Spatial and temporal variation in seedling dynamics was assessed using records of community-wide seedling demography collected with identical monitoring methods at four tropical lowland forests in Panama, Malaysia, Ecuador and French Guiana for periods of between 3 and 10 y. At each site, the fates of between 8617 and 391 777 seedlings were followed through annual censuses of the 370–1008 1-m2 seedling plots. Within-site spatial and inter-annual variation in density, recruitment, growth and mortality was compared with among-site variability using Bayesian hierarchical modelling to determine the generality of each site's patterns and potential for meaningful comparisons among sites. The Malaysian forest, which experiences community-wide masting, was the most variable in both seedling density and recruitment. However, density varied year-to-year at all sites (CVamong years at site = 8–43%), driven largely by high variability in recruitment rates (CV = 40–117%). At all sites, recruitment was more variable than mortality (CV = 5–64%) or growth (CV = 12–51%). Increases in mortality rates lagged 1 y behind large recruitment events. Within-site spatial variation and inter-annual differences were greater than differences among site averages in all rates, emphasizing the value of long-term comparative studies when generalizing how spatial and temporal variation drive patterns of recruitment in tropical forests.