T’ien-t’ai ［天台］ (538–597) (PY Tiantai; Tendai): Also known as Chih-i. The founder of the T’ien-t’ai school in China, commonly referred to as the Great Teacher T’ien-t’ai or the Great Teacher Chih-che (Chih-che meaning “person of wisdom”). The name T’ien-t’ai was taken from Mount T’ien-t’ai where he lived, and this, too, became the name of the Buddhist school he effectively founded. He was a native of Hua-jung in Ching-chou, China, where his father was a senior official in the Liang dynasty government (502–557). The fall of the Liang dynasty forced his family into exile. He lost both parents soon thereafter and in 555 entered the Buddhist priesthood under Fa-hsü at Kuo-yüan-ssu temple. He then went to Mount Ta-hsien where he studied the Lotus Sutra and its related scriptures. In 560 he visited Nan-yüeh (also known as Hui-ssu) on Mount Ta-su to study under him, and as a result of intense practice, he is said to have attained an awakening through the “Medicine King” (twenty-third) chapter of the Lotus Sutra. This awakening is referred to as the “enlightenment on Mount Ta-su.”
After seven years of practice under Nan-yüeh, T’ien-t’ai left the mountain and made his way to Chin-ling, the capital of the Ch’en dynasty, where he lived at the temple Wa-kuan-ssu and lectured for eight years on the Lotus Sutra and other texts. His fame spread, and he attracted many followers. Aware that the number of his disciples who were obtaining insight was decreasing, however, and, in order to further his understanding and practice, he retired to Mount T’ien-t’ai in 575. Thereafter, at the emperor’s repeated request, he lectured on The Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom and the Benevolent Kings Sutra at the imperial court in Chin-ling. In 587, at Kuang-che-ssu temple in Chin-ling, he gave lectures on the Lotus Sutra that were later compiled as The Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sutra. After the downfall of the Ch’en dynasty, he returned to his native Ching-chou and there expounded teachings that were set down as The Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sutra in 593 and Great Concentration and Insight in 594 at Yü-ch’üan-ssu temple. The three works mentioned above were all compiled by his disciple Chang-an and became the three major texts of the T’ien-t’ai school. He then returned to Mount T’ien-t’ai, where he died. Other lectures of T’ien-t’ai compiled by Chang-an include The Profound Meaning of the “Perceiver of the World’s Sounds” Chapter and The Profound Meaning of the Golden Light Sutra.
T’ien-t’ai criticized the scriptural classifications formulated by the ten major Buddhist schools of his time, which regarded either the Flower Garland Sutra or the Nirvana Sutra as the highest Buddhist teaching. Instead he classified all of Shakyamuni’s sutras into “five periods and eight teachings” and through this classification demonstrated the superiority of the Lotus Sutra. He also established the practice of threefold contemplation in a single mind and the principle of three thousand realms in a single moment of life. Because he systematized the doctrine of what became known as the T’ien-t’ai school, he is revered as its founder, though, according to Chang-an’s preface to Great Concentration and Insight, the lineage of the teaching itself began with Hui-wen, who based his teaching on Nāgārjuna and transferred it to Nan-yüeh.