THE EIGHT-FOLD TEACHINGS
The great teacher T'ien T'ai of China (538-597) was able to penetrate Shakyamuni's full intention in the sutras. Accordingly, T'ien T'ai divided the sutras into categories on the basis of content. These categories are the Eight-Fold Teachings and the Five Periods, and he used the Three Analogies to elucidate them.
The Eight-Fold Teachings are divided into:
1) the Doctrines of Conversion (including Hinayana, Shared, Distinct, and Perfect Teachings), and
2) the Methods of Conversion (consisting of Sudden, Gradual, Secret, and Variable teachings).
If we compare a sutra to medicine, then Doctrines of Conversion list the contents, while Methods of Conversion explain how to use the medicine. .
Sudden Teachings are doctrines that a Buddha expounds in a direct, undiluted manner. Directly after his enlightenment, without first assessing who would or would not understand these teachings, Shakyamuni preached the Flower Ornament (Kegon) Sutra as a Sudden Teaching to gauge his audience's capacity. He expounded major aspects of the truth, and accomplished Bodhisattvas might have had the capacity to recognize that truth and gain immediate entry into a form of enlightenment.
For those unable to comprehend the above-mentioned truth immediately, Shakyamuni employed the Gradual Teachings to prepare them slowly for higher teachings.
Hearing a Secret Variable or Clear Variable Teaching, each person in an audience learns something according to their capacity. In the case of Secret Variable Teachings, the term "secret" is used because one cannot know what the audience has grasped; "secret" does not indicate that teachings are "hidden". When C!ear Variable Teachings are expounded, each listener can be sure that a Hinayana practitioner will comprehend the teachings from a Hinayana perspective and that a Mahayana practitioner will grasp them from a Mahayana point of view.
THE FIVE PERIODS AND THREE ANALOGIES
After establishing the Eight-Fold Teachings to categorize Shakyamuni's teachings, T'ien T'ai grouped them into Five Periods based on the time in which the Buddha expounded particular doctrines, which in turn were based on the listeners' capacity, growth, and development. To compare and contrast the Five Periods, he used the Three Analogies:
1) the Three Illuminations, which show how various positions of the sun from dawn to noon relate to Shakyamuni's teachings;
2) the Parable (in the Lotus Sutra) of the rich man and his poor errant son, who after many years away from home accidentally comes to his father's house but fails to recognize his father and his home;
3) the Five Flavours: milk, cream, curdled milk, butter, and ghee, which characterize the progression of Shakyamuni's teachings.
I. In the first sutra he preached, the Flower Ornament (Kegon) Sutra, Shakyamuni employs the Sudden method of teaching, since it reveals major elements of truth suddenly" without prior groundwork for the listeners. The Buddha can then gauge the audience's level of understanding. All people are taught indiscriminately.
This sutra represents dawn (First Illumination), when the sun's rays first pierce the night, illuminating the highest regions of a mountain. As the sun's first rays can only reach the mountaintop, the Kegon Sutra could only be grasped by Bodhisattvas of the highest level, those "regally attired" who were offered immediate entry to a form of Buddhahood. In the Parable from the LotusSutra, the rich man (Shakyamuni), wanting to welcome his son (the people) into his estate (enlightenment), sends one of his officials to do so. However, the son, intimidated by such an opulent environment, declines this invitation. As the first of the Five Flavours, the Sudden (Kegon) Teaching is likened to milk, which in its raw state is a pure, nourishing substance containing all essential ingredients for growth (protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and water). While it is sometimes called the perfect food, ironically, many cannot digest raw milk.
II. After 21 days of preaching the Flower Ornament Sutra, Shakyamuni saw that some could not grasp its truth. Travelling to "Deer Park", he preached the Agama Sutras. During this 12 year period of preaching, known as the Period of Deer Park Hinayana doctrine, including gradual, secret, and variable methods, was taught. The Agamas contain such teachings as the Four Noble Truths and The Twelve Links of Causation, which were aimed at those of the two vehicles (learning and realization).
In the Second Illumination, the sun's rays now reach down into the depths of the valley. In the Parable from the Lotus Sutra, the rich man again tries to invite his son into his estate by sending a humbly dressed worker as messenger, rather than a court official. The second flavour of this teaching is cream, which is more palatable and acceptable to a wide range of people than milk. Those of Learning and Realization might attain a form of enlightenment through these sutras, but since the teaching is Hinayana, they could only reach the level of Arhat, gaining entry for themselves alone.
III. In the 16 year Period of Expansion (Hoto), Hinayana, Shared, Distinct, and Perfect doctrines were widely taught. Shakyamuni used gradual, secret, and variable methods. Admonishing Hinayana practitioners for maintaining a selfish practice, he emphasized a Mahayana concept of Ku to raise listeners' awareness beyond the realm of Hinayana; this gave rise to many sects, such as Hosso, Jodo, Zen, and Shingon.
In the first part of the Third Illumination, the sun is now higher in the sky; its rays have begun to illuminate the open fields, indicating an emergent proliferation of Buddhist teachings. In the Parable from the Lotus Sutra, the father assigns the son menial work to raise his awareness (of where and who he is) gradually. The third flavour is likened to curdled milk: though nutritious, it is tart.
IV. In the Period of Wisdom (prajna), which spanned 14 years, Shakyamuni emphasized pure Mahayana teachings in expounding the six paramitas (almsgiving, keeping the precepts, forbearance, assiduousness, meditation, obtaining the wisdom). He preached shared, distinct, and perfect doctrines, while using gradual, secret, and variable methods of conversion. In the second part of the third illumination, the sun's rays have spread more widely over the fields but remain limited in scope. At this point in the Parable from the Lotus Sutra, the father gradually increases the level of his son's responsibilities to further his awareness. The fourth flavour is butter, which is produced by mechanically transforming cream into a solid mass. Butter is a rich, flavourful, satisfying food.
V. The fifth and final stage is the Lotus-Nirvana Period, during which the Lotus Sutra was preached for 8 years and the Nirvana, for the day and night before Shakyamuni's passing. Not communicating merely with those of the three vehicles (Learning, Realization, and Bodhisattva), Shakyamuni expounded a Perfect doctrine to open the door of enlightenment to all people, regardless of their capacities. Similarly, in the Parable, the rich man finally opens his estate completely to his son, who then enters without hesitation. The son realizes that he is in a position to inherit and accept his father's domain. In this third part of the third Illumination, the sun is directly overhead (at noon); its rays illuminate and embrace all comers of the mountain, valley, and fields without discrimination. The fifth flavour is ghee, the richest of all. Highly prized in India, ghee is a symbol of purity. To make it, one heats butter slowly until all water content has evaporated (reduction), while milk solids are mechanically removed. What remains is a deep amber coloured oil, termed "clarified butter". This represents the clear, pure teaching of the Law.
The Lotus Sutra is the teaching that enables all to gain entry to the condition of enlightenment, regardless of the listeners' respective capacities. This great harvest" gathers all people in one great lesson. Pointing again to the Lotus Sutra's Truth, the Nirvana Sutra acts as Shakyamuni's "net" to gather the last of those who need to be directed to the highest teaching.
Nichiren Daishonin considered T'ien T'ai's organization of sutras crucial, because it enables people to focus on what is profound in Buddhist doctrine and to avoid the error of embracing partial truths derived from lesser teachings.