Show Summary Details

Quick Reference


Japanese monk and founder of the Tendai school. Saichō was born in 767 into a family of devout Buddhists, after his father climbed up Mt. Hiei to pray to the local gods (kami) for a son. He first entered the order at the age of 12, was ordained as a novice at 14, and as a full monk at the canonical age of 19. Three months after his full ordination.he took the unusual step of going into a mountain hermitage on Mt. Hiei for an extended solitary retreat. In 788, he set up a permanent temple on top of Mt. Hiei. At this point Saichō's fortunes took a radical upturn. He came to the court's notice through his acquaintance with one of the official court priests. Through his mediation, Saichō gained an appointment himself as a court monk in 797. In 802, a meeting was arranged at court for some lectures on the Lotus Sūtra, and Saichō was invited to appear as the main speaker; it was at this meeting that he came to the personal attention of Emperor Kammu. The capital city moved to Heian in 794. This site is located at the foot of Mt. Hiei, putting Saichō right in the seat of imperial power.

Saichō took advantage of the emperor's acquaintance in 804 to arrange a trip to China to get T'ien-t'ai literature. Once he arrived there, he headed straight for Mt. T'ien-t'ai. Saichō was fortunate to be at Mt. T'ien-t'ai directly after the T'ien-t'ai school had undergone a significant reformation and revitalization. He stayed in China for nine and a half months, actually six weeks longer than he originally had permission to stay. The extra time was highly significant for subsequent developements. During the six weeks he had to wait for transportation back to Japan.he made the acquaintance of a Chinese esoteric master (see Esoteric Buddhism) named Shun-hsiao. After a brief period of study Shun-hsiao initiated Saichō into esoterism. Saichō returned in 805 to find the Emperor Kammu dying. Of all the teachings that Saichō brought back from China, the emperor was most interested in the esoteric rituals and practices. Saichō complied with the emperor's request that he perform an esoteric ritual for him, in return for which he received imperial permission to establish his new Tendai sect and to ordain two disciples each year—one for doctrinal study and one for esoteric initiation (abhiṣeka).

Saichō's fortunes went into a permanent decline after Emperor Kammu's death in the days following Saichō's return. One of the major reasons for this decline was Kūkai's return from China in 806 with significantly greater credentials as an esoteric teacher and ritualist. The two men maintained friendly relations for a while, and in 812 Saichō even received initiation into two esoteric traditions from Kūkai. But as time went on, Kūkai came into his own and no longer needed Saichō's help to get ahead at court. Saichō's esoteric monks began deserting to Kūkai, including Saichō's own chosen successor; a bitter blow to him. Their relations broke when Saichō contacted Kūkai about granting him a higher initiation certifying him as an esoteric master. Kūkai curtly wrote back to say that Saichō would need to study with him for three years first. The following year Kūkai refused to lend Saichō an esoteric text, and the relationship collapsed for good. By this time, Saichō's organization was in a shambles, and in 817 he left Mt. Hiei and retreated to the Kanto area to regroup. One of the first things he did at this time was compose the Ehyō Tendaishū, or ‘Basics of the Tendai school’, which circulated around the capital and came to the attention of a Hossō monk named Tokuitsu. Tokuitsu wrote a refutation of it, and the debate was joined that would establish Tendai permanently. It was not only Tokuitsu's arguments, but his political position that drew Saichō out. The Hossō school was in charge of the Bureau of Monks at that time, and so in a position to block Saichō's writings from reaching the court. In frustration, the normally reticent and humble Saichō became more extreme in his positions, until finally the noise reached the court in spite of the Bureau's attempts to cut him off. From an initial position advocating some minor changes in the ordination process, Saichō came to request that Mt. Hiei be declared a solely Mahāyāna temple exempt from having to use the Hīnayāna ordination precepts of the Ritsu.or Vinaya school. He proposed that, instead, they take their ordination from a Mahāyāna scripture, the Fan wang ching, or ‘Sūtra of Brahma's Net’. These precepts are referred to as the Bodhisattva precepts, and had always functioned as a complement to the traditional monastic precepts; they were never designed to replace them. Thus, the establishment found Saichō's position entirely inadmissible.


Subjects: Buddhism.

Reference entries

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.