Three Stages school ［三階教］ (Chin San-chieh-chiao; Sangai-kyō): A school founded in China by Hsin-hsing (540–594) based on the idea that the development of Buddhism after Shakyamuni’s death is divided into three periods—the Former Day, Middle Day, and Latter Day of the Law. In China, an account defining the duration of the Former Day as five hundred years and the Middle Day as one thousand years was widely accepted, and therefore it was believed that the Latter Day began around 550. (See three periods.)
On the premise that the Latter Day had begun, Hsin-hsing taught that in the first stage, or the Former Day of the Law, the people were of superior religious capacity and therefore the one vehicle teaching was effective; in the second stage, or the Middle Day of the Law, the people were of intermediate capacity and the three vehicle teaching was effective; and in the third stage, or the Latter Day of the Law, the people are of markedly inferior capacity and only his own teaching is effective. He further asserted that to attain salvation the people in the Latter Day should not rely on any one particular sutra, but dedicate themselves to all Buddhas and all teachings, and that they should practice all forms of good and avoid all forms of evil.
Hsin-hsing also maintained that, because all people possess the Buddha nature, they are future Buddhas. Faithful to this belief, his followers prostrated themselves in reverence before everyone they met. After Hsin-hsing’s death, the Inexhaustible Treasury, a financial foundation to offer relief to the sick and destitute, was established at Hua-tu-ssu temple in Ch’ang-an, the main temple of the Three Stages school. The school emphasized almsgiving and encouraged followers to donate to the Inexhaustible Treasury. In the late seventh century, the rulers of the T’ang dynasty and the other Buddhist schools condemned the teachings and activities of the Three Stages school; consequently, the Inexhaustible Treasury was abolished and the school banned.