Buddhism Tiantai/Tendai
Paul L. Swanson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0062


Tiantai (“T’ien-t’ai” in Wade-Giles [W-G] transcription; “Tendai” in Japanese) is one of the major schools of Buddhism in East Asia. Though it is known to consider the Lotus Sutra as revealing the pinnacle of Buddhist teachings, it is catholic in its embrace of all aspects of Buddhist teachings and practice, with the assumption that various people and situations require different solutions, as each disease requires different treatment or medicine. The de facto founder of this tradition was Zhiyi (W-G “Chih-i”; b. 538–d. 597), whose lengthy and wide-ranging lectures and writings attempt a comprehensive synthesis of all aspects of Buddhist teachings and practices. Zhiyi’s role and influence on East Asian Buddhism is comparable to that of Thomas Aquinas in the West. His three major works are The Great Calming and Contemplation (T no. 1911), The Gist of the Lotus Sutra (T no. 1716), and Commentary on the Lotus Sutra (T no. 1718); the first presents a detailed analysis and explanation of various aspects of Buddhist practice, and the other two discuss the essence of Buddhism with a focus on the Lotus Sutra. The pervasive pattern in all three texts is the concept of the threefold truth: that all things are empty of substantive being, that nevertheless all things have a provisional or conventional reality, and that to understand these two ideas as having the same basic meaning is to realize the Middle Way. The Tiantai school, with its headquarters on Mt. Tiantai in southern China, attempted to embrace all of the vast (and sometimes contradictory) aspects of the Buddhist tradition that had been introduced in China, and all of Buddhism in East Asia is in some way in debt to it. Zhiyi’s works on meditation, for example, played an important role in the development of the Chan (Zen) tradition. The school had a strong historical role in the development of Buddhism in Korea, and in turn copies of Tiantai texts were reintroduced from Korea after one of the major persecutions of Buddhism in China. A Korean monk, Chegwan, composed The Meaning of the Fourfold Teachings of Tiantai, an outline of the Tiantai doctrinal classification system that has been used for hundreds of years as an introductory text to Tiantai Buddhism. In Japan, the Tiantai texts were introduced by Ganjin (b. 688–d. 763), which inspired Saichō (b. 767–d. 822) to travel to China and then transmit the Tiantai tradition to Japan and establish the headquarters of the Tendai school on Mt. Hiei near Kyoto. In Japan, the Tendai tradition incorporated various elements, such as the Esoteric tradition, that were not a major part of Zhiyi’s original system. It also gave birth to the later independent movements of Japanese Zen, Pure Land, and Nichiren traditions and spawned some of its own original developments, such as embracing Shugendō (mountain asceticism) and evolving the buddha-nature theory into a unique interpretation of “original enlightenment” (hongaku shisō).

General Overviews

There are few general overviews of Tiantai/Tendai Buddhism, mostly included as sections in works on Buddhism in general. Buswell 2004 and Eliade 2005 include numerous individual entries on people and topics related to Tiantai/Tendai Buddhism.

  • Buswell, Robert E., Jr. Encyclopedia of Buddhism. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004.

    A general reference work on Buddhism with numerous entries related to Tiantai/Tendai, including entries on Zhiyi and the Tiantai school (Brook Ziporyn), Zhanran (Linda Penkower), Mohe zhiguan (Brook Ziporyn), Saicho and Ennin (David Gardiner), Shugendō (Paul Swanson), and original enlightenment (Jacqueline I. Stone), among others.

  • Eliade, Mircea, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion. 2d ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.

    A general reference work on religion with numerous entries related to Tiantai/Tendai, including entries on Zhiyi (Neal Donner), Tiantai (Leo Pruden), and Saicho and Tendaishu (Paul Groner). Originally published in 1987.

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