5 Periods 8 Teachings

Goji Hakkyō 五時八教

5 Periods 8 Teachings

The following is a brief summary of Chih-i’s classification of the Buddhist Sutras.

Chih-i, using examples found in the Lotus and Nirvana Sutras, put the sutras into Five Periods, or Flavours. The flavours start with pure milk and move through a process of cream, curds, butter and ghee, illustrating his understanding that the Five Periods are like stages for practitioners to go through.  Another way of looking at the Periods is that of degrees or ‘richness’ of understanding and practice.

He also then broke down the sutras into Eight Teachings, four of which are methods of teaching, and four of which are the doctrine itself. These different parts (methods, doctrine, periods) are like a cooking recipe, which different ingredients are used to bring sentient beings to enlightenment. Everyone passes through these stages, but those with higher capacities can penetrate the Dharmadhatu in any stage, there is no need to wait.

The Five Periods (Flavours)

  1. The Period of the Flower Ornament Sutra (Huayan)
  2. The Period of the Deer Park (Agama/Pali cannon)
  3. The Period of the expanded teachings
  4. The Period of Wisdom (Pranja)
  5. The Period of the Lotus and Nirvana Sutras

The Eight Teachings

  1. The Sudden
  2. The Gradual                      1-4 = Methods of Teaching
  3. The Secret
  4. The Variable
  5. The Tripitaka
  6. The Shared                        5-8 = Type of Doctrine
  7. The Distinctive
  8. The Complete

The First Period  – The Sudden Method, The Distinctive Doctrine

The First Period corresponds to the Flower Ornament Sutra. Chih-i put the Flower Ornament Sutra as the first period as he believed it was the first sutra the Buddha taught, therefore it is called the ‘Sudden Teaching’. This Sutra was for Bodhisattvas with superior abilities, a complete doctrine only for those with complete capacities, therefore it is considered combined with expediency. Because of all this, it is considered a Distinctive Doctrine.

The Second Period – The Gradual, The Secret, The Variable Method, The Tripitaka Doctrine

The Second Period, known as the Deer Park Period, corresponds to the Tripitaka Doctrine, which is a gradual method of teaching. According to Chih-i, the Buddha taught this method for those who do not yet have superior capacities. The Tripitaka Doctrine is for one who strives to become Arhats – those who escape the Saha world of life and death, never to return. This teaching emphasises the non-self of the Five Aggregates, Non-attachment, and to over-come suffering, by means of (and not limited to) the Four Noble truths, the Eight fold Path, the Twelve Links of Dependant Origination and so on.

The Third Period – The Gradual, The Secret, The Variable Method, The Shared Doctrine

The Third Period still utilises the Gradual Method but further expands on the concepts contained in the Tripitaka. These sutras typically praise Mahayana and criticize Hinayana, and are called ‘contrasting’ because they contrast the ‘full’ words of the Mahayana vs the ‘half’ words of the Hinayana. In other words, they contrast the Tripitaka, the shared, the distinctive and the complete doctrines.

The Fourth Period – The Gradual, The Secret, The Variable Method, The Shared Doctrine

This Period corresponds to the Wisdom (Prajna) Sutras, which is said to wash away all delusions. This is seen by many as the start of Bodhisattva ideal teaching – the desire to save all sentient beings. This period expands on the teaching of sunyata and illustrates how every phenomena, including Dharma are empty. The realisation of these teachings is not through cognitive analysis but through insight, which gives way to Prajna. Because of sunyata the Bodhisattvas know ultimately there is no sentient being. This may raise the question of “If there is no real being, what is the point – what is there to save?”

Contained in the First, Second, Third and Fourth Periods we also have the Secret Method and the Variable Methods. It is called ‘secret’ because it was only given to those who will understand it. Should those who don’t understand it, hear it they will lose faith and abandon the path. The Variable Method was taught through expedient means depending on the capacities of the listeners who will understand it differently.

The Fifth Period – The Complete Doctrine

This Period corresponds with the Lotus and Nirvana Sutras, in which the Buddha gives his final teaching – that all the previous teachings are in fact one whole teaching. Although seemingly contradictionary, they differences are merely expedient means in order for beings to see the truth, which is revealed in the Lotus Sutra and repeated in the Nirvana Sutra. Chih-i further expanded this in his teaching of the Three Fold Truth – The truth of emptiness, the truth of a relative existence and the truth that both are real at the same time. What this illustrates is that although the various doctrines are expedient, they are not false. This is the pure, complete doctrine that is contained in the Lotus Sutra, known as the Ekayana or the ‘One vehicle’.