A major Sino
school of Mahayana Buddhism
, named after Mount Tiantai
in south-eastern China where its first monastery
was established. It is usually known now by its name as used in Japan, where it saw its greatest growth and influence
Tendai first arose as a consequence of study of the Lotus Sutra, the Saddharmapundarika Sutra ("The Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law") which is a key text in Mahayana Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra was first translated into Mandarin in the 3rd century AD, and in the 6th century the Chinese monk Zhiyi founded a monastery on Mount Tiantai where he taught his comprehensive interpretation of the sutra. He organised all existing Theravada and Mahayana sutras into a five-part scheme comprising the various levels of teaching revealed by Amida Buddha and culminating in the Lotus Sutra, the supreme synthesis of Buddhist doctrine.
Tendai thus became proverbially broad, able to absorb and give rise to other movements within Buddhism. It also took up a principle of threefold truth derived from Nagarjuna
- All things are void and without essential reality
- All things have a provisional reality
- All things are both absolutely unreal and provisionally real at once. The transient world of phenomena is thus seen as one with the unchanging, undifferentiated ground of existence.
This doctrine was elaborated in a complex cosmology of 3,000 interpenetrating realms of existence.
In 804, the Japanese monk Saicho was sent to study at Mount Tiantai, and returned with the teaching that formed the nucleus of Japanese Tendai which he expounded from a new monastic centre on Mount Hiei near Kyoto. He was initially opposed by monks at the old Buddhist centre of Nara who used Theravada precepts for ordination instead of the Mahayana precepts he wished to employ. He also incorporated elements of Zen and esoteric Buddhism into Japanese Tendai.
Imperial approval for the new sect was finally given in 823, just after Saicho's death, initiating the development of Mahayana Buddhism in Japan.
Two great Tendai monks, Ennin and Enshin, furthered the sect's influence, especially at court, and the monastic centre on Mount Hiei, Enryakuji, grew into an immense temple complex. Tendai in Japan became, with Shingon, one of the two preeminent sects of the Heian period, Japan's cultural golden age. It remained more élitist than Shingon, and was particularly popular with the Heian aristocracy. It also fostered the synthesis of Buddhism with Japanese Shinto.
In time, the sect accumulated great wealth and political power, and the armed monks and lay brothers of Mount Hiei, especially in the lawless days of late Heian, would descend from their monasteries to threaten the government or simply to loot. Schisms within Tendai also led to armed feuds between temples on Mount Hiei. Tendai's pluralistic doctrine made it a breeding ground for new sects: Japanese Zen and Pure Land Buddhism both originated as movements within Tendai which broke away and developed their own organisation and creeds.
Increasingly worldly, Tendai kept its power and importance until 1571, when Oda Nobunaga, unifier of Japan, attacked and razed Enryakuji, massacring monks and local inhabitants.