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Saicho, founder of Tendai School of Buddhism in Japan

By Devik Balami at
Saicho, founder of Tendai School of Buddhism in Japan

Saicho, a Japanese Buddhist monk, born on Sep 15th 767 CE was the founder of the Tendai school of Buddhism which is based on the Chinese Tiantai school. It is recorded that he established the temple and headquarters of Tendai at Enryaku on Mount Hiei near Kyoto. Later he was awarded the posthumous title of Dengyo Daishi.

Early life of Saicho

Saicho was born in the city of Omi, present-day Shiga Prefecture. At the age of 13, Saicho became a disciple of Gyohyo, a disciple of Do-Xuan (a prominent monk from China of the Tiantai school). At the age of 14, Saicho obtained ordination. By the age of 20, he undertook the full monastic precepts at the Todaji, thus becoming a fully ordained monk in the official temple system. It was said that a few months later, he unexpectedly set for the retreat to Mount Hiei with the purpose of an intensive study and practice of Buddhism but the exact reason for his retreat remains unknown.

Later, after retreat other monks, both on Mount Hiei and from the Buddhist community in Nara, were very much attracted towards Saicho and then after a monastic community was developed on Mount Hiei which later became Enryaku-ji. Saicho also carved an image of Medicinal Buddha, Bhaisajyaguru at Mount Hiei and then enshrined it. After completion of Buddha statue, Saicho lit a lamp of oil before the Buddha statue and prayed that the lamp would never be extinguished. It is believed that the lamp, which later known as the Fumetsu no Hoto (Inextinguishable Dharma Lamp), remained lit for 1200 years.

Saicho's Journey to China

The lectures of Saicho was at rising which helped to catch the attention of Emperor Kanmu. He then consulted with Saicho to provide the lectures in the teaching of Buddha and also to help the bridge the traditional rivalry between the East Asian Yogacara and East Asian Madhyamaka schools. With the intention to study further on Tiantai doctrine in China, Saicho asked help from the emperor which was agreed in no time. Hence he was visiting China to learn more. Since Saicho knew only to read the Chinese language but had the problem with speaking, he was allowed to bring a trusted disciple, Gishin along with him, who later become one of the head monks of the Tendai order after Saicho.

In 803 CE, along with other monks, they went to China. He met another Buddhist monk, Kukai, during his journey. Saicho's ship arrived at the port of Mingzhou present day Ningbo in northern Zhejiang in 804 CE. Then they headed to Tiantai Mountain and was introduced to the seventh Patriarch of Tiantai, Daosui. Saicho learned from him during his time in China. Daosui was instrumental in teaching Saicho about Tiantai methods of meditation, monastic discipline and orthodox teachings.

Since Saicho visited China with the intention of bringing the teachings of Buddha back to Japan with him, he almost spent several months copying various Buddhist works. Even though there were few works existed in Japan, Saicho felt that they lack the authenticity. Therefore he made fresh copies of all the Buddhist works. It was recorded that Saicho went to Yuezhou and sought out texts and information on Vajrayana as well.

Finally, in 805, Saicho and his fellow monks returned to Ningbo and then returned back to Japan.

Establishment of Tendai school of Buddhism in Japan

After he returned, he worked hard for the establishment of the Tendai school of Buddhism and finally in 806, he established Tendai Lotus school and was recognized officially and in 813, Saicho composed the Ehyo Tendaishu, which argues that the principal Buddhist masters of China and Korea all rely on Tientai doctrine in composing their own works. Saicho also found out, through various references, that the Tientai school was the foundation for all major Buddhist schools in East Asia. The Tendai Lotus School later also served as the center for the ordination of monks using the Bodhisattva Precepts only. This was the great achievement of the school since ordination took place at Todaji Temple before the establishment of Tendai school.