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A Meditation on the Sinitic Lotus School: The Tiantai Trilogy, Part 1

Hunan Mangshan Tiantai Mountain. From

I have always been fascinated by the radical message of Tiantai (see below), its versatility in Chinese thought, and its potential for intellectual cross-pollination with non-Buddhist philosophy. Tiantai is the subject of my doctoral studies and in one of my previous articles I introduced the sixth (or ninth, depending on how you calculate it) patriarch of Tiantai Buddhism, Miaole Zhanran. In this article, I will give a proper introduction of Tiantai Buddhism and an explanation of just why I find it so intriguing.

In my last piece on Tiantai Buddhism, I gave a brief overview of the lineage’s history—from its founding fathers Nagarjuna and the Great Sage Zhiyi to its sixth patriarch Zhanran. Zhiyi (智顗, 538–97) is considered the first patriarch of Tiantai Buddhism because he created what we now know as Tiantai philosophy and practice. Some of his main contributions are his exposition of the “three-fold theory of truth,” his classification of the Lotus Sutra as the pinnacle of the Dharma, and his method of meditative practice known as “contemplation of the mind” (觀心, guanxin). This practice is best known for its formulation of “one moment of experience as three thousand worlds” (一念三千, yi nian san qian). I shall try to unpack his philosophy in the subsequent two articles.

At the core of Tiantai Buddhist philosophy lies a vision of radical self-recontextualization; from the view of everywhere and “everywhen,” each action, no matter how trivial, ethical, or unethical, is seen to be an action on the path to Buddhahood. Indeed, Tiantai Buddhism privileges not one view as its objective is to show how reality truly is. There is no “ground” by which to view the world, be it spatially or temporally. As Ziporyn explains in his article on Tiantai Buddhism in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Ziporyn 2017, section 2) “to see, to take something as ‘there,’ as ‘real,’ is to place it within a context, to contrast it to something outside of itself, something which is not it. To see all is to see nothing.” Any object in Tiantai metaphysics is ontologically ambiguous because there is no absolute context with which it is to be seen. Everything is recontextualized, be it with something else or even with itself. In other words, if Buddhism has been historically ambiguous about having an ontology or theory of “being,” then Tiantai Buddhism comes close to having an ontology of contextual relationality.

All forms of Buddhism stress that everything is transient: the good, the bad, the pleasant, and the painful. Zen Buddhism aestheticizes this by saying that something is beautiful precisely because it’s transient. Zen painters emphasize an object’s flaws rather than its perfections when considering its beauty. To them, even decay is beautiful and worthy of appreciation. Yet, this appreciation is more often than not cerebral. It is through the intellect that one understands just how transient, imperfect, “ugly” things are, in fact, quite beautiful. In other words, it’s a tragic, bittersweet beauty.

Tiantai Buddhism goes one step further and affirms everything, the good, the bad, the pleasant and painful, absolutely everything. They affirm this not just through their aesthetics and art, but in their actions as well. It was Siming Zhili (960–1028), the Song dynasty scholar-monk, who justified his self-immolation with Tiantai’s radical views of the ultimate identity of good and evil. It was he who wrote the infamous couplet, “Outside the devil, there is no Buddha [and] outside the Buddha, there is no devil.” Meaning that, for him, purity and impurity—or the Buddha and the devil—are one and the same. The distinction lay in the spatial and temporal context of the statement or practice in question; that is to say, a thing’s being “X” rather than “not-X” is simply a matter of where and when it is seen, read, or understood. From the Buddha’s point of view, value and anti-value are one and the same, not just because both could be used upāyically to achieve the salvation of all beings, but also because value contains anti-value, and vice-versa, given the definition of value elaborated by Tiantai theory.

As Zhiyi’s explanation of the Buddha’s inherent evil illustrates, there is no difference in form between the evil found in the icchantika and the Buddha, the distinction lies in how and why it is used. Not only is the latter completely unattached to evil, he makes use of it in order to liberate all sentient beings from suffering, while the former is attached to—and identifies himself with—evil and is evil for selfish reasons. For Zhili, empathy requires not just an understanding of evil, but participation in it as well.

It is precisely this radical affirmation that I wish to explore. With the Lotus Sutra as their key text, it is no wonder Tiantai Buddhists affirm life-as-it-is so readily. After all, the Lotus Sutra is the text that stresses the importance of skilful means and emphasizes that everyone has the capacity to be a Buddha. Indeed, in chapter two of the Lotus Sutra, the text states that “the buddha-tathāgatas only teach and transform bodhisattvas.” (Reeves 2008, 83) Shakyamuni Buddha told Shariputra this only after some coaxing by the latter. The importance of skilful or expedient means is thus emphasized by Shakyamuni:

“Shariputra, I, too, am like those buddhas. Knowing that living beings have various desires and things to which they are deeply attached, I have taught the Dharma according to their basic nature, using a variety of causal explanations, parables, other kinds of expression, and the power of skilful means. Shariputra, this is so that they might attain the complete wisdom of the One Buddha-Vehicle.” (Ibid, 84) In the next line, the Tathāgata emphasizes the singularity of the Buddha Vehicle: “Shariputra, in the entire universe, there are not even two such vehicles, much less three!” (Ibid, 84)

To me, and to Tiantai Buddhists, this means that everything the buddha-tathāgatas teach is a skilful means to liberate all sentient beings from the realm of saṃsara, and since buddha-tathāgatas only teach and transform bodhisattvas, all their students must therefore be bodhisattvas. They—the students—may not realize it, but by being the teachers’ students, they are already bodhisattvas.

On a practical level, all this means that as long as the goal of the alleviation of suffering is met, anyone can be considered a bodhisattva and anything is fair game. This is highly radical because it removes all limitations from what and who could become a bodhisattva. Because of this, I feel that Tiantai Buddhism’s methods are the most “worldly” of the exoteric Chinese traditions of Buddhism. Pure Land Buddhism is the most devotional in nature, and Chan, in an ironic way, is the most cerebral or mental of the traditions.


Reeves, Gene. 2008. The Lotus Sutra: a Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic. Translated by Gene Reeves. Somerville, Massachusetts: Wisdom Publications.

Ziporyn, Brook. “Tiantai Buddhism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Spring 2017 Edition. Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

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