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Saichō (767–822), posthumously known as Dengyō Daishi, was the founder of the Japanese Tendai (Chinese, Tiantai) school. He was a prolific scholar, and is best known for his efforts to reform monastic regulations and to create a new system of ordination for monks.

Soon after he was ordained in the capital city of Nara, Saichō began studying and meditating at Mount Hiei, just northeast of Kyoto, in 785. When the capital moved to Kyoto in 794, Saichō was no longer distant from the political center. Enryakuji, which he built atop of Mount Hiei, became the training ground for Japan's most illustrious Buddhist monks for the next four centuries. Although Enryakuji was a Tendai monastery, Saichō's original interests, as well as later developments, incorporated a diverse body of Buddhist practices, including Japanese Zen and Pure Land, and a strong emphasis on tantric Buddhism. Saichō's initial vision for a monastic center was motivated by his desire to purify and strengthen the spirit of Buddhist practice in Japan. He eventually proposed that Tendai monks be exempted from the government requirement to be ordained in Nara and, moreover, that Mount Hiei should house a center where monks could be ordained under Mahāyāna precepts that traditionally made no distinction between monastic and lay practitioners. His criticism of the doctrine and practice of the Nara Buddhist schools, particularly Hossō, resulted in strong opposition to his proposals. Nonetheless, the new ordination center was built shortly after his death. As a result, the Tendai school became a sectarian institution independent from Nara, and its monks became free from the vinaya.

See also:Mahāyāna Precepts in Japan; Nara Buddhism; Tiantai School


Abé, Ryūichi. "Saichō and Kukai: A Conflict of Interpretations." Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 22, nos. 1–2 (1995): 103–137.

Groner, Paul. Saichō and the Establishment of the Japanese Tendai School. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000.

Weinstein, Stanley. "The Beginnings of Esoteric Buddhism in Japan: The Neglected Tendai Tradition." Journal of Asian Studies 34, no. 1 (1974): 177–191.

David L. Gardiner