Buddhism in Japan

The Importance of Tendai Teachings to Buddhism in Japan

Culture History

A look at the Tendai school, one of two esoteric sects that dominated Japanese Buddhism from the Heian period onward, having a huge influence on the subsequent development of the religion in Japan.

Tendai Teachings and the Potential for Change

From the ninth century CE, two esoteric schools (Shingon and Tendai) took on a dominant role in Japanese Buddhism and laid down the foundations for almost all subsequent developments in the centuries that followed. From the wider perspective of Buddhist history across Asia, there was something slightly paradoxical about the way the religion took root in Japan. In one sense, esoteric Buddhism was more like an end than a beginning, marking as it did the final evolutionary stage in the centuries-long development of Buddhist doctrine in India. And yet it was the esoteric version of the teachings that were the first to spread meaningfully through Japanese society as the “true teachings of the Buddha.”

Shingon Buddhism was a relatively “pure” version of the esoteric take on the faith, and because of this it changed relatively little, continuing to hold firm to its core doctrines over most of its subsequent history. The situation with the Tendai school was quite different. The Tendai teachings represented a composite system of thought that had been put together by taking various strands of Buddhist philosophy and combining them according to the distinctive logic of the Tendai school, and then imbuing the new whole with the trappings of esoteric Buddhism. This meant that Tendai and its teachings contained a far greater potential for change and adaptations to shifting trends and changing social conditions. To understand the basic nature of Japanese Buddhism, it is essential to start with a clear understanding of the influence that this school had on the Buddhism of later periods.

The Tendai school, based at its temple complex on Mount Hiei just outside the capital Heijōkyō (now Kyoto), had a huge and wide-ranging impact on the development of Japanese Buddhism in subsequent centuries. Below I examine three aspects of this impact and consider some of the reasons why this influence was so important and long-lasting.

A More Ambiguous Approach to Ordination

As seen in previous installments, Japanese Buddhism in its initial years lacked a formal sangha, or priesthood, of its own. But the rituals and rules for taking tonsure as a monk were clearly laid down. This ceremony was carried out in line with the Vinaya Pitaka, the code of conduct for Buddhist monks that was brought to Japan by the Chinese monk Jianzhen (688–763). The same ceremony is still used to ordain monks in Buddhist countries throughout the world today. In Sanskrit, the ceremony was known as upasampadā. This was translated into Chinese as 受戒 (shoujie), pronounced jukai in Japanese.

Since Buddhist monks under Nara Buddhism worked for the state and were government officials of a sort, it would have been unthinkable to allow an autonomous sangha to govern itself by the statues of the Vinaya Pitaka. An exception was made for the upasampadā ceremony, which was incorporated into Japanese Buddhism and served as a way of distinguishing between ordained monks and the laity. In Japan, the upasampadā ceremony functioned as a kind of official qualification by which monks were recognized as state officials.

As with other exams for state-sanctioned positions, it was important to limit how many people could pass. The government duly introduced limits on the number of people who could be allowed to undergo the upasampadā ceremony and become officially ordained as Buddhist monks.

For the Tendai school, which emerged as a new force in Japanese Buddhism in the years after the capital was moved from Nara to Kyoto and which had its headquarters on Mount Hiei just outside the new capital, this limit on numbers was an irritation. One factor that made it particularly galling was that the rules served as a convenient way for the Six Southern Schools of Nara Buddhism to protect their own vested interests.

To overcome this obstacle, the Tendai school devised new standards of its own, decreeing that a person could become a priest without needing to pass through the upasampadā ceremony. As the power and prestige of the Tendai sect grew, this approach became the norm in almost all schools of Japanese Buddhism, including eventually among the sect’s Shingon rivals. In Japan, where the upasampadā ceremony was inseparably linked to the power and authority of the state, shaking off these restrictions was an essential part of ensuring freedom of religious activities.

From another point of view, however, this scrapping of the upasampadā meant that just about anyone could now declare himself a priest in whatever way he saw fit. A clear distinction had been lost between ordained Buddhist monks and the secular laity.

Even today, the various schools of Japanese Buddhism each use their own ceremonies for ordination, and hardly any use the upasampadā based on the Vinaya Pitaka. From the perspective of other Buddhist countries, the situation in Japan, where most Buddhist clergy have never been formally ordained by passing through the upasampadā, seems very strange indeed. This historical background is one of the factors that makes Japanese Buddhism so different from Buddhism in other countries.

The Logic of Absolute Affirmation

The Tendai school sought to incorporate all the innumerable teachings that had emerged over the long history of Buddhism since the time of Shakyamuni. But the attempt to reconcile these diverse and heterogeneous philosophies into a coherent whole naturally produced contradictions. To maintain these as a single doctrine, an approach was needed that positively embraced these contradictions.

The founder of the Tendai school in Japan was Saichō (767–822). In the years after his death, a kind of absolute affirmation of the status quo became the mainstream within Tendai thought. This gave rise to several paradoxical ideas. Saichō’s followers came to argue that enlightenment is already ever-present in the present moment—if only we could perceive it. The illusory kleshas of our senses are themselves part of a state of awakening, and all things in this world—animate and inanimate, organic and inorganic—possess the Buddha nature that gives the potential for them to become enlightened beings.

This way of thinking was quite alien to the teachings of the historical Buddha, who had taught that the only path to enlightenment was to free our minds from the delusions of the kleshas through meditation and other spiritual practices. The Tendai philosophy had more of an affinity with native Japanese animism, and was also essentially compatible with the core approach of esoteric Buddhism, which held that the entire cosmos was infused with a mysterious energy, and that enlightenment meant human beings becoming aware of their own unity with this energy.

For these reasons, the logic of extreme affirmation that characterized Tendai thinking became widespread throughout Japanese Buddhism, just as the rejection of the upasampadā had done earlier. The idea that the world and reality should be accepted and embraced as they are continues to be dominant in Japanese Buddhism today, exerting a powerful influence on the thinking of people throughout Japanese society.

The Rigors of Monastic Discipline

Tendai Buddhism was an amalgam of various strands of Buddhist thought. This made it difficult to determine clearly what practices a monk needed to carry out to achieve enlightenment. At the same time, the generally esoteric “flavor” of the sect meant that Tendai Buddhism developed the same class structure typical of esoteric Buddhism, which taught that there are two types of people in the world: the rare individuals who have brought themselves close to Buddhahood by overcoming certain hurdles, and everyone else, who must depend on the help of the special few for their own happiness. Using practices based solely on esoteric Buddhist scriptures would dilute the Tendai sect’s distinctive qualities as an amalgam of the different strands of Buddhist thought. But focusing too much on the composite nature of the Tendai philosophy would make it difficult for the school to develop its own approach. The response was to establish new types of practice that were unique to the Tendai sect.

Spiritual practices and discipline needed to make clear that the practitioner had brought himself close to the world of the Buddha. This meant that the practices needed to be sufficiently demanding so that not just anyone could achieve them. Only a rare kind of person would be capable of meeting the demanding requirements and attaining an enlightened state.

The Tendai school therefore developed a wide range of rigorous spiritual practices. People who had passed through these practices were revered by the mass of the faithful as saintly figures who had brought themselves close to the world of the Buddha. In a sense, this emphasis on extreme forms of physically demanding practices might seem to be diametrically opposed to the logic of absolute acceptance of the world as described above. The school’s doctrines taught that this contradiction could be resolved by accepting a higher-level reality. Any apparent contradictions in logic could be rendered explicable through an all-embracing affirmation of things as they are.

Tendai was an amalgam of different schools and highly adaptable. It quickly grew into a position of dominance in the capital. In the centuries that followed, a wide variety of Buddhist philosophies spread based on Tendai teachings. From this perspective, it is fair to say that for better or worse the Tendai sect provided the foundations for almost all subsequent developments in Japanese Buddhism. In the next installment in this series, I will look at how new schools and strands of thought emerged and branched off from the teachings of these two major esoteric sects.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: The Konpon Chūdō Hall, the main temple building at Enryakuji on Mount Hiei. © Pixta.)

religion Buddhism China history Tendai