Classification of Teachings
The term refers to an exegetical classification in which a Buddhist school, in order to bridge theological differences of various teachings or establish its own position and authority, ranks the significance and status of various scriptures. It is also known as jiao pan (classification of the tenets). Different schools and sects adopt different systems of classification. The common practice is to begin with the easy ones, working all the way up to the most profound, and it usually ends with one’s own school as the supreme. Such a practice may take its origin in Indian Buddhism, and the exegetical communities of the Sui and Tang dynasties have particular interest in establishing their own classification. For example, the “five periods and eight teachings” of the Tiantai School divides the Buddha’s instruction chronologically into five phases: (1) Huayan or Avataṃsaka (Garland), (2) Ahan or āgama (Scriptures), (3) Fangdeng or Vaipulya (Broad and equal teaching exemplified by Mahayana), (4) Dabore or Mahāprajñāpāramitā (Great Perfection of Wisdom), and (5) Fahua-Niepan or Saddharmapuṇḍarīka-Mahāparinirvāṇa (Lotus Sutra and The Final Nirvana); or pedagogically into four classes: the sudden, gradual, esoteric, and indeterminate teaching; or in terms of the theoretical inclination, into four classes: the Tripiṭaka, common, distinct, and comprehensive or perfect teachings. These synthetic categorizations are tinted by distinct local sectarian tendencies, hence had profound influence on the acculturation of Buddhism in China.
Different Buddhist communities adopt different classifications of teaching. Some argue that when the Buddha was present in this world, he gave no other than the sudden and the gradual teaching, while it is only later that the seven phases and five periods came into existence, which was then passed down by generations and widely accepted. Others, however, raise the question: how can we be sure that the periods are five? Actually, (there can be only two) before the Buddha passed away, while remaining in his state of “nirvana with remainders,” his teachings were implicit (neyārtha, literally one whose meaning is yet to be brought out); and those he proclaimed at the “double tree” (Buddha’s death scene) are explicit (nītārtha, literally one whose meaning has already been brought out). (Profound Meaning of The Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Dharma)