Tendai Buddhism

Definition: Tendai Buddhism
A Japanese school of Buddhism named after Tien Tai mountain in China and the Tien Tai school of Chinese Buddhism that arose there. In 805 Tendai was introduced in Japan by Saicho at his Enryakuji temple on Mount Hiei near Kyoto.

The Tendai school of Buddhism has been called "one of the most important developments in Chinese and Japanese Buddhism." {1} It is the largest school of Buddhism and has had great practical devotional influence on Chinese and Japanese society.

Tendai's doctrines and practices are based on the Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapundarika-sutra), which also provides the basis of the Nichiren and Pure Land schools. It is therefore sometimes known as the Lotus School (Chinese Fa-hua; Japanese Hokke), but most commonly as T'ien-T'ai (China) or Tendai (Japan), for the southeastern Chinese mountain on which its teachings originally developed.

History of Tendai

The Lotus Sutra was translated into Chinese in the 5th century by Kumarajiva, and taught in North China by the monks and first patriarchs, Hui-wen and Hui-ssu. Chih-hi, a student of Hui-ssu, settled on Mount T'ien-t'ai in southeast China and established a famous monastery there. He is regarded as the founder of the Tendai school because he propounded the systematic and definitive interpretation of Lotus doctrines.

T'ien-t'ai Buddhism came to Japan with the teachings of Saicho, a Japanese Buddhist priest who studied at Mount T'ien-t'ai in China. Upon his return to Japan, Saicho founded the Tendai Lotus Sect and an important monastery on Mount Hiei. "With Shingon, with which it was closely connected, Tendai became perhaps the most important religious and philosophical influence on the Japanese spirit." {2}

Tendai Beliefs and Practices

Tendai has been a syncretistic movement, embracing other Buddhist schools, from Vinaya to Shingon and Zen, as well as Shinto, the indigenous Japanese tradition, but its distinctive focus continues to be the teachings of the Lotus Sutra.

The Lotus Sutra teaches the way to salvation, which is defined as attaining buddhahood. It presents itself as the true and complete teaching of the Buddha, who is described as more of a cosmic being than a historical figure.

The Buddha of the Lotus Sutra is "a transcendent eternal being, preaching to myriad arhats, gods, bodhisattvas, and other figures using all sorts of sermons, lectures, imaginative parables, and miracles. " {3} He teaches three ways to salvation:

  • Srakakayana ("way of the disciples"), the way of those who seek to become an arhat
  • Pratyeka-buddhayana - the way of those to seek to attain salvation for themselves alone
  • Bodhisattvayana ("way of the bodhisattvas") - the way of those who postpone their own enlightenment to help others achieve it

Notes 1. "Buddhism." Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004).

  1. Ibid.

  2. Ibid.