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Roles of Tiantai Tradition in Contemporary Buddhist Psychospiritual Care

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 4319 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Tiantai (“T’ien-t’ai” in Wade-Giles [W-G] transcription; “Tendai” in Japanese; “Cheontae” in Korea; also called “Heavenly Terrace”) tradition, as a major Chinese Buddhist tradition, was established by Master Zhiyi (538-597) together with his disciples, five hundred years after the introduction of Buddhism from India and Central Asia to China. It symbolized the developmental transition from Indian to Chinese versions of Buddhism and laid the theoretical and practical foundation for the later flourishing of Buddhism in China and East Asia in the last one thousand and five hundred years (Shen 2014, p.142), (Mitchell and Jacoby 2014). Master Zhiyi’s greatest contribution to the Tiantai School was the convergence of various types of skilful means, represented by the teachings of the “three vehicles” of Sravakayana and Pratyekabuddhayānaand Mahayana, and their integration into the ultimate teaching of the “one Buddha vehicle” (Shen 2014, p.128). He not only reorganized the Buddha’s forty-nine years teachings into Five Periods and Eight Teachings but also creatively pointed out the path to awaken to Buddha-nature by dharma study with appropriate practices and devotionalism (Zhu 2012, p.6; Shen2014, p.127) (Mitchnell 2014, p.236).

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           In order to exam the roles of Tiantai tradition in contemporary Buddhist psychospiritual care, it is important to understand its philosophy and meditation practices which combine to create a platform whereby the wisdom of Tiantai Buddhism would shed some light on the current Western pursuit of Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs) and Buddhist Psychospiritual Care. In this study, the author will use the textual analysis and reflection on the related classic and contemporary Buddhist texts to study Tiantai tradition, mainly based on the Lotus Sutra (theory) and the Six Dharma Gates of Subclime (practice). The relationship of different Theravada and Mahayana meditative practices to the Tiantai classification scheme of the “Five Periods and Eight Teachings” will be explored. The aim of the study is also to find a clear guide for my own Buddhist practice that helps to shape my Buddhist psychospiritual care to others.

Tiantai Framework – “Five Periods and Eight Teachings”

According to “Tiantai Sijiaoyi aka. Sagyo ui,” the Tiantai Buddhist teachings was outlined by the Goryeo Sramana Chegwan (?-970), based on the theories of Master Zhiyi, which categorized the Buddha’s life time teachings into Five Periods and Eight Teachings (五時八教). The Five Periods represent the Tiantai School’s classification of the Buddha’s forty-nine years teachings into the time sequence, and each period is represented by an analogy to a milk product and a time of the sunshine in a day (see Table 1 for details):

  1. The Flower Ornament period (華嚴時), 
  2. The Deep Park period (鹿苑時),
  3. The Vaipulya period (方等時),
  4. The Prajñā period (般若時),
  5. The Lotus-Nirvāṇa period (法華涅槃時).

The Eight Teachings include:

  1. The Sudden (頓教)
  2. The Gradual (漸教)
  3. The Secret (祕密教)
  4. The Variable (不定教)
  5. The Tripiṭaka (藏教)
  6. The Shared (通教)
  7. The Distinct (別教)
  8. The Perfect (圓教) (T1931_.46.0774c11)

The first four are the methods of the teachings while the last four are the contents, which are the teachings in response to the capacities of the individuals.  The sudden and gradual are the teachings for the higher level and the lower level students, respectively. The so called secret (or esoteric) teaching means that the Buddha was able to simultaneously bestow the sudden and the gradual teachings upon different audiences in the ten directions without their notice of receiving the different expositions (Shen 2014, p.134).  The variable (indeterminate) method means that the gradual is contained within the sudden and vice versa. The different doctrines also were taught by the Buddha in accordance with the individuals’ understanding abilities and practice capacities. The Shared, Distinct and Perfect teachings are called “full-word” teaching while the Tripitaka is considered as “half-word.” (T1931_.46.0775a17- a18) The illustrations of the eight teachings in Tiantai Sijiaoyi as follows:

“The (first) four teachings of Sudden and so forth represent the Buddha’s modes of instruction (化儀), and are comparable to the methods of preparing medicinal herbs. The four teachings of Tripiaka and so forth are called the adaptive dharma (化法), and are comparable to discerning the taste of (various) medicinal herbs.” (頓等四教是化儀、如世藥方。藏等四教名化法、如辨藥味。) (T1931_.46.0774c18-c19) “I will first differentiate the five times, the five flavors, and the four modes of teaching. After this, I will treat the Tripiaka, Shared, Distinct, and Perfect teachings.” (初辨五時、五味、及化儀四教、然後出藏通別圓。) (T1931_.46.0774c20-c21)

The purpose of the different periods, methods and contents aimed to bring all the sentient beings to enlightenment using various approaches. Many of us may have to go through these stages; however, those with higher capacities can attain the enlightenment in any stages. The important features of the “Five Periods and Eight Teachings” are summarized in Table 1 as described by Tiantai Sijiaoyi (T1931) and Jiaoguangangzong (T1939).

Tiantai Concepts – Doctrines and Practices

             The central concepts and texts of Tiantai are mainly built on the Lotus Sutra (T1939妙法蓮華經). Its notion of ekayana, as the highest form of Buddhism, has a great emphasis on the sudden realisation of the universal Buddha-nature in all living beings (Mitchnell 2014, p.233; T1939_.46.0942a29). The Lotus Sutra was taught by the Buddha in the last period of his life “The Lotus-Nirvaṇa period” and it considered as a perfect doctrine. Its teaching is compared with the time of noon, when “the sun shines equally on all levels of terrain”. This period is defined as perfect, neither sudden nor gradual but the union of both Sravakayāna and Pratyekabuddhayanawith Mahayana (the Three Vehicles), encompassing the Three Vehicles as the expedient means into the One Buddha-Vehicle. It emphasizes that all sentient beings can eventually attain buddhahood and the Buddha Shakymuni’s manifestation in the world was to guide us to this achievement, as indicated in the Lotus Sutra and further repeated in Mahanirvana Sutra.

             The Buddha used the metaphors in the Lotus Sutra to help the believers to understand the profound and mysterious Dharma principles. “The burning house the threefold world” in the Chapter 3 Simile and Parable (Watson 1993, p.56-62), is one of the seven metaphors of the Lotus Sutra.

 At the time the Buddha said to Shariputra, “Did I not tell you earlier that when the Buddhas, the World-Honored Ones, cite various causes and conditions and use similes, parables, and other expressions, employing expedient means to preach the Law, it is all for the sake of anuttara-samyak-sambodhi? Whatever is preached is all for the sake of converting the bodhisattvas.” (Watson 1993, p.56)

The simile story was about a very rich man who has a big house with as many as five hundred people lived inside including about thirty of his sons. The house was old and decaying and had only one door to get out. One day, a fire suddenly broke out on all sides but the sons of the rich man were inside the burning house enjoying them and playing games without desire to leave the house upon their father’s instruction. The rich man invented some expedient means to persuade the sons to leave. He said to them that there were playthings like goat-carts, deer-carts, and ox-carts outside the gate that they could play with. The sons were “pushing and shoving one another”, dashed out of the burning house. Afterwards, the sons did not see these carts outside, when asked, the rich man gave each of them a unified huge white ox-carriage decorated with numerous jewels, impartially. At the time, the sons received the large carriages that they never had before and originally never expected (Watson 1993, p.56-62).  In this simile, the rich man is a simile of the Buddha; the burning house represents “the threefold world;” the sons represent all sentient beings; “the goat-carts, deer-carts, and ox-carts” represent Sravakayana, Pratyekabuddhayānaand Mahayana as expedient vehicles respectively; and “the unified huge white ox-carriage” is a simile of the One Buddha-Vehicle (the Great Vehicle). “The burning house” metaphor contains the true meaning of the Lotus Sutra and the Buddha’s conclusion of his 49 years teaching. His three vehicles teachings are only the skilful means for the sentient beings with different levels of understanding to escape from the rebirth in the samsara (the burning house), and once liberated, eventually all the sentient beings will seek the Buddha’s way via the Great Vehicle of bodhisattvas and Buddhas.

           The key practices of Tiantai were reflected in Master Zhiyi’s three-Fold contemplation in “Mohe Zhiguan” (T1911摩訶止觀), “Shi Chanboluomicidichanmen” (T1916 釋禪波羅蜜次第法門), and “The Six Dharma Gates of Subclime” (T1917六妙法門). The Three Fold Contemplation of Tiantai represents the Three Levels of Truth: the truth of emptiness in nature, the truth of temporary existence in appearance, and the truth of the Middle Way for the nature of things, all having both emptiness (no-self) and temporary existence. According to Zhiyi, to behold it, one is able to see all three truths as one. To behold this oneness is to see the suchness (tathta) of things and this suchness is the true nature of things that Tiantai called Buddha-nature. Therefore, Buddha-nature has no shape and form, no color and no smell, apart from phenomena; however, Buddha-nature is also not an independent entity but the essence of Buddhahood reflected in the phenomena of the world. Like water in waves, we cannot see water in itself apart from the forms it takes (Mitchnell, 2014, p.234). Master Zhiyi considered both Buddhist tranquility (Samatha) and insight (Vipassana) meditations as important and complementary to each other. He taught that Gautama Buddha was a manifestation of an ever-present Buddha (Dharmakaya), thus affirming the value of devotional practice such as chanting the Buddha’s name (Mitchnell 2014, p.236). Another key concept of Tiantai is the “one thought possesses 3000 worlds” or “3000 worlds in a single thought-moment”. To understand the world and the mind, Master Zhiyi used the Buddhist cosmology to interpret their relationship:

Now, one mind contains ten dharma-realms; but each of these dharma-realms contains ten dharma-realms, resulting in 100 dharma-realms. One realm contains 30 kinds of world; hence 100 dharma-realms contain 3,000 worlds. These 3,000 worlds are contained in a fleeting moment… All one can say is that the mind is all dharmas, and that all dharmas are the mind… It is obscure, but also subtle and extremely profound. Knowledge cannot understand it, and words cannot express it. Therefore, it is called “the realm of the inconceivable.” (Mohe Zhiguan, V)(T1911_.46.0054a06-a10)

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The notion is another interpretation of “everything is created by the mind” (一切唯心造) in Avatamsaka Sutra (T0279_.10.0102b01). Although three key practices have their differences, they all contain the central concepts of the Threefold Contemplation and One Thought Possesses of Three Thousands Worlds.  The relationships among the three key meditation practices under the Tiantai classification scheme are illustrated in the Figure 1 in the Appendix.

Tiantai Six Dharma Gates (2-3 pages + Table in Appendix)

“The Six Dharma Gates to the Sublime (pranita)” (T1917) is a unique Tiantai Zen meditation practice and it was originally taught by Dhyana Master Zhiyi when he was in the Wanguan Temple in Nanjing. In the preface of this sutra, he wrote:

As for “The Six Dharma Gates to the Sublime (pranita),” they constitute the every root of one’s internal practice and the essential root of realisation of the paths of the Three Vehicles. Hence, when Shakymuni first arrived at the Bodhi Tree and sat down in the lotus posture on the cushion of grass, “He directed his thought inwardly to anapana: first, counting (ganana); second, following (anugamah); third, stabilization (sthanam); fourth, contemplation (upalakasana); fifth, turning (vivartana); and sixth, purification (parisuddhih).” It was because of this and myriad practices opened forth and took effect, resulting in the subduing of the demons and the realisation of the path. (T1917_ .46.0549a06-a09) 

This passage highlights the importance of the Six Gates meditation as even the sublime Buddha Shakymuni practiced it thousands years ago to attain his final enlightenment and Buddhahood under the Bodhi Tree. The Six Gates meditation addresses the two main components of Buddhist meditation, samatha and vipassana, at the same time which forms the basis for the Buddha’s Perfect Teaching practice (ref).  The “six” is simply a dharma of enumeration, so as to resort dhyana meditation into a numerical formula, in this method it is six. The Buddha discoursed on dhyana according to the audience and situations, if it is one enumeration, it is called “single-practice” samardhi; if it is twofold enumeration, it means samatha and vipassana; and subsequently a threefold is namely the three samardhi, a four-fold is four dhyanas, a five-fold is the “five-gate” dhyana, and a six-fold is these six gates to the sublime… as a matter of fact, there are indescribably numerous gateways to samardhi (T1917_.46.0549a10-a14).  Sublime (pranita) has its numerous meanings and its orthodox primary meaning is just “the nirvana associated with the truth of cessation.” There are four practice aspects of the truth of cessation including: cessation (nirodha), tranquility (santa), the sublime (pranita) and abandonment (nihsarana). Nirvana involves neither an instance of “cutting off” nor an instance of “permanence” (T1917_.46.0549a21-3).  Because each of the six dharmas can facilitate practitioner to penetrate through to reach the truth of cessation, they are referred to as “gates” and have no difference in its ability to encounter the sublime “nirvana” (T1917_.46.0549a23-4). Samatha is a term that can be understood as tranquility/concentration. Vipassana is the quality of non-conceptual, “bare attention.” Samadhi is the sustainable combined mental status of samatha and vipassana (ref). There are ten greater meanings of “the Six Dharma Gates to the Sublime” from the aspects of (1) dhyana absorptions; (2) sequential development; (3) suitability; (4) means of counteraction; (5) mutual inclusion; (6) identities and differences; (7) from the “reversed” orientation; (8) contemplation of the mind; (9) the perfect contemplation and (10) the signs of realization (T1917_.46.0549a26-b02). In according with the commonly used the Six Gates to the Sublime in terms of sequential development, the meditation steps and contents of this method are summarized in Table 2 (see the Appendix). Of the Six Profound Dharma Doors, there are developmental sequences, the counting and following methods are the preliminary practice, the stopping (samatha) and contemplating (vipassana) methods are the main practice and the returning and purifying methods are the concluding practice (T1917_.46.0549c19-).  The first three address samatha and the other three vipassana. The purified mind contains both samatha and vipassana called samardhi (ref). For beginners, starting the practice from steps 1 to 6 is helpful; however, the six steps are interwoven and the goal is to enter the door to reach the core of true-self. Each of the six doors is able to go to the sublime core (ref). Some experienced practitioners can go into steps 3- 6 right away (e.g. Zazen, or just sitting practice). The initial realization of dhyana is usually unstable and practitioner may need to protect it through continuous practice and be free from attachment to dhyana. The comfortable joy of dhyana can be misleading and attractive to be overcome by some meditators, one may need a wise teacher for guidance or contemplating on the rise and diminishing of causes and conditions, returning to the root of reality, the true self and that is Buddha nature. The highest level of meditation practice is that one is always in sarmadhi regardless of walking, standing, sitting, and resting.

             The significance of the Six Gates meditation practice is multidimensional. First, it is the effective practice that practitioner can go through to attain enlightenment as the Buddha had already demonstrated it under the Bodhi Tree. Second, it is the path of purification, and the important step to obtain the wisdom of Bodhi during the practices of precepts, concentration and wisdom as well as the six paramitas – generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, meditative concentration and wisdom. Third, this Tiantai practice emphasizes the balance of both samatha and vipassana, it not only has the essence of the threefold contemplation but also the ability to facilitate practitioners with different levels of understanding to recognize the truth of ceassation. It is the bodhisattavas’ expedient means (the Buddha’s White Ox-Carriage) to enlightenment and Buddhahood. Fourth, it does encompass the practices that lead to both sudden and gradual awakenings, and as a part of the Buddha’s perfect teachings, together with philosophy of the Lotus Sutra, it forms the complete Tiantai teaching system which points directly to the sublime true nature mind of “the mind is all dharmas, and that all dharmas are the mind.”

Tiantai Roles on Contemporary Psychospiritual Care (1-2 pages)

The contemporary implications of Tiantai doctrines and practices are reviewed from two aspects: benefits for self and benefits for others.  For the self-benefits, as a Buddhist psychospiritual care provider, Tiantai system has pointed out not only the theoretical foundation for attainment of Buddha hood as taught in the Lotus Sutra but also a clear practical blueprint to self-realisation of my own Buddha nature. It is one of the most thorough Buddhist systems that one can follow in the era of the degenerated Dharma and take this expedient means of the Huge White Ox Carriage to reach the other shore of “enlightenment and Buddhahood.”  The understanding of the Middle Way in the One Buddha Vehicle enables us to identify our own Buddha-nature so as to find our path to attain Buddhahood, as it neither sticks to the emptiness of arahats nor falls onto the permanence of the existence.  It helps sentient beings without attaching to the merits of helping others like a bodhisattava.  Apart from this supreme life goal, following the Master Zhiyi’s guidance of doctrines, practice and devotionalism, in reality, I can still learn from the Buddha’s wisdom and skilful means for the benefits of all the sentient beings including the clients I provided care for.   The Buddha’s wisdom was fully expressed in the Lotus Sutra that he taught at the end of his life. He told us that all his previous teachings of the Three Vehicles were just skilful means to persuade us to leave the burning house of the samsara and his expedient means for us to leave the samsara permanently was the Bodhisattavas huge white ox carriage. However, he also taught us that it does not mean the One Vehicle is superior to the Three Vehicles, they are equal and their differences come from the diversities of sentient beings and their conditionality. The inclusiveness of the One Vehicle concept can be extended into our psychospiritual care, as every dharma is equal and it is our wisdom to choose the right means for the right individuals for their benefits, just like the sunshine of noon equally lights all levels. This is the essence of Tiantai perfect and complete teaching and practice and it is the foundation for the social harmony and diversified and equal patient care.  If we understand that the Buddhas, sentient beings and the mind are the same without differences, all are created by our mind, and we will be able to understand and identify our Buddha-nature in our mind. We can experience it and all the qualities of the Buddha realms through practice in order to attain Buddhahood.

– holistic and systematic approach offer references to contemporary Western Buddhist psychology


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