Saichō (最澄, September 15, 767 – June 26, 822) was a Japanese
Buddhist monk credited with founding the
Tendai school of Buddhism
based on the Chinese
Tiantai school he was exposed to during his trip
China beginning in 804. He founded the temple and headquarters
Mount Hiei near Kyoto. He is also said to
have been the first to bring tea to Japan. After his death, he was
awarded the posthumous title of Dengyō Daishi (伝教大師).
1.1 Early life
1.2 Trip to China
1.3 Founding of Tendai
1.4 Decline and Death
2 Relationship with Kūkai
3 Exoteric syncretic tradition versus esotericism
4 See also
6 Further reading
7 External links
Saichō was born in the year 766 in the city of Ōmi, in present Shiga
Prefecture, with the given name of Hirono. According to family
tradition, Saichō's ancestors were descendants of emperors of Eastern
Han China; however, no positive evidence exists for this claim. The
Saichō was born did have a large Chinese immigrant
Saichō likely did have Chinese ancestry.
During Saichō's time, the Buddhist temples in Japan were officially
organized into a national network known as the provincial temple
system, and at the age of 13,
Saichō became a disciple of one
Gyōhyō (722–797, 行表). He took tonsure as a novice monk
at the age of 14 and was given the ordination name "Saichō". Gyōhyō
in turn was a disciple of
Dao-xuan (702–760, 道璿, Dōsen in
Japanese), a prominent monk from China of the
Tiantai school who
had brought the
East Mountain Teaching
East Mountain Teaching of Chan Buddhism, Huayan
teachings and the
Bodhisattva Precepts of the Brahmajala
Japan in 736 and served as the "precept master" for ordination prior
to the arrival of Jianzhen.
By the age of 20, he undertook the full monastic precepts at the
Tōdai-ji, thus becoming a fully ordained monk in the official temple
system. A few months later he abruptly retreated to
Mount Hiei for an
intensive study and practice of Buddhism, though the exact reason for
his departure remains unknown. Shortly after his retreat, he
composed his Ganmon (願文, "Saichō's Prayer") which included his
personal vows to:
So long as I have not attained the stage where my six faculties are
pure, I will not venture out into the world.
So long as I have not realized the absolute, I will not acquire any
special skills or arts (e.g. medicine, divination, calligraphy, etc.)
So long as I have not kept all the precepts purely, I will not
participate in any lay donor's Buddhist meetings.
So long as I have not attained wisdom (lit. hannya 般若), I will not
participate in worldly affairs unless it be to benefit others.
May any merit from my practice in the past, present and future be
given not to me, but to all sentient beings so that they may attain
Saichō attracted other monks both on Mount Hiei, and from
the Buddhist community in Nara, and a monastic community developed on
Mount Hiei, which eventually became Enryaku-ji.
Saichō was said to
have carved an image of the Bhaiṣajyaguru and enshrined it.
Additionally, he lit a lamp of oil before the Buddha and prayed that
the lamp would never be extinguished. This lamp is now known as the
Fumetsu no Hōtō (不滅の法灯, "Inextinguishable
and has remained lit for 1200 years.
The capital of Japan was moved from Nara to
Nagaoka-kyō in 784, and
Kyoto in 795. Because
Mount Hiei was coincidentally located to
the northeast of Kyoto, a direction considered dangerous according to
Chinese geomancy, Saichō's presence on the mountain was thought to
protect the new capital and brought him to the attention of the court.
Saichō and his community on
Mount Hiei also started to correspond and
exchange ceremonies with the established communities in Nara, in
addition to the monks at the Court, further enhancing his prestige.
One of Saichō's earliest supporters in the Court was Wake no Hiroyo,
Saichō to give lectures at Takaosan-ji along with
fourteen other eminent monks.
Saichō was not the first to be invited,
indicating that he was still relatively unknown in the Court, but
rising in prominence.
Trip to China
Saichō is known for having introduced tea to Japan
The success of the Takaosanji lectures, plus Saichō's association
with Wake no Hiroyo soon caught the attention of
Emperor Kanmu who
Saichō about propagating his Buddhist teachings
further, and to help bridge the traditional rivalry between the East
Asian Yogācāra and
East Asian Mādhyamaka
East Asian Mādhyamaka schools.
The emperor granted a petition by
Saichō to journey to
Tiantai doctrine in
China and bring back more texts.
Saichō was expected to only remain in
China for a short time however.
Saichō could read Chinese but was unable to speak it at all, thus he
was allowed to bring a trusted disciple along named Gishin (義眞),
who apparently could speak Chinese. Gishin would later become one of
the head monks of the
Tendai order after Saichō.
Saichō was part of the four-ship diplomatic mission to Tang
803. The ships were forced to turn back due to heavy winds, where they
spent some time at Dazaifu, Fukuoka. During this time,
met another passenger named Kūkai, who was sent to
China on a similar
mission though he was expected to stay much longer.
When the ships set sail again, two sank during a heavy storm, but
Saichō's ship arrived at the port of Ningbo, then known as Mingzhou
(Chinese: 明州; pinyin: Míngzhōu), in northern
Zhejiang in 804.
Shortly after arrival, permission was granted for
Saichō and his
party to travel to
Tiantai Mountain and he was introduced to the
seventh Patriarch of Tiantai, Daosui (Chinese: 道邃; pinyin:
Dàosuì), who became his primary teacher during his time in China.
Daosui was instrumental in teaching
Tiantai methods of
meditation, monastic discipline and orthodox teachings. Saichō
remained under this instruction for approximately 135 days.
Saichō spent the next several months copying various Buddhist works
with the intention of bringing them back to Japan with him. While some
works existed in Japan already,
Saichō felt that they suffered from
copyist errors or other defects, and so he made fresh copies. Once the
task was completed,
Saichō and his party returned to Ningbo, but the
ship was harbored in
Fuzhou at the time, and would not return for six
During this time,
Saichō went to Yuezhou (越州, modern-day
Shaoxing) and sought out texts and information on
Tiantai school originally only utilized "mixed"
(zōmitsu (雑密)) ceremonial practices, but over time esoteric
Buddhism took on a greater role. By the time
Saichō had arrived in
China, a number of
Tiantai Buddhist centers provided esoteric
training, and both
Saichō and Gishin received initiation at a temple
in Yue Prefecture. However, it's unclear what transmission or
transmissions(s) they received. Some evidence suggests that Saichō
did not receive the dual (ryōbu (兩部) transmissions of the Diamond
Realm and the Womb Realm. Instead, it is thought he may have only
Diamond Realm transmission, but the evidence is not
conclusive one way or the other.
Finally, on the tenth day of the fifth month of 805,
Saichō and his
party returned to
Ningbo and after compiling further bibliographies,
boarded the ship back for Japan and arrived in Tsushima on the fifth
day of the sixth month. Although
Saichō had only stayed in
a total of eight months, his return was eagerly awaited by the court
Founding of Tendai
On his return from China,
Saichō worked hard to win recognition from
the court and "in the first month of 806, Saichō’s
school (Tendai-hokke-shū 天台法華宗) won official recognition
when the court of the ailing emperor Kanmu issued another edict, this
one permitting two annual ordinands (nenbundosha) for Saichō's new
school on Mount Hiei. This edict states that, following Saichō's
request, the ordinands would be divided between two curricula: the
shanagō course, centering on the study of the Mahavairocana Sūtra
(this was the
Mikkyō curriculum, shana being the abbreviation for
Birushana, the Japanese transliteration of Vairocana), and the
shikangō course, based on the study of the Mo-ho chih-kuan, the
seminal work of the T'ien-t'ai patriarch Chih-i 智顗 (538–597)
(this was the
Tendai curriculum, shikan being the Japanese reading of
Chih-i's central practice of chih-kuan [cessation and contemplation])
(Kenkairon engi, DZ 1, pp. 294–296). Thus from its very
Tendai Lotus school was equally based on
T'ien-t'ai. It was as a subdivision of Saichō's new school that
Mikkyō first received the official acknowledgment of the imperial
court and became a proper subject of study in Japanese Buddhism.
Saichō composed the Ehyō tendaishū (DZ 1, pp. 343–366),
which argues that the principal Buddhist masters of
China and Korea
all relied on T'ien-t'ai doctrine in composing their own works. By
identifying numerous references to and quotes from T'ien-t'ai
treatises in the works of Chi-tsang 吉蔵 of the San-lun 三論
school, Chih-chou of the Fa-hsiang 法相 school, Fa-tsang of the
Huayen 華嚴 school, I-hsing of Mikkyō, and other prominent
Saichō asserted that T'ien-t'ai formed the foundation for
all major Buddhist schools in East Asia.
Before Saichō, all monastic ordinations took place at Tōdai-ji
temple under the ancient
Vinaya code, but
Saichō intended to found
his school as a strictly
Mahayana institution and ordain monks using
Bodhisattva Precepts only. Despite intense opposition from the
traditional Buddhist schools in Nara, his request was granted by
Emperor Saga in 822, several days after his death. This was the fruit
of years of effort and a formal debate.
Decline and Death
Saichō petitioned the court to allow the monks at Mount Hiei
to ordain under the
Bodhisattva Precepts rather than the traditional
ordination system of the prātimokṣa, arguing that his community
would be a purely Mahayana, not
Hinayana one. This was met with
strong protest by the Buddhist establishment who supported the
kokubunji system, and lodged a protest.
Saichō composed the Kenkairon
(顕戒論, "A Clarification of the Precepts"), which stressed the
significance of the
Bodhisattva Precepts, but his request was still
rejected until 7 days after his death at the age of 56.
Relationship with Kūkai
Saichō traveled to
China along with a number of other young monks,
one of whom was named Kūkai.
Saichō befriended him during his trip
China who traveled with him going and coming. This turned out to be
pivotal to the future development of Buddhism.
During the last month of his stay on Chinese soil, while awaiting the
arrival of his ship at the port city of Ming-chou,
Saichō traveled to
Yüeh-chou to collect additional Buddhist texts. At Lung-hsing ssu
Saichō chanced to meet the priest Shun-hsiao"
, and likewise returned with esoteric (tantric) Buddhist texts.
Saichō was entranced with the new material and wanted to learn more.
On the trip back he found that Kukai had studied these teachings in
depth and had an entire library of vajrayana materials. This
friendship would influence the future of Tendai.
Saichō 最澄 and
Kūkai 空海 are renowned as the founders,
respectively, of the Japanese
Shingon schools, both of
which grew into influential institutions of continuing importance even
today. The two figures cooperated, moreover, in an effort to
transplant the seed of esoteric
Buddhism (mikkyō) to the cultural
soil of Japan. Saichō, for example, prepared the way for
Kūkai—still largely unrecognized after his return from T’ang
China—to perform the
Mikkyō initiation ritual of abhiṣeka (kanjō
灌頂) for the high priests of the Nara Buddhist establishment and
the dignitaries of the imperial" Heian court.
Saichō who performed the abhiṣeka, or initiatory ritual, for
Saichō also endorsed the court’s bequest to
Kūkai of the mountain
temple of Takaosan-ji northwest of
Kyoto as the first center for
Shingon Buddhism. Kūkai, in turn, responded to Saichō’s
wish to incorporate
Mikkyō into the eclectic system of
Saichō and his disciples in the esoteric Buddhist rituals
and by lending
Mikkyō texts that he had brought with
him from China."
Exoteric syncretic tradition versus esotericism
Part of a series on
Buddhism in Japan
Infinite Life Sūtra
Glossary of Japanese Buddhism
Buddhism became an important aspect of the Tendai
school, which was primarily focused on the Lotus Sutra. Paul Groner
Chinese T'ien-t'ai had been a syncretistic tradition, particularly at
the T'ien-t'ai Yu-ch'uan monastery. Chinese monks had been interested
in Ch'an and Esoteric
Buddhism as well as in the Ssu-fen la and Fan
Saichō inherited this tradition, but developed certain
aspects of it in innovative ways. For example,
Buddhism to be essentially the same as
Tendai (enmitsu itchi)
and thus awarded Esoteric
Buddhism a more central place in the Tendai
tradition than it had been given by most Chinese monks. Like Kūkai,
Saichō emphasized the importance of striving for enlightenment as an
immediate goal to be attained in this existence
Tendai and Esoteric practices, he felt, provided a direct path
(jikidō) to enlightenment, whereas the teachings of the Nara schools
required aeons to bring the practitioner to enlightenment.
During the years that
Saichō studied Esoteric
805–815), more than half of the
Tendai yearly ordinands left Mount
Hiei. Many of them defected to the
Hosso school; others departed in
order to study Esoteric
Kūkai or to support their
ailing mothers. It became clear that if
Tendai were to survive,
Saichō would have to retain many more of his students on Mount
Saichō began to realize that his own idea of "enmitsu
itchi" was not exactly shared by the esoteric
Shingon school, and
especially its founder
Kūkai (Kōbō Daishi).
Ryuichi Abe writes,
[W]hat makes the relationship between
Kūkai decisive in
Japanese Buddhist history is not so much their cooperation as the
manner in which it came to an end. Their alliance began to deteriorate
when Saichō, after receiving abhiseka from Kūkai, hurried back to
Mount Hiei, where the work of laying the foundation of the new Tendai
school awaited him.
Saichō continued to study and copy
borrowed from Kūkai, but despite Kūkai’s repeated requests he did
not return to Takaosan-ji to resume his studies. Their rapport finally
Kūkai harshly condemned Saichō’s approach to
Mikkyō as a transgression of the esoteric precept of samaya [the
promise to keep the oral/esoteric teachings private], and Saichō
retorted by denouncing Kūkai’s manner of instruction 
Thus it was
Mikkyō that brought
Kūkai together; it was
Mikkyō that drove them apart. The break between
Kūkai left a long-lasting legacy in the
whose complex relationship, constantly oscillating between affiliation
and rivalry, shaped the contours of Buddhist history in the Heian
During the last five or six years of his life, Saicho strove to secure
the place of
Tendai within Japanese Buddhism, and in the process
composed almost all of his major works.
Saichō added a new introduction to the work. This
introduction chides Sanron, Hossō, and Kegon—the leading schools of
Nara Buddhism—for ignoring the influence of T'ien-t'ai on the works
of their Chinese patriarchs, but its criticism of
Shingon stands out:
Shingon Buddhist, the newcomer, went so far as to deny
the validity of transmission through writing (hitsuju Ù4)" (DZ 3, p.
344). In this comment
Shingon for their
Buddhism and religious study."
Saichō's late life criticisms were ignored by his own leading
disciples, and the
Tendai would continue to teach
Shikangō (śamatha-vipaśyanā). Saichō's public condemnation of
Kūkai would later form the seeds for some of the criticisms leveled
by the founder of the
Nichiren Sect, Nichiren, who would cite that
work in his own debates.
Saichō was also an author. He wrote a number of texts, the main ones
Shōgon Jikkyō (照権実鏡) (817)
Sange Gakushō Shiki (山家学生式) (818–819)
Shugo Kokkai Shō (守護国界章) (818)
Kenkairon (顕戒論) (820)
^ a b c d "
Tendai Homepage: Dengyo Daishi's Life and Teachings".
Retrieved 10 December 2012.
^ a b c d e f g Groner, Paul (2000). Saicho: The Establishment of the
Tendai School. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 17–37.
^ Buswell, Robert Jr; Lopez, Donald S. Jr., eds. (2013). Princeton
Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
p. 737. ISBN 9780691157863.
^ "The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism: Gyohyo".
^ "The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism: Tao-Hsien". Retrieved 10
^ a b c d Groner, Paul (2000). Saicho : The Establishment of the
Tendai School. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 38–64.
^ a b c d e f g h Abe Ryūichi:
Saichō and Kūkai: A conflict of
interpretations. Japanese Journal of
Religious Studies Vol: 22/1–2,
pp. 103–137, 1995. PDF
^ Abe, Ryuichi (1999). The Weaving of Mantra: Kukai and the
Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. Columbia University
Press. pp. 40–44, 50–52. ISBN 0-231-11286-6.
^ "The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism: Saicho". Retrieved 10
^ Groner, Paul (1989). "The
Lotus Sutra and Saicho's Interpretation of
the Realization of
Buddhahood with This Very Body". In Tanabe, George
J.; Tanabe, Willa Jane (ed.). The
Lotus Sutra in Japanese Culture.
Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-1198-4. pp.
^ a b c Groner, Paul. "Short History of Dengyo Daishi" (PDF). Archived
from the original (PDF) on 2006-05-03.
^ Gosho http://www.sgilibrary.org/view.php?page=565
Pruden, Leo; Rhodes, Robert; trans. (1994). The Essentials of the
Eight Traditions and The Candle of the Latter Dharma, Berkeley, CA:
Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.
Saichō's Monastic Reforms
Japanese Buddhist pantheon
Vairocana (Dainichi Nyorai)
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Amitābha (Amida Nyorai)
Akshobhya (Ashuku Nyorai)
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Shakyamuni (Shaka Nyorai)
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Five Wisdom Kings
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Four Noble Truths
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Places where the Buddha stayed
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Three marks of existence
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Seven Factors of Enlightenment
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Basic points unifying Theravāda and Mahāyāna
Buddhism in India
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Buddhism and the Roman world
Buddhism in the West
Silk Road transmission of Buddhism
Persecution of Buddhists
Banishment of Buddhist monks from Nepal
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Women in Buddhism
The unanswered questions
Japanese Buddhist architecture
Korean Buddhist temples
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Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi
Om mani padme hum
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