The school that is called Tendai in Japan originated in China as the T’ien-t’ai school. The Chinese named referred to the mountain where the monk Chih-i lived and taught. The name Fa-hua (Hokke in Japanese) was applied due to the origin of the material at the source of Chih-i’s inspiration: the Lotus Sutra. Fa-hua served as a translation of the original Sanskrit title of the Sutra. Chih-i was not the first to preach the Sutra’s message. A handful of devotees had been studying and commenting upon the Sutra as early as 300 AD in China but serious scholarly inquiry intensified after Kumarajiva translated the Sutra for broader consumption in China. In China, the brilliance of the Lotus Sutra took root, blossoming into the Chihi (T’ien-t’ai) school.
The parallel, pre-existing Nirvana school was absorbed into the T’ien-t’ai school.2 The Nirvana school contained adherents of The Nirvana Sutra, in which the Buddha is said to have referred to his “dharma-body” surviving his death if his followers continued to uphold his teachings.
Similar to other Chinese schools defending the primacy of a certain sutra or body of sutras, the Tendai school enjoyed placing its favored text atop the hierarchy of scriptural authority while not completing dismissing the legitimacy of other texts. According to the T’ien-t’ai classification system in Zhiyi’s Great Peaceful Insight (the Five Periods and Eight Doctrines),3 the Buddha’s teachings can be categorized as follows:
- Flower Ornament Period; this is when the Buddha preached his insights to heavenly beings before explaining them to his former friends.
- Agama Period; the term “Agama” refers to texts which now exist, in similar form, as the Pali Canon; this period refers to the time the Buddha taught in India.
- Vaipulya Period; the Sanskrit term “Vaipulya” roughly translates to something along the lines of “broad, extensive, encompassing.” Many Mahayana sutras fall under this heading.
- Prajna Period; the emergence of the Prajnaparamita Sutras, which are so profound and voluminous, constitute their own period of development.
- Lotus–Nirvana Period; In this period, the fullness of the Buddha’s teaching was achieved.
The Lotus school classifies the Eight Doctrines as two sets of four. The first four refer to the method of teaching while the second four refer to the nature of the teaching itself. First, the four methods:
- Abrupt Doctrine: The teaching of the Flower Garland in which the full teaching is communicated instantly in its totality.
- Gradual Doctrine: The teaching of the Buddha’s various discourses in which he nudges people toward wisdom rather than expressing a truth that might not be understandable.
- Mystic Doctrine: The teaching in which listeners are concealed from one another and each believes they are being taught directly.
- Indeterminate Doctrine: The teaching in which all listeners know that they are hearing together but are learning.
Second, the four types of doctrine:
- The Doctrine of Pitakas (Scripture): The non-Mahayana doctrine, including the discourses and the Abhidharma teachings.
- The Doctrine Common to All: The teaching of the proto-Mahayana Bodhisattva who is still counted among the “three vehicles”—the hearer, the solitary Buddha, and the inferior type of Bodhisattva.
- Distinct Doctrine: The purely Mahayana concept of the Bodhisattva.
- Round Doctrine: The perfect, all-encompassing doctrine of the Middle Way, which holds that all things are within one, and one is within all.