the capital Chin-ling. It is recorded in the Pieh-chuan that these monks either challenged Chih-i with the knowledge of contemplation or with engagement of doctrinal debate, but all of them ended up gaining great admiration and respect for Chih-i’s knowledge and wisdom and his power of contemplation. (Shen Vol. I, p. 14)

However, because of an anti-Buddhist movement by the Northern Chou dynasty, Chih-i retired to Mount T’ien-t’ai in 575 CE at the age of 39. He undertook dhūta practice at the Flower Peak of the mountain, and lectured at Hsiu-ch’an Temple. In 585 CE, at the age of 48, Chih-i returned to Chin-ling, the capital of the Ch’en dynasty, at the request of several district lords and governors. In 587 CE, he gave lectures on the Lotus Sūtra, which were later compiled as The Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sūtra. To avoid the conquest of the Ch’en dynasty by the Sui dynasty, Chih-i stayed at Mount Lu and the town of Ch’ang-sha. In 591 CE, he was invited by Prince Kuang (later known as Yang-ti), and went to Yang-chou. He granted bodhisattva precepts to the prince and received the honorific name “Chih-che” from him. He established Yü-ch’üan Temple in Ching-chou and expounded The Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sūtra in 593 CE and The Great Concentration and Insight in 594 CE. He returned to Mount T’ien-t’ai in 595 CE. Two years later, in 597 CE, while he was on the way to see Prince Kuang, he became sick and died.

Chih-i upheld the Lotus Sūtra as the most profound teaching of the Buddha. In terms of practice he emphasized the sudden and perfect method of tranquility and insight, but also utilized elaborate repentance ceremonies and devotional Pure Land practices. In his teachings, Chih-i drew upon the Great Perfection of Wisdom Treatise attributed to Nāgārjuna that had been translated (or perhaps written) by Kumārajīva, the Larger Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra, and the Nirvāna Sūtra in order to expound a comprehensive system of Buddhist teaching and practice. Chih-i’s three major works were the aforementioned Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sūtra, the Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sūtra, and the Great Concentration and Insight. These three works were actually based on notes taken from his lectures that were compiled and edited by Chih-i’s disciple Kuan-ting (561-632; aka Chang-an).

Before Chih-i there had been a lot of debate about the true meaning of the Buddha’s teachings due to the contradictions found between the various sūtras and commentaries coming from India. Starting in the late 5th century, various attempts were made to reconcile the many teachings that were being translated. By Chih-i’s time there were the so-called three schools of the south and seven schools of the north that each presented a different system for classifying the sūtras. These were not schools in the sense of sects or monastic orders but rather differing schools of thought propounded by different monks. These schools arranged the sūtras into such categories as sudden, gradual, and indeterminate. Many of these schools favored the Flower Garland Sūtra or the Nirvāna Sūtra as the ultimate teaching of the Buddha. Chih-i critiqued these systems and presented his own system in the Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sūtra of the five flavors and eight teachings that showed how the teaching and practice of the other sūtras all led up to the Lotus Sūtra as the definitive expression of the Buddha’s ultimate teaching.

The school Chih-i founded was named the T’ien-t’ai School after the mountain where he resided. Though Chih-i was the founder and first patriarch, Nāgārjuna is sometimes considered the honorary first patriarch because so much of the T’ien-t’ai teachings are based upon the Great Perfection of Wisdom Treatise. Hui-wen (n.d.), the teacher of Hui-ssu is then considered the second patriarch, Hui-ssu the third, and Chih-i the fourth. Sometimes it is Hui-wen who is considered the honorary first patriarch of the school, making Hui-ssu the second and Chih-i the third. The T’ien-t’ai School declined during the 7th and 8th centuries due to the rise of the Dharma Characteristics, Flower Garland, and Zen schools that overshadowed the T’ien-t’ai School in terms of prestige and royal patronage. The T’ien-t’ai school was briefly revived during the time of Chan-jan (711-782; aka Miao-lê), the school’s sixth patriarch (if Chih-i is considered the first). Chan-jan wrote commentaries on Chih-i’s three major writings that Nichiren quoted almost as often as Chih-i himself. Unfortunately, the persecution of Buddhism by the Emperor Wu-tsung in 845 was the end of the great scholastic schools of Buddhism in China. After that, the Zen and Pure Land Buddhism dominated Chinese Buddhism.

The T’ien-tai teachings were first brought to Japan by Chien-chen (J. Ganjin; 688-763), who was also a T’ien-t’ai monk as well as a Vinaya master. Saicho (767-822; known posthumously as Dengyō) later studied these teachings and was greatly intrigued by them. In 788 Saichō established a temple (later named Enryakuji by Emperor Saga in 823) on Mt. Hiei to study and practice away from the world. The world, however, came to him. In 794 the capital of Japan moved from Nara to Kyoto, right at the foot of Mt. Hiei. In 797, Saichō came to the attention of the emperor and he was given a post at court. Beginning in 798, Saichō gave annual lectures on the Lotus Sūtra at Mt. Hiei that were attended by monks from the Nara schools. His reputation grew and in 802, Saichō was invited to lecture on the three major works of Chih-i at Takaosanji temple in Kyoto attended by 14 prestigious monks of the six schools of Nara. Paul Groner said of this occasion, “The many years which Saichō had devoted to the study of Tendai texts must have enabled him to make a strong and lasting impression at the lectures.” (Groner, p. 36)

In 804, Saichō was able to travel to China to learn more about T’ien-t’ai Buddhism and other teachings and bring back more reliable texts. He could not speak Chinese but was able to read it and had to rely on interpreters. He was able to study with Tao-sui (n.d.), the seventh patriarch of the T’ien-t’ai school, and Hsing-man (n.d.), a monk who had been a student of Miao-lê. From the former, Saichō received the bodhisattva precepts of the Brahma Net Sūtra (allegedly translated by Kumārajīva though many scholars believe it is a Chinese creation). He also received the teachings of the minor Zen branch known as the Ox Head School from a monk named Hsiu-jan (who may or may not have been a disciple of the Zen Master Ma-tsu Tao-i (709-788). He also received esoteric Buddhist initiations and teachings from a monk named Shun-hsiao (n.d.) and other esoteric practitioners, though his study of these teachings was not as deep as he would have liked.

After only eight and a half months, Saichō returned to Japan in 805 and began the establishment of the Tendai Shū on Mt. Hiei. The Tendai Shū was originally set up to be a comprehensive school of Buddhism that utilized all teachings and methods of practice united by the perfect teaching of the Lotus Sūtra as taught by Chih-i. This synthesis of teachings and practices was called “enmitsuzenkai.” “En” means “Perfect” and refers to the perfect teaching of the Lotus Sūtra. “Mitsu” means “esoteric” or “secret” and refers to esoteric Buddhism. “Zen” refers to the practice of meditation. “Kai” means “precepts” and refers to Saichō’s concern with the establishment of the Mahāyāna precepts. Saichō established two tracks of practice: one track was for the practice of esoteric Buddhism, while the other was for the practice of the T’ien-t’ai method of concentration and insight.

Saichō also worked to establish a Mahāyāna precept platform on Mt. Hiei for the conferral of Mahāyāna precepts from the Brahma Net Sūtra on his disciples so that Mahāyāna monastics could have a Mahāyāna precept lineage. Though the Brahma Net Sūtra precepts had been conferred upon monks and householders in both China and Japan before this, they had never been used in place of the Dharmaguptaka precepts, nor had there ever been a separate precept platform (kaidan) for their conferral. This was an unprecedented innovation that aroused the opposition of the six schools of Nara. The controversy raged throughout Saichō’s life, but a week after his death in 822 the court finally granted permission for Mt. Hiei to have a Mahāyāna precept platform and it was finally constructed in 827.

Saichō also got involved in doctrinal controversies with monks of the Nara schools, in particular with a monk named Tokuitsu (c. 780-842) of the Dharma Characteristics School who insisted that the One Vehicle teaching of the Lotus Sūtra was only a provisional teaching whereas the three vehicles teaching was the definitive truth. Tokuitsu’s rationale was based upon the teaching of the “five mutually distinctive natures.” In his view, not all people are capable of attaining buddhahood, so some should settle for the lesser goals of the two vehicles, while those who are able should take up the bodhisattva vehicle. The One Vehicle was taught for those who are able to take any of the three vehicles to encourage them to take up the buddha vehicle. Saichō vigorously argued that this was not the case. The Buddha taught the One Vehicle for all beings because all beings are capable of attaining buddhahood. This debate was carried out in the form of essays and treatises. According to Paul Groner, “Tendai scholars have often claimed that Saichō decisively won the debate.” (Ibid, p. 95)

Something should also be said about the relationship between Saichō and Kūkai (774-835; known posthumously as Kōbō), the founder of the True Word School in Japan. They first met when they were traveling to China together in 804. Kūkai returned to Japan in 806 after having studied and received the authority to teach esoteric Buddhism. He established the Shingon Shū or True Word School on Mt. Kōya in 816. For many years Saichō and Kūkai were friends. In 809, Kūkai had gone to Mt. Hiei to learn about the T’ien-t’ai teachings from Saichō. In turn, Saichō inquired about the esoteric teachings, borrowing texts and even receiving an esoteric initiation from Kūkai in 812. Unfortunately, their relationship soured in later years, as one of Saichō’s disciples defected to the True Word School and Kūkai refused to lend texts and insisted that Saichō become his disciple if he wished to study True Word teachings. They also had fundamental disagreements over the relative importance of the Lotus Sūtra and esoteric Buddhism. Not surprisingly, Kūkai compared the Lotus Sūtra and T’ien-t’ai teachings unfavorably with the True Word sūtras, teachings, and practices. By 816, the two monks were no longer corresponding with each other.

After the passing of both Saichō and Kūkai, the successive patriarchs of the Tendai school on Mt. Hiei developed Tendai esotericism to bolster the popularity of their school. Ennin (794-864; aka Jikaku), the third chief priest, and Enchin (814-891; aka Chishō), the fifth, were particularly responsible for bringing esoteric Buddhism to the fore in the Tendai school and even for making it more important than the Lotus Sūtra. Because of this, Nichiren would in his later years accuse them of having turned the Tendai School into the True Word School in all but name, thus leading to the neglect of the Lotus Sūtra within the Tendai School itself. Nichiren would express his critiques of Kūkai, Jikaku, and Chishō in his later writings such as the Senji-shō (Selecting the Right Time) and Hōon-ō (Essay on Gratitude).

Pure Land Buddhism also developed in the Tendai School. Saichō himself aspired to rebirth in the Pure Land, but it was Ennin who established the Jōgyō Zammai-dō (Hall for Walking Meditation) in 849. This hall was dedicated to the practice of the constant walking meditation taught in the Great Concentration and Insight of Chih-i which featured the chanting of nembutsu. After that, Pure Land devotion became an important part of Tendai Buddhism. By Nichiren’s time, many Tendai temples had become centers for the practice of Hōnen’s (1133-1212) exclusive nembutsu version of Pure Land Buddhism.

Zen Buddhism in Japan also had its origins in Tendai temples. Eisai (1141-1215) was a Tendai monk who tried to propagate Rinzai Zen practice as part of the Tendai School. He established Jufuku-ji in Kamakura in 1200 and Kennin-ji temple in Kyoto. These temples were initially meant to be Tendai temples where Rinzai Zen would be practiced. However, by Nichiren’s day they had become pure Rinzai Zen temples run by monks such as Lan-chi Tao-lung (1213-1278; J. Rankei Dōryū) who had come from Sung China to Japan in 1246 at the invitation of Hōjō Tokiyori (1227-1263) and was installed as the abbot of Kennin-ji in 1259.

In his writings, Nichiren speaks of Chih-i and Saichō defeating their contemporaries in debates. However, rather than engaging in formal debates, Chih-i and Saichō gave lectures and wrote essays and corresponded with fellow monks. They did, nevertheless, win the respect of their contemporaries, both monks and literati, for their insightful scholarship and depth of spiritual cultivation. As a Tendai reformer, Nichiren was alarmed that the Tendai temples were being converted into centers of True Word, Pure Land, and Zen practice. He lamented what he saw as the neglect of the teachings of Chih-i, Miao-lê, and Saichō and hoped to restore the heritage of the T’ien-t’ai School. More importantly, Nichiren was determined to carry forward the legacy of the T’ien-t’ai School by sharing the teaching and practice of the Lotus Sūtra, the Buddha’s highest teaching, with all people.


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