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What is Tendai Buddhism?


Introduction of Tendai Teachings

    Tendai Buddhism was authorized as an officially recognized Buddhist School by the Japanese Imperial court on January 26th, 806 C.E. Dengyō Daishi (Saichō 最澄, 767- 822), the founder of Japanese Tendai Buddhism, believed in the teaching of Ekayāna (One Vehicle); everyone is equal and anyone can attain spiritual awakening. He was authorized to educate and train monks to spread this teachings based on the One Vehicle. Dengyō Daishi’s wish was for official recognition of Tendai. In addition, he hoped that each school of Buddhism in Japan at that time should co-exist in order to relieve the sufferings of all sentient/living beings. Because of this, when the imperial court authorized the teaching of Tendai Buddhism, the court also supported a number of monks for other schools of Buddhism in terms of monetary allowances for their educations.

Integration of Sutra & Tantra

     The founder of Japanese Tendai School, Saichō (767-822), constructed his first temple on Mt. Hiei in 788 with the support of the Japanese Government of the Heian Period. The current Konponchūdō (Main temple) was reconstructed by the third Tokugawa Shōgunate Iemitsu, in 1641. A perpetual light was lit by Saichō praying that the light would burn forever, until future Buddha (Maitreya) will appear in Japan. Saichō’s prayer is recorded in the selected collections of Imperial poems “Igniting the Dharma Light brightly until the next Buddha (Maitreya) appears.” And this poem became the song of the Japanese Tendai School today.

     The Heian era began in 793 when Emperor Kanmu (his reign 781-806) moved the capital from Nara to Kyōto city in order to stop interference from the Office of Monastic Affairs of the Nara Traditional Buddhism. Then Emperor Kanmu requested the young monk Saichō to get a traditional lineage from Chinese Tendai Buddhism. Kanmu dispatched Saichō to cross the ocean to China. Saichō successively got the T’ien-t’ai traditional lineage as well as Bodhisattva Precepts from Tao-sui 道邃 at Mount T’ien-t’ai founded by Zhiyi (538-597). While he was in the T’ien-t’ai mountain he also received Ox Head School of Ch’an 牛頭禅 from Hsiu-jan 脩然. Saichō also received Esoteric initiations from Shun-hsiao 順暁 at a mountain temple east of Chig-hu in Yuch-chou. For Saichō, it was a good chance to have the first Mahāyāna Precepts Center at Mount Hiei for this very occasion. Saichō crossed the ocean to China in 804, staying there for one year and successfully obtaining the T’ien-t’ai lineage as well as esoteric Buddhism. Eventually, Japanese Tendai transmitted the four types of teachings from China i.e. En (Perfect Teaching of the Lotus Sūtra), Mitsu (Esoteric Teaching), Zen Meditation, and Kai (Mahāyāna Precepts). Upon Saichō’s return to Japan, Emperor Kanmu, unfortunately, was sick in bed. Therefore, his first task was to pray for Kanmu’s recovery from illness. Eventually, he offered the first esoteric fire ritual ceremony in Japan.


Triple Views in a thought & Three Thousand Realties in a Single Moment of Consciousness.

     The T’ien-t’ai concept of discerning the real is referred to as the Isshin-sangan and the Ichinen-sanzen concept. The Isshin-sangan is a type of T’ien-t’ai meditation in which one views a phenomenon from three viewpoints in a single moment of consciousness, i.e.,

1. Kū (emptiness空); all phenomena are relative and dependent upon other phenomena, and all existence is in its essence devoid of permanency, since they arise due to various causes. This is non-substantiality, ku.


2. Ke (Conventional假); nevertheless, phenomena is there as real, but the phenomena is provisional in appearance. This is temporal reality.


3. Chū (middle中); since each phenomenon is a blending of both kū and ke, it should be seen as occupying a midway point between the poles of two extreme views of emptiness and temporality. 


For the T’ien-t’ai follower, these ‘sangan三観’ or ‘Issin-Sangan一心三観' are one in essence and they correspond to the intuitive understanding of Ku, Ke, and Chu at one and the same time, but not to gradual understanding. Kū, ke, and chū correspond, respectively,to the three aspects of phenomena: its dependence upon conditions of causation, its temporary existence, and its true nature. These three aspects of phenomena cannot be independent of each other. This doctrine of Isshin-sangan occupies a central position in the T’ien-t’ai Sect and is regarded as the ultimate teaching of the Buddha.


Kū, ke, and chū indicate, respectively, the three aspects of phenomena: its dependence upon conditions of causation, its temporary existence, and its true nature. These three aspects cannot be independent of each other. This doctrine  of Isshin-sangan occupies a central position in the T’ien-t’ai Sect and is regarded as the ultimate teaching of the Buddha.


    Ichinen-sanzen: Three thousand realities exist in a single moment of consciousness. Whether we are conscious or not, the three thousand realities are in each single moment of our consciousness. This is the basic idea of the Tendai Doctrine. According to the Mo ho chi kuan (Great Manual for Calming the Mind / Discerning the Real), based upon the Lotus sūtra, there is the following expression:


    “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 Buddha world, the world of sentient beings, or the five aggregates are all, in fact, the expressions of Middle Way.”ii


     The Middle Way is a unique feature of the Tendai concept of discerning the real. Esoteric Buddhism views the phenomena and principle through the esoteric ritual of the three secrets (tri-guhya), body (mudrā), speech (mantra), and mind (visualization). This Middle Way is identical with such esoteric expressions of a practical view in order to harmonize contradictory opinions. In other words, the esoteric ritual of Shingon Buddhism is nothing but the expression of the Middle truth. This point of view is Tendai esotericism.


      Three-thousand realities include every phenomenal existence. Our world consists of ten realms iii, 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 iv 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.

Without consciousness three thousand realities are in a single moment of consciousness.


Union of the Exoteric and Esoteric Teaching

     We can trace exoteric and esoteric teachings back to the Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa Sūtra. The following expressions of the sūtra show the esoteric element in the sūtra: “Of the true bodhisattvas, their mother is the transcendence of wisdom, their father is the skill in liberating technique; the leaders are born of such parents.”viii


     The translator of this sūtra, Robert Thurman, comments that wisdom (prajñā) is the bell and liberating technique (upāya) is the vajra.ix Union of both upāya and prajñā is the great liberation mokṣa. Shingon esoteric Buddhism says the union of the Garbha Realm Maṇḍala and the Vajradhātu Maṇḍala is the great liberation.


     Tendai esotericism, on the other hand, is derived from the Lotus sūtra. The hermeneutics of the Lotus in T’ien-t’ai by Zhiyi is that the first 14 chapters are upāya, skill in means, and the last 14 chapters are the prajñā wisdom and the Buddha’s eternal life. Saichō interpreted the first 14 chapters in terms of the Tendai concept of Original Enlightenment. Our life consists of two worlds, that is, the apparent or phenomenal world, and the eternal worlds, the apparent and the eternal. Saichō established two options for training curriculums for Tendai Monks. One was a course of meditation practices, śamatha (Calmness) and the other for Esoteric practices, Vipaśyanā (discernment). Those monks in the former course were required to master exoteric Buddhism, while the latter course requires mastery of Vairocana esotericism. Nowadays, the culmination of the exoteric course involves meditation at Ninaidō halls on Mt. Hiei. They practice meditations for ninety days until the living Buddha appears in front of the practitioner. After the practice, the monks are secluded for twelve years in the Jōdoin temple where the founder Saichō sleeps on Mt. Hiei, Practicing Rōzangyō. A present-day example of the esoteric course is Kaihōgyō. Monks wake up midnight and leave Myoodō hall for a pilgrimage visiting 260 sacred places around Mt. Hiei for 1,000 days over seven years.


     During the ritual practice gyō, he walks 18 miles a day at first and building up to 52 miles a day toward the end. These two examples represent extreme training in the two courses, the Calming the Mind course and the Discerning the Real esoteric way. In the case of ordinary priests they have to stay 65 days for practicing both of the two courses at Gyōin monastery on Mt. Hiei. This is the minimum required for every Tendai priest in Japan.


     The first one month, the novitiate priest practices recitations of exoteric sūtras. The latter one month entails learning the esoteric practices known as The Four Initiations into Esoteric Buddhism, which are the Juhachidō (Eighteen Ways to Welcome Buddhas), the Taizōkai (Garbhadhātu Maṇḍala), Kongōkai (Vajradhātu Maṇḍala) and Goma (Fire ritual). Before entering into the esoteric course, practitioner prostrates to the thousand Buddhas for esoteric initiation.


Sūtra and Tantra

     Sūtras are the texts of discourses by Buddha Śākyamuni and Tantra are the rituals on how to idealize the ceremony woven together with sūtras expounded by Buddha. Tendai emphasizes the historical Buddha Śākyamuni who represents the exoteric world, and the eternal Buddha Vairocana who represents the esoteric world of the Dharmakāya (the highest aspect of the threefold Buddha bodies). Both of them are one and the same. This is a major difference between Shingon esoteric Buddhism (Tōmitsu) and Tendai esoteric Buddhism (Taimitsu). Shingon esoteric Buddhism founded by Kūkai (774-835) asserts that the teachings of the Mahāvairocana Sūtra and the Vajrashekhara Sūtra are superior to the Lotus Sūtra, and that the Buddha Vairocana is distinct from and pre-eminent to Śākyamuni. There are other dissimilarities between Tendai esotericism and Shingon esotericism, such as reliance on different sūtras and texts, and variant lineages, but a characteristic of Tendai Buddhism is its insistence that the Tendai lotus teachings and Shingon esotericism have fundamentally the same meaning.


The Basis of Saichō’s Mahāyāna Buddhism

     The main exoteric Māhāyāna Sūtra which Saichō relied on was the Lotus Sūtra, while the esoteric sutra was the Mahāvairocana sūtra. The core teaching of Japanese Tendai is based on the Chinese T’ien-t’ai philosophy initiated by Zhiyi (538-597) in his Mo ho chi kuan (The Great Manual of Calmness and Discernment) based upon the Lotus sūtra). The tantric text, the Mahāvirocana Sūtra, was a slightly later work than the Mo ho chi kuan and was composed around the 7th century in the region that is now Afghanistan. Both the Lotus Sūtra and the Mahāvairocana Sūtra emphasize compassion as central to Māhāyāna Buddhism. Saichō says in his Sange gakushōshiki, “Buddhists with religious minds are called bodhisattvas in the West (i.e. India), and gentlemen in the East (i.e. China). They take the bad upon themselves in order to benefit others. This is the height of compassion.”x



The above is selected excerpts from Tendai Buddhist Sect Overseas Charitable Foundation (2013, Nov. 27) THE FIRST MAHĀYĀNA PRECEPTS PLATFORM AT MT.HIEI BY DENGYŌ DAISHI SAICHŌ



i Heian period in Japan continued 390 years from 794 AD when Emperor Kanmu moved Capital to Kyoto to 1192 AD when Yoritomo established the first Shogunate Government in Kamakura.

ii The Mo hi chi kuan Taisho Tripitaka, vol.46. pp.lc23-25.

iii Ten Realms of living beings: hell, the world of hungry spirits, animals, ashuras, and men; heaven, the world of Sravkas, Pratyekabuddhas, Bodhisattva, and Buddhas. And each of the ten realms of beings contains the other nine in itself. Thus there are one hundred realm altogether. These one hundred realms have each the ten factors of beings (jyunyoze). Thus there are conceived to be one thousand realms. These one thousand realms can be seen in the three realms of existence: the realms of sentient being, non-sentient beings, and the five aggregates (skandhas) which constitute all being, sentient or non-sentient. These three thousand realms are contained in one mind. This is an important doctrine of Tendai School that all phenomena in this world are included in one thought which human beings think in their daily lives. 

iv Only a buddha together with a buddha can fathom the reality of existence, that is to say, all existence has such a form, such a nature, such an embodiment, such a potency, such a function, such a primary cause, such a secondary cause, such an effect, such a recompense, and such a complete whole. Taisho Tripitaka vol.9 p.5c.

v A Guide to the Tiantai Fourfold Teachings, TIANTAI LOTUS TEXTS, BDK English Tripitaka Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai America, Inc. 2013) pp.153-210 tr, D.Chappel & M.Ichishima

vi Tendaishu Zensho Vol.10 p.26a.

vii Cf. The Features of the concept of Enmitsu-Itchi in Ninku's writing, Journal of Buddhist Studies, Vol.51 December 2009

viii Robert A.F. Thurman, tr., The Holy Teachings of Vimalakirti (Pennsylvania State University, 1983) p.67

ix Thurman, p.124 notes 24

x Paul Groner, SAICHŌ: The Establishment of the Japanese Tendai School (Berkeley Buddhist Studies Series, 1984) p.117


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