A Look At Saicho: Founder of Tendai Buddhism

最澄像 一乗寺蔵 平安時代

Warning: Long post. Hope you find it interesting, though.

Starting in 2012, I started reading a book I wanted to read for a long time. This book is about the founder of Tendai Buddhism named Saicho (最澄 767-822) titled Saicho : The Establishment of the Japanese Tendai School. It’s a long, detailed book, and I’ve been slowly reading it while updating articles in Wikipedia.

Saicho is a highly controversial figure in Japanese Buddhism. He was the founder of the Tendai school of Buddhism (descended from Chinese Tiantai Buddhism). After returning from a trip to China, he started getting entangled in a long, bitter debate with Tokuitsu of the Hosso (Yogacara) school (among other critics), mostly over the issue of Buddha-nature and the Hosso schools “five natures” doctrine vs. the Lotus Sutra’s vision of universal Buddhahood. That debate between the Tendai and Hosso school lasted another 400 years even into the 12th century and onward.

But even more than this, Saicho’s greatest controversy (which takes up 1/3rd of the book), is Saicho’s decision to make Tendai Buddhism a “purely Mahayana” order. This meant that Saicho intended to reject the existing monastic system of ordination, the Prātimokṣa, also known as the shibunritsu (四分律) or “Four Part Vinaya”, which is the same system used in China, Korea and the Theravada Buddhist world. Saicho instead wanted to rely only on the Bodhisattva Precepts of the Brahma Net Sutra for ordaining monks and lay followers.

Saicho’s request was highly politicized and encountered fierce criticism from existing Buddhist establishments in Japan, but his request was granted by Emperor Saga about 7 days after Saicho died, and from there on, Tendai no longer ordained monks in the traditional precepts used throughout the Buddhist world. Other Buddhist sects in Japan, mostly descended from Tendai, inherited the same system, and thus there are no bhikkhus (traditional monks) in Japan anymore. Although most priests in Japan have some kind of ordination, and follow some set of precepts, Japanese Buddhism is the only one that doesn’t follow the traditional Buddhist monastic structure.

But why was Saicho such a divisive figure? The book does a good job analyzing Saicho’s life and influences on his thinking. When he was ordained as a monk at a young, he was a devout Buddhist and followed the precepts sincerely. Even after returning from China, and establishing the Tendai order, he continued to follow the traditional system, even when he disagreed with rival schools. When Kukai brought back a more developed system of esoteric Buddhism (mikkyō) and started the Shingon school, which eclipsed Saicho, he still had no inclination of changing the ordination system in the Tendai school.

Toward the end of his life though, Saicho started to change and the Tendai school was in poor shape. Many of his disciples had left him and joined the Hosso or Shingon schools, and others simply just left, and the Tendai school was under the administration of the Office of Priestly Affairs (僧綱 Sōgō) which was dominated by schools of Nara Buddhism that were hostile to Saicho and his new school. Professor Groner shows early in the book that the six schools of Nara Buddhism had all been established for the benefit of the state (praying to avert disaster, health of the Emperor, protection of evil spirits, etc), but in time the schools became rivals of each other. The rivalry was particularly strong between the Sanron (三論 Madhyamika) school and the Hossō (法相 Yogacara) schools, until the Hossō school dominated the Nara establishment by the 8th century. Saicho’s Tendai school had such a difficult relationship with the Hossō school, dating all the way back to debates between Zhanran (湛然, 711-782) and Tz’u-en (慈恩, 632-682) centuries earlier in China, that they received little support.

Nara Buddhism, as stated above, was heavily bureaucratic and used a system borrowed from Tang-Dynasty China. For example, only a certain number of candidates were legally allocated by the government every year to each school. Usually the number was very small: maybe 2-10 candidates a year. A candidate who legally ordained (i.e. took the full monastic precepts) would receive a certificate of ordination, that proved he was an ordained monk, and exempt from tax/levee service. This certificate would then be stored by the Ministry of Civil Administration, while an official from the Ministry of Popular Affairs would periodically audit monks to verify their identity and their certificates.

Changes to the system were of course slow and bureaucratic too. The monastic system in Japan was managed by the Bureau of Buddhism and Aliens (玄蕃寮, Genbaryō), and above that, the Office of Monastic Affairs, then the Ministry of Civil Administration (治部省, Jibushō), then the Office of the Controller of the Left (左弁官, Sabenkan), the Council of State (Dajōkan) and finally the Emperor. So, if a particular school wanted to ask for more candidates, or change their policy, they would have to submit a request to Bureau, and go through all these levels before the Emperor would approve or disapprove. Similarly, monks were regulated in their travels by the Bureau, and could only do lectures if appointed by the Bureau on certain dates and times. Getting appointed to do a lecture was a big advantage for one’s career of course.

As Professor Groner summarizes:

…when Saichō submitted his petitions concerning the Fan wang [Brahma Net] precepts, his most immediate concern was to insure the future of the Tendai School by removing it from under the jurisdiction of the Sōgō (Office of Monastic Affairs). At the same time, he was also concerned with reformulating Tendai Buddhist practices so that they might lead directly to Buddhahood during the practitioner’s lifetime. To achieve this end, he wanted to sequester Tendai students on Mount Hiei for twelve yeras of intensive practice. (pg. 204)

Saicho’s plans for ordination were intended to be a purely Mahayana ordination system, based on strict monastic training to create a community of “bodhisattva monks”. Saicho’s ideas had some precedence in Chinese Tiantai masters as well, especially Ming-Guang (明曠), however Tiantai in China never actually abandoned the traditional monastic precepts, while Tendai in Japan did. As Professor Groner pointed out, it was a serious debate for decades in China, because many of the traditional monastic rules didn’t apply well to 8th-century Chinese culture. By then, they were already 1,000+ years out of date and from a different country.

Also, as Professor Groner shows, the earliest Mahayana disciples in India did briefly ordain their monks with the Bodhisattva precepts, but within a generation or two, they had reconciled with the existing “Hinayana” communities and ordained in the traditional system again. So in the cases of China and India, the traditional monastic code remained in place, despite the debates about their relevance.

However, in the case of Saicho and Tendai Buddhism in Japan, the school grew during the Heian period to become the de facto religion of the state by the 12th century,1 and other schools started to borrow their system of administration (Shingon, Nara schools, etc). But at the same time, the vagueness of the Bodhisattva precepts, plus increasing politicization, led to a decline in the discipline of the monastic community overall. This is evident in the rise of “warrior monks” and monastic leaders who advocated the “spirit” of the law over the form.

For these reasons and more, Saicho’s legacy on Japanese Buddhism is very colorful and controversial. Groner convincingly shows that Saicho had (in his own mind) valid reasons to want to make a new Buddhist community outside of bureaucratic control, but at the same time, he had set a new standard for monastic ordination that had well-intended, but unexpected results in the history of Japanese Buddhism.

The book itself was pretty long, and very dense on details (I’ve been making lots of updates to Wikipedia to help fill in valuable information), but for anyone interested in Nara Buddhism, Tendai, Saicho, or Chinese Buddhism in the Tang Dynasty, this book is a pretty invaluable source. I was really glad I read it.

1 I think I’ve read somewhere that the Imperial Family of Japan are still technically Tendai followers, though each member’s personal faith may be entirely different. I could be wrong though.


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.

5 thoughts on “A Look At Saicho: Founder of Tendai Buddhism”

  1. Doug, I have heard that in the Edo period (aka the Tokugawa Period) Tendai was very dominant among the ruling Shogunate. I am glad to learn from you that the imperial family is officially Tendai. Any idea from when? All the way back to Heian?


  2. Kan’eiji is a major Tendai temple that used to cover most of the area that is now Ueno Park. This temple was used for funerals of the Tokugawa family. Then, Zojoji, a major Jodo (Pure Land) got in on the action, and ceremonies alternated between the two temples for a while. (By the way, the Wikipedia entry on Zojoji says it is Chinzai Shingon–that must be a mistake. As a wikipediast, Doug, you might want to check into that.) So, yes, Tendai was dominant, but Jodo was competing. As for any Buddhist connection to the Imperial family, I didn’t find much in English on line. I did find this page, which says many Imperial family members followed Shingon rites until 1868. The website is full of information about world religions, and seems quite scholarly, but none of the names of editors/writers are familiar to me. Anyway, here is the link:



    1. Hi John,

      I think you’re absolutely right, and I fear I’ve mixed up the two. The Tokugawa family was Tendai and the Imperial Family did follow some kind of esoteric Buddhism. I was confusing with Tendai’s “taimitsu” esoteric ritual.

      I’ll correct that from the post.


    2. Hi, John and Doug,

      Thank you both very much. I truly wish the pre-war Kan’eiji Temple had survived WW II, don’t you? Some buildings of what is there now were moved there from the important Tendai temple Kitain in Kawagoe, as you probably know.

      Thanks for your search re the Imperial Family. Brian Bocking is the author/overseer of the page you link to; he is a well-known and esteemed scholar. No worries.



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