Tendai In Japan – Part 1



Statue of Jianzhen/Ganjin

The word “Tendai” is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word “Tiantai,” the name of a mountain range in eastern China where the lineage of Zhiyi flourished. The Tendai tradition was first transmitted to Japan by Jianzhen 鑑眞 (688-763; aka, Ganjin), the famous Chinese scholar-monk precept master who established the ordination platform at Tōdaiji 東大寺 Temple in Nara. Jianzhen’s journey to Japan was long and arduous, causing him to go blind while en route. At this time, Tendai was one area of study among many others such as Madhyamaka 三論 (Sanron), Yogācāra 法相 (Hossō), Precepts 律 (Ritsu), Avataṃsaka-sūtra 華嚴經 (Kegon-kyō) studies, and so on. However, the Tendai tradition looks to Saichō 最澄 (767-822) as its founder, as it was Saichō who ultimately established Tendai Buddhism as a major lineage of study and practice after he studied on Mt. Tiantai in China in 804.

Dengyō Daishi Saichō 傳教大師最澄 (767-822)


Dengyo Daishi – Saicho

Like many monks in his day, Saichō received ordination at Tōdaiji Temple in Nara, the political and religious center of Japan. In this elite monastic educational environment, Saichō studied broadly in the philosophical, doctrinal, and meditation schools of Mahayana Buddhism. In particular, Saichō studied the Avataṃsaka-sūtra, a text that would feature prominently in Saichō’s thought later on in life. He also studied the Lotus Sutra, Brahma’s Net Sutra 梵網經, the Precepts, and various schools of Buddhist philosophy. Saichō quickly gained a reputation as a bright and knowledgeable scholar and meditator. Today, scholars and practitioners of East Asian Buddhism tend to imagine traditions like Tendai, Zen, Pure Land, and so on, as distinct sects or schools. However, in Saichō’s day, East Asian Buddhist culture was more holistic as monks and laity alike tended to take a more comprehensive approach to the study and practice of the different streams of Buddhism. This view, which sees the diversity and unity of Buddhism as One, is still very much part of Tendai Buddhism.

It seems that Saichō grew dissatisfied with the mix of politics and religion he encountered in Nara. As a result, he left Nara to establish a hermitage on a far off mountain called Mt. Hiei. Finally, he was able to meditate and study the Buddha’s teachings in peace. It is said that he carved for his practice images of the Medicine Buddha, Śākyamuni Buddha, and Amitābha Buddha. At this time, Emperor Kanmu 桓武 (735-806), like Saichō, became dissatisfied with Nara factionalism and endeavored to establish a new capital. As luck or good karma would have it, this new capital was to be built just west of Mt. Hiei.


Emperor Kanmu

The emperor sought out moral and upstanding monks to help him in his efforts, and Saichō’s reputation and proximity to the new capital led the emperor to reach out to him. The emperor rebuilt Saichō’s humble abode into a temple named Enryakuji. Today, Enryakuji on Mt. Hiei still serves as the main temple of the Tendai School of Japanese Buddhism. In 804, Saichō was dispatched to China to study the cutting edge of Chinese Buddhist culture and transmit those teachings and practices to Japan. Bound for Chang’an, the capital of the Tang Dynasty, Saichō’s boat was blown off course, and he wound up studying on Mt. Tiantai, near the east coast of China, instead. On Mt. Tiantai, Saichō studied broadly while focusing on the teachings of Zhiyi and the comprehensive Tiantai philosophical, doctrinal, and meditative system. Saichō also received initiation into Chinese Chan meditation 禪 (known in Japan as Zen), the Precepts, and Esoteric Buddhism 密教 (Mikkyō). Upon his return, Saichō began performing Esoteric rituals for the court and taught the Ekayana, “One Vehicle,” perspective of the Lotus Sutra and the Tendai teachings. Ekayana, which is another way of describing the Mahayana, “The Great Vehicle,” posits that all paths ultimately lead to Buddhahood, and all beings have the capacity to attain liberation. This idea remains one of the foundational teachings of Tendai Buddhism tradition today.

When Saichō first began to spread this teaching in Japan, some scholar-monks in Nara, seeking to establish institutional dominance over this rising star, took issue in particular with Saichō’s all-inclusive universal path to awakening. Monks like Tokuitsu 德一 (781?- 842?), a scholar of Yogācāra, contended that some beings can never attain Buddhahood, a view that Saichō rejected. Saichō rebelled against the status quo, and worked to establish Tendai Buddhism, and his temple, Enryakuji on Mt. Hiei, as institutionally autonomous from the Nara monastic state-temple hierarchy. This proved to be one of the most contentious issues of Saichō’s teaching career and the early Tendai tradition in Japan. Saichō made his argument for the Mahayana precepts in his text, the Kenkairon 顯戒論. Though Saichō passed away before this goal was achieved, his first generation of disciples carried on his mission, and not only established the Tendai tradition as an autonomous school of Japanese Buddhism, but ultimately built the Tendai School would into the most influential and powerful Buddhist lineage throughout most of Japanese history.

For Saichō, the purpose of Buddhist practice is service to others. The line “Light up your Corner” 一隅を照らす (ichigū wo terasu), comes from this text, and in contemporary Tendai Buddhism is interpreted to mean that changing the world begins with sharing your unique gifts with the world, starting where you are. By lighting up your own corner of the world, you light up the whole world. The Tendai Buddhist educational curriculum was based on the integration of Zhiyi’s comprehensive doctrinal and meditative approach to Buddhism and the Esoteric Buddhist ritual and meditative texts that been recently transmitted from India to China. As such, the Tendai curriculum followed two tracks:

  • Shikan-gō 止觀業: The Tendai Studies curriculum focused on Zhiyi’s magnum opus, the Mohezhiguan, and related texts.
  • Shana-gō 遮那業: The Esoteric Buddhist Studies curriculum focused on the Mahāvairocana-sūtra, and other Esoteric texts.

The unity of Tendai and Esoteric Buddhism, something that Saichō encountered in China, would become a defining feature of Japanese Tendai Buddhism. Monks who studied in Saichō’s Tendai School also continued to participate in and study widely in different temples throughout the realm. In this way, movement and dialogue across sectarian divisions matched Tendai’s autonomy. This inclination toward ecumenical interaction with other Buddhist traditions is alive and well in the modern Tendai tradition both in Japan and the US. For more information on Saichō, please consult the following resources:


Jikaku Daishi Ennin 慈覺大師圓仁 (794-864)


Jikaku Daishi – Ennin

Ennin 圓仁 (794-864), the third abbot of Enryakuji on Mt. Hiei, greatly impacted the development of Japanese Buddhism. Traditional historians often attributed to Ennin the founding of Tendai Buddhism’s distinct approach to both Esoteric Buddhism and Pure Land Buddhism. In fact, Ennin is credited with promoting devotion to Fudō Myōō 不動明王 (Ācalanathā-vidyārāja), as well as certain forms of nenbutsu recitation.


Blue Fudo Myo-o

Ennin’s monastic career began under Saichō’s tutelage. Ultimately, Ennin would succeed Gishin as the abbot of Enryakuji, the head temple on Mt. Hiei. Later, the Sanmon 山門 lineage of Tendai came to regard Ennin as the founder of their sub-lineage. From 835 to 847, Ennin studied and traveled around China collecting texts, treatises, and ritual manuals. Ennin was thus responsible for transmitting far more in terms of intellectual and material culture than any monk before him. This transmission of Tang Buddhist culture profoundly transformed Japanese Buddhism. In China, on Mt. Wutai, which was regarded as the Pure Land of Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Ennin collected dozens of Tiantai texts and studied a form of melodic nenbutsu recitation. Ennin also studied at temples in Chang’an, the capital of the Tang Dynasty, and acquired mastery of Esoteric Buddhist texts and practices not yet available in Japan. Before Ennin, important Esoteric Buddhist texts like the Mahāvairocana-sūtra and Vajraśekhara-sūtra constituted two major streams of doctrine and ritual. In China, Ennin acquired mastery of the Susiddhikāra-sūtra as well, another important Esoteric text that served to unify the Mahāvairocana-sūtra and Vajraśekhara-sūtra. This approach eventually influenced the whole of Japanese Esoteric Buddhist culture. Translations of these texts may be found here: Mahāvairocana-sūtra  Vajraśekhara-sūtra and Susiddhikāra-sūtra  Due to the infamous persecution of Buddhism by Emperor Wuzong 武宗 (814–846; r. 840–846), Ennin fled China.

For more information on Ennin, please consult the following sources:


Chishō Daishi Enchin 智證大師圓珍 (814-891)


Chisho Daishi

After Ennin, the next major systematizer of Tendai Esoteric Buddhism was Enchin 圓珍 (814-891), the fifth abbot of Enryakuji. On Mt. Hiei, while Ennin’s lineage came to be associated the Western Pagoda, Enchin’s lineage came to be associated with the Eastern Pagoda. Later, Enchin came to be regarded as the founder of the Jimon 寺門 lineage based in Miidera 三井寺 (aka, Onjōji 園城寺) near Lake Biwa 琵琶湖. Enchin began his career as a disciple of Gishin, Saichō’s student who accompanied him to China. Following in the footsteps of Saichō, Gishin, and Ennin, Enchin also traveled to China, studying on Mt. Tiantai and in the Tang capital in Chang’an. While in Chang’an, Enchin even studied at Qinglongsi Temple 青龍寺 (the same temple where Kūkai, the founder of Shingon, studied). Like Saichō and Ennin, Enchin agreed upon the compatibility of Exoteric and Esoteric Buddhism, and promoted the Ekayana view of his predecessors. However, it seems that Enchin emphasized the superiority of Esoteric Buddhism due to its focus on practice.  

For more information on Enchin, and the Jimon branch of Tendai, which looks to Enchin as its founder, see:


Konryū Daishi Sōō 建立大師相應 (831-918)

Sōō 相應 (831-918) is regarded as the founder of the “Marathon Monk” practice of circumambulating Mt. Hiei, a form of ascetic practice that remains an important part of Tendai Buddhism even today. As a young novice monk, Sōō impressed Ennin with his daily devotional practice, offering wild flowers every day without fail for over six years to the Buddha of the main hall. When Ennin offered to grant him full ordination, out of humility Sōō recommended another monk that he admired. Ennin was very impressed by Sōō and helped him eventually receive full ordination, and bestowed upon him the name Sōō. After he officially became a monk, under Ennin’s tutelage Sōō studied the rituals of Fudō Myōō, and completed the traditional 12-year retreat on Mt. Hiei. Later, Sōō pursued a form of practice where he walked through the wilderness, prayed to the gods, buddhas, and bodhisattvas of the mountain, and subsisted only on wild plants. This ascetic practice led to visions of Fudō Myōō, and tradition imparts that he gained great healing powers as well. One famous story about Sōō states that while praying for rebirth in the Pure Land before an image of Fudō Myōō, Sōō was whisked away by Fudō to the heavens and Pure Lands of the ten directions of the universe. Thereafter, Sōō aspired to be reborn in Maitreya’s Pure Land in the Tuṣita heaven. It is said that Sōō passed away while chanting the name of Amitābha Buddha.

For more information on Sōō, and the Kaihōgyō:


Akaku Daishi Annen 阿覺大師安然 (841-902?)

Following Saichō, Ennin, and Enchin, the Mt. Hiei scholar-monk Annen 安然 (841-902?) is regarded as the next great Taimitsu thinker. Though Annen did not go to China like his Taimitsu predecessors, it is hard to overemphasize the importance of Annen’s thought both within Tendai Esoteric Buddhism and beyond, as medieval scholiasts of various traditions continued to draw upon, respond to, and elaborate upon Annen’s innovations and contributions. Some scholars have even referred to Annen as Japan’s first true philosopher.

Drawing upon Zhiyi’s Five Times and Eight Teachings system, Annen divided the whole of Buddhism into a doctrinal classification system. First, are those who rely upon the Three Vehicles:

  • The non-Mahayana Tripiṭaka teachings ( 藏)
  • The teachings that are common to both Mahayana and non-Mahayana (tsū 通)
  • The teachings that are distinctly Mahayana in orientation (betsu 別)

Next, are those teachings that promote the One Vehicle, Ekayana:

  • The perfect teachings of Tendai, the Lotus Sutra, the Avataṃsaka-sūtra (en 圓)
  • The Esoteric teachings (mitsu 密)

While Annen regarded Esoteric Buddhism by itself as superior in some respects to Tendai Buddhism by itself, in fact, all of these perspectives may be seen as interconnected and interpenetrating. In other words, this is not a strict hierarchy. Moreover, by this time, Japanese Tendai Buddhism was a major form of Esoteric Buddhism. Therefore, Annen’s point essentially concerns how best to put the Esoteric Tendai tradition into practice. This comprehensive approach to Buddhism draws upon and harmonizes the deepest insights of both Esoteric Buddhism and Tendai Buddhism. Annen promoted was the idea that all Buddhas are ultimately one Buddha, all Pure Lands are ultimately one Pure Land, and all teachings are ultimately interconnected and interpenetrating. Another important concept that we associate with Annen is sōmoku jōbutsu 草木成佛, or “the grasses and trees become Buddha.” This idea refers to the idea that even the seemingly inanimate world is itself permeated with, and constituted by, Buddha reality. Nirvana and this world are One, physically and spiritually. The physical and spiritual are One.

For more information on Annen and Tendai Esoteric Buddhism, see:


Ganzan Daishi Ryōgen 元三大師良源 (912-985)



Ryōgen 良源 (912-985) was the 18th abbot of Enyrakuji on Mt. Hiei, the head temple of the Tendai School in Japan. In addition to being a monk, scholar, and master of Esoteric Buddhist ritual and practice, Ryōgen was also a shrewd politician as well. During his career Tendai went from being one school among many to being the most powerful school in Japan. From this point on, Tendai lineages and institutions dominated Japanese Buddhism and culture intellectually and philosophically. Through Ryōgen’s close relationship with the Fujiwara clan, the sons of powerful families and even imperial princes came to occupy the position of abbot and other high-ranking positions at major temples. Before this time, the monastic vocation was one rare means for social mobility. As the aristocrats came to dominate the top positions in the sangha, however, this became less possible. At one point, it is said that Ryōgen even established an army on Mt. Hiei as a defensive move against rival temples and lineages. As a result, there are some who regard his legacy with some ambivalence. Was he a saint or a demon? Like other great monks of his day, Ryōgen studied broadly in the Buddhist tradition and composed works on Esoteric Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, and so on. One of Ryōgen’s most important works, the Gokuraku jōdo kuhon ōjōgi 極樂淨土九品往生義, drew upon the Contemplation Sutra and promoted vocal recitation of the nenbutsu as a form of practice for even those who have very bad karma.

For more information on Ryōgen, see the following:


Eshin Sōzu Genshin 惠心僧都源信 (942-1017)



Genshin 源信 (942-1017) was a student of Ryōgen who further developed Tendai Pure Land thought and practice in his famous Ōjōyōshū 往生要集, which not only influenced Japanese religious thought, but also impacted art depicting the realms of rebirth in samsara and the Pure Land. Genshin’s perspective on the Pure Land was all-inclusive, as there were many different perspectives on Pure Land Buddhism during his time. Some monks promoted the meditative-philosophical approach that views the nenbutsu as a tool to focus one’s contemplation of the mind, regarding the Pure Land as one’s very own mind. Others viewed the nenbutsu as a mantra, or a spell, that could purify past karma, or establish a connection with the Buddha Amitābha, and deliver one to the Pure Land after death. Though Genshin incorporated both Esoteric and Exoteric views of the Pure Land in his text, ultimately he conceived of Pure Land Buddhism as a distinct path with the broader Mahayana tradition. As a student of Ryōgen, Genshin was well positioned to pursue a highly lucrative political career within the Mt. Hiei monastic hierarchy. However, it seems that he preferred the reclusive lifestyle and focused his energy on Pure Land scholarship and practice. Nevertheless, his Tendai Pure Land Buddhist perspective was widely influential, both among monastic and lay devotees. Genshin also participated in nenbutsu assemblies where monks gathered together to chant the nenbutsu, pledging to aid each other at the moment of death to maintain right mindfulness. These groups influenced deathbed practices said to lead to Pure Land rebirth.

For more information on Genshin, see the following: