Buddhist thought in South China was distinctly philosophical in character in Zhiyi’s time. (See more about Zhiyi) Northern Chinese Buddhists were developing a religion of faith and discipline called Zhingtu (sometimes called Ch’ing-tu or Pure Land). Zhiyi was a product of the southern Chinese educated upper class. His teacher, Huisi (514-577), was a Northerner of the lower classes. Because of this, Zhiyi came to the judgment that the contemplative and philosophical approaches to religion were like the two wings of a bird. As a result the Chinese T’ien T’ai School, and its descendent, the Japanese Tendai School, is characterized by a strong philosophical content and emphasizes meditative practice at the same time.
The most distinguishing trait of the T’ien T’ai worldview is that there is only “one” reality consisting of both the phenomenal world of samsāra, and ultimate reality of nirvana. Zhiyi undertook to explain the evident incongruity between this view and the “two-world view” that marks early Indian Buddhism. He formulated many now famous phrases and slogans of the T’ien T’ai thinking, such as “Ten Dharma Realms,” “Ten Suchnesses,” “Ten Realms mutually contained,” and “One thought contains three thousand worlds.” Even though T’ien-tai Buddhism is based on the Lotus Sutra, none of these descriptions can be found in the Lotus Sutra yet they are the core assertions of T’ien-tai philosophy.
Early Indian Buddhism partitions the phenomenal world of from nirvana; the two realms of existence are mutually exclusive. The samsāric phenomenal world manifests through cycles of transmigration, i.e., rebirth. Nirvana is the termination of rebirth. Nirvana had two distinct meanings. First nirvana was the state of being liberated from attachment, aversion and ignorance. Secondly, nirvana represented a state of being representing ultimate reality; what would later be called “emptiness.”
By “the phenomenal world” early Indian Buddhists meant the physical world that we sentient beings experience and included the six realms of existence: heaven, asura (Titan or demon), human, animal, clinging (or hungry) ghost, and hell realms. Hell and heaven are what Westerners refer to as the supernatural realm of the afterlife; it is part of the phenomenal world of samsāra. An individual’s existence is not defined as the life that was experienced from birth to death, but is seen as a continuous cycle of life and death. To reach nirvana is to be utterly free of this recycling of life and death, to samsāra. In Early Indian Buddhism, nirvana is the ultimate reality. Samsāra is not real -it’s an illusion. Samsāra, therefore, is the realm of provisional reality and is separate from the realm of ultimate reality.
When we speak of the T’ien T’ai “revolution” we mean its insistence that the phenomenal world of samsāra is nirvana and nirvana is samsāra itself. There is but one reality, not two. Zhiyi explains, “A single, unalloyed reality is all there is – no entities whatever exist outside of it.” (From The Great Calming and Contemplation) His student Guanding clarifies this by saying, “There is no duality, no difference between them; the phenomenal, as it stands, is the real.” Here we find one of the original forms of the non-duality teaching as found in Mahāyāna. This one reality is divided into ten dharma realms, with four more additions to the six dharma realms of earlier Buddhism:
1. Hell beings
2. Hungry ghosts
3. Beasts or beings of animal nature
4. Asura (demons)
5. Human beings
6. Gods or heavenly creatures
7. Shravakas (“Voice-hearers”)
8. Pratyekabuddhas (“Self-enlightened Ones”)
The four additional realms are called “the holy path.” They comprise the uppermost form of attainment for the early Buddhist School: arhats. In early Mahāyāna arhats are divided into Voice-hearers and Self-enlightened Ones, albeit later T’ien T’ai admitted the possibility of bodhisattva arhats. Shravakas are those who physically listened to the Buddha’s early teachings and followed the doctrines of Early Indian Buddhism. Pratyekabuddhas are those who achieved enlightenment on their own when the Dharma taught by the Buddha was not available. Both are arhats who accomplished the aspiration of liberation and regard nirvana as the negation of the samsāric phenomenal world. They are said to be disinterested in helping others reach the same goal. Of course, neither a literal shravakas nor a literal pratyekabuddhas can exist since the first generation of the Buddha’s disciples died off. After that generation there was no historical Buddha to hear and the Dharma has been made available to the Indian world. Please remember that these definitions are Mahāyāna interpretations of the terms.
The highest form of attainment for the Mahāyāna school is the bodhisattva. In this scheme, bodhisattvas also regard nirvana as the ultimate goal of attainment; but it is said they desire to delay entering nirvana out of their compassion for all sentient beings that have not yet entered into nirvana. This is a noble thought even if it seems to be little misguided.
The utmost highest mode of existence is called Buddha. According to the Lotus Sutra, Buddhas can enter nirvana and reenter the samsāric phenomenal world as they choose. T’ien T’ai’s teaching seems to be the logical conclusion; everyone should aspire to become a Buddha. For this reason, Zhiyi and the later T’ien T’ai/Tendai School rejected the multiple or three vehicle classification of Mahāyāna and stated quite flatly that there is only one vehicle, the Buddha vehicle.
In The Esoteric Meaning Zhiyi tells us, “All reality is included within these ten dharmas.” There is nothing that exists outside the ten dharma realms mentioned above. These ten realms are notable because of their different causes and conditions, but they are not sharply divided as separate realms. Simply said, each Buddhist disciple chooses the path they take as a result of their karma. One significant principle of the T’ien T’ai School is that “the ten dharma realms are mutually contained.” At first glance the mutual interpenetration of the ten dharma realms is not easy to understand. Each of the ten dharma realms holds the potential for every other of the ten realms while only manifesting the one that characterizes itself.
Still another understanding is to say that each single realm is at the same time the totality of ten dharma realms, – all is one and one is all. This last explanation is most in harmony with Zhiyi’s “one reality” theory. When Zhiyi divides up the world into ten dharma realms, he does not see them as existing separately or uniquely apart from each another. Zhiyi is thinking in terms of modes of individual existence instead of distinct geographies wherein beings reside. The nirvana of the Buddhas is in the same world as the hell in which hell beings reside, the same samsāric worlds in which present sentient beings live in. Zhiyi goes on to say, “All of reality is included in hell and does not transcend this destiny…. The same is true for all destinies up to and including the Buddha realm.” These ten dharma realms are mutually contained, interpenetrating, since they are all elements of the whole world. There is no border distancing them.
In both the Early Indian Buddhism’s understanding of the six dharma realms and T’ien T’ai’s notion of the ten dharma realms there is a common anti-materialist worldview. The physical world is not the only reality – it is merely part of the whole reality experienced through the variety of modes of existence. The identity established since birth is not our real identity; it is a state within the whole process of life cycles. We are, in this view, in a constant state of becoming and the process is never ending until nirvana is attained. Then we have another choice, to return to help others attain the state or not to return. The experiential reality is not just what is experienced after an individual is born. It is the totality of our experiences as hell beings, as animals, as human beings, as gods. Most importantly for the T’ien T’ai School it also includes our experience as arhats, bodhisattvas, or even as Buddhas.
The essential difference between classical Indian Buddhism and T’ien T’ai is this: the Early Indian Buddhism Buddhists saw the fundamental objective of practice as exiting in this Samsāra and then crossing over the threshold into a thoroughly different “realm” of existence, while in the T’ien T’ai Buddhism there is no division between this world and some other world, there cannot be. Early Indian Buddhists insisted that the ultimate goal is the extinction of the life and death cycle but the Lotus Sutra maintains, “There is no ebb or flow of birth and death, and there is no existing in this world and later entering extinction.”
This means there is no need to deny our existing experiences, negate our existing emotional and sensations, and renounce one’s current life in order to nirvana when the four realms of the “noble path” are included into the same samsāric world of cyclical life and death. In The Great Calming and Contemplation Zhiyi puts it like this, “since cyclic birth and death is itself identical with emptiness, how could it ever be discarded? Since nirvana itself is identical with emptiness, how could it ever be attained?”