Zhiyi Buddhism

The third patriarch of the Chinese Buddhist school of Tiantai, Zhiyi (ja. Chigi) 智顗 (538-597) was the disciple of Huisi and the true founder of the school. He lived in the very troubled China of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (Chen Dynasty) and then under the Sui, enjoying imperial and noble favor.

According to David W. Chappell, a specialist in Tiantai and teacher at the University of Hawaii, he contributed greatly to the spread of Buddhism by devising a system adapted to Chinese culture from Indian philosophy, allowing the birth of new practices.

In China he is often called "Master Sage" (Zhizhe dashi 智者大師), a title conferred in his lifetime by Sui Wendi (581-604), or "Master of Tiantai" (Tiantai dashi 天台大師), a title given under the Tang.


Chen De'an (陳德安) (social first name) was born in Huarong, Jingzhou prefecture in Hubei, into a family of officials originally from Xuchang in Henan, having followed the Jin court in its retreat to the south in the early fourth century. His father, Chen Qizu (陳起祖), was well introduced to the Liang court. His mother comes from an honorably known Xu (徐) family.

When he was 17-18 years old, the Western Wei seized power and his parents died, apparently of violent deaths. Long attracted to Buddhism, he became - against the advice of his older brother - a monk at the Guoyan temple in Changsha, where he studied under the vinaya master Huikuang (慧曠).

After a course devoted to, among other things, the Lotus Sutra on Mount Daxian in Hengzhou, he went to Mount Dasu in Henan at the age of 23 and became a disciple of Huisi there.

Nevertheless, in 567 the community broke up, perhaps because of factional struggles. Huisi returned to Nanyue and Zhiyi to the capital Jinling, which he had attended as a child, and where the Southern Chens now ruled.

There he taught the Lotus Sutra and the Treatise of the Great Prajnaparamita at the Waguan temple at the invitation of the imperial son-in-law Shen Junli (沈君理), and was well regarded at court. He wrote the Liumiao famen.

Around 575, wishing to abandon the city for a site more suitable for meditation, he chose Huading in the Tiantai Mountains. In 577, Emperor Xuandi (568-82) dedicated the revenues of the Shifeng prefecture to his monastery. In 584, he welcomed in his community Guanding, his future successor at the head of Tiantai.

In 585, Houzhu (582-89), the last Chen emperor, persuaded him to return to Jinling accompanied by Guanding to continue his teaching of the Lotus Sutra in the Lingyao and Guangzhai temples. Guanding wrote down his teaching which became the Fahua wenju.

He was called to the court to teach the Treatise of the Great Prajnaparamita and the Karunikaraja prajnaparamita sutra. He taught zhiguan (止觀) meditation to Zhikai (智鎧), the future founder of Dalin monastery later attended by Daoxin; this is one of the links between Tiantai and Chan.

In 588, Jinling was attacked by the Sui. Zhiyi, Guanding and Zhikai went to Mount Lu where the last one settled. The two others continued towards Nanyue. After the fall of the Chens, the prince of Jin and governor of Yangzhou Yang Guang , future Yangdi emperor of the Sui, invited Zhiyi in his city in 591 and declared himself his disciple.

He had him build a monastery in Dangyang near his native Jingzhou on Mount Yuquan where he continued to teach the Lotus Sutra. Guanding's notes from this period became the Fahua xuanyi (Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sutra). In 594, he wrote the meditation treatise Móhē Zhǐguān.

In 595, he preached again in Yangzhou and wrote a commentary on the Vimalakirti Sutra. In the autumn of that year, he returned to Mount Tiantai determined to stay there and wrote the Guanxilun.

Nevertheless, in October 597 he could not refuse Yang Guang's invitation and died en route to Shicheng. In 605, Yang Guang became emperor and built the monastery desired by Zhiyi on Mount Tiantai, known as Guoqing Monastery.


The zhiguan and the four samadhis

Zhiyi expounds in the Mohe zhiguan, the practice of the four samadhis (ch. sizhong sanmei, ja. shishu zanmai 四種三昧). This work written from notes taken during his 594 classes in the capital represents the sum of his meditation experience on Mount Tiantai around 585.

The term zhiguan that he used for meditation is composed of zhi, concentration, and guan, intuition/perception. It can also be practiced in an unseated position, and even in different situations (liyuan duijing 歴縁対境) to achieve a state of calm and perception in all circumstances.

The four samadhis are:

Prolonged sitting meditation (ch. changzuo sanmei 常坐三昧; ja. joza zammai); also called single samadhi (ch. yixing sanmei 一行; ja. ichigyo zanmai)

The extended wandering meditation (ch. banzhou sanmei 般舟三昧 or changxing sanmei 常行三昧; ja. jogyo zammai; sk. pratyutpanna samadhi);

The combination of sitting and wandering meditation (ch. banxingbanzuo sanmei 半行半坐三昧) ;

Meditation in any other form (ch. suiziyi sanmei 隨自意三昧 or feixingfeizuo sanmei 非行非坐三昧; ja. higyo hiza zammai) ;

The term "single samadhi" appears in Manjusri's Prajnaparamita and originally refers to the perception of the undifferentiated character of the dharmadhatu achieved through meditation.

The Tiantai school also gave it the meaning of a single practice transcending all others, a meaning taken up by the Jingtu current and in part by the Chan current, where it was developed by Daoxin.

The five periods and the eight types of teaching

In order to explain the discrepancies between Buddhist texts, based on the Lotus Sutra, Zhiyi considered that although all of them originally come from the Buddha, the latter used a teaching graduated in four stages and that there are four different methods of teaching.

The five periods (or epochs) of teaching:

According to Zhiyi, the Buddha expounded his teaching - in different forms since his earthly form had only one time - in five epochs (wushi 五時).

These are the four epochs corresponding to the four stages to which is added the first epoch, when the Buddha had just attained enlightenment and dictated, the Chinese believe, the Avatamsaka, the basis of the Chinese Huayan and Japanese Kegon schools.

Zhiyi, in "Deep Meaning of the Lotus Sūtra" or Hōkke Genji, thus develops a classification of the Buddha's teachings into five periods: he calls the sūtras of the Kegon, Agama, Hōdō, and Hannya periods "provisional Mahāyāna," and the sūtras of the Hokke-Nehan periods including the Lotus Sūtra and the Nirvana Sūtra "definitive Mahāyāna.
The Four Stages:

The Tripitaka teaching (sanzangjiao 三藏教) typical of the Hinayana is addressed to listeners and solitary Buddhas (pratyekabuddhas) who lack the ability to liberate others. The doctrine of emptiness appears in it only in an elementary way, as in the Satyasiddhi śāstra.

The common teaching (tongjiao 通教), which contains both mahayana and hinayana elements and makes a place for bodhisattvas. The texts of the Yogacara and Madhyamaka schools are representative of this.

The differentiated teaching (biejiao 別教) of a mahayana nature, which is addressed to those wishing to enter the bodhisattva career and is expressed in the prajnaparamita texts devoted primarily to emptiness.

The perfect and universal teaching (yuanjiao 圓教) of the ekayāna (en), "single vehicle" contained in the Lotus Sūtra and the Parinirvana Sūtra (Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra).
The four methods:

The sudden teaching (dunjiao 頓教) by which truth is apprehended immediately in its entirety, contained in the Avatamsaka Sutra.

The gradual teaching (jianjiao 漸教) according to the four stages mentioned above.

The esoteric teaching (mimijiao 祕密教) understood only by a portion of practitioners.

The indeterminate teaching (budingjiao 不定教), meaning that each practitioner gets different benefits according to their own characteristics.

Zhanran (or Miaole: 711-782) gave a new impetus to the Tiantai school by writing his Annotations on The Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sūtra, Annotations on The Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sūtra (or Annotations on The Textual Commentary of the Lotus Sūtra), and Annotation on The Great Concentration and Penetration.