Rissho Ankoku Ron
The Sutra Classification System of the Tien-tai 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 Buddhas sutras could be classified according to five
different periods or flavors of the Dharma originated with Chih-i, the
founder of the Tien-tai 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 Buddhas 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 Buddhas 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-is 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
Buddhas Lifetime Teachings in Five Periods) and in other works. It also
formed an important part of Nichirens 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 Nichirens own teachings and especially because it was a
crucial element of Nichirens 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.
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.
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 Buddhas 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 Buddhas 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.
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 Tien-tai 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-is 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.
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.
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 fathers mansion freely on business; or the sun at breakfast
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 Buddhas 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 Buddhas enlightenment are affirmed. This period is compared to the
production of clarified butter; the time when the father reveals that he is the
sons true father and bestows all his wealth upon the son; or the sun at high
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 Buddhas intent for Tan-luan, Tao-cho, and Shan-tao to
neglect the more profound teachings and embrace a more rudimentary one.
Honens 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.