The Bodhisattva Precepts in Tendai Buddhism

One of the more unusual features of the Japanese Tendai sect of Buddhism compared to its parent Tiantai sect in China, is how it approaches monastic discipline.

The Tiantai sect uses the traditional 250 precepts for monks (348 for nuns) called the Prathimoksa or in Chinese si fen lü (四分律). For devoted lay followers the Five Precepts are upheld.

The Tendai sect during the time of Saicho the founder, made an explicit choice to not use the si fen lu precepts and instead chose to use the Bodhisattva Precepts. In Japanese these are called the endonkai (円頓戒, “perfect precepts”) or daijōkai (大乗戒)

The Bodhisattva Precepts are defined in a Buddhist text called the Brahma Net Sutra.1 The sutra lists Ten Major and 48 minor precepts that bodhisattva disciples were expected to follow. However, typically the Bodhisattva Precepts are only the ten major precepts:

  1. Not to take life, or induce others to take life
  2. Not to steal
  3. Not to have sex
  4. Not to tell lies
  5. Not to sell intoxicants
  6. Discussing the faults of the Sangha (Buddhist community)
  7. Praising oneself and criticizing others
  8. Not to be stingy
  9. Not to harbor anger
  10. Not speaking ill of the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha)

Priests in the Tendai Order ordain in the Bodhisattva Precepts and not the Prathimoksa precepts.

In the book Saicho: The Establishment of the Japanese Tendai School, the author explores the question of why the Tendai school explicitly broke away from Buddhist convention. Other more established schools in Japan ordained their monks in the traditional way and Saicho was ordained that way too.

So why the break in tradition? Professor Groner hypothesized that Saicho was trying to distinguish the Tendai Order from their rivals, particularly the powerful Hossō (Yogacara) school which it had a difficult relationship with. By using a more “pure” Mahayana set of principles for its monastic order, Saicho meant to make his Order a more purely “Mahayana” school.

Further, Saicho argued that the original Prathimoksa rules were given by the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, at a particular time and place. In contrast, the Bodhisattva Precepts are universal and suitable for all times and places.

It’s an interesting argument. Indeed, if you look in the Vinaya Pitaka where the Prathimoksa are defined, many rules were situational to address misconduct by various disciples. On the other hand, the some of the Bodhisattva Precepts are kind of vague and open to interpretation. Traditionally in China both precepts were administered: first the Prathimoksa and then the Bodhisattva Precepts on top of it. This covers both bases I suppose.

In any case, the choice by the Tendai to use the Bodhisattva precepts for ordination had a huge effect on Japanese Buddhism because many existing schools are offshoots of the Tendai: Soto Zen, Rinzai Zen, Jodo Shu, Nichiren Shu and so on.

P.S. This article in Wikipedia that both Korean and Japanese Buddhism use the Bodhisattva Precepts but does not cite sources. More research required.

1 There are actually two entirely separate sutras of the same name, one in the Pali Canon (Theravada) and the Mahayana version. This is the latter.


One Vehicle Buddhism

Still reading the Japanese-language introduction to Tendai Buddhism called うちのお寺は天台宗 (“My Temple is Tendai Buddhism”). One thing the book talks about a lot is the Tendai-Buddhist concept of ichijō bukkyō (一乗仏教) or “one-vehicle Buddhism”.

The idea is not necessarily unique to Tendai though. In the Lotus Sutra, chapter two, the Buddha surprises all his followers by stating that all the different “vehicles” of Buddhism are in fact one vehicle because they all converge to the same endpoint anyway.

To clarify, Mahayana Buddhism has always listed three basic types of disciples:

  • Śravaka or “voice-hearers” (Japanese: shōmon, 声聞) – These are the students who “hear” the Buddha’s teachings and try to practice them in their life in order to attain liberation. Such people, if they attain awakening, would become arhats (or arahants) which means “noble ones”.
  • Pratyekabuddha or “private buddha” (Japanese: engaku, 縁覚) – these are beings who come upon the Dharma by the themselves and attain liberation. For whatever reason, they lack the capacity for teaching to others, hence they differ from the historical Buddha Shakyamuni who had an active ministry.
  • Bodhisattva or “seeker of Enlightenment” (Japanese: bosatsu, 菩薩) – these are beings who seek Enlightement as part of a series of vows to liberate and help others. More on Bodhisattvas here.

In some Buddhist schools, these are seen as separate, distinct paths or “vehicles”, but the Lotus Sutra turns things on its head by saying that these ultimately converge anyway, so it’s really just one single path.

According to the book Saicho: The Establishment of the Japanese Tendai School, this led to a very intense debate in China between the Tiantai and Faxiang schools, and this debate carried over in Japan too. Saicho from the Tendai school debated heavily with the Hosso (Faxiang / Yogacara) school particularly with a brilliant scholar-monk named Tokuitsu who defended the Hosso school’s Five Natures Doctrine.

Even today it’s still an interesting argument to consider: are there really three possible outcomes for Enlightenment or one? Is everybody destined to become a Buddha or only some?

The Pali Canon subtly implies that there are three vehicles, not one. But the Lotus Sutra asserts a more idealistic vision.

Which one do you think is right?

Tendai Buddhism and the Four Integrated Schools

Lately, as I continue my read of Tendai Buddhism in the Japanese-language introduction うちのお寺は天台宗 (“My Temple is Tendai Buddhism”), I was introduced to a concept called sōgōbukkyō (総合仏教) which means “integrated Buddhism”. Elsewhere the book uses the term shishūyūgō (四宗融合) which means something like “Blending the Four Schools Together”.

The idea in Tendai Buddhism is to bring together the four major practices into a single school. These are:

  • Meditation (禅)
  • The Pure Land (浄土)
  • Precepts (律)
  • Esotericism (密教)

The Tendai approach is that all of these schools are not mutually exclusive, but rather part of a larger path. A senior teacher or ajari (阿闍梨) will need to have training in all four2, but for a regular follower any one of them can be a starting point and a life-long practice.

All of these are united under the theoretical teachings in the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra including “expedient means” and “one-vehicle buddhism” so there’s no conflict.

Further, in terms of sutras important to the Tendai tradition, it varies depending on which of the four traditions your talking about:

But also, as part of general Mahayana tradition, the Tendai school’s important sutras include the Flower Garland Sutra, the Sutra of Benevolent Kings, the Golden Light Sutra and of course the Lotus Sutra. Also, the Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way among others.

Anyhow, what’s interesting about the Tendai approach is that it is both broad and comprehensive. In my past experiences with certain Buddhist schools (not just one), I always felt pressure to “toe the line” and do things according to that particular school without mixing other things. Always the bugbear among some of the more orthodox people I met was blending other teachings and “causing confusion”. Because of my eclectic background, this always puts me in an awkward position and makes me only want to commit half-heartedly.

Whereas in Tendai, these approaches are given equal weight, and with a theoretical foundation (i.e. the Lotus Sutra) which I agree with anyway.

The more I’ve studied Buddhism over the years (why it’s become such an obsession I’ll never know), the more I’ve come to appreciate the whole thing.

Consider the Four Bodhisattva Vows:

However immeasurable the Buddha’s Teachings are, I earnestly aspire to comprehend them all.

However incomparable the Enlightened Mind is, I earnestly aspire to attain it by all means.

Mahayana Buddhism is big and messy sometimes, and suffers from constantly trying to one-up itself. However, Mahayana Buddhism also likes to think on a grand, cosmic scale, and thus meditation, the Pure Land, the Lotus Sutra, conduct and even esoteric Buddhism are all useful and important. None of these are the ineffable Dharma in and of itself, but each one is an expression of it.

Further, I also think people should have the freedom to choose and practice one or all of them without guilt or fear of orthodoxy. Granted, they need a well-trained teacher and some discipline at the outset, but each one of us comes into the world with a different background and different inclination so we naturally gravitate toward certain things. As long as the we’re all heading on the same long-term direction, that’s fine.

So, suffice to say I really appreciate the Tendai approach to integrated Buddhism.

1 This is one of things that makes Tendai differ from its parent Tiantai school, which focused exclusively on meditation and pure land practices. Monastic codes differed too, with the Chinese Tiantai following the traditional monastic model, and the Tendai school using the Bodhisattva Precepts instead.

2 Which makes sense if you think about it: a senior teacher needs adequate training and experience in order to teach others.

Helping Others

The founder of Tendai Buddhism in Japan, Saicho (767 – 822), famously said:


ichigu wo terasu,
kore sunawachi kokuho nari

This means:

“Light one corner of the world,
in this way you will be a national treasure.”

The Six Gates of Buddhist Meditation

Recently, I picked up a copy of The Six Dharma Gates to the Sublime, which was written by the famous Chinese Buddhist master Zhi-yi (智顗, 538–597) and translated by Bhikshu Dharmamitra.  Zhi-yi is something of a super star in Chinese Buddhism, and Buddhism across East Asia,¹ but his writings and teachings aren’t well understood in the West, so I wanted to learn more about him.  Much of what we see in East Asian Buddhism, how it’s organized, and certain fundamental teachings, are due to his research and writings.

According to Bhikshu Dharmamitra, the Six Dharma Gates to the Sublime (六妙法門) is the third of four in a series of Buddhism meditation manuals written by Zhi-yi.  Zhi-yi was a proponent of the classic Buddhist meditation called “calming and insight meditation”, or śamatha-vipaśyanā dhyāna in Sanskrit (शमथविपश्यना झान).  Note that this is actually two forms of Buddhism meditation, shamatha (calming) and vipashyana (insight), combined like two halves of the same coin. In Japanese Tendai Buddhism this is called shikan (止観) meditation.

Anyhow, Zhi-yi describes six progressive states of meditation:

  1. Counting
  2. Following
  3. Stabilization
  4. Contemplation
  5. Turning [back]
  6. Purification

Inevitably, if one practices Calming and Insight meditation, you start with counting the breaths first.  Then, as Zhi-yi explains:

When one becomes aware that the breath has become insubstantial and faint, the mind becomes gradually more subtle along with it.  One subsequently becomes concerned that counting has become a coarse activity.  One’s state of mind is such that one does not with to engage in counting.  At just such a time, the practitioner should let loose of the counting and then proceed to cultivate “following”. (pg 37)

In other words, you transition in order from the first gate to the last.  The reality is is that without prior experience and practice, you may have trouble getting your mind to calm down at the first gate, and this is OK.  It simply takes patience and repetition.

In any case, the book is mostly an exploration of these six “gates” from different angles, including how to use them to counteract negative states of mind that may arise during meditation.  It’s a very deep, technical look at how the mind progresses through these states, and the various ways they may manifest.  While the book may be a bit dry at times, it is also probably one of the best, most scientific approaches I’ve read so far to meditative experience in Buddhism.

¹ If you’re curious, his name is pronounced Chigi in Japanese, Chi-eui (지의) in Korean and Trí Nghĩ in Vietnamese.

Tendai Buddhist Liturgy, redux

Recently, I have been taking an interest in the Tendai sect of Japanese Buddhism (which in turn is based on the venerable Chinese Tiantai sect) after re-reading a biography about the Tendai founder Saicho (最澄, 767 – 822). Tendai/Tiantai as a Buddhist sect definitely has some things going for it, in my opinion:

  • It includes multiple Buddhist practices such as Zen meditation and reciting the Buddha’s name (e.g. the nembutsu) without limiting itself to one practice for the sake of doctrinal purity.
  • It centers itself around the Lotus Sutra, which is one of the most fundamental and most important sutras in Mahayana Buddhism. You basically can’t have Mahayana Buddhism without the Lotus Sutra.

Resources and information around Tendai are quite limited in English, and there is only two overseas community in the US (California and New York) that I am aware of, so I decided to get back to the source and study what information I could in Japanese from the official website in Japan.

Soon, I found their home-liturgy page and realized that it differed significantly from some old posts I had made here and here. Further, now that I can read Japanese more easily than before, plus have more experience with Japanese-Buddhist liturgy, I decided why not translate the official home liturgy page into English?

The home-liturgy page is great because it has links to Youtube videos so you can chant along, and see how it sounds, plus the chants in Tendai seem to be relatively short so they’re not hard to learn.


The Tendai page offers some suggestions when doing a home service:

  • Offering water, candle, etc is encouraged before the home altar.
  • Before you face the altar1 for the service, take a moment to wash out your mouth with water, wash hands and purify the body.
  • The number of incense sticks to offer is not fixed, you can offer as many or few as you like.
  • Have the service book or sutra you’ll recite open in front of you.
  • When reciting or chanting, your voice will be a bit higher than your normal conversational voice, and the chanting will be in a smooth, even manner.
  • At the beginning fo the service, if you have a small bell, ring it twice. Then, after each chant, ring it once to conclude. At the very end of the service, ring three times.
  • Once finished, make sure to close the sutra book and put it away.

Warning: these are amateur translations. It is not the official translation, and if you need further information, please contact your nearest Tendai temple. 🙂

Warning 2: For convenience, I only listed the shorter version of the Tendai liturgy for home services. On the website, these are the parts listed as essential while the other chants are nice to do if time permits.

Tendai Buddhist Home Liturgy:

The Three Gratitudes (三礼, sanrai): (Youtube)

ish-shin cho rai jip-po ho kai jo ju san bo

(repeat 3 times)

“I praise with all my heart the Three Treasures [Buddha, Dharma and Sangha] that endlessly pervade the Ten Directions.”

Renunciation of Past Transgressions (懺悔文, sangemon): (Youtube)

ware mukashi yori tsukureru tokoro no moromoro no akugo wa mina mushi no tonjinchi ni yoru shingoi yori shozuru tokoro nari issai ware ima mina sange shitate matsuru

From the beginning-less past, driven by the Three Poisons (greed, anger, ignorance) I have committed all kinds of transgressions; these I hereby humbly repent in full.

The Four Bodhisattva Vows (四弘誓願, shiguseigan): (Youtube)

shujo wa muhen naredomo, chikatte dosen koto wo negau
bonno wa muhen naredomo, chikatte danzen koto wo negau
homon wa mujin naredomo, chikatte shiran koto wo negau
bodai wa mujo naredomo, chikatte shosen koto wo negau

Sentient beings are innumerable; I aspire to enlighten them all.
Delusions are innumerable; I aspire to extinguish them all.
The gates of the Dharma are inexhaustible; I aspire to know them all.
The awakened mind is incomparable; I aspire to attain it.

The Heart Sutra (般若心経, hannya shingyō): (Youtube)

I have posted a link to the Heart Sutra for chanting.

Note: According the book うちのお寺は天台宗, you are welcome to chant a different sutra if you prefer. It doesn’t have to be the Heart Sutra if you are not inclined to chant that one.

Also, I believe that it does not need to be in Japanese either.

Homage to the Founder, Saicho (大師宝号, daishi hogo): (Youtube)

namu shuso konpon dengyo daishi fukuju kongo

(repeat 3 times)

“Praise to the original founder, Dengyo Daishi [Saicho] the Vajra of Accumulated Blessings”2

Dedication of Merit to All Sentient Beings (回向発願文, ekō hatsuganmon): (Youtube)

negawaku wa gedatsu no ajihitori nomazu, anraku no kahitori shosezu. hokai no shujo to tomo ni myokaku ni nobori, hokai no shujo to tomo ni myomi no fukusen

(Rough translation…) I pray that I receive not a single taste of liberation for myself, nor a single moments peace for myself. [But rather] May I together with all beings ascend the Buddhist path to Awakening, and abide in the Sublime together.

1 According the book うちのお寺は天台宗, the central figure (御本尊, gohonzon) in a Tendai Buddhist altar can be any number of Buddhist deities. More on that in a later post.

2 The term fukuju kongō (福聚金剛) is was hard to find a meaning for, because it’s apparently related to esoteric Buddhism. Based on the DDB entry (login: guest) it seems that it’s related to a phrase in the Lotus Sutra, which would explain why it’s given to Saicho. Still, that’s about all an amateur like me can figure out.

Weird Buddhist Dream V

Recently, I had a Buddhist-themes dream, the first in many years. For the record, I don’t believe these dreams are divinely inspired, I do think my subconscious is probably trying to tell me something.

Anyhow, in this dream I was a monk or some kind of novice at a small Buddhist monastery here in the US (presumably). In the dream, I was looking around for something when my teacher finds me and scolds me saying “why aren’t practicing with the other students?” It turns out the teacher was one of my old Kendo sensei from college.1

I forget what I said in reply, but I was making some excuse about having lost something and I kept looking in one room or another to find it.

That’s all I can remember, but I wonder if the dream is trying to tell me something….

1 In real life, I decided to quit kendo after a couple years to focus more on school work. I remember him scolding me for being a quitter, and it made me feel pretty bitter. I actually really liked my sensei, and we had a shared love of Star Wars and Yoda, so I think that’s why my feelings got so hurt. Looking back though, maybe he was just trying to use “tough love” to keep me practicing Kendo. I guess I will never really know. :-/