The Five Periods of
Shakyamuni Buddha's Teachings
As Shakyamuni Buddha has preached for 49 years, a classification by TianTai School on Shakyamuni Buddha's teachings is established according to the order that the Dharma has been expounded.
The five periods are Avatamsaka Period, Agama Period, Vaipulya Period, Prajna Period and Lotus and Nirvana Period
Avatamsaka Period (21 days after enlightenment)
The first period is the “Flower Garland” or “Avatamsaka”, which according to Tian Tai Group was the first teaching that Shakyamuni Buddha expounds after his enlightenment. The Flower Garland teaching represents a very high level of education, and the audiences are mainly for Bodhisattva. The complicity is second to the last phrase of teachings, the Lotus and Nirvana period. With this teaching, Shakyamuni Buddha awakens his listeners to the greatness of Buddhism, even though it is too profound for laypeople to grasp. “Avatamsaka Sutra”, translated as “Flower Garland Sutra”, is the main doctrine in this period.
Agama Period (12 years)
The second period is the Agama. Perceiving that his disciples' capacity is not ready for the “Flower Garland” teaching yet, Shakyamuni Buddha next expounds the Agama teaching as a way to develop their capacity. These teachings reveal the “Four Noble Truths”, “the Truth of Suffering”, “Origin of Suffering”, “Cessation of Suffering” and “Path to the Cessation of Suffering” that can free people from the six paths of Samsara and correspond to the Hinayana teachings. Hinayana teaching is a Sanskrit term meaning the "Small Vehicle", with a Buddhist path aiming to be an Arhat. Hinayana is contrasted with Mahayana, which means the "Great vehicle". The Agama period is also called the Deer Park period because Buddha first started to preach the Agama teaching at Deer Park.
Vaipulya Period (8 years)
The third period is the Vaipulya. It is a period with a mixture of Hinayana teachings and an introduction of early Mahayana Sutras. Mahayana teachings means the "Great Vehicle", with a Buddhist path for becoming a Bodhisattva and seeking benefit for all sentient beings. It is also called the "Bodhisattva Vehicle". In this period, Shakyamuni Buddha redirects his disciples from attachment with Hinayana scriptures into Mahayana teachings, such as “Amitabha Sutra”, “Shurangama Sutra”, “Shurangama Samadhi Sutra”, “Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra” and many more. Shakyamuni Buddha realizes that if his disciples continue to cultivate with the principles of “Small Vehicle”, they would not have the capacity to practice Perfect teaching, which is the actual Dharma. Therefore, this period is also named the correction period.
Prajna Period (22 years)
The fourth period is the Prajna. This is a period of Wisdom teaching. Shakyamuni Buddha expounds a higher level of Mahayana Sutras and redirects his disciples from being attached in the distinction between Hinayana and Mahayana teachings through the education of non-substantiality. The Wisdom Period is also referred to as the Prajna Period because Prajna Paramita, or Perfection of Wisdom, is being preached. This is the central concept in Mahayana Buddhism and is generally associated with the concept of emptiness or lack of essence. Practicing Perfection of Wisdom is essential element for understanding the path of the “Great Vehicle”. Some of the important scriptures in this period are “Astasahasrika Prajna Paramita” and “Vajracchedika Prajna Paramita”.
Lotus and Nirvana Period (8 years before Nirvana)
The fifth period is Lotus and Nirvana. In this period, Shakyamuni Buddha teaches from the view of his enlightenment, and he fully reveals the truth. This is the ultimate teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha, or the final Dharma door. The teachings of all 4 periods before this are preparation for this. Buddha uses eight years to expound “Lotus Sutra”, while uses one day and one night to preach “Nirvana Sutra” before entering Parinirvana.
“Lotus Sutra” and “Nirvana Sutra” are Buddha’s True Mind. They are also Buddha's True Dharma Body, True Reward Body and True Response Body. This is the genuine taste of the Dharma and the genuine meaning of the Dharma. Therefore, “Lotus Sutra” is also named as “Wonderful Dharma”.