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By Devik Balami at
Zhiyi founder of tiantai Buddhist Tradition

Zhiyi is considered as the founder of Tiantai tradition of Buddhism in China. He is best known for being the first in the history of Chinese Buddhism to elaborate a complete, critical and systematic classification of the teachings of Buddha. He is also regarded as the first major figure to make significant changes in the Indian tradition that was followed and localize it to form Chinese indigenous system.

Life history of Zhiyi

Zhiyi was born in Huarong District, Jing Prefecture present-day Hubei. It is recorded that he left home to become a monk at the age of eighteen. The feeling developed when he lost his parents and his hometown fall to the Western Wei army. At the young age, 23, he got the opportunity to learn from his first teacher, Nanyue Huisi. He was a meditation master who helped Zhiyi to form Tiantai school. As he learned with Huise, he also got an opportunity to spent some time working in the southern capital of Jiankagy. After that, it is recorded that Zhiyi went to mountain Tiantai with the purpose to study intensively and also to practice with the group of disciples. While he was on this mountain, there were some remarkable works done by Zhiyi. He mostly worked on the adaptation of the Indian meditation principles of samatha and vipasyana. He then returned to Jinling and then completed his monumental commentarial works on Lotus Sutra.

Zhiyi's works and teachings

Zhiyi's Lesser treatise on Concentration and Insight or Xiao Zhiguan/ Hsiao Chih-Kuan in Chinese was the first practical manual to practice meditation available to Chinese. The scholar, Rujun Wu identifies Zhiyi's work- the lesser treatise on concentration and insight- as the seminal text of the Tiantai school. Other important works of Zhiyi are the Liumiao Famen, Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sutra and Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sutra.

Four Samadhis

During Zhiyi's period, he developed a curriculum of practice that was compiled into the Four Samadhis. These four samadhis were explained in details in the text, Mohe Zhiguan. This text is regarded as the grand summary of the Buddhist Tradition and has the full account of experience and understanding of Zhiyi.

Swanson explains on the basis of this text that Zhiyi focuses on two modes of Zhi-guan: sitting in meditation and responding to objects in accordance with conditions. These modes further refined as abiding in the natural state of a claim and insightful mind under any and all activities and conditions.

The four samadhis that Zhiyi mentioned are:

  • Samadhi of Constant Sitting or One Round Samadhi

  • Samadhi of Constant Walking or Pratyutpanna-Samadhi / prolonged Samadhi

  • Samadhi of Half Walking and Half Sitting

  • Samadhi of Non-walking and Non-sitting or Samadhi at Free Will

The Five Periods and Eight Teachings of the Buddha

It is recorded that Zhiyi classified the various Buddhist Sutras into the Five Periods and Eight Teachings. The purpose of this classification is to provide a comprehensive framework for Buddhist doctrine. These periods of the Buddha's teachings are as follows.

  • The Flower Garland Period

  • The Agama Period

  • The Correct and Equal Period

  • The Wisdom Period

  • The Lotus and Nirvana Period

Furthermore, the teachings of the Buddha were organized into four types based on the capacity of the listener.

  • Sudden teaching

  • Gradual teaching

  • Indeterminate teachings

  • Secret or esoteric teachings

Three Thousand Realms in a Single Moment of Life

Based on the Lotus Sutra, Zhiyi taught the principle of Three Thousand Realms in a Single Thought Moment in his work, Great Concentration, and Insight. The number mentioned in the principle three thousand is derived from the ten worlds, multiplied by ten, and again multiplied by ten which provides the result one thousand and finally multiplied by three which gives three thousand. Here the numeric three represents the Three Realms of Existence: Self, Other, and Environment.

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