Japanese Buddhism

Mount Hiei and the Tendai School

In 788, a . . .Chinese Buddhist priest named Saicho (767-822) founded an unpretentious, tiny Buddhist temple on the slopes of Mount Hiei near Kyoto. As small as its beginnings were, Mount Hiei would quickly become the cultural, religious, and artistic center of Japan until it was destroyed by Oda Nobunaga in 1571. At the time Saicho founded his monastery, the area around the mountain was unproductive marsh-lands. All this changed in six years when the Emperor Kammu moved the capital from Nara to the area around Mount Hiei. It was one of those strange practical jokes of history: Kammu, a devoted Confucian, originally moved the capital in order to get away from the Buddhists. The move, however, would make the Buddhists of Mount Hiei the most powerful political force in early and medieval Japanese history.
Japan Atlas
Nara and Heian Japan


   Kammu took a liking to the young priest, though, and sent him to China in 804 to further his training as a Buddhist priest. While in China, Saicho became a follower of the T'ien T'ai school; on his return, he converted the Hiei temple to Tendai, the Japanese name for T'ien T'ai. The Tendai school was based on the Lotus Sutra, which was the foundational text of all Mahayana Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra claims to be the last definitive teaching of Buddha. In it, the Buddha reveals the "Greater Vehicle" (in Sanskrit, Mahayana ) which allows for salvation for a larger number of people. Buddhahood is open to all people rather than to a few; the teaching of Buddhist law, then, is of paramount importance. This law was taught by bodhisattvas, or "beings in Truth."

   The monastery that Saicho set up on Mount Hiei, then, was dedicated to the production of bodhisattvas. Each monk had to live in the monastery for twelve years where he learned the Mahayana scriptures and also learned "Concentration," or shikan . Unlike the Nara Buddhists, however, the Hiei Buddhists did not exercise control over its followers in the court. In particular, while the best students remained in the monastery, the others would graduate into positions in the government or in the court. As a result, the Hiei monastery, which was officially titled, "Center for the Protection of the Nation," became the most influential institution in the country. By the time it was burned to the ground by Oda Nobunaga in 1571, it was a sprawling complex and university of over three thousand buildings.

Richard Hooker



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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 6-28-97