The Syncretic Development of the Tendai School in Japan

The Japanese Tendai tradition continued the common trend of syncretism practiced by the Chinese T'ien-t'ai tradition and most schools of Chinese Buddhism. Alongside the core doctrine of the "Perfect Teaching of the Buddha based on the Lotus Sutra" (Ch. fa-hua yuan, Jp. hokke-engyo), the teachings of Tantra, the Precepts, and Ch'an (Jp. Zen) were incorporated into one syncretic doctrine. Originally, the founder of Japanese Tendai, Saicho (767-822), made a pilgrimage to China and received transmission in all four of these schools. He received transmission in hokke-engyo from both Master Tao-sui at Lung-hsing ssu temple at T'ai-chou and Master Hang-man at Fo-lung ssu temple; in Tantra from Master Shun-hsiao at Lung-hsing ssu temple at Yueh chou; in the Mahayana Precepts also from Master Tao-sui; and in Ch'an from Master Hsiao-jan at Ch'an-lin ssu temple. Upon his return from China, Saicho compiled his own version of the lineages of these four schools in his Naisho buppo sojo kechi myakufu (Dengyodaishi Zenshu, 199-248). He then formed a new doctrine from the fusion of these four doctrines and called it the Single Vehicle of the Lotus (hokke-ichijo). Upon establishing his center in Mt. Hiei, Siacho set up two different courses of practice, one based on Tantric teachings (shanago), the other based on hokke-engyo, the Perfect Teaching of the Buddha based on the Lotus Sutra (shikango). Both courses were based on the same set of precepts in which Saicho had received transmission in China. While the use of Ch'an teachings declined within Tendai shortly after the death of Saicho, the influence of Pure Land teachings grew. Ritual practices conducted at the Tendai center on Mt. Hiei employed Amida Buddha as an object of worship. Tendai practice based on the Lotus Sutra was also intermingled with the nembutsu practice, which in this context refers to visualized meditation on Amida Buddha.

Saicho's disciple Ennin (794-864) continued this trend when he went to T
'ang China to study with Fa-chao on Mt. Wu-t'ai, and brought back to Japan a practice of five-tone nembutsu recitation. This practice was incorporated into the "Constantly Walking Samadhi" (jogyo zanmai), a ninety-day walking meditation of the Tendai school in which the practitioner circumambulates an image of Amida while chanting the nembutsu in order to visualize Amida Buddha. (Fukuda, 257-263 & Ando, 191-93) "Constantly Walking Samadhi" (jogyo zanmai) is one of the four forms of samadhi described in the Mo-ho-chih-kuan. T'ien-t'ai synthesized the various types of meditation referred to in the sutras and classified them into these four categories: to sit in meditation for a period of ninety days without engaging in any other practices (joza zanmai); to walk around the statue of Amida Buddha reciting the nembutsu for ninety days (jogyo zanmai); to engage in the two practices of walking around the meditation platform and seated meditation(hodo zanmai); and to practice continious meditation (higyo hiza zanmai). On Mt. Hiei, Fa-chao's five-tone nembutsu became known as the jogyodo nembutsu because it was cerfamed in a hall specially constructed for the constantly walking samadhi, called the jogyodo. Tendai monks customarily recited the Lotus Sutra in the morning and performed nembutsu practice in the evening. This was the basic form of religious practice on Mt. Hiei during the Heian period (794-1192). Ennin's introduction of the five-tone nembutsu was also significant in that it marked the introduction of the recited nembutsu to Japan.

In the tenth century, Ryogen (912-985) became the chief abbot (zasu) on Mt. Hiei. Among his works is the Gokuraku jodo kuhon ojogi which discusses the idea that birth in the Pure Land is divided into nine levels according to the practitioners' level of capacity. It draws on a commentary written by Chih-i (538-597), founder of the Chinese T'ien-t'ai school, on the Meditation Sutra (Kuan wu-liang-shou ching) and not Shan-tao's Commentary on the Meditation Sutra. Ryogen's successor Josho (?-1003) wrote a commentary called the Shijuhachigan shaku, a commentary on the forty-eight vows of the Sutra of Immeasurable Life (Wu-liang-shou ching) [there are two works by this name: one by Josho and the other by Seikaku]. Another of Ryogen's disciples, Genshin (942-1017), wrote the Ojoyoshu (Essentials of Birth in the Pure Land), probably the most influential work on Pure Land Buddhism written during the Heian period.

The Ojoyoshu takes Tendai Pure Land Buddhism as its basis but also incorporates the thought of Chinese Pure Land masters Tao-ch'o and Shan-tao. Genshin regarded the contemplative nembutsu accompanied by visualization of Amida Buddha and the Pure Land as superior to the nembutsu that consisted in the simple recitation of the Buddha's name. In this way, he remained within the Tendai Pure Land tradition and continued the tendency of Pure Land practice as a compliment to other practices. The Ojoyoshu's vivid description of the horrors of the hells and the marvels of the Pure Land was immensely influential in the popularization of Pure Land teachings.

Another important figure in early Tendai was the monk Kuya (903-972), a second generation disciple of Ennin, who initiated his own form of intense Pure Land practice. Kuya was a nembutsu hijiri or itinerant Buddhist holy man who traveled throughout the country, reciting the nembutsu, and performing charitable works. He is called the "saint of the market place," because he is said to have danced in the streets while chanting the nembutsu. Kuya was one of a number of nembutsu hijiri who spread the nembutsu among the common people. Kuya is significant in the development of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism in that he was the first to bring Pure Land practice in Japan out of the temples and spread it among the common people.

At the end of the Heian period after Genshin's death, a Tendai monk named Ryonin (1073-1132) traveled throughout the country preaching the great merits of the nembutsu. The central claim of Ryonin's teaching was that the nembutsu recited by one person benefits all people. After studying the Tendai doctrine first at Onjoji, then at ohara for 29 years, he was inspired by Amida Buddha to believe that "one person is all people, all people are one person, one practice is all practices, all practices are one practice" (i.e. "All in one, one in all") and he thereafter established the Yuzu Nembutsu Sect. Yuzu (circulating) here means that one's own recitation of the nembutsu influences all others and that other people's recitation of the nembutsu influences oneself, interacting to help bring about the birth of all in the Pure Land. In this way, Ryonin marks a continuation of Kuya's attempt to bring Pure Land practice to the common people.

In such a way, Pure Land thought and practice developed in Japanese Tendai alongside the four teachings of hokke-engyo , Tantra, the Precepts, and Ch'an. These five teachings were merged into the teaching of the Three Vehicles United as One (ichijo-kai-e). The Kamakura period (1192-1333) marked a strong departure from this syncreticism with the establishment of new, uniquely Japanese schools focused around the idea of a single, exclusive practice. The first of these revolutionary schools was the Pure Land school established by Honen Shonin.


Ando Toshio, Tendaigaku konponshiso to sono tenkai (Kyoto: Heirakuji shoten, 1968).

Dengyodaishi Zenshu (Collected Works of Saicho), Vol.I (Tokyo: Sekaiseiten kankokyokai, 1975).

Fukuda Gyoei, Tendaigau gairon (Tokyo: Fukuda roshi itoku kensho kai, 1954).

Groner, Paul Saicho (Seoul: Po Chin Chai Ltd, 1984) [re: Saicho's establishment of the Mahayana precepts].

Inoue Mitsusada, Inoue Mitsusada Chosakushu 7 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1985) [re: the Kurodani precept lineage].


Honen Studies the Hokke Sandaibu (Honen, hokke sandaibu-o shugakusuru) from the Honen Shonin gyojoezu, Scroll 3, section 17.