From New World Encyclopedia

Saichō (最澄, 767 – 822 C.E.) was a Japanese Buddhist monk credited with founding the Tendai school in Japan, based on the Chinese Tiantai tradition which he was exposed to during a trip to China in 804 C.E. He founded the temple and headquarters of Tendai at Enryakuji on Mt. Hiei near Kyoto. After his death, he was awarded the posthumous title of "Dengyō Daishi" (伝教大師) ("Great Master of teaching the way").

Saicho built his monastery on Mt. Hiei near Kyoto. He soon became a favorite of the emperor and received the court's generous patronage, which made his monastery one of the most powerful centers of Buddhist learning. While the monks of the older Buddhist sects lived in the cities, Saicho required his monks to spend 12 years in seclusion under strict discipline on Mt. Hiei. He foreshadowed later Japanese Buddhist trends in his reverence for the Shinto deities and his emphasis on the patriotic mission of Buddhism. Frequently engaged in polemics with other Buddhist leaders, Saicho was more significant as a leader and organizer than as a religious thinker. Saicho was an important reformer in the Japanese Buddhist world, urging a return to an internal pursuit of enlightenment and speaking out against the multitude of rituals and ceremonies of mainstream Buddhism. Saicho's reforms were also ethical reforms urging people to examine their consciences to discover moral law. Saicho's standards for a strict ascetic life are so high that only a select few are able to adhere to them.


Early Life

Mitsu no Obito Hirono (Saicho) was born in Omi (now Shiga prefecture) in 767 C.E. It is said that his ancestors had come from China. At the age of twelve he renounced the world and became a monk at the Kokubunn-ji Temple, one of the many temples built in several Japanese cities by Emperor Shoumu around the eighth century to pray for the protection of Japan. At fourteen he became an official monk and changed his name to Saicho. At nineteen, he received the religious precepts on the ordination platform in Todaiji Temple (famous for an enormous gold-covered statue of Buddha, over 17 meters high, which was constructed over a period of ten years by 2.2 million workers). After receiving the religious precepts he went to Mt. Hiei and began a life of meditation in a thatched hut surrounded by the silence of nature. Saicho declared before Buddha that he would accomplish four things: enlighten many human beings; emancipate himself from inestimable worldly passions; research countless Buddhist sutras; and realize the supreme Buddhist way. The lonely young monk studied many sutras and realized that Tiantai (Tien-tai, Lotus Sutra) by Zhiyi (Chihi) (538-597 B.C.E.) was the superlative essence of Buddhism.

Saicho and Emperor Kammu

Emperor Kammu (737- 806 C.E.), known as one of the wisest Emperors in Japanese history, disliked Buddhism because it had become so degraded. Three centuries earlier, Prince Shotoku, a proponent of Buddhism, had founded the ancient Buddhist nation of Japan. In 710 Emperor Genmei moved the capital of Japan to Heijyo (Nara). Centering on Heijyo, whose population numbered more than 200,000 residents, the Buddhist nation flourished for more than 70 years. The state’s political structure was a system of centralized government based on the ritsuryo codes (legal codes of the Nara and Heian period) of Confucianism, but Buddhism was adopted as a theological prop and a means of strengthening government authority. The increase in royal patronage of Buddhism stimulated a desire for wealth, position and power on the part of the monks. Inevitably there was an increase in corruption, intrigue, and the general politicization of Buddhist circles. At that time, mainstream Buddhism was made up of six schools that had been imported from China.

In 794 Emperor Kammu decided to move the capital to Heian (Kyoto) in order to completely reorganize the political and religious structure of his government. Saicho’s place of meditation was near Heian, and Emperor Kammu found him very different from the corrupt and degraded monks of the old capital Heijyo (Nara). Saicho was planning to build a large library because Tiantai (Tien-tai, Lotus Sutra ) was an all-inclusive system of thought. Saicho and his disciples had started a movement to transcribe all of the sutras. Many monks around Japan agreed with this project, making Saicho even more famous. Emperor Kammu appointed Saicho as Naigubu (a special monk who holds a position in the Imperial court) and gave him financial support. While Emperor Kammu was implementing several innovations in the political world, centered upon Heian, in the religious world Saicho began a lecture series on the Lotus Sutra and earnestly researched and discussed Buddhism on Mt. Hiei.

Entry Into Tang Dynasty China

In 804 (Heian period), Saicho was selected as one of several envoys to be sent to Tang Dynasty China. The Japanese envoys set sail with four ships from the harbor at Naniwa (now Osaka). Among them was Kukai, who would later become Saicho’s friend and rival. A powerful storm overtook the ships, and only two barely managed to reach the coast of China. Saicho survived, and after landing, immediately went toward Mt. Tiantai while the others set out for the capital Chang’an. A school of the Tiantai (Lotus Sutra) school, founded by Zhiyi (Chihi) (538-597 B.C.E.), was located on Mt. Tiantai, and there Saicho learned the theory of Tiantai. Emperor Kammu wanted Saicho to return as quickly as possible to support him. After eight months, Saicho returned from China, bringing mainly Tiantai (Tien-tai, Lotus Sutra) Buddhism with some elements of Zen, esoteric Mikkyo, and Vinaya Buddhism. Saicho founded Tendai-shu, a school of the Tiantai, in Japan. In addition to the six schools of mainstream Buddhism, Saicho’s Tendai-shu was officially acknowledged by Emperor Kammu, but he suddenly died in 806 C.E. After Emperor Kammu’s death, the old established Buddhist schools in Nara (old Heijyo) began to persecute Saicho, and the established Buddhist scholars continually argued with Saicho about Buddhism. Saicho was especially dismayed that the disciples who were ordained Buddhist priests at Mt. Hiei were not received at the Todai-ji Temple, which was the center of established Buddhism in Nara. For this reason, Saicho’s disciples left Mt Hiei.

Dispute with the Old Buddhist Schools

Nara Buddhists presented a considerable obstacle to Saicho’s Tendai-shu school. Saicho began traveling around Japan with the aim of building towers to the Lotus Sutra in six locations, in order that Japan might have peace through the benevolence of the Lotus Sutra. During his journey, Saicho met Tokuitsu, a famous monk of the Dharma Character school and a formidable controversialist from the old established Buddhist schools in the east of Japan. Tokuitsu and Saicho began a furious polemic that lasted for six years. This dispute was called “Sanichi gonjitsu- ronso,” and at issue was whether the theory of Tiantai (Tien-tai, Lotus Sutra) was truth or not. This dispute generated an enomous quantity of writing on both sides, but only the books of Saicho’s side are extant, presumably because Tokuitsu had no successor.

Saicho’s Last Project

After returning to Heian, Saicho started a movement to build an ordination center for Mahayana (the Great Vehicle) Buddhism in Mt Hiei. At that time there were Buddhist ordination centers only at Todai-ji in Nara; Yakushi-ji in Shimotsuke; and Kanzeon-ji in Tsukushi. Only the six schools of Nara had the authority to ordain monks. Saicho decried the ordination center of the six schools as being Hinayana (Theravada, the Lesser Vehicle) and was harshly opposed by the Nara Buddhists. Saicho’s motivation for building an ordination center of Mahayana (the Great Vehicle) Buddhism in Mt. Hiei was to gain independence from the other Buddhist schools, which were closely allied with the secular government. The government approved his ordination center seven days after his death in 822 C.E. Saicho was not aware that his was the first ordination center in the world for Mahayana Buddhism.

Thought and Works

Nara Buddhist Opposition to Saicho

Buddhism was imported into China from India in the first century C.E. During the Sui Dynasty (581~619 C.E.), Tiantai (Tien-tai, Lotus Sutra) was treasured and the school prospered. During the Tang Dynasty (618~907 C.E.) the Consciousness-Only school and Huayan (Avatamsaka (Sutra)) school had a powerful influence on the Buddhist world in China. In Japan, the Buddhism of the Nara period (710 to 793 C.E.), centering on the capital Heijyo, was mostly imported from the Tang Dynasty. For example, the six schools of Nara Buddhism adopted mainly Huayan (Avatamsaka (Sutra)), which was the latest fashion and prevalent during the Tang Dynasty in China. Tiantai (Tien-tai, Lotus Sutra) had already been buried in oblivion. Saicho reintroduced Tiantai (Tien-tai, Lotus Sutra), which people thought of as outdated. We can imagine why the six established Buddhist schools persecuted Saicho. However, Saicho realized with a keen eye that the theory of Huayan (Avatamsaka (Sutra)) had a tendency to affirm the status quo, because the Buddhist monks who followed it neglected ascetic practices and repentance.

The Ordination Center of Mahayana (the Great Vehicle)

Saicho seemed to be under the impression that an ordination center of Mahayana (the Great Vehicle) already existed in India. Saicho explained that he saw evidence of this in Xuanzang’s book, Journey to India in the Great Tang Dynasty. On closer examination, Xuanzang’s book only contains descriptions of several Buddhist temples, and does not say that any Mahayana temples had the authority to ordain monks through giving Buddhist commandments. This is because, at that time, ordaining professional monks was the sole right of the Hinayana (Theravada, the Lesser Vehicle) Buddhists, while Mahayana (the Great Vehicle) was practiced by lay people. However, Mahayana also needed professional monks.

There are six realms of existence in the Buddhist cosmology: hell, starvation, animal-like brute, bloodbath, human, and heavenly bliss. Unenlightened persons (ordinary people) live in cycles of reincarnation through the six realms of existence, the suffering world. Some persons hear Buddha’s teachings and are elevated from the six realms. These persons are called Shoumon (or Zraavaka in Sanskrit). Others realize enlightenment by themselves without a teacher and are elevated from the six realms, and these are called Engaku or Pratyekabuddha (Paccekabuddha in Sanskrit). These two types are arhats (estimable Buddhist monks engaged in ascetic practices) who are aiming to become Bodhisattvas and finally Buddha. The Mahayana (the Great Vehicle) despises them as Nijyou or two (small) vehicles. Because their efforts are self-centered and can never enable them to reach Buddha, the Mahayana call them Hinayana (Theravada, the Lesser Vehicle).

Saicho was a religious reformer and aimed to standardize the process of the priesthood. He felt that the numerous religious rites of Nara Buddhism obscured the truth. The strict ethical attitude of Saicho implied criticism of the Nara Buddhist establishment. Saicho thought that in Hinayana (Theravada, the Lesser Vehicle) Buddhism, the person who gave the ordination was a monk, who was therefore human and degraded. Saicho was convinced that Mahayana ordination had to be given directly by Buddha.

Petition for a "Mahayana Ordination Center"

Saicho offered three petitions to build a "Mahayana Ordination Center" to the Imperial Court from 818 to 819. The three petitions were named “Sange gakushou shiki.” These petitions stated that, after he received the Buddhist commandments, a monk of Bodhisattva should do Shikan meditation (like Zen meditation) for twelve years in Mt. Hiei, and after this, begin a life of service to the nation, serving others and denying own private desires. This was a severe monastic practice and a policy aimed the select few. As expected, the established Nara Buddhist schools opposed Saicho’s petitions. Their protests were offered to Emperor Saga, who showed these letters to Saicho. Saicho immediately refuted them by writing a counterargument, Kenkairon. Saicho reasserted the importance of repentance and internal enlightenment in religious life.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • De Bary, William Theodore, Donald Keene, George Tanabe and Paul Varley. 2001. Sources of Japanese Tradition (Second Edition), Volume One: From Earliest Times to 1600. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Groner, Paul. 1984. The Establishment of the Japanese Tendai School. Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Buddhist Series.
  • Stone, Jacqueline I. Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism (Studies in East Asian Buddhism, 12). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.


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