The 5 Periods of the Buddha’s Teachings

The following are some notes from Master Hsuan Hua’s lectures on the Lotus Sutra on how the Buddha’s Teaching can be classified into 5 different periods:

The T’ien T’ai School (1 of the 2 great Teachings schools of Chinese Buddhism – the other being the Hsien Shou school) was systematized by Great Master Chih Che (also called Master Zhi yi) who divided the Buddha’s teaching into 5 periods – like the:

  • Journey of milk from being raw and unprocessed being turned into clarified butter – the finest and most subtle of all tastes
  • The path that the sun travels from when it rises in the early morning until it reaches its full glory at midday.

 

1.  Avatamsaka Period/The Sudden Teaching:

  • Whole milk – raw and unprocessed.
  • Newly rising Sun hitting the high mountain peaks (the Bodhisattvas who are the highest amongst living beings).
  • Spoken immediately after the Buddha’s enlightenment was the Avatamsaka Sutra. But only the Bodhisattvas could hear it. So this Sutra was spoken to teach the Great Bodhisattvas, Mahasattvas of the 10 directions. It’s said that Nagarjuna (Dragon tree Bodhisattva), having mastered worldly literature, went to the Dragon Palace and memorized the last volume of this Sutra after having read it only once. So only this volume exists in the human realm, the other 2 volumes are in the Dragon Palace.

2.  Agama (Incomparable) Period/Storehouse Teaching:

  • Coagulated milk – good for children.
  • Sun has risen a little and starting to light the darkness of the valleys that the initial sun couldn’t reach.
  • Here, the small vehicle (seeking Nirvana for yourself) teaching was set forth. It is called incomparable because it’s said that none of the non-Buddhist teachings can compare to it.

3.  Vaipulya (Extensive) Period/Pervasive Teaching:

  • This teaching pervades the teachings that become before and after it (the Agama and the Prajna)
  • Curdled milk – good for children and adults – so both people studying the small and great vehicles can study it.
  • Sun is between 9 and 10 am – it shines both on the ground and the high peaks.

4. Prajna Period/Separate Teaching:

  • It is separate because it is separate from the teaching that comes before and after it.
  • Butter – which has just been extracted from the curdled milk before it – suitable for adults.
  • Sun is from 10 to 11 am where it shines upon the entire earth and is approaching but has not reached its peak just yet.
  • Is a means of entry into the Great Vehicle.

5. Dharma Flower and Mahaparinirvana periods (also called the Lotus-Nirvana period) /Perfect Teaching

  • Perfect because it is pure and complete in itself and not mixed with the previous 3 teachings.
  • The Ultimate Teaching of the Buddha – the most final Dharma door.  The teachings of all 4 periods before this were taught for the sake of this. So the first 4 periods were preparing the ground – manifesting the provisional for the sake of the real. The Lotus Sutra and the Maha Parinirvana Sutra (also called the Nirvana Sutra)  annuls the provisional and establishes the real, thus dispensing with all former expedient Dharma doors. This was the final goal of the Buddha’s life.
  • The Lotus and Nirvana Sutras are the Buddha’s True Mind, his True Body – his true Dharma body, true Reward body and true Response body. This is the genuine taste of the Dharma, the genuine meaning of the Dharma – therefore the Lotus Sutra is called a “wonderful Dharma”.
  • Clarified butter – the finest and most wonderful and subtle of tastes – nothing tastes better!
  • 2 Sutras were spoken in this period:

i. The Lotus Sutra (also called the Dharma Flower Sutra) – took 8 years to speak.
ii. The Nirvana Sutra – took 1 day and 1 night right before the Buddha’s Parinirvana.

  • The blazing sun at its highest – shining on absolutely everything – all living beings.
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