Tendai (Tendai-shū) is a Mahāyāna Buddhist school established in Japan in the year 806 by the monk named Saichō, posthumously known as Dengyō Daishi.
The Tendai School rose to prominence during the Heian period (794-1185), gradually eclipsing the powerful Yogācāra School (Hossō-shū) and competing with the upcoming Shingon Buddhism to become the most influential at the Imperial court.
However, political entanglements during the Genpei War (1180–1185) led many disaffected monks to leave, and in some cases to establish their own schools of Buddhism such as Jōdo-shū, Nichiren-shū and the Sōtō school of Zen.
Destruction of the head temple of Mount Hiei by warlord Oda Nobunaga, as well as the geographic shift of the capital away from Kyoto to Edo, further weakened Tendai's influence.
In Chinese and Japanese, its name is identical to Tiantai, its parent school of Chinese Buddhism; both Tiantai and Tendai hold the Lotus Sūtra as the ultimate teaching of the Buddha and revere the teachings of Tiantai's founder Zhiyi.
In English, the Japanese Romanization distinguishes the particularly Japanese history of the school and its innovations:
These include an exclusive use of the Bodhisattva Precepts for ordination, an emphasis on the "Four Integrated Schools", and Saichō's focus on the "One Vehicle" teaching.
Although Tendai (Chin., Tiantai) has been a major denomination in Japanese history, and the most comprehensive and diversified school of Chinese Buddhism, it is almost unknown in the West:
This meagre presence is in marked contrast to the vision of the founder of the movement in China, Zhiyi (Chih-I, 538–597), who provided a religious framework which seemed suited to adapt to other cultures, to evolve new practices, and to universalize Buddhism.
Although Jianzhen (Jp. Ganjin) had brought Tiantai teachings to Japan as early as 754, its teachings did not take root until generations later when Saichō, a monk, joined the Japanese missions to Imperial China in 804.
The future founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kūkai, also travelled on the same mission; however, the two were on separate ships and never saw one another once they arrived in China.
From the city of Ningbo (then called Mingzhou), Saichō was introduced by the governor to Daosui, who was the 7th Tiantai patriarch, and later he journeyed to Tiantai Mountain for further study.
After receiving initiations in Chan and Chinese Esoteric traditions at Tiantai Mountain, Saichō devoted much of his time to making accurate copies of Tiantai texts and studying under Daosui.
By the 6th month of 805, Saicho had returned to Japan along with the official mission to China.
Because of the Imperial Court's interest in Tiantai as well as Esoteric Buddhism, Saichō quickly rose in prominence upon his return:
He was asked by Emperor Kammu to perform various esoteric rituals, and Saichō also sought recognition from the Emperor for a new, independent school of Tiantai in Japan.
Because the emperor sought to reduce the power of the Hossō school, he granted this request, but with the stipulation that the new "Tendai" school would have 2 programs:
a) Esoteric Buddhism
However, Emperor Kammu died shortly thereafter, and Saichō was not allocated any ordinands until 809 with the reign of Emperor Saga.
Saichō's choice of establishing his community at Mount Hiei also proved fortuitous because it was located to the northeast of the new capital of Kyoto and thus was auspicious in terms of Chinese geomancy as the city's protector.
The remainder of Saichō's life was spent in heated debates with notable Hossō (Yogācāra) figures, particularly Tokuitsu, and maintaining an increasingly strained relationship with Kūkai to broaden his understanding of Esoteric Buddhism.
Finally, Saichō's efforts were also devoted to developing a "Mahāyāna-only" ordination platform that required the Bodhisattva Precepts of the Brahmajāla Sūtra only,
and not the Pratimokṣa code of the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, which was traditionally used in East Asian Buddhist monasticism.
By the time that Saichō died in 822, his yearly petition was finally granted and the traditional "Four Part Vinaya" was replaced by the Bodhisattva Precepts for the Tendai.
3. Growth & Development after Saichō
7 days after Saichō died, the Imperial Court granted permission for the Tendai to exclusively use the Bodhisattva Precepts for its ordination process.
This effectively allowed Tendai to use an ordination platform separate from the powerful schools in Nara.
Gishin, Saichō's disciple and the first Zasu ("Head of the Tendai Order"), presided over the first allotted ordinands in 827.
Further, the Tendai order underwent efforts to deepen its understanding of teachings that Saichō had brought back, particularly Esoteric Buddhism:
Saichō had only received initiation in the Diamond Realm Mandala, and since the rival Shingon School under Kūkai had received deeper training, early Tendai monks felt it necessary to return to China for further initiation and instruction:
Saichō's disciple Ennin went to China in 838 and returned 10 years later with a more thorough understanding of Esoteric, Pure Land, and Tiantai teachings.
By 864, Tendai monks were now appointed to the powerful Sōgō ("Office of Monastic Affairs") with the naming of An'e as the provisional Vinaya Master.
Other examples include Enchin's appointment to the Office of Monastic Affairs in 883.
While Saichō had opposed the Office during his lifetime, within a few generations disciples were now gifted with positions in the Office by the Imperial Family.
By this time, Japanese Buddhism was dominated by the Tendai School to a much greater degree than Chinese Buddhism was by its forbearer, the Tiantai.
4. Head of the Tendai Order
For reference, the first eight Zasu ("Head of the Tendai Order") after Saichō were:
3. Ennin (794 - 864)
5. Enchin (814–891)
Appointments as Zasu typically only lasted a few years, thus among the same generation of disciples, a number could be appointed Zasu in one's lifetime.
5. Divisions within the Order
Philosophically, the Tendai School did not deviate substantially from the beliefs that had been created by the Tiantai School in China.
However, what Saichō transmitted from China was not exclusively Tiantai, but also included Zen, the esoteric Mikkyō, and Vinaya School elements.
The tendency to include a range of teachings became more marked in the doctrines of Saichō's successors, such as Ennin and Enchin.
However, in later years, this range of teachings began to form sub-schools within Tendai Buddhism:
By the time of Ryōgen (912-985), there were 2 distinct groups on Mt. Hiei, the Jimon and Sanmon:
a) Sanmon-ha "Mountain Group" followed Ennin
b) Jimon-ha "Temple Group" followed Enchin.
6. Later Years
Although the Tendai sect flourished under the patronage of the Imperial House of Japan and the noble classes,
by the end of the Heian, it experienced an increasing breakdown in monastic discipline, plus political entanglements with rival factions of the Genpei War, namely the Taira and Minamoto clans.
Due to its patronage and growing popularity among the upper classes, the Tendai sect became not only respected, but also politically and even militarily powerful, with major temples each fielding their own monastic armies of Sōhei (warrior-monks).
This was not unusual for major temples at the time, as rival schools also fielded armies, such as the head temple of the Yogācāra School, Kōfuku-ji.
With the outbreak of the Genpei War, Tendai temples even fought one another, such as Mount Hiei clashing with Mii-dera depending on their political affiliations.
A number of low-ranking monks of the Tendai became dissatisfied and sought to establish independent schools of their own:
Such founders as Nichiren, Hōnen, Shinran, Eisai and Dōgen—all famous thinkers in non-Tendai schools of Japanese Buddhism—were all initially trained as Tendai monks.
Tendai practices and monastic organization were adapted to some degree or another by each of these new schools, but one common feature of each school was a more narrowly-focused set of practices (e.g. Daimoku for the Nichiren School, Zazen for Zen, Nembutsu for Pure Land schools, etc.) in contrast to the more integrated approach of the Tendai.
Although a number of breakaway schools rose during the Kamakura period, the Tendai School used its patronage to try to oppose the growth of these rival factions—
- particularly Nichiren Buddhism, which began to grow in power among the merchant middle class, and Pure Land Buddhism, which eventually came to claim the loyalty of many of the poorer classes.
Enryaku-ji, the temple complex on Mount Hiei, became a sprawling centre of power, attended not only by ascetic monks, but also by brigades of Sōhei who fought in the temple's interest.
As a result, in 1571 Enryaku-ji was razed by Oda Nobunaga as part of his campaign to unify Japan.
Nobunaga regarded the Mount Hiei monks as a potential threat or rival, as they could employ religious claims to attempt to rally the populace to their side.
The temple complex was later rebuilt, and continues to serve as the head Tendai temple today.
7. Tendai doctrine
The first characteristic of the Japanese Tendai Buddhism is its advocacy of a comprehensive Buddhism:
the idea that all the teachings of the Buddha are ultimately without contradiction and can be unified in one comprehensive and perfect system.
Zhiyi (Chih-i), founder of Tiantai philosophy and practice, attempted this synthesis on the basis of the Ekayāna doctrine of the Lotus Sūtra.
Tendai Buddhism has several philosophical insights which allow for the reconciliation of Buddhist doctrine with aspects of Japanese culture such as Shinto and traditional aesthetics:
It is rooted in the idea, fundamental to Mahāyāna Buddhism, that Buddha-hood, the capability to attain Enlightenment, is intrinsic in all things.
Also central to Mahāyāna is the notion that the phenomenal world, the world of our experiences, fundamentally is an expression of the Buddhist law (Dharma).
8. Lotus Sūtra as the Highest Teaching in Buddhism
Tendai Buddhism, following the Tiantai, reveres the Lotus Sūtra as the highest teaching in Buddhism:
In Saichō's writings, he frequently used the terminology Hokke engyō ("Perfect Teaching of the Lotus Sūtra") to imply it was the culmination of the previous sermons given by Gautama Buddha.
Further, because of the central importance of the Lotus Sūtra, Tendai Buddhism includes such teachings as:
a) All Buddhist teachings and practices fit into a single "vehicle".
Saichō frequently used the term ichijō bukkyō ("One Vehicle Buddhism") and referred to the 2nd chapter of the Lotus Sūtra for his scriptural basis.
b) All beings have the potential for full Buddhahood.
This teaching in particular was a major point of contention with the powerful Hossō School in Japan who espoused the 5 Natures Doctrine (goshō kakubetsu).
The heated debates between Saichō and Tokuitsu frequently addressed this controversy and mirrored similar debates in China.
c) The importance of Upāya (hōben, expedient means).
Tendai Buddhism uses a similar hierarchy as the Tiantai in to classify the various other Sūtras in the canon in relation to the Lotus Sūtra, and it also follows Zhiyi's original conception of 5 Periods 8 Teachings or gojihakkyō.
This is based on the doctrine of expedient means, but was also a common practice among East Asian schools trying to sort the vast corpus of writing inherited from Indian Buddhism.
9. Integrating 4 Schools of Practice
A feature unique to Japanese Tendai Buddhism from its inception was the concept of shishūyūgō (, "Integrating the 4 Schools").
Under the umbrella of the Lotus Sūtra, Tendai integrates 4 different aspects of practice:
1) Pure Land practices - veneration of Amitābha, recitation of the Buddha's name (nembutsu), etc.
2) Dhyāna meditation - which comprises both Śamatha and Vipassanā meditation. In Japanese Tendai, this is called shikan ("Calming-Insight") meditation. Much of this comes from the writings of Zhiyi and Tiantai.
3) Esoteric practices, also known as Taimitsu.
4) Precepts, in particular the Bodhisattva Precepts.
Senior teachers, or Ajari, train in all 4 schools.
In addition, Sūtras from each of these schools are revered, chanted and studied in Tendai.
10. Tendai and Pure Land Buddhism
Practices related to and veneration of Amitābha and his Sukhāvatī in the Tendai tradition began with Saichō's disciple, Ennin:
After journeying to China for further study and training, he brought back a practice called the "5-tone nembutsu" or goe nembutsu, which was a form of intonation practiced in China for reciting the Buddha's name:
This contrasted with earlier practices in Japan starting in the Nara period, where meditation on images of the Pure Land, typically in the form of mandala, was practiced.
However, both meditation on the Pure Land (kansō nembutsu) and recitation of the Buddha's name (Shōmyō nembutsu) became an integral part of Pure Land practices in the Tendai tradition.
In addition to the 5-tone nembutsu brought back from China, Ennin also integrated a special monastic training program called the jōgyō zanmai ("Constantly Walking Samādhi") originally promulgated by Zhiyi:
In this practice, monks spend 90 days in retreat, circumambulating a statue of Amitābha constantly reciting his name.
In addition to increasing monastic practices related to the Pure Land, monks also taught Pure Land practices to the lay community in the form of reciting the Buddha's name:
The most famous of these Nembutsu Hijiri ("Itinerant Pure Land teachers") was a monk named Kūya (903-972).
Pure Land Buddhist thought was further developed by a Tendai monk named Genshin (942-1017) who was a disciple of Ryōgen, the 18th chief abbot or Zasu of Mount Hiei.
Genshin wrote an influential treatise called Ōjōyōshū ("The Essentials of Rebirth in the Pure Land"), which vividly contrasted the Sukhāvatī Pure Land of Amitābha with the descriptions of the Hell realms in Buddhism.
Further, Genshin promoted the popular notion of the Latter Age of the Dharma, which posited that society had degenerated to a point when they could no longer rely on traditional Buddhist practices, and would instead need to rely solely on Amitābha's grace to escape saṁsāra.
Genshin drew upon past Chinese Pure Land teachers such as Daochuo and Shandao.
Finally, Pure Land practices in Tendai were further popularized by former Tendai monk Hōnen, who established the first independent Pure Land School, the Jōdo-shū, and whose disciples carried the teachings to remote provinces in one form or another.
This includes another ex-Tendai monk named Shinran, who eventually established the related Jōdo Shinshū.
Tendai and Esoteric Buddhism
One of the adaptations by the Tendai School was the introduction of esoteric ritual into Tendai Buddhism, which was later named Taimitsu "Tendai Esotericism", distinguishing it from the Shingon Buddhist esoteric lineage known as Tōmitsu "Eastern Esotericism".
Eventually, according to Taimitsu doctrine, the Esoteric Rituals came to be considered of equal importance with the Exoteric Teachings of the Lotus Sūtra.
Therefore, by chanting mantras, maintaining mudras, or performing certain meditations, one is able to see that the sense experiences are the teachings of Buddha, have faith that one is inherently an Enlightened Being, and one can attain Enlightenment within this very body.
The origins of Taimitsu are found in Chinese Esoteric Buddhism similar to the lineage of Kūkai, and Saichō's disciples were encouraged to study under him.
As a result, Tendai esoteric ritual bears much in common with the explicitly Vajrayāna tradition of Shingon, though the underlying doctrines may differ somewhat.
Where Shingon sees Esoteric Teachings as the highest teachings in Buddhism, Tendai sees Esoteric Teachings as a means to an end in order to understand the profundity of the Lotus Sūtra.
Another difference is the Sūtras and mandalas used:
Where Shingon emphasizes the Mandala of the 2 Realms and by extension the Mahāvairocana Tantra and the Vajraśekhara Sūtra, for its esoteric practices,
Esoteric Tendai adds a 3rd Sūtra called the Susiddhikāra Sūtra or Soshitsuji-kyō (“Wonderful Accomplishment Sūtra”) and its related tantric practices.
Other differences mainly relate to lineages and outlook:
The existing lineage began with Saichō; however, his training had largely been limited to the Diamond Realm Mandala only.
After Saichō died, Ennin journeyed to China on the last diplomatic mission to China, and after extensive training, returned with both Esoteric and Pure Land practices.
Tendai and Shinto
Tendai doctrine allowed Japanese Buddhists to reconcile Buddhist teachings with the native religion of Japan, Shinto, and with traditional Japanese aesthetics:
In the case of Shinto, the difficulty is the reconciliation of the pantheon of Japanese gods, as well as with the myriad spirits associated with places, shrines or objects, with the Buddhist doctrine that one should not concern oneself with any religious practice save the pursuit of Enlightenment.
However, priests of the Tendai sect argued that Kami are simply representations of the truth of Universal Buddhahood that descend into the world to help mankind. Thus, they were seen as equivalent with Buddhas.
This doctrine, however, regards Kami as more sacred:
While Buddhas represent the possibility of attaining Enlightenment through many lifetimes of work and devotion to Dharma, Kami are seen to be manifest representations of Universal Buddhahood:
They exemplify the doctrine that all things are inherently Enlightened and that it is possible for a person of sufficient religious faculties to attain Enlightenment instantly within this very body.
Those Kami that Shinto regards as violent or antagonistic to mankind are considered as simply supernatural beings that are violent and evil.
Tendai and Japanese aesthetics
The Buddha taught a Middle Way between the extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification:
In the context of the Four Noble Truths this meant ceasing the craving (Sanskrit tṛṣṇā) of worldly desire and attachment, thus putting an end to suffering (dukkha).
In early Buddhism, the emphasis, especially for monastics, was on avoiding activities that might arouse worldly desires. Buddhist art and poetry focused on overtly Buddhist themes.
This tendency toward renunciation created a potential conflict with mainstream culture in China and Japan when Buddhism was introduced:
Shedding worldly pleasures and attachments might seem to require that such forms of culture as poetry, literature, and visual arts be given up.
However, later Mahāyāna views developed a different emphasis:
By claiming that the phenomenal world is not distinct from Dharma, Tendai doctrine allows for the reconciliation of beauty and aesthetics with Buddhist teachings:
Things are to be seen just as they are, as expressions of Dharma. Poetry, instead of being a potential distraction, now in fact can lead to Enlightenment.
Contemplation of poetry, provided that it is done in the context of Tendai doctrine, is simply contemplation of Dharma. This same thing can be said of other forms of art.
Therefore, it is possible to construct an aesthetic that is not in conflict with Buddhism.
Notable Tendai scholars
In the history of Tendai School, a number of notable monks have contributed to Tendai thought and administration of Mt. Hiei:
Saichō – Founder.
Gishin – Second Zasu ("Head priest") of the Tendai School, who travelled with Saichō to China and ordained alongside him.
Ennin (794 - 864) – Saichō’s successor, the first to try to merge esoteric practices with exoteric Tendai School theories (this merger is now known as "Taimitsu"), as well as promote Nianfo.
Enchin (814–891) – was Gishin’s successor, junior to Ennin. The first who successfully assimilated Esoteric Buddhism to Tendai, and a notable administrator as well.
Annen - Henjō (Ennin's disciple)'s successor, junior to Enchin. An influential thinker, who's known having finalized the assimilation of esoteric and exoteric Buddhism within Tendai.
Ryōgen (912-985) – was Annen's successor and skilled politician who helped ally the Tendai School with the Fujiwara clan.
Toba Sōjō (1053–1140) – was the 48th Zasu and a satirical artist. Sometimes he is credited as the author of Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga, one of the earliest manga, but this attribution is highly disputed.
Sengaku (1203 – c. 1273) – was a Tendai scholar and literary critic, who authored an influential commentary on the Man'yōshū, the oldest extant Japanese poetry.
Gien (1394–1441) – the 153rd Zasu, who later returned to secular life and reigned Japan as Ashikaga Yoshinori, the 6th Shōgun of the Ashikaga shogunate.
Tenkai (1536–1643) – was a Tendai dai-sōjō ("archbishop"), who served as an entrusted advisor of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate.