One of the more unusual features of the Japanese Tendai sect of Buddhism compared to its parent Tiantai sect in China, is how it approaches monastic discipline.
The Tiantai sect uses the traditional 250 precepts for monks (348 for nuns) called the Prathimoksa or in Chinese si fen lü (四分律). For devoted lay followers the Five Precepts are upheld.
The Tendai sect during the time of Saicho the founder, made an explicit choice to not use the si fen lu precepts and instead chose to use the Bodhisattva Precepts. In Japanese these are called the endonkai (円頓戒, “perfect precepts”) or daijōkai (大乗戒)
The Bodhisattva Precepts are defined in a Buddhist text called the Brahma Net Sutra.1 The sutra lists Ten Major and 48 minor precepts that bodhisattva disciples were expected to follow. However, typically the Bodhisattva Precepts are only the ten major precepts:
- Not to take life, or induce others to take life
- Not to steal
- Not to have sex
- Not to tell lies
- Not to sell intoxicants
- Discussing the faults of the Sangha (Buddhist community)
- Praising oneself and criticizing others
- Not to be stingy
- Not to harbor anger
- Not speaking ill of the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha)
Priests in the Tendai Order ordain in the Bodhisattva Precepts and not the Prathimoksa precepts.
In the book Saicho: The Establishment of the Japanese Tendai School, the author explores the question of why the Tendai school explicitly broke away from Buddhist convention. Other more established schools in Japan ordained their monks in the traditional way and Saicho was ordained that way too.
So why the break in tradition? Professor Groner hypothesized that Saicho was trying to distinguish the Tendai Order from their rivals, particularly the powerful Hossō (Yogacara) school which it had a difficult relationship with. By using a more “pure” Mahayana set of principles for its monastic order, Saicho meant to make his Order a more purely “Mahayana” school.
Further, Saicho argued that the original Prathimoksa rules were given by the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, at a particular time and place. In contrast, the Bodhisattva Precepts are universal and suitable for all times and places.
It’s an interesting argument. Indeed, if you look in the Vinaya Pitaka where the Prathimoksa are defined, many rules were situational to address misconduct by various disciples. On the other hand, the some of the Bodhisattva Precepts are kind of vague and open to interpretation. Traditionally in China both precepts were administered: first the Prathimoksa and then the Bodhisattva Precepts on top of it. This covers both bases I suppose.
In any case, the choice by the Tendai to use the Bodhisattva precepts for ordination had a huge effect on Japanese Buddhism because many existing schools are offshoots of the Tendai: Soto Zen, Rinzai Zen, Jodo Shu, Nichiren Shu and so on.
P.S. This article in Wikipedia that both Korean and Japanese Buddhism use the Bodhisattva Precepts but does not cite sources. More research required.
1 There are actually two entirely separate sutras of the same name, one in the Pali Canon (Theravada) and the Mahayana version. This is the latter.