The Significant Doctrine of the Saddharmapundarīka Sūtra (Lotus Sūtra) and its Connection with the Tian Tai School

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The Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra is undoubtedly a great discourse in expressing the basic Mahāyāna Buddhist thought, its appeal as a devotional work and its dramatic scenes and memorable parables. Apart from India, the Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra has exerted an incalculable influence upon the culture of East Asia in fact. The Tien Tai founder Zhiyi unarguably exhorted from the Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra. Thus, Zhiyi emphasized significant doctrinal features, such as, ten suchlike, one mind contains three thousand realms, universal Buddhahood, threefold truth and so forth in his teachings, which subsequently denoted as the teaching of Tien Tai School. This paper aims to search for the significant doctrinal features of Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra and Zhiyi’s Tian Tai School along with analyzing of Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra in Tian Tai School.

Keywords: Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra, Tian Tai School, One Buddha vehicle, Universal Buddhahood, The Primordial Buddha, Threefold Truths.


The great Mahāyāna discourse ‘Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra’ was originally composed in Sanskrit language, and subsequently, Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra was translated into Chinese language by eminent Buddhist scholar Kumārajīva [3]. According to Sir Monier William’s ‘A Sanskrit to English Dictionary’, the word Saddharma (Sad + dharma) is divided into two parts: Sad and Dharma. In this term, Sad is defined as ‘the law’ or ‘the truth’ or ‘righteousness’, and Dharma refers to the essential teachings of Buddhism[4]. Therefore, Saddharma can be defined as ‘righteous teachings’, or ‘righteous truth’, or ‘noble richness’, and puṅḍarīka refers to ‘the lotus flower’. Kumārajīva, however, translated Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra the discourse as ‘the white lotus flower’ [5]. The Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra explicitly represents the essence of the Mahāyāna tradition’s fundamental orientation, i.e., the great compassion (Skt. Karuna) to all sentient beings.[6] Furthermore, Tian Tai Buddhism was renowned as the first Chinese Buddhist School which was developed in a systematic way in both theory and practice, and the true founder of Tian Tai Buddhist school was Zhiyi (Chinese : Chih-i, 538- 597 C.E.)[7] . After the Tian Tai Buddhist School was established in China, it was the first time that Chinese monks and scholars confidently expressed their understanding of Buddhism in their own way[8]. This essay will depict the significant doctrinal features of Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra and Zhiyi’s Tian Tai School and will delineate traces of Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra in Tian Tai School.

The Significant Doctrine of the Saddharmapundarīka Sūtra

The doctrinal teaching of the Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra is an arguably important and influential discourse for Mahāyāna followers due to their heartfelt belief into gaining highest merits while they recite the verses from the Sūtra. Nevertheless, the prominent Buddhist scholar, Dr. Burton Watson, illustrates that the Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra was composed in India or Central Asia, and later on, this Sūtra was translated into Chinese language in 255 C.E. by Kumārajīva[9]. According to the translated text by Kumārajīva, the Lotus Sūtra is divided into 28 Chapters in 7 fascicles[10]. All chapters of the Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra consist of a combination of lucid prose and verse passage. The significant doctrine of the Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra includes discourses such as one Buddha vehicle and skillful means, universal Buddhahood and the Primordial Buddha pave the way on how one can acquire wisdom (Skt. prajñā) and enlightenment (Skt. bodhi) through practice.

2.1 One Buddha Vehicle and Skillful means

The Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra precisely instructs that the threefold divisions of the Buddha’s teachings, such as, Śrāvaka Buddha (the disciples of the Buddha), Prateka Buddha (Private Buddha), and the Bodhisattva are not separate vehicles; they are in fact one, i.e., the Buddha Vehicle or the Great Vehicle[11]. The Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra, moreover, emphasizes skillful means (Skt. upāya) along with one Buddha Vehicle[12] . In order to understand the One Buddha vehicle and the skillful means, prominent Buddhist scholar Dr. Peter Della Santina has written a beautiful story, “The Tree of Enlightenment” a parable of a burning house from the Saddharmapṅḍuarīka Sūtra[13]. Dr. Peter Della Santina used a simile of a rich father who has a number of children and an old house. One day the old house catches on fire unexpectedly, unfortunately, the father’s children were inside the house. Having seen the flames of the burning house, the father immediately shouted to his children to come out, but the children did not pay attention to their father due to they were playing with toys. The father thought of a skillful idea to induce them to run out of the house by enticing them with toy carts. Therefore, the father immediately brought some toy carts, and called the children one by one to receive their toys. In this way, all of the children safely out of the burning house. This was possible due to the father’s skillful (Skt. upāya) application towards his young children[14] .

Following the insightful story, the world, or the Saṁsāra denotes as the parable of the world, the fire denotes the fire of the affliction (Skt. āśrava); the father is like the Buddha; and the children are the people of the world. The toy carts are the vehicles of the Śrāvaka Buddha (the disciples of the Buddha), Prateka Buddha (Private Buddha), and the Bodhisattva[15].

2.2 Universal Buddhahood

The Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra explicitly states the possibility of attaining Buddhahood by all sentient beings in all period of times. According to the seventeenth chapter from the Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra, the Buddha addresses that when I (the Buddha) deliver the dharma to the lay or monk disciples, during this period if the listeners dwell in pure and respected mind to the Triple Gems, they attain to Buddhahood and subsequently they can transmit their wisdom (bodhi) generation by generation[16]. The Buddhahood is not only attained by the Buddha’s immediate disciples (Skt. Śrāvaka), but it can also be attained by people from any period if they have enough faith (Skt. śraddha) and wisdom (Skt. gyāna) to utilize the essence of the Buddha’s teaching. Furthermore, in the twelfth chapter of the Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra, the Buddha praised to Devadatta’s [17] interpretation on timeless possibility to attain Buddhahood by any sentient being if the being is able to fulfill the six perfections (Skt. pārāmita) [18]. In the same chapter, Devadatta also mentions that Buddhahood could be acquired not only by the men, but women also have the same seeds like man to attain Buddhahood[19]. Moreso, the Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra says that we are all sons and daughters of the Buddha and all of us will obviously achieve the inheritance of Buddhahood[20].

2.3 The Primordial Buddha

The Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra clearly depicts the Buddha Śākyamuni who not only historically taught the truth for forty-five years in India, but also proves the Buddha’s original existence i.e., the primordial Buddha. Chapter eleven of Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra, mentions the Buddha’s recalling on his emanation, and also mentions when he was delivering the Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra, voiced that numerous amount of deities were gathered from ten different directions[21]. Moreover, in the sixteenth chapter of the Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra, the Buddha Śākyamuni reveals that he first achieved enlightenment not under the Bodhi tree as mentioned in his life story. The Buddha became enlightened billions of eons (Skt. kalpa) ago, in the inconceivably remote past[22]. Ever since then, the Buddha appeared again for the sake of preaching the dharma and helped the sentient beings to release from sufferings, and show the path to liberation (Skt. Nirvāṅa).

3. The Main Doctrinal features of the Tian Tai School

Tian Tai school was founded by the third patriarch Zhiyi, who dwelled in Tian Tai mountain[23] most of his life time [24]. Later on, Zhiyi’s teaching was extensively compiled by his disciple Guanding. Tian Tai school undoubtedly abode at unique position due to its coherent and comprehensive doctrinal feature that simultaneously equip in both understanding and meditation practice. Nevertheless, Tian Tai School has classified the Buddha’s teachings into five periods and eight teachings. Moreover, The Tian Tai founder Zhiyi was established the doctrinal essence with regards to the concept of the threefold truth and the three thousand worlds immanent in a single instant of thought.

3.1 Five Periods and Eight Teachings

Zhiyi classified the Buddha’s teachings into the five periods which are referred to the five periods in the life of the Buddha. The five periods are as follows: i) the Avataṁsaka period, ii) the Mŗgadāya period, iii) the Vaipulya period, iv) the Prajñāpāramitā period and v) the Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Mahāparinirvāna period[25].

According to Mahāyāna tradition, the Śākyamuni Buddha delivered the Avataṁsaka Sūtra at the outset after his attainment to the Buddhahood under the Bodhi tree. Regarding to the doctrinal and historical value of the Avataṁsaka Sūtra, Zhiyi classified the first twenty one days from the Buddha’s Enlightenment (Skt. bodhi) to move at Deer Park considered as the Avataṁsaka period[26] . For twelve years, the Buddha was preached the doctrine of Four Noble Truths, numerous discourses (Skt. āgāma) and twelve links of Dependent Co-arising. Zhiyi designated this twelve period as the Mŗgadāya period[27]. Furthermore, the Vaipulya period is counted for eight years while the Buddha was teaching vimalakīrtinirdeśa, Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, Śūraṁgamasamādhi and so forth[28]. The duration of Prajñāpāramitā period is twenty-two years in which time the Buddha was preaching the essence of emptiness (Skt. śūnyatā), and the Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Mahāparinirvāna period is counted to last eight years of the Buddha’s time. During the Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Mahāparinirvāna period, the Buddha taught two remarkable discourses, namely, Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra and the Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra[29] .

In addition to Zhiyi’s classification of eight teachings, it is divided into two parts, they are, i) four teachings of the method of conversion and ii) four teachings of the doctrine (Skt. dharma) of conversion. The fourfold methods are as follows: i) gradual teaching, ii) sudden teaching, iii) secret teaching and variable teaching, whereas the fourfold doctrine are in thus : i) Tripitaka teaching, ii) shared teaching, iii) distinctive teaching and iv) perfect teaching[30]

3.2 Threefold Truth and One mind Contains Three thousand Worlds

Zhiyi’s idea on the threefold truth designated as the principle teaching of Tien Tai School[31]. The threefold truth: emptiness, conventional existence and the middle of those are rounded and included each other. Here, emptiness has identified with the ultimate truth (Skt. paramārthasatya), conventional existence refers to the phenomenal world as dependent co-arising and identified with the worldly truth, and the middle path denotes a simultaneous affirmation of both conventional and ultimate existence as aspects of a single integrated reality[32].

On the other hand, Zhiyi’s another fascinating doctrinal interpretation was one mind contains three thousands worlds. Zhiyi divided each realm of existence into ten realms[33] . Zhiyi precisely states that these ten existences are not spate to each other; all these realms refer to ten destinies as the state of experiences. In addition to express the idea ‘one mind contains three thousand worlds’, the patriarch Zhiyi made a fabulous simile. Zhiyi said, for instance, when one performs an altruistic deed (skt. bodhichitta), one experiences the realm of the Bodhisattava, and when one has an insight into the true nature of reality one experiences the realm of the Buddha. In the same way, if one has committed to unwholesome actions (skt. akusala karma), one can experience hell or other lower realm. Furthermore, each realm contains another nine realms, and ten realm become hundred realms, and each realm also has ten suchlike[34] characteristics and comprise three divisions in thus: i) living beings, ii) space and iii) the aggregates (skt. skandhas). Thus, one realm contains thirty worlds. By this way, one hundred dharma realms contain three thousand worlds, and these three thousand worlds contains in one thought[35] .

4. Traces of Saddharmapundarīka Sūtra in the Tian Tai School

The Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra plays an important role in Tian Tai Buddhism. The founder of the Tian Tai School, Zhiyi elucidated and exegetics his idea, whatever he had found from the Sūtra’s underlying principle. The Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra, on the other hand, provided Zhiyi with a textual foundation for his conceptual innovations. In addition to the prominent Chinese translator Kumārajīva’s translation, chapter two from the Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra sets forth the ‘ten suchlike’ that could only be understood by the Buddhas. Zhiyi skillfully interpreted ‘one mind contains three thousand realms’, and explicitly mentioned that each realm has ‘ten suchlike’ characteristics and it comprises threefold truth of emptiness, conventional existence, and the middle[36].

Moreover, the Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra mentions on the plural form of the Buddha which is used to replace the singular form of the Buddha. Therefore, there is no gap between enlightened beings (the Buddhas) and the Buddha Sakyamuni, which leads to no different between ‘ordinary sentient beings’ and ‘enlightened Buddhas’[37]. On the other hand, according to Tian Tai tradition, Zhiyi states that the Buddhas and all sentient beings have the intrinsically impure nature, but the distinction between them is ‘simple one of enlightenment as against un-enlightenment[38]. In fact, the Tien Tai doctrine ‘one thought contains three thousand worlds’ proves the impure nature theory that the absolute mind embraces all the phenomena of all universe. Furthermore, Zhiyi precisely states that the threefold truth, namely, emptiness, conventional existence and the middle are not real, but one rounded and integrative doctrine. In a word, one is all and all is one. In reality, there is only one truth, but conventionally we speak three. Master Zhiyi had quoted this idea in Tien Tai teachings with regards to the eight chapter of the Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra [39].

Nevertheless, Zhiyi traditionally divided the Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra unto broadly two main sections, i.e., trace teachings for the first fourteen chapters and origin teachings for rest fourteen chapters [40]. The reason is for dividing the Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra into trace and origin teachings, which actually is the division between the transcendental Buddha and Buddha Śākyamuni as its manifestation. Moreover, the first fourteen chapters the ‘trace teaching’ preached by Śākyamuni in a provisionally manifested from as the historical Buddha, and the second fourteen chapters reveals the ‘origin teaching’ and also reveals Śākyamuni Buddha to be the original or primordial Buddha, awakened since the inconceivably distant past.

5. Conclusion

The noteworthy teaching of the Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra is undoubtedly a great discourse in expressing the basic Mahāyāna Buddhist thought, its appeal as a devotional work and its dramatic scenes and memorable parables. Apart from India, the Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra has exerted an incalculable influence upon the culture of East Asia in fact. The Tien Tai founder Zhiyi unarguably exhorted from the Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra. Thus, zhiyi emphasized significant doctrinal features, such as, ten suchlike, one mind contains three thousand realms, universal Buddhahood, threefold truth and so forth in his teachings, which subsequently denoted as the teaching of Tien Tai School.

To sum up, both Saddharmapuṅḍarīka Sūtra and Tien Tai School explicitly assert the doctrinal value of the Śākyamuni Buddha and Tien Tai founder Zhiyi makes a notional distinction between the eternal Buddha (origin) and the manifestations for the benefit of all sentient beings.


  • C.E. Common Era
  • i.e. id est (that is)
  • P. Page Number
  • Skt. Sanskrit


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Additional Bibliography

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