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Heirs to the Tiantai Tradition: The Tiantai Trilogy, Part 3

The East Pagoda at Enryaku-ji, the headquarters of the Tendai school of Buddhism in Japan. From

In my previous articles in this trilogy, I explained the philosophy of Tiantai Buddhism and why it appeals to me. Unlike the philosophically rich Huayan, Tiantai doesn’t portray the world as a beautiful utopia. Instead, the world is recognized as flawed. The Lotus Sutra thoroughly reflects this, and exhorts the reader to go forth and alleviate the suffering of others. Indeed, it is the one Mahayana sutra that emphasizes skillful means and the innate Buddha-nature of all beings. It is also the sutra that affirms reality with all its imperfections because everything can always be given new meaning dependent on changing circumstances. After all, change is one of life’s constants.

We can now move on to what a Buddhist tradition informed by this text looks like. I have chosen to focus on the Japanese rather than Chinese lineages because the Japanese tend to be stricter in their sectarian delineations than their Chinese counterparts. In Japan, the Tendai school established by Saichō (最澄 767–822) still exists. The temple that functions as its headquarters, Enryaku-ji (延暦寺), located on Mount Hiei (比叡山), was founded in 788 during the early Heian period (794–1185). Due to its significance in Japanese religious history, Enryaku-ji is part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The founders of the Jōdo-shū Pure Land (浄土宗), Sōtō Zen (曹洞禅), and Nichiren (日蓮) schools of Japanese Buddhism all spent time at Enryaku-ji. Nichiren (日蓮 1222–82), the founder of the Nichiren school (日蓮宗), was originally ordained as a Tendai monk before splitting with the Tendai school. Nichiren Buddhism is still practiced globally, with practitioners in Brazil, Europe, Southeast Asia, South Korea, and the United States. From Nichiren’s teachings grew the new religious movement known as Soka Gakkai (創価学会), or Value-Creation Society, which was founded in November 1930 by Tsunesaburō Makiguchi (常三郎牧口 1871–1944) and Jōsei Toda (城聖戸田 1900–58). The current president is Daisaku Ikeda (大作池田 b. 1928), who has expanded Soka Gakkai International into the world’s largest lay Buddhist organization, with an estimated 12 million practitioners in 192 countries and territories.

Here I will discuss the heritage of the Lotus Sutra in these three schools: Tendai, Nichiren, and Soka Gakkai.


From its very inception, formed with the patronage of Japan’s imperial court, Tendai monks were taught esoteric rituals as well as Master Zhiyi’s advanced meditation practices.

“The Tendai monks were to be divided into two categories in accordance with the course of study they followed. One course of study, called the Shanagō (Esoteric Course), focused on the Mahavairocana Sutra 大毘慮遮那經, the sutra on which the Womb Realm (Taizōkai) mandala was based. . . . The other course, the Shikangō (Meditation Course) was based on Zhiyi’s masterful treatise on meditation techniques, the Mo He Zhi Guan 摩訶止觀, and took its name from that work (Jp. Makashikan). . . . The Shikangō and Shanagō categories continued to be used in granting yearly ordinands at least until 890.” (Groner 1984, 70­–71)

While meditation is necessary to attain higher states of awareness, if one wishes to magically protect court and country, one must do so through esoteric rituals and mantras, which are what the Vajrayana sangha is well known for. Hence, the need to add esoteric elements to one’s curriculum if one wishes to acquire the court’s patronage. Master Saichō was aware of this, leading to his decision to learn more about the esoteric materials he brought over from China. Indeed, his love of the tantric materials was so great that he struck up an intense friendship with Kūkai (空海, 774–835), founder of the Shingon school of Vajrayana Buddhism (真言宗). Tendai monks were thus well versed in esoteric Buddhism as well as Tendai philosophies, meditation, and ritual practices, because no matter which course of study they undertook, it was with Master Saichō’s approval. The addition of esoteric ritual practices is to be expected because the magical, apotropaic, and other thaumaturgical rituals stemmed from practices known only to the Vajrayana sangha.

We shall now look to Master Zhiyi’s meditative text, as it is the textbook for the Tendai monks’ meditation practices. Zhiyi’s摩訶止觀 (Great Calming and Contemplation) “is a manual offering comprehensive instruction on how to perfect these twin aspects of Buddhist teaching—the Buddhadharma and the Buddhist path. Central to the text is the concept of ‘calming and contemplation, tranquility and luminosity (止觀明靜)’ as a religious practice. This concept was esteemed by nearly every Buddhist movement in China. It was transmitted to Japan when Saichō established the Tendai teachings on Mount Hiei, and from there it became the foundation of Japanese Buddhism.” (Etai 1993, viii)

As a meditation text, it elucidates seated meditation (坐禪) as the principal means for the simultaneous cultivation of stillness, illumination, calmness, and contemplation. Zhiyi explains that out of all the various means of acquiring insight into the open, empty, interconnected nature of reality, seated meditation is the easiest to practice. Just as the Lotus Sutra subsumes the three Buddha Vehicles of Sravakayana, Pratyekabuddhayana, and Bodhisattvayana into the One Great Vehicle, so too does Zhiyi subsume all the different paths of realization into the single practice of seated meditation. This is an important and distinctive feature of Great Calming and Contemplation. In other words, it is the meditative text for all advanced Buddhist meditation practitioners.

“As the perfect and sudden (圓頓) approach to calming and contemplation, the 摩訶止觀 describes the meditative practice of the perfect teaching (圓教). In the perfect or rounded approach, any and every condition—wholesome or unwholesome, defiled or pure, saintly or afflicted—serves equally as a basis for discernment. Not only is nothing excluded, but also nothing is altered, nothing added, and nothing rejected, for everything, just as it is, affirms the totality of the middle way. . . . the perfect calming and contemplation reduces the meditative dialectic to a simple process of expansion of horizon. No bias is removed or middle apprehended. Instead, the intrinsic participation (具) and mutual identity (即) of all biases within the rounded totality are revealed effortlessly and directly: one is all and all is one. . . . it is the thrust of Zhiyi’s famous dictum of “three thousand world-realms [replete] within an instant of thought” (一念三千) or “three discernments in one mind” (一心三觀), which serves as the basic model for sudden and perfect contemplation in the 摩訶止觀.” (Donner 1993, 16–17)

This paragraph summarizes my fascination with Tiantai philosophy and practice. It also reveals the rationale behind the Tendai school’s reverence for the great master Zhiyi. Tendai practitioners practice according to the principles set forth by Zhiyi and Saichō and meditate according to his Great Calming and Contemplation.


Nichiren Shōshū (日蓮正宗) or the “true Nichiren school” was founded in 13th century Japan by the eponymous Nichiren (日蓮 1222–92), a charismatic figure who is lauded as an ultra-nationalistic patriot, saint, and prophet. As a monk ordained in the Tendai tradition, Nichiren believed wholeheartedly in the supremacy of the Lotus Sutra. In fact, “he went so far as to teach that all other scriptures and Buddhist Schools were either heretical or at best redundant. He preached that merely chanting the name of the Lotus Sutra (南無妙法蓮華経—Hail to the Wonderful Truth of the Lotus Sutra) could invoke divine benefits and gain salvation for the believer in the next existence, while also bestowing such temporal benefits as good health and prosperity in this life.” (Shupe 1993, 232)

Just as the meditative practice of the Three Discernments in one mind is characteristic of Tiantai Buddhism, so chanting the Lotus Sutra’s title is characteristic of Nichiren Shōshū. He chose such an urgent devotional approach to the salvation of his followers because, according to him, they were (and we are) in the last days of the Buddhadharma (末法), when all other religions have become misguided or downright malevolent. The world has become so hopelessly corrupt that the path to nirvana as originally taught by Shakyamuni Buddha is no longer possible for most people. The assistance of bodhisattvas is necessary. Indeed, the key to success in the spiritual life lies solely in the Lotus Sutra.

Soka Gakkai

For a time, before its split from Nichiren Shōshū, Sōka Gakkai was known as the proselytizing/mobilizing arm of Nichiren Shōshū. It is also known for its foray into Japanese politics and global humanitarian outreach. Indeed, the society entered Japanese politics within 10 years of the end of the Second World War and only four years after its founding. The Sōka Gakkai Kōmeitō (公明党, Clean Government Party) offered an alternative to the corrupt status-quo politics of the dominant Liberal Democratic Party and denounced the amorality of Japan’s entire electoral system. They also proclaimed to the nation that their candidates and elected officials would—due to their high Buddhist moral principles—be immune to the bribery and corruption so rife in Japanese politics. Their Buddhist commitment to world peace would presumably lead them to resist all military entanglements (such as allowing American military bases in Japan), and their steadfast religious faith would help stem the danger of atheistic communist influence in Japan. More broadly, it was hinted that their grounding in the nationalistic zeal of Nichiren would restore Japanese pride and return the nation to its pre-eminent place in the global community of nations.

There are, thus, three Buddhist traditions in Japan that are the heirs to the Tiantai tradition: Tendai, Nichiren Shōshū, and Sōka Gakkai, each with their own emphasis on how best to liberate humankind according to the Lotus Sutra. Tendai focuses on meditation according to Master Zhiyi’s Great Calming and Contemplation, while Nichiren Shōshū emphasizes a more devotional approach. As for Sōka Gakkai, their focus is the worldliest of all, as they have created a political party and given a voice to a portion of the Japanese population that is disillusioned with the dominant Liberal Democratic Party.


Donner, Neal and Daniel B. Stevenson. 1993. “Chapter 1: The Text of the Mo-he Zhiguan,” The Great Calming and Contemplation: a Study and Annotated Translation of the First Chapter of the Mo-he Zhiguan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Etai, Reverend Yamada. 1993. “Foreword,” The Great Calming and Contemplation: a Study and Annotated Translation of the First Chapter of Zhiyi’s Mo-he Zhiguan. Neal Donner and Daniel B. Stevenson. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Groner, Paul. 1984. Saicho: the Establishment of the Japanese Tendai School. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Shupe, Anson. 1993. “Soka Gakkai and the Slippery Slope from Militancy to Accommodation,” Religion & Society in Modern Japan. Mark R., Shimazono Susumu, and Paul L. Swanson Mullins. Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press.

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A Meditation on the Sinitic Lotus School: The Tiantai Trilogy, Part 1
The Philosophical Insights of Tiantai Buddhism: The Tiantai Trilogy, Part 2

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