The Chinese Buddhist monk Chih-i (538-597) founded one of the most popular schools of Chinese Buddhism, the T'ien-t'ai.
Chih-i, also known as Chih-k'ai, was born Ch'en Wang-tao in South China in 538. He grew up in a chaotic period, during which North China was ruled by invaders from the northern steppes, while the Chinese held out in the south. Chih-i's father was an adviser to the Emperor of the Liang dynasty (502-557). When Chihi's mother and father died about the time the dynasty was overthrown in 557, he became a Buddhist monk in his home province.
After several years in the South, Chih-i went north to study with Hui-ssu, a famous Buddhist monk. There he encountered a religious tradition which, unlike the scholarly approach of southern Buddhism, encouraged religious observances. He remained in the North until 568, at which time his teacher instructed him to return to the southern capital to gain imperial support for the religion.
Chih-i was not in the southern capital very long before his lectures began to attract notice, even coming to the attention of the court. He also gained increasing numbers of students. Perhaps because he received too much notice in the bustling capital, he decided to leave for the solitude of the T'ien-t'ai Mountains in southeast China, where he lived with a small group of close disciples.
Supported by wealthy and pious laymen, Chih-i remained in the T'ien-t'ai Mountains from 575 to 585. Because he produced his most important doctrines and works during that period, his school of Buddhism is known as the T'ien-t'ai sect. It was the first great synthesis in Buddhism of doctrine as well as scripture and method. One of the significant and central concepts of his school was a belief in the universal attainability of enlightenment. This belief opposed the view of other Buddhist schools that enlightenment was something very few believers could obtain even after a lifetime of religious devotion. The T'ien-t'ai sect gained a large following in China and Japan.
In 585 Chih-i was prevailed upon to return to the capital and was received with enthusiasm. Only 4 years after his return, the southern state was overrun by the Sui armies. In spite of this change, however, Chih-i was able to maintain a close relationship with the Sui. The Sui prince, Yang Kuang, wanting to show his support for Buddhism, asked Chih-i to remain in Yang-chou, the Sui southern capital, but he soon returned to the seclusion of the T'ient'ai Mountains. Chih-i died while on another trip to the capital in 597.
The most complete discussion of the life and works of Chih-i can be found in Leon Hurvitz, Chih-i (538-597): An Introduction to the Life and Ideas of a Chinese Buddhist Monk (1963). A shorter piece which puts Chih-i in the context of his times may be found in Stanley Weinstein, "T'ang Imperial Patronage in the Formation of T'ang Buddhism," included in Perspectives on the T'ang, edited by Arthur F. Wright and Denis Twitchett (1972).