Tendai (天台宗; Tendai-shū) is a Japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism, originating from the Chinese Tiantai (T'ien-t'ai) or Lotus Sutra school. The Tiantai teaching was first brought to Japan from China in the middle of the eigth century, but the founder of the Tendai school was the Japanese monk Saichō (最澄; also called Dengyō Daishi, 伝教大師), who was sent as an envoy to Tang China in 804, where he studied at Mount Tiantai and also learned the practices of esoteric Buddhism. After he returned from China with Tiantai texts in 805, Saicho made the temple that he had built on Mt. Hiei (比叡山), Enryakuji (延暦寺), a center for the study and practice of what became Japanese Tendai. Under imperial patronage, and popular among the upper classes, the Tendai sect became politically and militarily powerful. In 1571, Oda Nobunaga, who regarded the Mt. Hiei monks as a potential threat, razed Enryakuji as part of his campaign to unify Japan. The temple complex was later rebuilt, and continues to serve as the head temple of the Tendai school today.
In addition to teachings from Tiantai in China, Saichō included Zen (禅, trad. 禪), esoteric Mikkyō (密教), and Vinaya School (戒律) elements in his Tendai school. Tendai set out to reform Hinayana (Theravada) Buddhism, reasserting the importance of repentance and internal enlightenment in religious life.
Hui-wen (550–577) was the first teacher of the doctrine of the triple truth in China, but Zhiyi (智顗, Chih-I; 538–597), the third patriarch, is considered the founder of the school. Zhiyi assumed that all the doctrines of the Buddhist canon were present in the mind of the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni, at the time he became enlightened, but that they were only unfolded gradually, according to the capacity of his students to understand. The Lotus Sutra was regarded as the supreme doctrine that embodied all of Buddha’s teachings.
The Tiantai teaching was first brought to Japan by the Chinese monk Jianzhen (鑑眞 Jp: Ganjin) in the middle of the eighth century, but it was not widely accepted. In 804, Emperor Kammu selected the Japanese monk Saichō (最澄; also called Dengyō Daishi 伝教大師) to go as an envoy to Tang China and study at Mount Tiantai. There, Saichō received the Mahayana, or Bodhisattva, precepts from the sixth Patriarch of the Tiantai school, as well as advanced Dharma instruction in the various chants, meditations and practices of the many schools of Chinese Buddhism. Eight months later, he set out for Japan, carrying hundreds of sutras, treatises and commentaries. On the way home, he was initiated into the mudras, mantras and mandalas of esoteric Buddhism by the Chinese monk Shun-hsiao. After he returned from China with the new Tiantai texts in 805, Saichō made the temple that he had built on Mt. Hiei (比叡山), Enryakuji (延暦寺), a center for the study and practice of what became Japanese Tendai.
Philosophically, the Tendai school did not deviate substantially from the beliefs of the Tiantai school in China, but in addition to what he transmitted from Tiantai in China, Saichō included Zen (禅, trad. 禪), esoteric Mikkyō (密教), and Vinaya School (戒律) elements. In 806 C.E., the Imperial court officially established the Tendai school of Buddhism by authorizing two new candidates to be ordained per year for this esoteric form of Tiantai.
The tendency to include a range of teachings became more marked in the doctrines of Saichō's successors, such as Ennin (圓仁) and Enchin (圓珍), and eventually led to the formation of sub-schools within Tendai Buddhism. By the time of Ryogen ( 良源) in the ninth century, there were two distinct groups on Mt. Hiei: the Sammon (山門), or Mountain Group, who followed Ennin, and the Jimon (寺門), or River Group, who followed Enchin. A third branch, the Shinsei, emphasized devotion to the Amida Buddha. The school is also known as the Fa-hua (Japanese: Hokke), or Lotus, school, after its chief scripture, the Lotus Sutra (Chinese: Fa-hua Ching; Sanskrit: Saddharmapundarika-sutra).
Saicho wished to establish a different ordination platform from Hinayana (Theravada) Buddhism, with its complicated code of 250 religious precepts, feeling the need for a more internal and basic moral code. In 818 and 819, Saicho offered three petitions (Sange gakushou shiki) to the Imperial Court to build a "Mahayana Ordination Center," independent from the ordination center at Nara. These petitions suggested that, after he received the Buddhist commandments, a monk of Bodhisattva should do Shikan meditation (Zen-like meditation) for twelve years on Mt. Hiei, and after this, begin a life of service to the nation, serving others and denying his private desires. This policy emphasized severe monastic practices and was directed at a select few who were prepared to follow such a rigorous course. The established Nara Buddhist schools, which opposed Saicho’s petitions, protested to Emperor Saga, who showed these letters to Saicho. Saicho immediately refuted them by writing a counterargument, Kenkairon, reasserting the importance of repentance and internal enlightenment in religious life. Saicho’s efforts did not bring about results until after his death, but were significant to the development of Mahayana Buddhism in Japan.
Within a few decades, the Tendai school had expanded beyond Mt. Hiei, and Tendai temples had been established as far away as Kyushu in the south, and the province of Shimotsuke in the north. After his death in 822 C.E., Saicho was formally invested with the title of “Dengyo Daishi” or “Grand Master of the Propagation of the Doctrine.” The Tendai sect flourished under the patronage of the imperial family and nobility in Japan, particularly the Fujiwara Clan. Tendai Buddhism became the dominant form of main-stream Buddhism in Japan for many years, and gave rise to most of the developments in later Japanese Buddhism. Nichiren, Hōnen, Shinran, and Dogen, all famous thinkers in non-Tendai schools of Japanese Buddhism, were initially trained as Tendai monks. Japanese Buddhism was dominated by the Tendai school to a much greater degree than Chinese Buddhism was by its forebear, Tiantai.
Due to its imperial patronage and popularity among the upper classes, the Tendai sect became politically and militarily powerful. During the Kamakura period, the Tendai school used its patronage to try to oppose the growth of rival factions, particularly the Nichiren school, which had begun to gain ground among the merchant middle class, and the Pure Land school, which eventually claimed the loyalty of many of the poorer classes. Enryakuji, the temple complex on Mt. Hiei, became a sprawling center of power, attended not only by ascetic monks, but also by brigades of warrior monks (sohei) who fought in the temple's interest. In 1571, Oda Nobunaga, who regarded the Mt. Hiei monks as a potential threat, razed Enryakuji as part of his campaign to unify Japan. The temple complex was later rebuilt, and continues to serve as the head temple of the Tendai school today.
The basic philosophical doctrine of Tendai is summarized as the “triple truth,” or chikuan (“perfected comprehension”). All things (dharmas) are empty (lack ontological reality), yet at the same time they have a temporary existence. Therefore they are simultaneously unreal and temporarily existing; this is the "Truth of the Middle Way," which includes and yet surpasses the others. The three truths are considered to be mutually inclusive, and each is contained within the others.
Central to Tendai thought is the concept of “original enlightenment” (hongaku shiso), the idea, fundamental to Mahayana Buddhism, that Buddha-hood, the capability to attain enlightenment, is intrinsic in all things. Liberation can be achieved instantaneously by cutting through delusion to awaken to our true nature. This concept, rooted in the central Buddhist belief that everything is interconnected, is expressed in phrases such as “1000 worlds in each moment” (every person affecting everything and everybody at every moment). The phenomenal world, the world of our experiences, is fundamentally an expression of the Buddhist law (Dharma). Tendai Buddhism claims that each and every sense phenomenon just as it is is the expression of Dharma. The ultimate expression of Dharma is the Lotus Sutra; therefore, the fleeting nature of all sense experiences consists in the Buddha's preaching of the doctrine of Lotus Sutra. The existence and experience of all unenlightened beings is fundamentally equivalent and indistinguishable from the teachings of the Lotus Sutra.
One of the adaptations of the Tendai school was the introduction of esoteric ritual (Mikkyo) into Tendai Buddhism, which was later named Taimitsu by Ennin. Eventually, according to Tendai Taimitsu doctrine, the esoteric rituals came to have equal importance with the exoteric teachings of the Lotus Sutra. By chanting mantras, maintaining mudras, or performing certain meditations, a person could become conscient that sense experiences are the teachings of Buddha, believe that he was inherently an enlightened being, and attain enlightenment within this very body.
The origins of Taimitsu are found in China, similar to the lineage that Kukai encountered in his visit to China during the Tang Dynasty, and Saicho's disciples were encouraged to study under Kukai. Though the underlying doctrines may differ somewhat, Tendai esoteric ritual bears much in common with Shingon Buddhist ritual.
Tendai Buddhism, which embraced all Buddhist doctrines as truths unfolded at different levels of understanding, made various attempts to reconcile Shinto’s worship of a heavenly pantheon of Japanese Kami (gods), and the myriad spirits associated with places, shrines or objects, with the Buddhist doctrine that the pursuit of enlightenment should be the only religious practice. Priests of the Tendai sect argued that Kami are simply representations of the truth of universal Buddha-hood, equivalent with Buddhas, that descend into the world to help and teach mankind. The Kami that Shinto regards as violent or antagonistic to mankind, are regarded as supernatural beings that reject the Buddhist law and have not attained enlightenment, and are thus violent and evil. According to the later honji suijaku (本地垂迹) theory, Japanese kami were just manifestations (suijaku) of buddhas, which were the "original ground" (honji) of the kami. The buddhas and the kami were therefore indivisible. Ichijitsu (“One Truth”), or Sanno Ichijitsu Shinto is an amalgamation of Shinto and Buddhism. The depth of the influence of Buddhism on Shinto can be seen in the fact that the type of Shinto shrine seen in Japan today, with a large worship hall and images, is of Buddhist origin.
The two religions, however, always remained distinct because of their different outlook on earthly life and the world beyond death. While Buddhism rejects this world and seeks to transcend it, Shinto is immanent and positive, with an afterlife that duplicates this world.
The fundamental teaching of Buddhism, that a person must be liberated from worldly attachments and desires in order to attain enlightenment, created an apparent contradiction with the culture of every society into which Buddhism was introduced. Cultural activities such as poetry, literature, and visual arts would therefore be discarded as worldly pleasures. Tendai doctrine allowed the reconciliation of beauty and aesthetics with Buddhist teachings by claiming that the phenomenal world was not distinct from Dharma. Contemplation of poetry, art, literature or drama could lead to enlightenment, since, if done in the context of Tendai doctrine, it would be simply contemplation of Dharma.
In the history of Tendai school, a number of notable monks have contributed to Tendai thought and administration of Mt. Hiei:
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