Rissho Ankoku Ron

A commentary
by Ryuei Michael McCormick

Ryuei.net > Historic Buddha > Mahayana > Lotus Sutra > Blog

The Sutra Classification System of the T’ien-t’ai School


                      Nichiren begins his explanation by asserting that, “Shakyamuni Buddha expounded the five periods of doctrines, established the order in which they were preached, and divided them into the provisional and the true teachings.” The idea that Shakyamuni Buddha’s sutras could be classified according to five different periods or “flavors of the Dharma” originated with Chih-i, the founder of the T’ien-t’ai school in the 6th century.


Chih-i was faced with the problem of how to deal with the plethora of Buddhist sutras that had been brought into China from India. We have covered the origins of these sutras earlier in this commentary. Textual scholars and even Buddhist practitioners today recognize that not all of the sutras are verbatim accounts of Shakyamuni Buddha’s discourses. The Mahayana sutras in particular are looked upon as works that originated in later times and were the products of inspired practitioners who were attributing their teachings to either the historical Buddha or to an idealized manifestation of the Buddha.  Chih-i and his contemporaries, however, believed that all of these were the actual words of the Buddha. Because of this belief they had to find a way to reconcile the seeming differences in doctrine, practice, or at least emphasis between the so-called Hinayana sutras and the Mahayana sutras, and also the differences between the various Mahayana sutras.


Even before the time of Chih-i (at least as early as the 5th century), Chinese Buddhists created various systems of dividing up the sutras according to the periods in the Buddha’s life and by their relative profundity in order to reconcile the seemingly contradictory teachings of the Buddha. In this way it could be shown that the Buddha gave different teachings to different people at different times and what may have been relevant for some would not be for others, and what was taught early on was by way of preparing his disciples for deeper insights and greater aspirations later on. Chih-i tried to improve upon these earlier systems with two interlocking systems known as the eight teachings and the five flavors that would have a long lasting influence on East Asian Buddhism, though rival systems would often overshadow it.


It was Chih-i’s system of sutra classification that Nichiren believed had the most credibility. It was his belief that it adhered most closely to the evidence provided in the sutras. Nichiren discusses this system in detail in the Shugo Kokka Ron, Ichidai Shogyo Tai-i (Outline of All the Holy Teachings of the Buddha), Ichidai Goji Keizu (Genealogical Chart of the Buddha’s Lifetime Teachings in Five Periods) and in other works. It also formed an important part of Nichiren’s five guides for propagation that he would explain in later writings such as Kyo Ki Ji Koku Sho (Treatise on the Teaching, Capacity, Time and Country). Because of the immense importance of this system to Nichiren’s own teachings and especially because it was a crucial element of Nichiren’s critique of Honen and the Pure Land patriarchs and his own conviction that the Lotus Sutra was supreme among all the sutras I will attempt to outline it beginning with the eight teachings and then moving on to the five flavors/periods.


 The Eight Teachings


         Chih-i taught that the Buddha's teachings could be categorized into four teachings by content of deepening profundity and four by method of presentation.


The Four Teachings by Content:


         The Tripitika Teaching - this corresponds to pre-Mahayana teachings as found in the Chinese Agamas or the Pali Canon and is directed to the shravakas (voice-hearers) who strive to become arhats (those who escape from this world of birth and death and do not return). It emphasizes emptiness and approaches it through analysis of the aggregates and the links of dependent origination. In other words, this teaching aims to reveal the emptiness of the self by examining the components of existence such as the five aggregates of form, sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness. It is shown that each of these is impermanent, subject to suffering, and cannot be the basis of an abiding independent self either alone or together. The links of dependent origination reveal the succession of causes and effects that make up existence and likewise reveal that an abiding self cannot be found therein. By doing this, the shravakas will realize the contingent nature of the self and thereby extinguish greed for what could satisfy the “self,” anger in regard to what threatens such a “self,” and ignorance regarding the selfless nature of the aggregates. In this way they will realize nirvana and free themselves from birth and death. It might be asked: “What are the aggregates if they are not a self?” Do they somehow exist in their own right in some manner? And who is it that is free of birth and death and who enters nirvana if there is no self? These are questions that are taken up in the following teachings.


         The Common Teaching - this corresponds to the Prajnaparamita Sutras and is directed to the more advanced shravakas and those just starting out on the bodhisattva path. Because these teachings are directed at both shravakas and bodhisattvas it is called the teaching they hold in common. This level of discourse approaches emptiness more immediately or intuitively because it does not involve analysis. Rather, one learns not to impute substance or a fixed nature onto things in the first place. It is also more thoroughgoing in its application of emptiness in that it applies it not just to the self but also to all dharmas (phenomena). So in answer to the above question, the aggregates not only do not provide a self either together or in part to an individual, but they themselves have no abiding substance or fixed nature. Each aggregate depends upon causes and conditions, which are also dependent on causes and conditions and so on ad infinitum. Emptiness in this teaching is the emptiness of any fixed nature or substance whatsoever. In response to the question as to who is saved, this teaching asserts that the bodhisattvas vow to save all sentient beings but do not cling to the idea that there are beings at all. It is all an empty show, but a show manifesting suffering or liberation depending upon the flow of causes and conditions. The question might then be asked: “How should bodhisattvas deal with causes and conditions if they know that they are all ultimately empty and have no basis, origin, or goal and no real self or entity abides anywhere?”


         The Specific Teaching - this corresponds to the Flower Garland Sutra that is directed specifically to those who are firmly established bodhisattvas. At this point, one needs to see that emptiness is not a dead-end but just the beginning. This requires an appreciation for contingent phenomena and thus the truth of provisional existence. While continuing to recognize that all things are empty, the bodhisattvas also see that this emptiness is not a blank void or nothingness. Rather, the lack of a fixed or independent nature is what allows all things to flow and move, change and grow, and ultimately interrelate so thoroughly that all things affect all other things like a web that quivers all at once when any one strand is touched. All things, all beings, are provisional manifestations of this interpenetrating dynamic process. Realizing this, bodhisattvas negate the negation of emptiness. They are free to reengage the world and appreciate all things without clinging or attachment. Gradually they realize the Middle Way that integrates peaceful detachment with compassionate involvement. Chih-i called the empty, the provisional, and the Middle Way aspects of reality the three truths. In this teaching they are approached dialectically. Emptiness is the thesis, provisional existence is the antithesis, and the synthesis is the Middle Way. This is not the final teaching however, because an even greater integration lies ahead. Finally, one might ask: “If the Tripitika and common teachings negate the self and all phenomena, and the specific teaching negates that negation, is there any explicitly affirmative teaching in Buddhism at all?”


         The Perfect Teaching - this corresponds to the Lotus Sutra and the Nirvana Sutra and it is considered perfect or well rounded (the Chinese character used for this teaching holds both meanings) because it presents the integration of all three truths - the empty, the provisional, and the Middle Way - into a seamless whole. Each of these, if properly understood, immediately leads to an understanding of the other two in this teaching. For instance, what is empty is provisionally existent and therefore exemplifies the Middle Way. While the earlier teachings negate the world of birth and death through an analytical or intuitive approach to emptiness, or negate a one-sided emptiness by affirming the provisional existence of all things; the perfect teaching affirms the total unity of the three truths of the empty, the provisional and the Middle Way. In this teaching, the affirmative aspects of the earlier negations are made explicit. Negative and limiting aspects are emptied, positive and boundless phenomena are provisionally affirmed, and all manifests the liberation of the Middle Way. For instance, previously the vehicles of the shravakas and pratyekabuddhas (privately awakened ones) were condemned in favor of the bodhisattva vehicle, but now all the provisional vehicles are shown to be none other than the unfolding of the One Vehicle leads all to buddhahood. In previous teachings the historical Shakyamuni Buddha was shown to be a finite provisional manifestation of the cosmic principle of buddhahood that is sometimes personified as a cosmic buddha named Vairocana who is said to transcend birth or death. The Lotus Sutra, however, portrays Shakyamuni Buddha himself as the one who reveals the unborn and deathless nature of buddhahood through his timeless spiritual presence and skillful activity. Previous teachings compared and contrasted the empty, the provisional and the Middle Way, but here the intrinsic unity of the freedom of emptiness, the creativity responsiveness of the provisional, and the sublimity of the Middle Way is fully revealed.


The Four Teachings by Method


         The Sudden Method – the Buddha teaches directly from his own awakening without any preliminaries. This is usually identified with the Flower Garland Sutra. The Flower Garland Sutra, however, is more of a presentation of the Buddha’s awakened state than a discursive teaching by the Buddha.


         The Gradual Method – the Buddha begins at a very basic common sense level and then gradually cultivates the understanding of his disciples. Beginning with the Tripitika teachings, the Buddha gradually introduced Mahayana teachings up to and including the Prajnaparamita. In this way, the disciples’ understanding and aspiration matured until they could appreciate and benefit from the Buddha’s highest teaching in the Lotus Sutra. The Lotus Sutra itself was held to transcend any of the four methods because it was the goal of all of them.


         The Secret Method: the Buddha teaches some people who can benefit by a specific teaching but others are not aware of this because they are not ready and would misunderstand or even misuse the teaching. For instance, the Buddha might give advanced teachings on emptiness to bodhisattvas unbeknownst to the shravakas who might misinterpret it as nihilistic if they were to hear it.


         The Indeterminate Method: the Buddha teaches one doctrine but the various people who hear it understand it in different ways. For instance, the four noble truths might be taught and understood by shravakas as referring to existing states of suffering or liberation that actual beings can reside. Bodhisattvas, however, would understand that the four noble truths lead beyond grasping at existing states and that no actual beings reside anywhere outside of the interdependent flow of causes and conditions.


The Five Flavors / Periods


         Chih-i taught that the four teaching according to content were combined like ingredients into five different flavors of Dharma. The perfect teaching by itself was the best, but other flavors and periods made concessions to those who were not ready for the perfect teaching by combining it with other teachings, or in the case of the Deer Park period excluding it altogether. While Chih-i believed that the Buddha used these different flavors throughout his 50 years of teaching, he also indicated that certain sutras exemplified particular flavors. The seventh century T’ien-t’ai patriarch and reformer Miao-lo later identified these flavors and their corresponding sutras more rigidly with a chronological scheme of the Buddha's teachings called the five periods. In Shugo Kokka Ron, Nichiren provides citations from various sutras to justify this time scheme of the five periods. These five flavors or periods were then made to correspond to certain analogies used in the sutras. One analogy comes from the Nirvana Sutra and relates the teachings to milk and its products – cream, curds, butter, and clarified butter. This analogy was Chih-i’s inspiration for the five flavors. Another analogy relates the teachings to the process by which an estranged son is reconciled with his father and given his birthright as related in the parable of the prodigal son in the fourth chapter of the Lotus Sutra. Yet another analogy comes from the Flower Garland Sutra and relates the teachings to the progression of the sun from dawn to high noon.


         The Flower Garland - This lasted for the first three weeks after the Buddha's enlightenment and as such was not perceived by anyone but the gods and advanced bodhisattvas. This period combines the perfect teaching with the specific teaching. This means that while the Flower Garland Sutra presents the final goal of Buddhism, many parts are aimed only at the bodhisattvas and so exclude those who do not share their aspirations or insight. This period is compared to fresh milk before it undergoes any further refinement; or to the time when the prodigal son is frightened to death by the magnificent wealth and power of the father whom he has forgotten; or the sun at dawn that illuminates only the highest peaks of the mountains.


The Deer Park - for the next 12 years beginning with the Deer Park discourse, the Buddha exclusively taught the Tripitika doctrine for the shravakas. At this stage the Buddha taught the four noble truths and the twelve links of dependent origination in order to free people from worldly attachments and to overcome self-centeredness. This period is compared to the cream derived from milk; or the time when the father sends servants to employ the son for menial labor and later visits the son dressed as a fellow worker; or the sun when it has risen high enough to illuminate the deepest valleys. 


The Extended (Vaipulya) - for the next 8 years the Buddha taught preliminary Mahayana teachings in order to castigate the shravakas for their complacency and to inspire the novice bodhisattvas by teaching the six perfections, the emptiness of all phenomena, and the existence of the buddhas in the pure lands of the ten directions. The Vimalakirti Sutra, the Triple Pure Land Sutras, and those pertaining to Consciousness Only and later the esoteric teachings are all lumped into this catch-all category which contains all four teachings by content that are taught depending on how they correspond to the needs of the audience at any given time and place. This period is compared to the production of curds; or the time when the son and the father develop mutual trust and the son enters his father’s mansion freely on business; or the sun at breakfast time.


The Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) - for the next 22 years the Buddha taught the Prajnaparamita Sutras which included the common, specific and perfect teachings, but not the Tripitika teachings. This period emphasized the emptiness of all phenomena and negated all the distinctions and dichotomies set up in the previous teachings so the way would be clear for the Buddha’s ultimate teaching in the following period. This period is compared to the production of butter; or the time when the father entrusts the son with his storehouses of gold, silver, and other treasures; or the sun late in the morning. 


The Lotus and Nirvana - in the last 8 years of the Buddha's life he taught only the unadulterated pure teaching in the Lotus Sutra and reiterated it in the Nirvana Sutra. This was the period which not only comes full circle back to the Buddha's own point of view, but brings along all those who were gradually prepared by the last three periods and who did not understand or felt left out of the sudden teaching of the Flower Garland period. In this teaching the eventual attainment of buddhahood by all beings and the timeless nature of the Buddha’s enlightenment are affirmed. This period is compared to the production of clarified butter; the time when the father reveals that he is the son’s true father and bestows all his wealth upon the son; or the sun at high noon.


                      Nichiren firmly believed that this system accorded with the sutras and were not just an arbitrary interpretation of Chih-i. With the eight teachings and five periods as his frame of reference, Nichiren viewed the Triple Pure Land Sutras as belonging to the expanded period. It was not even comparable to the Flower Garland or the Prajnaparamita Sutras let alone the Lotus Sutra. It was therefore a distortion of the Buddha’s intent for T’an-luan, Tao-ch’o, and Shan-tao to neglect the more profound teachings and embrace a more rudimentary one. Honen’s suggestion to “abandon, close, set aside, and cast away” all the teachings in favor of nembutsu was especially egregious. What they had done could be compared to insisting that algebra, calculus, and trigonometry should all be discarded in favor the study of the multiplication tables.  If the teachings of the expanded period were for the sake of leading people to the perfect teaching, then discarding the perfect teaching for the earlier and more provisional teachings of the expanded period was to completely miss the whole point of all the teachings.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick.

More Articles by Rev. Ryuei

Life of Nichiren
Life of the Buddha
Overview of Buddhism
History of the Hokke Shu
Pali Canon Commentaries
Mahayana Sutra Commentaries
Six Senior Disciples of Nichiren

Rissho Ankoku Ron Home > Next Page
Ryuei.net > Lotus Sutra Studies > Questions?

The Tendai~Hokke~Nichiren Web
Nichiren Shonin (1222-1282)

[ ]
[ Ring Master ]
[ | ]
[ | ]
[ Gohonzon Forum ]

Open to all sites that
honour the Lotus Sutra:
Tendai, Nichiren & more!

Home | Buddhas | Discuss | Gohonzon | Gosho | Honmon_Butsuryu | Independent | Inmates | Kempon | Kishimojin | Lotus_Sutra | Nichiren | Nipponzan | NShoshu | NichirenShu | Pilgrimage | RisshoKoseiKai | Reiyukai | Ryuei & Dharmajim | SGI | Shichimen | Stupas | Sutra_Library | Tales | Tibetan | Tendai | Theravada | Women | Zen | Misc. | What'sNew? | Site Map

Ryuei.net is hosted by Nichiren's Coffeehouse for the Rev. Ryuei.

NichirensCoffeehouse.net is home to LotusSutra.net, BuddhistInmates.net, Dharma-House.org, Ryuei.net, CampRoss.net and more!