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Japanese Buddhism

Tendai (天台宗 Tendai-shū?) is a Japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism, a descendant of the Chinese Tiantai or Lotus Sutra school.

Chappell (1987: p.247) frames the relevance of Tendai for a universal Buddhism:[1]

Although Tendai (Chin., T'ien-t'ai) has the reputation of being a major denomination in Japanese history, and the most comprehensive and diversified school of Chinese Buddhism, it is almost unknown in the West. This meagre presence is in marked contrast to the vision of the founder of the movement in China, T'ien-t'ai Chih-i (538-597), who provided a religious framework which seemed suited to adapt to other cultures, to evolve new practices, and to universalize Buddhism.


The Tiantai teaching was first brought to Japan by the Chinese monk Jianzhen (鑑眞 Jp: Ganjin) in the middle of the 8th century, in what became the short-lived Ritsu school, but it was not widely accepted. In 805, the Japanese monk Saichō (最澄; also called Dengyō Daishi 伝教大師) returned from China with new Tiantai texts and made the temple that he had built on Mt. Hiei (比叡山), Enryakuji (延暦寺), a center for the study and practice of what became Japanese Tendai.

Philosophically, the Tendai school did not deviate substantially from the beliefs that had been created by the Tiantai school in China. However, what Saichō transmitted from China was not exclusively Tiantai, but also included Zen (禅, trad. 禪), esoteric Mikkyō (密教), and Vinaya School (戒律) elements. The tendency to include a range of teachings became more marked in the doctrines of Saichō's successors, such as Ennin (圓仁) and Enchin (圓珍). However, in later years, this range of teachings began to form sub-schools within Tendai Buddhism. By the time of Ryogen, there were two distinct groups on Mt. Hiei: the Sammon, or Mountain Group who followed Ennin, and the Jimon or River Group who followed Enchin.

The Tendai sect flourished under the patronage of the imperial family and nobility in Japan, particularly the Fujiwara clan; in 794, the Imperial capital was moved to Kyoto. Tendai Buddhism became the dominant form of main-stream Buddhism in Japan for many years, and gave rise to most of the developments in later Japanese Buddhism. Nichiren, Hōnen, Shinran, and Dogen—all famous thinkers in non-Tendai schools of Japanese Buddhism—were all initially trained as Tendai monks. Japanese Buddhism was dominated by the Tendai school to a much greater degree than Chinese Buddhism was by its forebearer, the Tiantai.

Due to its patronage and growing popularity among the upper classes, the Tendai sect became not only respected, but also politically and even militarily powerful. During the Kamakura Period, the Tendai school used its patronage to try to oppose the growth of rival factions—particularly the Nichiren school, which began to grow in power among the merchant middle class, and the Pure Land school, which eventually came to claim the loyalty of many of the poorer classes. Enryakuji, the temple complex on Mt. Hiei, became a sprawling center of power, attended not only by ascetic monks, but also by brigades of warrior monks (sohei) who fought in the temple's interest. As a result, in 1571 Enryakuji was razed by Oda Nobunaga as part of his campaign to unify Japan. Nobunaga regarded the Mt. Hiei monks as a potential threat or rival, as they could employ religious claims to attempt to rally the populace to their side. The temple complex was later rebuilt, and continues to serve as the head temple of the Tendai school today.

Tendai doctrine

Tendai Buddhism has several philosophical insights which allow for the reconciliation of Buddhist doctrine with aspects of Japanese culture such as Shinto and traditional aesthetics. It is rooted in the idea, fundamental to Mahayana Buddhism, that Buddha-hood, the capability to attain enlightenment, is intrinsic in all things. Also central to Mahayana is the notion that the phenomenal world, the world of our experiences, fundamentally is an expression of the Buddhist law (Dharma). This notion poses the problem of how we come to have many differentiated experiences. Tendai Buddhism claims that each and every sense phenomenon just as it is is the expression of Dharma. For Tendai, the ultimate expression of Dharma is the Lotus Sutra. Therefore, the fleeting nature of all sense experiences consists in the Buddha's preaching of the doctrine of Lotus Sutra. The existence and experience of all unenlightened beings is fundamentally equivalent and undistinguishable from the teachings of the Lotus Sutra.

Tendai and Esoteric Buddhism

One of the adaptations by the Tendai school was the introduction of esoteric ritual (Mikkyo) into Tendai Buddhism, which was later named Taimitsu by Ennin. Eventually, according to Tendai Taimitsu doctrine, the esoteric rituals came to be considered of equal importance with the exoteric teachings of the Lotus Sutra. Therefore, by chanting Mantras, maintaining Mudras, or performing certain meditations, one is able to see that the sense experiences are the teachings of Buddha, have faith that one is inherently an enlightened being, and one can attain enlightnenment within this very body.

The origins of Taimitsu are found in China, similar to the lineage that Kukai encountered in his visit to China during the Tang Dynasty, and Saicho's disciples were encouraged to study under Kukai.[2] As a result, Tendai esoteric ritual bears much in common with the explicitly Vajrayana tradition of Shingon Buddhist ritual, though the underlying doctrines may differ somewhat.

Tendai and Shinto

Tendai doctrine allowed Japanese Buddhists to reconcile Buddhist teachings with the native religion of Japan, Shinto, and with traditional Japanese aesthetics. In the case of Shinto, the difficulty is the reconciliation of the heavenly pantheon of Japanese gods, as well as with the myriad spirits associated with places, shrines or objects, with the Buddhist doctrine that one should not concern oneself with any religious practice save the pursuit of enlightenment. However, priests of the Tendai sect argued that Kami are simply representations of the truth of universal buddha-hood that descend into the world to help and teach mankind. Thus, they are actually equivalent with Buddhas. This doctrine, however, regards Kami as more sacred. While Buddhas represent the possibility of attaining enlightentment through many lifetimes of work and devotion to Dharma, Kami are manifest representations of the universal buddha-hood. Therefore, they exemplify the ultimate truth that all things are inherently enlightened and that it is possible for a person of sufficient religious faculties to attain enlightenment instantly within this very body. Thus are they of more holy nature than Buddhas. Those Kami that Shinto regards as violent or antagonistic to mankind are considered as simply supernatural beings that reject the Buddhist law and have not attained enlightenment. Thus are they violent and evil.

Tendai and Japanese Aesthetics

The fundamental teaching of Buddhism is that one must shed away worldly attachments and desires in order to attain enlightenment. This has created a conflict with the culture of every society into which Buddhism was introduced. If one is to shed worldly pleasures and attachments, this requires that such flowers of culture as poetry, literature, and visual arts be discarded. By claiming that the phenomenal world is not distinct from Dharma, Tendai doctrine allows for the reconciliation of beauty and aesthetics with Buddhist teachings. Poetry, which once was a sin to be cast away, now in fact can lead to enlightenment. Contemplation of poetry, provided that it is done in the context of Tendai doctrine, is simply contemplation of Dharma. This same thing can be said of every other form of art. Therefore, it is possible to construct an aesthetic that is not in conflict with Buddhism.

Notable Tendai Scholars

In the history of Tendai school, a number of notable monks have contributed to Tendai thought and administration of Mt. Hiei:

  • Saicho - Founder.
  • Ennin - Saicho's successor, established esoteric or Taimitsu practices, as well as promotion of the nembutsu.
  • Enchin - Ennin's successor, and notable administrator.
  • Annen - Enchin's successor, and influential thinker.
  • Ryogen - Annen's successor, and skilled politician who helped ally the Tendai school with the Fujiwara clan.

See also

  • Tiantai Buddhism, the Chinese sect that Tendai developed from
  • Nichiren Buddhism, which developed the Tendai emphasis on the Lotus Sutra into a distinctive Japanese Buddhist school


  1. Chappell, David W. (1987). 'Is Tendai Buddhism Relevant to the Modern World?' in Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1987 14/2-3. Source: [1]; accessed: Saturday August 16, 2008. p.247
  2. Abe, Ryuichi (1999). The Weaving of Mantra: Kukai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. Columbia University Press. pp. 45. ISBN 0231112866. 


  • Brook Ziporyn, Tiantai School in Encyclopedia of Buddhism, Robert E. Buswell, Ed., McMillan USA, New York, NY, 2004. ISBN 0-02-865910-4.
  • Stone Jacqueline Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, HI, 1999 ISBN 0-8248-2026-6.
  • Chappell, David W. (1987). 'Is Tendai Buddhism Relevant to the Modern World?' in Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1987 14/2-3. Source: [2]; accessed: Saturday August 16, 2008

External links