Ichijoji Kasai13bs4272.jpg


Tendai • Shingon
Pure Land • Zen


Saichō • Kūkai
Hōnen • Shinran
Dōgen • Eisai • Ingen

Sacred Texts

Avatamsaka Sutra
Lotus Sutra
Heart Sutra
Infinite Life Sutra
Glossary of
Japanese Buddhism

Portrait of Saichō (Ichijō-ji owning)

Saichō (最澄?) (767–822) was a Japanese Buddhist monk credited with founding the Tendai school in Japan, based around the Chinese Tiantai tradition he was exposed to during his trip to China beginning in 804. He founded the temple and headquarters of Tendai at Enryakuji on Mt. Hiei near Kyoto. He is also said to have been the first to bring tea to Japan. After his death, he was awarded the posthumous title of Dengyō Daishi (伝教大師).


"Saicho was born into a family of devout Buddhists. At the age of twelve he went to study at the provincial temple in Omi. There he studied under Gyohyo (722-797), a disciple of Tao-hsiian (702-760), the Chinese monk who had brought Northern School Ch'an, Kegon (Chin., Hua-yen)

teachings, and the Fan wang precepts to Japan in 736. Saicho's studies of meditation and Kegon "one-vehicle" (Skt., ekayana; Jpn., ichijo) 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, Saicho read about Chinese T'ien-t'ai meditation practice in Kegon texts and managed to obtain several T'ient'ai texts that had been brought to Japan by Chien-chen (Ganjin, 688-763) 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 Saicho'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 Hosso (Yogacara) and Sanron (Madhyamika) schools. Soon

various court nobles, especially those of the Wake clan, began to show an interest in Saicho."


Trip to China

"In 804 and 805 Saichō made an eleven-month trip to China, the aim of which was to bring to Japan the authentic transmission of the T’ient’ai Dharma lineage. During the last month of his stay on Chinese soil, while awaiting the arrival of his ship at the port city of Ming-chou, Saichō traveled to Yüeh-chou to collect additional Buddhist texts."

[2] This trip became the basis of Tendai Buddhism after he returned. He found in T'ien t'ai a compelling theoretical teaching based on the concept of Ichinen Sanzen (3000 worlds in a Momentary State of Existence) and the Lotus Sutra. From those teachers he collected Sutras and learned as much as he could planning to bring them to Japan. He founded what came to be called the Tendai School when he returned.

Relationship with Kukai

Saicho traveled to China along with a number of other young monks, one of whom was named Kukai. Saichō befriended him during his trip to China who traveled with him going and coming. This turned out to be pivotal to the future development of Buddhism.

"During the last month of his stay on Chinese soil, while awaiting the arrival of his ship at the port city of Ming-chou, Saichō traveled to Yüeh-chou to collect additional Buddhist texts. At Lung-hsing ssu Pö± Saichō chanced to meet the priest Shun-hsiao"

,[3] and likewise returned with esoteric (tantric) Buddhist texts. Saicho was entranced with the new material and wanted to learn more. On the trip back he found that Kukai had studied these teachings in depth and had an entire library of tantric materials.

This friendship would influence the future of Japanese Tendai. "SAICHō AND KUKAI} are renowned as the founders, respectively, of the Japanese Tendai and Shingon schools, both of which grew into influential institutions of continuing importance even today. The two figures cooperated, moreover, in an effort to transplant the seed of esoteric Buddhism (mikkyō) to the cultural soil of Japan. Saichō, for example, prepared the way for Kukai—still largely unrecognized after his return from T’ang China—to perform the Mikkyō initiation ritual of abhiseka (kanjō) for the high priests of the Nara Buddhist establishment and the dignitaries of the imperial" Heian court.[4]"

It was Saicho performed the abhisheka, or initiatory ritual, for the court. "Saichō also endorsed the court’s bequest to Kðkai of the mountain temple of Takaosan-ji northwest of Kyoto as the first center for Kukai’s Shingon school. Kðkai, in turn, responded to Saichō’s wish to incorporate Mikkyō into the eclectic system of Tendai by training Saichō and his disciples in the esoteric Buddhist rituals and by lending Saichō various Mikkyō texts that he had brought with him from China.[5]"

Founding of Tendai

On his return from China, Saicho worked hard to win recognition from the court and "in the first month of 806, Saichō’s Tendai Lotus school (Tendai hokke shð) won official recognition when the court of the ailing emperor Kanmu issued another edict, this one permitting two annual ordinands (nenbundosha æ_Eé) for Saichō’s new school on Mt. Hiei. This edict states that, following Saichō’s request, the ordinands would be divided between two curricula: the shanagō course, centering on the study of the Mahavairocana Sðtra (this was the Mikkyō curriculum, shana being the abbreviation for Birushana, the Japanese transliteration of Vairocana), and the shikangō course, based on the study of the Mo-ho chih-kuan, the seminal work of the T’ien-t’ai patriarch Chih-i J* (538–597) (this was the Tendai curriculum, shikan being the Japanese reading of Chih-i’s central practice of chih-kuan [cessation and contemplation]) (Kenkairon engi, DZ 1, pp. 294–96). Thus from its very inception the Tendai Lotus school was equally based on Mikkyō and T’ien-t’ai. It was as a subdivision of Saichō’s new school that Mikkyō first received the official acknowledgment of the imperial court and became a proper subject of study in Japanese Buddhism.[6]"

"[I]n 813 Saichō composed the Ehyō tendaishð (DZ 1, pp. 343–66), which argues that the principal Buddhist masters of China and Korea all relied on T’ien-t’ai doctrine in composing their own works. By identifying numerous references to and quotes from T’ient’ai treatises in the works of Chi-tsang of the San-lun XÇ school, Chih-chou J: of the Fa-hsiang school, Fa-tsang of the Huayen Tä school, I-hsing of Mikkyō, and other prominent teachers, Saichō asserted that T’ien-t’ai formed the foundation for all major Buddhist schools in East Asia."

Previous to Saicho, all monastic ordinations took place at Todaiji temple under the ancient Vinaya code, but Saichō intended to found his school as a strictly Mahayana institution and ordain monks using the Bodhisattva Vows only. Despite intense opposition from the traditional Buddhist schools in Nara, his request was granted by Emperor Saga in 822, several days after Saicho died. This was the fruit of years of effort and a formal debate.[7]"

Exoteric Syncretic tradition versus esotericism

Thus esoteric Buddhism became an important aspect of the Tendai school, which was primarily focused on the Lotus Sutra. "Chinese T'ien-t'ai had been a syncretistic tradition, particularly at the T'ien-t'ai Yu-ch'uan monastery. Chinese monks had been interested in Ch'an and Esoteric Buddhism as well as in the Ssu-fen la and Fan wang precepts. Saicho inherited this tradition, but developed certain aspects of it in innovative ways. For example, Saicho 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 Kukai, Saicho emphasized the importance of striving for enlightenment as an immediate goal to be attained in this existence (sokushin jobutsu). Tendai and Esoteric practices, he felt, provided a direct path (jikido) to enlightenment, whereas the teachings of the Nara schools required aeons to bring the practitioner to enlightenment.[8]


During the years that Saicho studied Esoteric Buddhism (from 805-815), more than half of the Tendai yearly ordinands left Mount Hiei. Many of them defected to the Hosso school; others departed in order to study Esoteric Buddhism with Kukai or to support their ailing mothers. It became clear that if Tendai were to survive, Saicho would have to retain many more of his students on Mount Hiei.


Moreover, Saicho began to realize that his own idea of "enmitsu itchi" was not exactly shared by the Esoteric Shingon school, and especially its founder Kukai (Kobo Daishi).

Ryuichi Abe writes: "...what makes the relationship between Saichō and Kðkai decisive in Japanese Buddhist history is not so much their cooperation as the manner in which it came to an end. Their alliance began to deteriorate when Saichō, after receiving abhiseka from Kðkai, hurried back to Mt. Hiei, where the work of laying the foundation of the new Tendai school awaited him. Saichō continued to study and copy Mikkyō texts borrowed from Kðkai, but despite Kðkai’s repeated requests he did not return to Takaosan-ji to resume his studies. Their rapport finally terminated when Kðkai harshly condemned Saichō’s approach to Mikkyō as a transgression of the esoteric precept of samaya [the promise to keep the oral/esoteric teachings private], and Saichō retorted by denouncing Kðkai’s manner of instruction [10]" in his Ebyo shu. "Thus it was Mikkyō that brought Saichō and Kðkai together; it was also Mikkyō that drove them apart. The break between Saichō and Kðkai left a long-lasting legacy in the Tendai and Shingon schools, whose complex relationship, constantly oscillating between af³liation and rivalry, shaped the contours of Buddhist history in the Heian period.[11]"

During the last five or six years of his life, Saicho strove to secure the place of Tendai within Japanese Buddhism, and in the process composed almost all of his major works.


"In 816, Saichō added a new introduction to the work. This introduction chides Sanron, Hossō, and Kegon—the leading schools of Nara Buddhism—for ignoring the influence of T’ien-t’ai on the works of their Chinese patriarchs, but its criticism of Shingon stands out: “The esoteric Shingon Buddhist, the newcomer, went so far as to deny the validity of transmission through writing (hitsuju Ù4)” (DZ 3, p. 344). In this comment Saichō denounced Kðkai and Shingon for their approach to Buddhism and religious study.


Saicho's late life criticisms were ignored by his own leading disciples, and the Tendai Sect would continue to teach Mikkyo and Shikango (Lotus). Saichō's public condemnation of Kðkai would later form the Seeds for some of the Criticisms leveled by the founder of the Nichiren Sect, Nichiren, who would cite that work in his own debates.[14]

Saichō was also an author. He wrote a number of texts, the main ones include:

  • Shōgon Jikkyō (照権実鏡?) (817)
  • Sange Gakushō Shiki (山家学生式?) (818-819)
  • Shugo Kokkai Shō (守護国界章?) (818)
  • Kenkairon (顕戒論?) (820)


  • Abe, Ryuichi (1999). The Weaving of Mantra: Kukai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. Columbia University Press. p. 40–44, 50-52. ISBN 0231112866. 

See also

cs:Saičó eu:Saichō ja:最澄 pt:Saicho ru:Сайтё uk:Сайтьо vi:Tối Trừng zh:最澄

Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.