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SAICHŌ (767822), also known by his posthumous title Dengyō Daishi; founder of Japanese Tendai, a sect derived from the teachings and practices of the Chinese Tiantai school.


Saichō was born into a family of devout Buddhists. At the age of twelve he went to study at the provincial temple in Ōmi. There he studied under Gyōhyō (722797), a disciple of Daoxuan (702760), the Chinese monk who had brought Northern School Chan, Kegon (Chin., Huayan) teachings, and the Fanwang precepts to Japan in 736. Saichō's studies of meditation and Kegon "one-vehicle" (Skt., ekayāna ; Jpn., ichijō ) doctrines during this period influenced his lifelong doctrinal predilections. Shortly after he was ordained in 785, he decided to climb Mount Hiei. He remained there for approximately a decade to meditate and study. During his retreat, Saichō read about Chinese Tiantai meditation practice in Kegon texts and managed to obtain several Tiantai texts that had been brought to Japan by Jianzhen (Ganjin, 688763) in 754 but had subsequently been ignored by Japanese monks.

The capital of Japan was moved from Nara to Nagaoka in 784, and then to Kyoto in 795. Mount Hiei was located to the northeast of Kyoto, a direction considered dangerous by geomancers, but Saichō's presence on the mountain protected the new capital and brought him to the attention of the court. In addition, the court was interested in reforming Buddhism by patronizing serious monks without political aspirations and by supporting those teachings that would bridge the traditional rivalry between the Hossō (Yogācāra) and Sanron (Madhyamaka) schools. Soon various court nobles, especially those of the Wake clan, began to show an interest in Saichō. With court support, Saichō traveled to China in 804 to obtain Tiantai texts and to study with Chinese teachers. During his eight months there, he received initiations into a variety of Buddhist traditions, including the Tiantai school, Oxhead Chan, the Fanwang precepts (a set of fifty-eight Mahayana disciplinary rules), and Esoteric Buddhism.

Upon his return to Japan in 805, Saichō discovered that his brief studies of Esoteric Buddhism attracted more attention than his mastery of Tendai teachings. Saichō's major patron, Emperor Kammu (r. 781806), was ill, and Saichō used Esoteric rituals in an attempt to restore Kammu's health. Shortly before Kammu died the court awarded Saichō two yearly ordinands, one in Tendai and one in Esoteric Buddhism. This event marked the formal establishment of the Tendai school.

Saichō spent the next few years studying Esoteric Buddhism, but his efforts were overshadowed by the return of Kūkai (774835) from China in 806. Kūkai's knowledge of Esoteric Buddhist practice and doctrine was clearly superior to that of Saichō. Although Saichō and some of his disciples went to study with Kūkai and borrowed Esoteric texts from him, by 816 irreconcilable differences on doctrinal issues, a dispute over the loan of certain Esoteric texts, and the defection of Taihan (778858?), one of Saichō's most able disciples, ended Saichō's hopes of mastering Esoteric Buddhism.

During the years that Saichō studied Esoteric Buddhism, more than half of the Tendai yearly ordinands left Mount Hiei. Many of them defected to the Hossō school; others departed in order to study Esoteric Buddhism with Kūkai or to support their ailing mothers. It became clear that if Tendai were to survive, Saichō would have to retain many more of his students on Mount Hiei. During the last five or six years of his life, Saichō strove to secure the place of Tendai within Japanese Buddhism, and in the process composed almost all of his major works.

Saichō's activities during this period can be divided into two categories. First, he defended Tendai doctrines and meditation practices against attacks by the Hossō monk Tokuitsu (d. 841?). Two of Saichō's major works, the Shugo kokkaishō (Essays on protecting the nation) and the Hokke shūku (Elegant words on the Lotus Sūtra ) were written during this period. Saichō argued that everyone could attain Buddhahood and that many could do so in their present lifetime through Tendai and Esoteric practices. He firmly rejected the Hossō argument that the attainment of Buddhahood required aeons of practice and that some people would never be able to attain it. Second, Saichō proposed major reforms in the Tendai educational system, in monastic discipline, and in the ordination system. Saichō suggested that Tendai monks be ordained on Mount Hiei, where they would be required to remain for the next twelve years without venturing outside the monastery's boundaries. Ordinations were to be supervised by lay administrators (zoku bettō) who also held important positions at court. Two texts, the Sange gakushō shiki (Rules for Tendai students) and the Kenkairon (Treatise elucidating the precepts) concern Saichō's proposals on administration and monastic discipline.

In addition, Saichō criticized the Sifenlu (Dharmaguptaka Vinaya ) precepts, which traditionally had been conferred at ordination in China and Japan. He argued that the Sifenlu were Hīnayānist rules that would cause the recipient to retrogress, not progress, in his religious practice. The Sifenlu precepts were to be replaced with the Fanwang precepts, a set of Mahayana precepts traditionally used in East Asia to inculcate Mahayana attitudes in monks, nuns, and lay believers, but not to ordain laypeople as monks or nuns. The adoption of the Fanwang precepts was intended to strengthen monastic discipline on Mount Hiei by providing the monks with a more relevant guide to conduct than the Sifenlu precepts. After the yearly ordinands had completed their twelve years on Mount Hiei, many of them were to receive official appointments as administrators of monastic affairs in the provinces. During their terms, they were to devote much of their time to projects that would benefit the populace. Saichō expected these activities to contribute to the spread of Tendai influence.

Saichō's proposals were vehemently opposed by the Hossō and other Nara schools because their approval would have entailed implicit recognition of Saichō's criticisms of Hossō doctrine and practice. In addition, the proposals would have removed Tendai monks from the supervision of the Office of Monastic Affairs (Sogo). The court, not wishing to become involved in disputes between schools, hesitated to act on Saichō's proposals. As a result, Saichō died without seeing his reforms approved; however, one week after Saichō's death the court approved the proposals as a posthumous tribute.


Most of Saichō's works were polemical and designed either to prove that Tendai doctrine and practice were superior to that of any of the other schools of Japanese Buddhism or to argue that the Tendai school should be free of any supervision by other schools. In his defense of Tendai interests, Saichō discussed a number of issues that played important roles in later Japanese religious history.

Saichō had an acute sense of the flow of Buddhist history. The teachings of the Lotus Sūtra, the text that contained the Buddha's ultimate teaching according to the Tendai school, had been composed in India and then transmitted to China. Japan, Saichō believed, would be the next site for the rise of the "one-vehicle" teachings propagated by Tendai. Saichō was conversant with theories on the decline of Buddhism and believed that he was living at the end of the Period of Counterfeit Dharma (zōmatsu ), described as an era in which many monks would be corrupt and covetous.

Although Saichō believed major changes were needed in Japanese Buddhism, he did not use theories on the decline of Buddhism to justify doctrinal innovations, as did some of the founders of the Kamakura schools. Rather, Saichō argued that because Buddhism in the capital had declined, monks should retreat to the mountains to practice assiduously.

Many of Saichō's doctrinal innovations were based on his belief that the religious aptitude of the Japanese people as a whole had matured to the point where they no longer needed any form of Buddhism other than the "perfect teachings" (engyō) of the Tendai school. Earlier Buddhist thinkers had also been interested in the manner in which the religious faculties of people matured, but had usually discussed the process in terms of individuals rather than Religious training for people with "perfect faculties" (enki, i. e., those whose religious faculties respond to the "perfect teachings") was based on the threefold study (sangaku ) of morality, meditation, and doctrine. Saichō believed that Tiantai teachings on meditation and doctrine were adequate, although they could be supplemented by Esoteric Buddhism. However, he was dissatisfied with the traditional Tiantai position on morality, which maintained that a monk could follow the Sifenlu precepts with a Mahayana mind. Saichō argued that adherence to the Sifenlu would cause a monk to retrogress toward Hīnayāna goals. Tendai practices could be realized only by using the Mahayana Fanwang precepts for ordinations and monastic discipline.

Chinese Tiantai had been a syncretistic tradition, particularly at the Tiantai Yuquan monastery. Chinese monks had been interested in Chan and Esotertic Buddhism as well as in the Sifenlu and Fanwang precepts. Saichō inherited this tradition, but developed certain aspects of it in innovative ways. For example, Saichō considered Esoteric Buddhism to be essentially the same as Tendai (enmitsu itchi ) and thus awarded Esoteric Buddhism a more central place in the Tendai tradition than it had been given by most Chinese monks. Like Kūkai, Saichō emphasized the importance of striving for enlightenment as an immediate goal to be attained in this existence (sokushin jōbutsu ). Tendai and Esoteric practices, he felt, provided a direct path (jikidō) to enlightenment, whereas the teachings of the Nara schools required aeons to bring the practitioner to enlightenment.

The Chinese Tiantai systems for classifying teachings (kyōhan ) developed by Zhiyi (538597) had been designed to demonstrate how the "perfect teachings" of the Lotus Sūtra revealed the ultimate meaning of all other Buddhist traditions and could be used to unify and interpret various Buddhist doctrines. Later, as the competition between Tiantai and other schools intensified, Tiantai scholars such as Zhanran (711782) developed classification systems that demonstrated the complete superiority of the Lotus Sutra over other teachings. Saichō's rejection of Hossō doctrine and the Sifenlu precepts was based on the later Tiantai classification systems. Saichō also developed his own systems, which emphasized the importance of relying on the Buddha's words from such texts as the Lotus Sutra, rather than on the commentaries (śāstras ) used by the Hossō and Sanron schools. In addition, he stressed the importance of matching teachings to the faculties of the religious practitioner so that enlightenment could be rapidly attained.

See Also

Mappō; Shingonshū; Tendaishū.


Saichō's works have been collected in Dengyō Daishi zenshū, 5 vols. (1926; reprint, Tokyo, 1975). Important collections of Japanese scholarship are Dengyō Daishi kenkyū, 5 vols. (Tokyo, 19731980), and Shioiri Ryōdō's Saichō (Tokyo, 1982). For studies in English, see the following:

Abé, Ryūichi. "Saichō and Kūkai: A Conflict of Interpretations." Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 22.12 (1995): 103137.

Groner, Paul. Saichō: The Establishment of the Japanese Tendai School. Honolulu, 2000.

Groner, Paul. "The Lotus Sūtra and Saichō's Interpretation of the Realization of Buddhahood with This Very Body." In The Lotus Sūtra in Japanese Culture, edited by George Tanabe and Willa Tanabe, pp. 5374. Honolulu, 1989.

Tamura, Kōyū. "The Doctrinal Dispute Between the Tendai and the Hossō Sects." Acta Asiatica 47 (1984): 4881.

Paul Groner (1987 and 2005)

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