A Look at the Ritsu School of Buddhism in Japan

Hi all,

Similar to my post about the Kegon School of Buddhism in Japan, I wanted to write a small post about the lesser-known but famous Ritsu School or “Precepts” school. There’s very little information about it in English, but I’ve learned some good information from Japanese books instead, and since this week is devoted to Buddhist subjects, I wanted to write this post.

The Ritsu School or risshū is one of the original Six Schools of Nara or nanto rokushō (南都六宗). These schools were largely “specialty schools” because they were all treated as the same Buddhism by the government but specializing in different aspects of that Buddhism. In the case of the Ritsu School, its specialty was the monastic code itself, and monastic ordination. In Mahayana Buddhism, the monastic code was contained in the Four-Part Vinaya or shibun ritsu (四分律) in Japanese, which came from China, and from India through the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya.


Although Japan had imported Buddhism in the 7th century from the Korean kingdom of Baekje, Japan didn’t have a reliable system for ordaining monks at first. Japan wanted to follow a traditional Chinese-Confucian system where monks were organized into a bureaucratic system, the Office of Priestly Affairs or Sōgō (僧綱), but there were monks qualified to ordain other monks in Japan.

Some monks, Dōji (道慈) in the 8th century, went to China during the Sui and Tang Dynasties, and brought back training, but it wasn’t quite enough. Later, the Chinese monk Dōsen (Dao-xuan, 道璿, 702-760) came to Japan after being invited there. Dao-xuan was an expert in the Vinaya in China, but when he arrived there were enough qualified monks to support him. According to the traditional rules of the Dharmaguptaka lineage, 10 monks were required to ordain new monks, and at least one had to be a Vinaya master. Dao-xuan didn’t have enough people with. He gave lectures and taught the Vinaya, but he was unable to ordain monks in Japan. For this, he earned the title of Vinaya Master or risshi (律師).

Finally, came another Chinese monk named Ganjin (Jianzhen, 鑑真, 688–763). Jianzhen had ironically studied under the disciples of Dao-xuan and was Jianzhen’s journey to Japan is famous because he tried to go to Japan 5 times, but failed due to weather or the government. Finally on the last attempt, the sixth, he arrived in Japan but had lost one eye due to an infection. Fortunately, Jianzhen was another Vinaya master like Dao-xuan, and had brought enough qualified monks with him, so they could setup a proper ordination platform in Japan at last.

Todaiji Temple, the same one used for the Kegon School, opened a new ordination platform, and the Ritsu School started other temples to train and teach the Vinaya and monastic code. Jianzhen’s main temple became Tōshōdaiji Temple (唐招提寺) and the center of the Ritsu School. The Ritsu School was the last of the six schools to be founded in the Nara-Period.

Despite the overall decline of the monastic code in medieval Japan, the Ritsu School experienced a revival through the efforts of monks like Eison (叡尊, 1201-1290), Jokei and others.

Like other Nara schools, the Ritsu School adapted esoteric ritual and practices from Shingon Buddhism to put into practice its teachings. This led to a hybrid school called the Shingon-Risshū school (真言律宗) which still exists today. Other lineages that existed were the Kaidan’in (the platform at Todaiji), Saidaiji and Sennyūji, but now only one temple remains: Toshodaiji. Due to the efforts of the Meiji-era government, most temples were forced to become Shingon temples instead.


The Ritsu School was technically a part of the Hosso School, but also shared a lot of common traits with the Kegon School too. The main Buddha revered is Vairocana Buddha, the Buddha of the Sun (same as Kegon School).

However, in practice, it also promoted the Buddhist precepts not just for monks, but also for lay people. This includes the Five Precepts (gokai 五戒) and the Eight Precepts (hassaikai 八斎戒) for a period of one day and one night. These precepts are based on the Four-Part Vinaya mentioned above, but also found almost universally in Buddhism. In Japanese these are listed as:

  1. 不殺生戒(ふせっしょうかい, fusessōkai) – Not to destroy life.
  2. 不偸盗戒(ふちゅうとうかい, fuchūtōkai) – Not to steal.
  3. 不邪淫戒(ふじゃいんかい, fujainkai) – Not to commit adultery.
  4. 不妄語戒(ふもうごかい, fumōgokai) – Not to tell lies.
  5. 不飲酒戒(ふおんじゅかい, fuonjukai) – Not to consume intoxicants.

For the Eight Precepts, #3 changes to 不淫戒 (ふいんかい) to have no sexual intercourse at all. Also, three new ones are added:

  1. 不塗飾香鬘舞歌観聴戒(ふずしょくこうまんぶかかんちょう, fuzushokukōmanbukakannchōkai) – Not to wear ornamets, fragrances or attend shows or performances.
  2. 不眠坐高広厳麗床上戒(ふみんざこうこうごんれいしょうじょうかい, fuminzakōkōreishōjōkai) – Not to sleep on large, high luxurious beds.
  3. 非時食戒(ひじしきかい, hijishikikai) – Not to eat after noon/midday.

The Ritsu School emphasizes following the Buddhist path through proper conduct in body, speech and mind and thus observance of the precepts is the means to accomplish this. Though the traditional Vinaya died out in Japan a long time ago, the school still exists to guard, study and propagate the importance of the precepts in Buddhism to lay people.

The Ritsu School Today

Because Toshodaiji resisted efforts to become part of the Shingon school, it is still the only surviving temple of the Ritsu School, but still has roughly 13,000 followers centered around Nara today. Because of its legacy, the legend of Ganji (Jianzhen) and its cultural treasures, the Ritsu School and Toshodaiji still are an important cultural treasure today.

Toshodaiji Temple has a nice website with further details.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

2 thoughts on “A Look at the Ritsu School of Buddhism in Japan”

  1. Toshodaiji is an amazing place to visit–I was able to go there last year. Most visitors to Nara go to Todaiji, and it takes a bit more effort to get to Toshodaiji. However, it has an impressive collection of statues designated as national treasures. These are mostly in buildings with open fronts, covered just with some wire mesh to keep out birds. So you can get very good views of these precious images. Also, the temple is just a short stroll away from Yakushiji, another great monument that is a general headquarters for the Hosso sect, also a fantastic experience. So, if anyone goes to Nara, I recommend trying to get to these two temples.


  2. Hi Johnl,

    I’ve been kicking myself for years for not visiting Toshodaiji. Also, at Todaiji itself, the original ordination platform by Ganjin is there, but I missed it (it’s hidden to the left of the Daibutsu entrance). Toshodaiji is definitely accessible if you’re willing to got a bit further away from Nara Station and a fascinating cultural treasure.


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