The sixth century in China heralded the emergence of distinctive schools of Buddhist thought which were no longer reflections or adaptations of Indian Buddhist perspectives, but independent standpoints and approaches to buddhavachana, the Word of Buddha. Their appearance was marked by the special emphasis given to one or another sutra as the heart of Buddha's message or to a definitive system of meditation and practice. These schools saw themselves as sufficiently different from one another to permit vigorous and generally friendly debate between themselves. In time, the schools also distinguished themselves by the emergence of lineages of teachers, usually called patriarchs. Although divergent views arose from geographical and historical factors, many of their defining features were derived from their responses to an overall Chinese view of buddhavachana enduring through successive periods of spiritual and religious corruption, for how one understood the degree and nature of that degeneration would influence the means used to combat it. Chih-i stands out as an exemplary intuitive intellect devoted to Buddha and confident that the climate of his times offered a great opportunity for spiritual awakening.
Although different schools conceived of the fate of buddhavachana in slightly different ways, the understanding of eternal Truth expressed in time was the same for all. Many Chinese Buddhists believed, on the basis of the Lotus Sutra and the Avatansaka Sutra among others, that the dharma was preserved and transmitted in its pure form for some five hundred to a thousand years. This meant that for this period the Teachings of Buddha would be properly understood and strictly followed. The next stage would be the period of a counterfeit dharma, a teaching not false, but practised in a diluted form. For people generally, the true dharma would be hidden, and compromised conceptions of the doctrines would become popular. Like the preceding age, this period was thought to last five hundred to a thousand years. The third period was said to be one of decay, in which the dharma would be in disrepute and might even disappear. Truth, being eternal in essence but subject to the ravages of time in expression, can never perish, but its manifestation is luminous or obscure depending upon the spiritual strength and steadiness of its adherents. Given differing conceptions of the periods involved, some thought that they lived in the period of counterfeit dharma and others believed that they were in the later period of decay.
The tendency to think of buddhadharma in terms of an environment of obscurity or decay impelled Buddhists to select, from the vast resources available to them, those texts and practices which represented the best access to a pure understanding of Truth. Such selection ranged from simple preference for one or another scripture to insistence upon the exclusive superiority of a particular teaching. Perhaps the most extreme of the more exclusive schools was the San-chieh-chiao or Sect of the Three Stages, founded by the monk Hsin-hsing. Born in 540 C.E., Hsin-hsing devised a version of the three periods of the dharma in which the pure first period embodied the ekayana, the one vehicle, and the counterfeit second period involved the three vehicles – those of the shravakas or hearers, the pratyeka buddhas or solitary Buddhas, and the bodhisattvas. He thought that the third period, in which he lived, was so corrupt that only his own teaching could carry the day.
Metaphysically, he taught a kind of pantheism wherein every item of the phenomenal world is a manifestation of the Buddha- nature. Ethically, he held that only the strictest austerities could purify human nature. Together these positions implied that the Buddha-nature was in every being, and so all kinds of altruism were encouraged. Hsin-hsing died in 594, but his school flourished and in about 620 the Sect of the Three Stages established an inexhaustible treasury at Ch'ang-an. Lay Buddhists donated so much money that not even the monks administering it could guess the amounts available for charitable work carried out all over China. The sect also taught that no earthly ruler could stem the decay of the times, and eventually the emperor became annoyed at this denial of his traditional role. In 713 the treasury was dissolved and the sect slowly disappeared in the course of a century.
A well-known and widely respected monk named Tao-hsuan, who lived from 596 to 667, founded the Lu-tsung or Disciplinary school, which emphasized a zealous adherence to the vinaya or disciplinary code for monks. Although the vinaya was nominally accepted by all monks and nuns, Tao-hsuan's insistence that each of the two hundred and fifty rules for monks and three hundred and forty-eight rules for nuns be rigidly kept won him great respect but a small following. His school was absorbed into other traditions after his death. The Kosha school arose out of Vasubandhu's bhidharmakosha and, like some Southern Buddhist schools, held that the dharmas or elements of existence were eternal and real. Although all composite things perish, including phenomena and mentation, their ultimate components do not; further, their essential nature is transmitted from phenomenal aggregate to phenomenal aggregate. Hence, according to the Kosha school, the 'mango-ness' of the mango is transmitted through a succession of trees, but the sweetness or sourness of particular mangos is not. Although the Kosha school devised ways to describe all phenomena, it soon dwindled and attached itself to the more important Fa-hsiang or Idealistic school. Also founded on the works of Vasubandhu and his brother Asanga, it taught that the mind (and not the dharmas) is real, a view which influenced many diverse lines of thought. Among those schools which are distinctively Chinese, the first of lasting significance was the T'ien-t'ai school, founded by Chih-i and centred in a range of mountains of the same name.
A monk named Hui-wen, who flourished about 550 in northern China, studied deeply Nagarjuna's commentaries on prajnaparamita and Madhyamika scriptures and coupled his study with intense meditation practices. Little is known of his life and teaching, but because of his successors he is considered the first patriarch of the T'ien-t'ai school, though some later adherents counted Nagarjuna as the real founder and first patriarch and Hui-wen as the second. His chief disciple, Hui-ssu, born in 515, was already known for his exceptional gentleness and kindness by the time he became a monk at the age of fifteen. For a decade he immersed himself in the Mahayana sutras in general and in memorizing the Lotus Sutra in particular. He then set out in search of a Teacher, for his studies convinced him that not only did one have to live the teachings as well as study them, but also that one could not achieve Enlightenment without the aid of a Teacher. When he was about thirty-six he met Hui-wen and became his disciple. About a year later he had an enlightenment experience in which he understood the inner significance of the Lotus Sutra. Thereafter he taught the Lotus Sutra meditation, which blended ordinary action, recitation of the sutra and silent meditation in an effort to discern the inmost meaning of its words. Instead of being a rigidly prescribed set of practices, this meditation sought to bring together a continuity and concentration of consciousness which would allow one to nurture the seeds of Enlightenment. For Hui-ssu, it is precisely because eternal Truth transcends time and space that an individual can remember it in time and space. Such recollection or nurturing of the seeds of Enlightenment is a direct experience and not a cognitive activity.
His uncompromising conviction that the Lotus Sutra contained the quintessence of the buddhadharma and his compelling articulation of his views aroused the ire of some monks. He watched the ruling dynasty collapse in the north and became convinced that humanity had entered "the latter day of the dharma ", when the teachings fall into decay. As if to reinforce this conclusion, two attempts were made by hostile monks to poison him, and he reluctantly decided to move south. Although Southern Chinese Buddhist thought had always been more literary and exegetical and had not emphasized meditation, when Hui-ssu journeyed south he found monks more receptive to his views. In time he settled on Mount Ta-su, where he gathered a number of disciples, including Chih-i, and then in 568 moved to Mount Heng in modern Hunan province, where he died in 577. While at Mount Heng, the southern emperor bestowed upon him the title of Great Meditation Teacher in honour of his attainments.
Chih-i was born near Lake Tung-t'ing in Ching-chou about 538. When he was seven he heard monks chanting the chapter on Avalokiteshvara from the Lotus Sutra, and he memorized it on the spot. After receiving a sound education in the Confucian classics and Taoist thought and literature, he watched his father's fall from political grace and witnessed the death of both parents when struggling factions sought to control the south. Rather than follow his only brother into social life, he chose to become a monk in 555. After receiving his basic religious training, he went to Mount Ta-hsien in Heng-chou to study the Lotus Sutra. By the age of twenty-three he had become convinced that the message of the sutra was the heart of the buddhadharma, and he journeyed to Mount Ta-su to study under Hui-ssu. Tradition maintains that when Hui-ssu saw Chih-i, he said, "Long ago we were on Eagle Peak and listened to the Lotus Sutra. Now, pursuing those old bonds of karma, you have come again." Hui-ssu immediately set about teaching Chih-i various forms of meditation, and tradition holds that the latter achieved enlightenment regarding the arcane meaning of the Lotus Sutra in fourteen days. Following his teacher's recognition of him as an equal, Chih-i remained on Mount Ta-su to absorb everything Hui-ssu could offer him.
After seven years Chih-i took leave of his spiritual mentor and made his way to the imperial capital of Chien-K'ang (now Nanking). He spent eight years in the capital, extolling the virtues of the Lotus Sutra to the aristocracy in a series of lectures (preserved by his disciple Kuan-ting) which eventually became the Fa-hua hsuan-i (The Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sutra). Although he was supported by the imperial court and appreciated by lay people, many monks resisted his ideas because of their adherence to the Maha Parinirvana Sutra. In 575 he decided to avoid further public controversy and left the capital for the T'ien t'ai mountain range to the southeast. There, in the rugged beauty of the Chekiang coastline, he established himself with a few disciples, becoming the third patriarch of the school which took its name from this mountain abode. By the time Chih-i had settled in the T'ien-t'ai mountains, he had become a figure of such great renown that in 577, the year Hui-ssu died, the emperor dedicated the revenue of an entire district to the service of Chih-i's community.
Chih-i immediately made practical use of the funds he received. He bought all the fishing rights along the coastline and persuaded the local fishing villages to renounce fishing. Using his money to help them reconstruct their economic foundation, he taught them about the karmic burden resulting from taking life. But even while engaged in practical social reform, he spent long periods of time in meditative retreat on Hua-ting Peak. One night he experienced a tremendous vision in which he was confronted by ferocious demons. When he refused to give way before them, he received a luminous vision of the value and purpose of his work, and he decided to spread his ideas far and wide. When the emperor, after several polite refusals, again asked Chih-i in 585 to return to the capital, he did so. In 587 he gave a series of discourses which have been preserved as Fa-hua wen-chu (Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sutra). In the next year, northern armies invaded the region and Chih-i moved south to Mount Lu and then to Mount Heng, the last residence of his teacher. When the dynasty which had generously supported him was swept away, he returned to the region of his birth and established a temple there. In 593 he gave the discourses which became The Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sutra in its final form, and in the following year he delivered a series of discourses called Moho chih-kuan (Great Concentration and Insight). Feeling that his public work was done, he returned to the T'ien-t'ai mountains. The new emperor sent him his regards and bestowed on him the title chin-che, Wise One. After his death in 597 he came to be known simply as the Great Teacher T'ien-t'ai.
Chih-i wrote very little, concentrating on meditation and public discourses as his primary modes of teaching. Fortunately, his most devoted disciple, Kuan-ting, made extensive notes and edited them for posterity, thus preserving the third patriarch's words. Although Chih-i centred his reverence on the Lotus Sutra, he did not seek to exclude or devalue other sacred texts. Rather, he sought to bring all schools and scriptures together within the framework of the Lotus Sutra. By his time Chinese monastic communities possessed an enormous collection of sutras. Since he was convinced, along with his contemporaries, that all of them recorded Buddha's own words, the welter of doctrines and standpoints found in them had generated a great deal of confusion. Chih-i realized that simply asserting that different texts represented diverse utterances called forth in a variety of contexts was insufficient to sort out and understand the entire buddhavachana. Knowing all the sutras well, he was able to devise a sophisticated account which explained and harmonized them while bringing clarity to seeming discrepancies. His scheme, commonly called "the five periods and the eight teachings", distinguished five phases in Buddha's public mission, four methods of teaching and four levels of instruction.
Chih-i held that when Buddha attained Enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, he remained in meditative absorption, without moving, while delivering nine discourses in seven different locations. This is the magnificent Avatansaka Sutra, which shows that the entire universe is a revelation of the Absolute. Unfortunately, only a few lofty minds could grasp the quintessential meaning of this overwhelming Teaching, and Buddha decided to preach the simpler and more readily applicable truths of the Agamas, the so-called Hinayana scriptures. He spoke of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, the chain of causation (nidana) and the 'not-I' (anatta), all of which are true but accommodated to minds which need to develop before they can grasp pure Truth. Whereas the Avatansaka Sutra was unfolded in five weeks, the Agamas were preached over twelve years. Having infused the minds around him with a fundamental orientation towards Truth, Buddha then moved forward into the vaipulya or broad and equal phase, so called because its Teachings are universal (broad) and they affirm the ultimate spiritual sameness (equality) of Buddha and man, of the Absolute and the relative. In this period, doctrines were compared, and the arhat ideal was subordinated to the Bodhisattva Ideal. The vaipulya phase lasted eight years.
The fourth period, lasting twenty-two years, was marked by the transcendental negation of attributes found in the prajnaparamita teachings. Here the Absolute was stripped of all characteristics and spoken of as unconditional, indefinable and sunya or void. Even the contrast between nirvana and samsara was shattered, and the fundamental unity of all Buddha's Teachings was made manifest. The fifth phase was even more radical, for having abolished dualism and contrasts, Buddha then asserted the absolute identity of opposites. The three vehicles – shravaka, pratyeka buddha and bodhisattva – were declared to be temporary, passing into ekayana, the one vehicle. In this period, lasting eight years, Buddha delivered the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra, the revered Lotus Sutra, which epitomizes all his Teachings. Although Chih-i set forth a chronological plan, he also held that each phase could be found hidden in the other phases, and so Buddha actually taught all the doctrines simultaneously.
In order to explain this standpoint, Chih-i indicated four methods employed by Buddha. He taught both the abrupt and gradual doctrines, the former for those who could grasp the innermost truth of the Avatansaka Sutra at once, and the latter for those who needed the explanations and disciplines of the subsequent three phases. In this view, the Lotus Sutra stands beyond both methods as the final truth. Thirdly, Buddha taught secret doctrines, given to particular individuals and not understood by anyone else who might have overheard his words. Fourthly, Buddha used a method whereby he spoke to groups, but each individual understood only what was meant for him and only in the way it was meant for him. Thus, for Chih-i, Buddha easily spoke with many voices simultaneously. These differences were not due to varying interpretations placed on what he said, but rather were the result of his skilful use of multiple simultaneous vibrations.
Finally, Chih-i distinguished four kinds of teaching in terms of the nature of the doctrines expounded. The pitaka doctrine, largely the scriptures of the Hinayana schools, was directed to shravakas and pratyeka buddhas. The common doctrine was also for them as well as for bodhisattvas who were just beginning their illustrious careers. The special doctrine was intended for bodhisattvas alone. The round or perfect doctrine teaches the Middle Way and the essential key to all the Teaching – that any one element in reality contains all the others. "In every particle of dust," the T'ien-t'ai school maintained, "in every moment of thought, the whole universe is contained." Chih-i's elaborate classification was not designed merely to organize literature. For him, this schema served to make the teachings accessible by providing clues to their meaning and application without becoming mired in scholastic debates. Above all, Chih-i thought, the Teaching exists to be used.
Drawing upon the treatises of Nagarjuna, Chih-i promulgated a threefold truth: the Void, transience and the mean. Since nothing has an independent existence, all dharmas are said to be shunya, void. This truth, when grasped, destroys illusion, but if shunyata, the Void, were nothingness, how could it do so? Even though everything is shunya, Chih-i reasoned, things temporarily exist as phenomena. Dharmas therefore have a transient existence which is accessible by the senses. Put another way, the universality of shunyata is necessarily juxtaposed with the transient existence of particulars. The mean – the third aspect of the threefold truth – is the fact that universality and particularity are one: dharmas are empty and temporary; the whole and its parts are identical in a one-to-one correspondence. "I-nien-san-ch'ien", Chih-i taught, "One thought is the three thousand worlds."
Chih-i took such a view because he understood absolute Mind as bhutatathata, 'genuinely thus'. Although everything depends upon it, it is affected by nothing. It is tathatagarbha, the womb of reality, storehouse of the utterly ineffable. Nothing outside it can be said to be real except in a relative and derivative sense. It corresponds to the unconditioned dharmakaya and the highest nirvana. Compared to it, all else is illusion. Manifesting as the pure potentiality of all that can be, however, it is the seed consciousness, alayavijnana, which contains the potentials for all that is alike good or evil, pure and impure. As such, it is the storehouse of harmony, the primary consciousness, the root of differentiation and the source of impersonal retribution or karma. The other six kinds of consciousness – the five senses and the mind which synthesizes them – activate these seeds through thought, feeling and deed. Bhutatathata is everywhere but undifferentiated; differentiated through alayavijnana, good and evil, pure and impure, phenomena exist.
For the individual, this view means that everything one experiences through the senses and the mind which synthesizes them is an illusion. Release from the bondage of illusion can come only from a radical and uncompromising shift of consciousness, and such a fundamental breakthrough is possible only through the spiritual cultivation of chih and kuan, concentration and insight. Concentration allows one to see that all dharmas are sunya, the first aspect of Truth. Insight leads one to understand that all dharmas nonetheless have a transient existence as creations of consciousness, the second aspect of Truth. Bringing concentration and insight together, one purifies consciousness (which includes purification of feeling, word and deed) and beholds the universal in the particular, the particular in the universal, the mean which is the third aspect of Truth. For such a being, bhutatathata is present everywhere and everywhere is no place at all, since there is only bhutatathata and its appearance to consciousness. The struggle to extricate oneself from samsara and to reach nirvana culminates in the transcendental realization that nirvana is samsara and that consciousness is inherently pure. The aspirant discovers that uttermost peace (nirvana) and selfless service in the world (samsara) are not contrasting options, but the seamless whole which is Enlightenment.