Ganjin | Biography


1. Ganjin

Ganjin (Chinese: Jianzhen; 688–763) was a Chinese monk who helped to propagate Buddhism in Japan. His dharma name in Chinese was Jianzhen, but since most important events of his life were related with Japan, he is better known by his Japanese name Ganjin.

In the 11 years from 743-754, Ganjin attempted to visit Japan some 6 times. Ganjin finally came to Japan in the year 754 and founded Tōshōdai-ji in Nara.

When he finally succeeded on his 6th attempt he had lost his eyesight as a result of his hardship.

Ganjin's life-story and voyage are described in the scroll, "The Sea Journey to the East of a Great Bonze from the Tang Dynasty."

2. Life

Ganjin was born in Jiangyin County in Guangling Prefecture (present day Yangzhou, Jiangsu) China, with the surname of Chunyu.

At the age of 14, he became a disciple of Dayun Temple. At 20 he travelled to Chang'an for study and returned 6 years later, eventually becoming abbot of Daming Temple.

Besides his learning in the Tripiṭaka, Ganjin is also said to have been expert in medicine. He opened the Buddhist temple as a place of healing, creating the Beitian Court (- a hospital within Daming Temple).

In autumn 742, an emissary from Japan invited Ganjin to lecture in Japan.

Despite protests from his disciples, Ganjin made preparations and in spring 743 was ready for the long voyage across the East China Sea to Japan.

The crossing failed and in the following years, Ganjin made 3 more attempts but was thwarted by unfavourable conditions or government intervention.

In summer 748, Ganjin made his 5th attempt to reach Japan:

Leaving from Yangzhou, he made it to the Zhoushan Archipelago off the coast of modern Zhejiang. But the ship was blown off course and ended up in the Yande Commandery on Hainan Island.

Ganjin was then forced to make his way back to Yangzhou by land, lecturing at a number of monasteries on the way. Ganjin travelled along the Gan River to Jiujiang, and then down the Yangtze River. The entire failed enterprise took him close to 3 years.

By the time Ganjin returned to Yangzhou, he was blind from an infection.

In the autumn of 753, the blind Ganjin decided to join a Japanese emissary ship returning to its home country.

After an eventful sea journey of several months, the group finally landed at Kagoshima, Kyūshū, on December 20. They reached Nara in the spring of the next year and were welcomed by the Emperor.

At Nara, Ganjin presided over Tōdai-ji. The Chinese monks who travelled with him introduced Chinese religious sculpture to the Japanese.

In 755, the first ordination platform in Japan was constructed at Tōdai-ji, on the place where former Emperor Shōmu and Empress Kōmyō received ordination by Ganjin a year earlier:

In 749, after a 25-year reign, Emperor Shōmu abdicated in favour of his daughter, Princess Takano, who would become Empress Kōken:

 After abdication, Shōmu took the tonsure, thus becoming the 1st retired emperor to become a Buddhist priest. Empress Komyo, following her husband's example, also took holy vows in becoming a Buddhist nun.

Tōshōdai-ji Temple
founded by Gaijin

In 759 Ganjin retired to a piece of land granted to him by the imperial court in the western part of Nara. There he founded a school and also set up a private temple, Tōshōdai-ji.

In the 10 years until his death in Japan, Ganjin not only propagated the Buddhist faith among the aristocracy, but also served as an important conductor of Chinese culture.

Ganjin died on the 6th day of the 5th month of 763. A dry-lacquer statue of him made shortly after his death can still be seen at Tōshōdai-ji:

Recognised as one of the greatest of its type, it has been postulated by statue restoration experts that the statue incorporates linen clothing originally worn by Ganjin.

The statue was temporarily brought to Ganjin's original temple in Yangzhou in 1980 as part of a friendship exchange between Japan and China.

Ganjin is credited with the introduction of the Ritsu school of Buddhism to Japan, which focused on the Vinaya, or Buddhist monastic rules.

In May 2010, the Taiwanese Buddhist organization Tzu Chi organized and produced an animated drama on Ganjin's life and journey to Japan.