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Chi-I - An Introduction to His Life and Work

by Kamalashila


An Introduction to His Life and Work

by Kamalashila

As some of you may know, I have been interested in Chih-i for many years. Not that I
bothered to find out very much until about a month ago. But all the same, I was interested
in Chih-i: for example, in the early days of the building work at Sukhavati, I can very
clearly remember studying ‘Dhyana for Beginners’. I remember sitting there in my
overalls amidst all the rubble. But the keenness of my interest was not, I don’t think,
much to do with Chih-i. Yet like many of us, I suppose, ‘Dhyana for Beginners’ has very
much coloured any impression I have of Chih-i. There is also the parallell which Bhante
drew on the ‘Dhyana for Beginners’ seminar – he said that in some respect there are
similarities between the FWBO and T’ien t’ai, Chih-i’s tradition. Then, just a few years
ago, Bhante decided to place Chih-i on our refuge tree, as one of the great gurus of the
past, as a spirit from the past which has come down to us, and affects us even today. But I
don’t imagine we are really much the wiser as to why he did that. So I hope my talk will
at least provide a little background information for you to follow up if you feel interested.

Chih-i was born in what today is the Hunan province of China, in the year 538.
According to tradition, supernatural light illuminated the sky, and monks appeared at the
door saying that this child would grow up to be a monk. In fact even as a young child
Chih-i felt reverence towards images of the Buddha, and would spontaneously worship
them. He also, apparently, had a wonderful memory – at the age of seven, on visiting a
temple one day, he was able to repeat the text of an entire sutra on hearing it just once.
However what actually moved him to leave the household life was not his talent, or even
his natural feeling for the Buddha, but an insight. As a youth, Chih-i had one of those
deep, unforgettable experiences that transcend the boundaries of our ordinary lives. He
witnessed a great library of rare books being destroyed by the army. He watched the
soldiers destroying the specially constructed buildings, feeding the printed and hand-
written texts into the flames, piling up the wooden printing blocks; watched the sparks
shooting high into the evening sky, heard the crackling flames, smelt the black smoke,
felt the heat. You can imagine how this might affect a sensitive, thoughtful, intense
young man. That so many thoughts, so many considerations and insights of so many great
writers, can just be lost, consumed forever in such a short time. How the best ideas of a
whole civilisation, even, can be destroyed, can become ashes, become as though they
never been at all. It must have struck him very forcibly how life is transitory,
impermanent; how life cannot be how you want it. Life is necessarily mysterious,
ungraspable, terrible. Chih-i no doubt saw that the only possible resolution of such
mysteries could be in a spiritual life.

He was seventeen. He entered the monastic life. He went for refuge, was ordained, and
after some years of study and meditation, went into retreat, where for twenty days he
recited the ‘Threefold Lotus Sutra’. By the end of this period, he had realised the Lotus
samadhi, one of the samadhis referred to in the ‘White Lotus Sutra’.

In 560, at the age of 22, he met Hui-ssu. Hui-ssu instructed him on how to meditate on
the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, instructed him on the conduct of a Bodhisattva, and
eventually, after getting to know him thoroughly, named Chih-i as his Dharma Heir and
successor. Chih-i then took on disciples. He taught them meditation, taught them the
Lotus Sutra, taught them the Perfection of Wisdom.

Time passed in this way. Fifteen years later, after twenty years’ training, Hui-ssu was not
far from death. Chih-i was 37, in his prime, and it was now that he moved to the famous
mountain range, T’ien T’ai, that gave its name to his school of Buddhism. He based
himself there for the rest of his life, another 22 years.

Chih-i managed to get Royal support for his community. However he seems to have been
mindful of any possible compromise this might involve, since later on we come across
him admonishing the Emperor against state intervention in Sangha affairs – this is rather
typical of Chih-i’s ability to reconcile opposites.

His main method of teaching was to give lecture series. He spoke on the Vimalakirti
Nirdesa, the ‘White Lotus Sutra’, the Sutra of Golden Light, Nagarjuna, and meditation.
All these lecture series were transcribed and later edited into books. (There’s a familiar
ring about all this somewhere.)

He died at the age of 59, in the year 597. He had founded 35 monasteries, ordained over
1000 monks, and produced many volumes of writing on Buddhist doctrine and
meditation – the equivalent, in our writing, of 9,000 pages. Through all this he had
established the distinctive character of the T’ien t’ai school on a much more broad and
practical basis than before. Though Chih-i did not found the T’ien t’ai, his work so
completely defined and established its doctrine that he is considered the virtual founder.

He is actually the Third Patriarch of the school. His teacher, Hui-ssu, was the Second
Patriarch. The lineage begins with Hui-wen, who had the insight which marked the
distinctively T’ien t’ai approach, that of effectively systematisation and assimilation of
Indian Buddhist ideas into Chinese culture. Hui-wen’s original insight was concerned
with the meaning of this verse from Nagarjuna’s commentary on the Prajnaparamita:

‘All things which arise through conditioned co-arising
I explain as Emptiness.
– Again, it is a conventional designation.
– Again, it is the meaning of the Middle Path.’

I’ll leave you to ponder that; we’ll be coming back to it shortly. Hui-wen was the First
Chinese Patriarch of the T’ien t’ai shool, but because of the importance of that verse the
school also traces its spiritual lineage back to Nagarjuna as its originator in India. It’s
perhaps interesting to note that with the drawing up of our own Refuge Tree we are doing
something rather similar to this, though we don’t call them Patriarchs. (Which might be
rather risky.) We are tracing our influences back to Buddhism in the East – to Japan,
China, Tibet, and finally to India and the Buddha himself.

I’m afraid all this doesn’t give us all that much of a feeling for Chih-i’s character. I’ve
managed to find very little autobiographical material of a personal kind. I would have
liked to have discovered myths and legends connected with Chih-i, but I haven’t
managed to unearth much. Yet by reading between the lines of what little we’ve heard so
far, we can still get some idea of what kind of man he was. For example, if you remember
he was instructed in the way of life of the Bodhisattva by Hui-ssu, his preceptor. Hui-ssu
did this according to Chapter Fourteen of the ‘White Lotus Sutra’, where the Buddha
instructs Manjusri in Bodhisattva practices of body, speech, mind – and vow. In terms of
his vow or motivation, the Bodhisattva is encouraged not only to develop a spirit of great
generosity towards all practitioners of the Dharma, whoever they are, whether laymen or
monks, but in particular to develop a spirit of great compassion towards all those who
have not yet become Bodhisattvas. The ‘White Lotus Sutra’ admonishes us to reflect that
those who have not yet become Bodhisattvas are suffering an enormous loss. They are
missing a very great opportunity, and because of this the Bodhisattva should make a vow
expressing his feeling for their situation:

‘Though those people have not inquired... nor believed, ...nor understood, ...when I have
attained Perfect Enlightenment, wherever I am, by my transcendental powers and powers
of wisdom, I will lead them to abide in [the] Dharma’.

In this way Chih-i was instructed in both the principles and practicalities of compassion,
and all the evidence is that he took them very much to heart. Chih-i lived as a
Bodhisattva. We know for example that during his first few years on Mount T’ien T’ai,
Chih-i managed to persuade the fishermen along the seashore to abandon their work.
Which judging from the political viewpoint of our own times must have required
considerable determination, not to mention tact – both typically Bodhisattva-like
qualities. I don’t know if he asked these fishermen to take up their nets and follow him,
but he definitely managed to get them to adopt the doctrine of not killing living beings.
He later bought up all the fishing rights along that seashore, and we know that his ban on
fishing was still being observed two hundred years later.

So Chih-i was a man of great determination and compassion, qualities expressed in very
skilful communication. Which brings me to the activities for which he is most
remembered – his thought and his communication. Which brings me to the activities for
which he is most remembered – his thought ...

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