14. Five Period Classification of the Buddha's Teachings
by Great Master Tendai
The various sutras, including the Lotus Sutra,were viewed to have been compiled three or four hundred years after the passing of Buddha into Nirvana. The Five Period classifications of sutras by Great Master Tendai, therefore, were not considered to be based on philological examination and researches. Great Master Tendai, a gifted man with superior scholarly talent and an eye for religion, scrutinized the various sutras and discovered the true intentions of the hidden words within the Lotus Sutra. He classified the various sutras in Five Periods in order to restore Buddha's 50 years of expositions of the Dharma.
When were the sutras compiled?
The Buddhist Council comprised of Buddha's disciples compiled the sutras but the date of editing is unknown. In fact, Buddhist priests were initially not interested in ascertaining thier date of origin. Moreover, it was difficult to determine the exact period because philology was not advanced as it is today.
In the 19th century, researches to determine the sutras' time of origin had intensified. As a result, it was determined that the various sutras had originated long after the death of Buddha. Moreover, it became known that the Agama Sutras of the Small Vehicle Religion (Hinayana), which had a low evaluation, had originated much earlier than the Hannya-kyo (the Wisdom Sutra), the Jodo Sanbu-kyo (Pure Land Sutras) and the Lotus Sutra of the Large Vehicle Buddhism.
Based on philological researches, it was also determined that the sutras of the Large Vehicle were not the teachings of the Buddha. During a certain period after entering into the Meiji Era (in the 19th sentury), it was ascertained that the sutras of the Small Vehicle Religion were the true teachings of the Buddha.
Unquestionably, all of the sutras, including the Lotus Sutra of the Large Vehicle, had originated about three or four hundred years after the passing of Buddha into Nirvana. Consequently, they were not the true teachings elucidated by Buddha from the viewpoint of philology. This can also be said of the Agama Sutras because it had originated about 100 years later after Buddha's death.
In other words, all sutras of the Large and Small Vehicle, may be considered as false teachings because they were not written by the Buddha during his lifetime.
Large and small vehicle teachings:
Then, are the sutras of the Large and Small Vehicle teachings, as well as the Lotus Sutra, not the true teachings of the Buddha? Didn't the Large Vehicle spread the true nature of enlightenment of the Buddha?
When Buddha was alive, people considered the recording of his sermons were injurious to his dignity. Consequently, all of Buddha's teachings were passed on to its followers by Buddha's disciples by mouth. This method of communication was knovn as the “Mouth to Mouth Tradition"
One may feel that this “Mouth to Mouth Tradition" way of communication lead to inaccuracies but, in olden Japan, some people known as raconteurs had superior capability of memorizing voluminous amount of events, stories and traditions, which they verbally transmitted to the people. In comparison, the people of today rely heavily on printed matters and technology as means of communication.
However, this mouth tradition created friction and differences of opinion as to how the teachings of the Buddha should be interpreted between the conservative and progressive groups. This situation arose 100 years after the death of the Buddha.
The conservative group which wanted to faithfully protect the commandment abided by its tradition. On the other hand, the progressive group was searching for a more realistic way to practice religion while keeping abreast of the changing times. Those differences of opinion created frictions among the factions and, eventually, lead to the formation of two separate groups known as the Joza-bu of the conservatives and the Daishu-bu of the progressive groups. These two groups later formed about 20 independant schools.
A Buddhist dictionary stated:“According to the Sarvastivadin tradition, the Buddhist order split into two schools as a result of Mahadeva's heresy; his followers formed the Mahadeva's School, while the more conservative priests who rejected his new theories, In the third century after the demise of the Buddha, the Sarvastivada School (Ubu) emerged from the latter school Later the Sthavira School declined and moved to the Himalaya region ‐ hence its alternate name, Haimavata (Sessen-bu). Southeast Asian Buddhistis also called Theravada. but its doctrine is quite different from the Sthavira described in the Sarvastivadin works." “Daishu-bu is also called Makasogi, the school of the great samgha. It means belonging to the great priests. One of the two principle Himayama schools. It is the more liberal and progressive school than the others, for example, the Sthavira (Theravada) School. It is said that this sect grew at the time of the Second Great Buddhist Council after the death of the Buddha." These two groups, made up of priests, were entirely engaged in the practices of Buddhism.
A rival group made up of civilians (laymen) formed a new buddhist movement to counter the priests' theology. They called themselves the large vehicle for the salvation of the people. They wanted a freer religious body unlike that of the priests, who were tied to the complicated commandments. This was known as the Large Vehicle Religious movement.
Small vehicle priests are nihilists?
I would like to mention in detail the formation process of the two groups and the flow of Buddhism.
The first sermon, “Shotenporin", delivered by the Buddha after attaining enlightenment elucidated that mankind will be burdened by various hardships. It was a pessimistic teachings in nature. The objective was to show how hardships can be overcome. The methods greatly differed between the Small and Large Vehicle Religions.
Shakyamuni Buddha stated:“The cause of sufferings after all is egoistic attachment. Greed by no means can be satisfied. Therein lies sufferings."
What can be done to avoid experiencing hardships? It is to extinguish all afflictions from the soul which create greed. This was the philosophy of the Small Vehicle Religion. However, it is extremely difficult to eliminate afflictions, greed and worldly desires. Hence, the Small Vehicle Religion imposed many austere commandments upon its followers to protect themselves and exercise patience for the elimination of afflictions. At the same time, to avoid worldly grime and pollutions, the priest severed contact with the masses and confined themselves in forests far away from human habitation for liberation and pursuit of religious practices.
The priests had maintained that the people who desired to engage in religious activities must become priests to keep the commandment. If not, they were not considered to be a true practitioner and would not be able to attain salvation.
The lay countered. Have you thought about what could happen if eveyone became a priest? Who would be engaged in the production of agriculture and commerce? What would happen if everyone became a priest and abided by the commandment by not taking a spouse? If you consider bearing children sinful, mankind will cease to exists. One need not be a priest to attain salvation.
We, laymen, considered the priests to be nihilists. Was Shakyamuni Buddha a nihilist? Priest were shackled by rituals and failed to capture the true meaning of the Buddha's teachings. If it is alright for mankind to become non-existent. the commandment becomes meaningless.
In this way, the rivalry between the priests and laymen gained momentum.
The lay group advocated freer religious activities and the priest theologians compiled their own sutras. The priests theory for livelihood was to save themselves and to seek the path to emancipation. The lay group called the priest theologians the small vehicle. The laymen's theory, which elucidated the teachings of salvation to themselves and others sought a path to bodhisattva, as the Buddha did, and proclaimed themselves the large vehicle.
The path to bodhisattva elucidated by the large vehicle teachings:
Whether it be the Small or Large Vehicle Religions, there were many similarities between them. They both expounded the teachings that mankind is confronted with many types of sufferings. For example, the Lotus Sutra stated:“There are no tranqulities in this world of ours. It is a home full of passions".
The Small Vehicle Religion elucidated that unless evil passions were eliminated, no one can escape from the many sufferings in this world, which is like a burning home. The Large Vehicle Religion does not take the same position.
The Yuima Sutra (Vimalakiriti-nirdesa-sutra) said:“Enlightenment can be accomplished through true meditation even though evil passions are not eliminated." This one phrase shows the position taken by the Large Vehicle Religion.
Yuima (Vimalakiriti) Koji (Koji means a lay devotee of the Buddha) was an honest and earnest lay parishioner. He shows us the movements of Buddhist laymen at the time when the Mahayana Buddhism was evolving.The above phrase are the words said by Yuima Koji to Sharihotsu Sonja who had left his home became a hermit and was living peacefully in a dark forest and growing old.
Sharihotsu Sonjya was one of the ten major disciples of the Buddha. Born in a village to the north of Rajagriha in Magadha, India, he was regarded as the most brilliant of Buddha's disciples. He died while the Buddha was still alive.
Sitting quietly in contemplation to achieve peacefulness is meditation, but Yuima Koji, seeing the figure of Sharihotsu Sonja in meditation, said to him sarcastically, “Meditating in a dark forest will not enable you to enter into Nirvana". With a suspicious facial expression, Yuima Koji further added," Do you think that leaving home and meditating in the mountain is really the true path to Nirvana? I believe that enlightenment can only be achieved by mingling with people who are suffering in order to relieve them from evil passions, such as ambitions, anger, and disputes. Departing from the realities of society will not help to attain the state of enlightenment.
The words that Yuima Koji threw at Sharihotsu Sonjya were the general opinion of the Large Vehicle Religion. Shakyamuni Buddha's religious practices for many years were not the object for enlightenment. Only after attaining enlightenment, did the Buddha engage in the practices of salvation of the masses.
Even a person full of evil passions already shows the form of the Buddha when making efforts to save people according to his or her rue. This is the spirit running through the Bodhisattva way.
Receiving visible merits is evidences of true Buddhism:
About one thousand four hundred years ago, a gifted Buddhist, named Great Master Tendai, appeared in China. He examined and studied every sutra precisely, and, as result, divided the periods of the Buddha's teachings of the dharma into the ensuing five classifications:
I. The Kegon Period in which the Buddha preached the Kegon‐kyo. This period covered the first thirty Seven days after enlightenment.
II. The Rokuon Period which covered the next twelve years, in which the Buddha preached the Agama Sutra in the Rokuya‐on Garden, etc.
III. The Hodo Period in which the Buddha preached the bulk of the Mahayana sutras.
IV. The Hannya Period covering twenty‐two years, in which the Buddha preached the Hannya‐gyo.
V. The Hokke Period and Nehan Period in which the Buddha preached these two sutras. The Lotus Sutra took eight years to preach. The Nehan Sutra only one day and one night.
Kegon‐gyo, a Mahayana Sutra
Agama Sutra, sutras belonging to Hinayana.
Hannya-gyo, a sutra presenting the transcendental wisdom of the void.
Nehan-gyo, the Nirvana Sutra. Extinction, Originally, the state of enlightenment attained by Shakyamuni Buddha. Accordingly, it means the state which can be reached by extinguishing all illusions and destroying all karma, which is the cause of rebirth. In the Sarvastivada School, it is called extinction obtained by knowledge and is said to be good in nature and eternal. According to Mahayana, it denotes non-production (fusho) and non-destruction (fumetsu), and is equated with wisdom. It has the four essential qualities of eternity, happiness, substantiality and pureness. Therefore, nirvana, which originally meant extinction or annihilation, came to signify the dharma-kaya of the tathagata which is real and unchanging.
Upon classifying the five periods, Great Master Tendai claimed that the Large Vehicle Religion's sutras, such as the Kegon and the Hannya Sutras were better than the Small Vehicle Religion's Agama Sutra, but among those various sutras, the Great Master Tendai judged that the Lotus Sutra was the most superior.
There were some buddhist scholars, however. who did not approve of the Great Master Tendai's Five Period classification. They claimed that it had no basis.
Surely, from the standpoint of philology, the sutras of the Large Vehicle Religion, including the Lotus Sutra, were all edited a hundred of years after the death of the Buddha. Thus, such type of classification can only be construed to be nonsense. The compilation of sutras by the Great Master Tendai were not based on philology. He attempted to determine the deep meaning contained in the words of Buddha from his long experience and an eye for religion.
Although the sutras were compiled many years later, the spirit which flows therein was passed on by Buddha to his disciples and on to the practitioners.
As I have mentioned before, the Great Master Tendai said that the teachings of the path to Boddhisattva expounded by the Large Vehicle Religion were the true intentions of the Buddha. Since the Lotus Sutra was judged as the best and most complete teachings of the path to Bodhisattva, it became the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha in his late years.
I believe that sutras should be judged on thier contents rather than thier origin based on philology.
Nissen Shonin's instructive teaching titled. “Merits of the Lotus Sutra" stated: “If the true teachings of the Lotus Sutra are doubted, how can you put faith in any other sutra. Receiving visible merits through faithful practice of the Lotus Sutra is manifest evidence that it is a true religious teachings".