There are many different schools, or sects, of Buddhism, just like there are many different sects of Christianity. However, all the sects of Buddhism can be categorised in three main streams; Theravada, Mahayana & Vajrayana. Theravada is found in countries such as Sri Lanka, Thailand and Cambodia, and this school bases its teachings solely on the Pali Canon. Mahayana Buddhism is found in countries such as Tibet, China, Japan, and Korea, and bases its teachings on the Sanskrit Agamas and Mahayana texts. Vajrayana Buddhism, whilst often viewed as a separate school, is actually a Mahayana branch of Buddhism, however it also includes Esoteric ritual practices and incorporates the Tantric manuscripts in to its corpus.
Tendai Buddhism is a Mahayana school that includes Vajrayana practices.
- China. The Tendai sect of Buddhism was first founded by a monk called Zhiyi, in Chekiang Province of China at the latter half of the 6th century CE. The sect was named after the mountain on which Zhiyi lived, ‘Tiantai Shan’ (Tendai in Japanese). Zhiyi was a meditation master, influential teacher and student of the famous master Nanyue Huisi, a leading authority on the Lotus Sutra and the Prajna Paramita (‘Perfection of Wisdom’) texts. Zhiyi was massively influenced by the teachings of Huisi, Huiwen, (teacher of Huisi), as well as the teachings of Nagarjuna, a 3rd century Indian monk and the de-facto founder of the Mahayana Madhyamaka tradition. For this reason, Zhiyi is often considered the Fourth patriarch of Tendai Buddhism.
- Japan. Tendai Buddhism remained highly influential in China and in the early 9th century, was brought to Japan by a Japanese monk called Saicho. Saicho travelled to China in 804CE and stayed at Mt Tiantai. He was taught, and given Dharma transmission by Daisui, the 7th Patriarch of Tendai. Whilst in China, Saicho also stayed in Yuezhou, where he was taught Vajrayana Buddhism. On his return to Japan, Saicho built a temple on Mt Hiei and founded his school of Tendai, which included Vajrayana. This became known as the ‘shikangō’ (meditation training that included Tiantai teachings) and ‘shanagō’ (Vajrayana training). Along with meditation and Vajrayana practices, Japanese Tendai also integrated the Bodhisattva precepts, and Pureland Buddhism, making it a syncretic school of Buddhism.
Tendai Buddhist holds numerous texts in high regard, the Lotus Sutra being the pinnacle. Many Tendai principles and much of its philosophy stems from the Lotus Sutra, such as the teaching of expedient means, and the One Vehicle. Other influential texts include the Heart Sutra, the Great Perfection of Wisdom Treatise, the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana, the Mahavairochana Sutra, and the 3 Pureland Sutras, just to name a few. Tendai philosophy and practice is also richly influenced by the early Indian texts, and practices, such as the Agama Sutras and meditation practices.
Tendai Buddhists also study the texts of its founder, Zhiyi. The most influential are known as the ‘Tendai Three Major Treaties’;
- The Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sutra
- Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sutra
- [The] Great Shamatha Vipashyana [meditation practice]
There are numerous other texts besides these.
What really makes Tendai stand out is its distinct doctrines. The below links will take you to explanations of just some of the distinct Tendai doctines;
Threefold Contemplation in One Mind
The two wings of Tendai Buddhism are Study and Practice. Just like the wings of a bird, if one is too weak, we will never reach our destination; enlightenment. Therefore, Tendai Buddhism emphasises that these two aspects need to be balanced.
Seated meditation features highly in Tendai Buddhist practice, the main meditation practice being ‘Shikan’. Tendai Buddhists also practice the Nembutsu (reciting the name of the Buddha in reverence), mantra practice, esoteric rituals, shomyo (melodic chanting of texts and mantras), walking meditation, mountain circumambulations, and many more. Both lay and ordained Tendai Buddhists will also carry out a daily liturgy practice (gongyo).