Tendai Buddhism is the fifth largest Buddhist sect in Japan with 2.8 million followers according to 2021 statistics on religion by the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan. The sect was established in Japan by Siacho (767-822) who had made several missions to China and was permitted to remain there in search of Buddhist texts. On his return Siacho was given imperial permission to found a new Buddhist secy on Mt. Hiei based on the teaching of the Lotus Sutra.
The Tendai sect appeared at the end of the 8th century and was centered at Enryakuji Temple on Mt. Hiei near Kyoto.Its founder, Saicho studied meditation, tantric rituals and the Lotus sutra in China. Tendai was not recognized as a school until after Saicho’s death. After Mt. Hiei received the right to ordain monks the sect took off, At it height Mt, Heie boasted 3,000 temples and 30,000 monks and produced wonderful works of art. The monasteries kept armed retainers and sometimes imposed their will on the government by force. Almost every sects has its origins in Enryakuji Temple on Mt, Heie. All new sects founded in the 12th and 13th centuries were founded by Tendai monks. Pure Land, Zen and Nichiren all developed from the Tendai school.
Under the patronage of Emperor Kanmu (737-806) and Emperor Saga (786-842) the Tendai sect was officially sanctioned. It was embraced by these emperors who had tired of the authoritarian nature and political power of the priests in the Nara Buddhist sects. Priest were ordained at Enryakuji, the temple founded by Saicho, Tendai artists produced wonderful Buddhist sculpture---graceful and beautiful sculptures of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and deities---in the Heian period.
History of the Tendai Sect
The Tendai sect was founded after the Chinese T’ien-t’ai school, was introduced into Japan in 806 by the Japanese priest Saicho (767-822). It stressed the authority of the Lotus Sutra, which recognized the Buddha as both an historical person and the realization in human form of the universal spirit — an identity implying the oneness of the latent Buddha nature in all matter, animate and inanimate. [Source: Thomas Hoover, “Zen Culture”, 1977]
Although the school was avowedly eclectic, embracing all the main Mahayana doctrines, it was bitterly opposed by the Nara schools, which campaigned unsuccessfully to convert Tendai novices. Saicho countered their opposition by pointing out that his Buddhism was based on an actual sutra, purportedly the Buddha’s own words, whereas the schools of Nara had contented themselves primarily with wrangling over commentaries or secondary interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings. Saicho also introduced the question of individual morality, a concern conspicuously absent in Nara Buddhism.
“The Tendai sect became dominant during the ninth and tenth centuries, when its center on Mt. Thei (on the outskirts of Kyoto) swelled to over three thousand buildings. Although Saicho himself appears to have been benign in nature, practicing the principles of morality he taught, in later years the Mt. Hiei Tendai complex became the base for an army of irascible monks who frequently descended upon Kyoto to harass courtiers and citizens alike. In the late sixteenth century, the entire complex was burned to the ground and thousands of monks slaughtered by a fierce shogun who was determined to stop the intervention of Tendai monks in public affairs. Tendai survives today as a religion primarily of the upper classes, with a membership of something over a million, but even by the end of the Heian era it had become mainly ceremonial.
Tendai Beliefs and the Lotus Sutra
The Tendai sect is an eclectic form of Buddhism that incorporates elements of both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra is Tendai’s central text. Followers believe that salvation can be achieved by reciting and copying it.
The Tendai sect derived its inspiration from a series of Sanskrit texts that focused on the Lotus Sutra, regarded by the Tendai as the final and most authentic teaching of the Buddha. The use of parables was one of the favorite methods of Tendai teaching. The Parable of the Burning House, which is a part of the Lotus of the Wonderful Law is designed to show the superiority of the single sutra (that of the Lotus) over traditional Buddhist teaching of the equal power of the three sutras. Tendai Buddhists believed that all humans could be redeemed and reach universal enlightenment. [Source: David J. Lu, “Sources of Japanese History, Vol 1, (MgGraw-Hill, 1974), 52-54]
The “Lotus of the Good Law Sutra,” or more simply “the Lotus Sutra,” is one of the most widely venerated and beautiful Buddhist scriptures. Followers often believe that salvation can be achieved by repeatedly chanting, "I take my refuge in the Lotus Sutra" and passages from the Lotus sutra in front of a small altar containing a scroll with Chinese characters representing the Lotus Sutra. Translations of it into English or other Western languages are not very good. The Lotus Sutra was probably compiled over 200 years and completed around A.D. 50-150.
Saicho (Dengyodaishi;,762-822) is the founder of the Tendai (Tiantai) school of Buddhism. He studied meditation, tantric rituals and the Lotus sutra under the Tient-tai School in China — named after Mt. Tientai in what is now Zhejiang Province — for two years in 804 and 805. When he returned to Japan he found a receptive audience for his message that Buddhist salvation was something that could be achieved by anyone, regardless of class, social status or gender.
Saicho had gone to China to study Tiantai doctrines, but while waiting for a ship to take him home, he encountered a monk who practiced esoteric (or tantric) rituals. After a short period of training and the conferral of the proper initiation, he returned to Japan and settled on Mt. Hiei, where he established the Tendai school to be a successor to the Chinese Tiantai school. However, because the real patronage came from the performance of esoteric rituals, he divided this new school's focus between the exoteric doctrines of Tiantai and esoteric ritual performance. In addition, he asked for and received permission for his school to ordain its own monks independently of the Ritsu school, making use of a set of "bodhisattva precepts" rather than the usual monastic precepts. [Source: A. S. Rosso,; Jones, C. B. New Catholic Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia.com]
Saicho introduced formal ordination practices to Japan and founded the Tendai headquarters on Mount Hiei outside of present-day Kyoto, which grew into a massive complex with hundreds of buildings. The Tendai School became the most prominent branch of Buddhism throughout the Heian period. Before he founded the Enryakuji temple on Mt. Hiei, the main Buddhist rituals were shifted from being performed at Todaiji in Nara, which followed the Vinaya (Hīnayāna) precepts, to Enryakuji, which adhered strictly to the Bodhisattva (Mahāyāna) precepts. Saichō also wrote important doctrinal commentaries on the Lotus Sūtra. [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]
Saicho also worshiped the kami (native deities), including Sanno, the king of Mount Hiei. He prepared the way for the Tendai teachings of Sanno Ichijitsu Shinto, which identified the kami with Buddhist deities. Tendai clerics also promulgated the broader concept of honji-suijaku, which claimed that Japanese kami were the spatially and temporally local manifestations of universal and eternal Buddhist deities. [Source: Gary Ebersole, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, Thomson Gale, 2006]
Writings of Saicho
The following are selected writings by Saicho entitled: "Prayer on Mount Hiei"; "On the Possibility of Enlightenment for All Men"; "Vow of the Uninterrupted Study of the Lotus Sutra"; and The Mahayana Precepts in Admonitions of the Fanwang Sutra". [Source: “Sources of Japanese Tradition”, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary, Donald Keene, George Tanabe, and Paul Varley, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 125, 129, 140, 142-144; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]
In “Prayer on Mount Hiei”, Saicho wrote: Oh Buddhas Of unexcelled complete enlightenment Bestow your invisible aid Upon this hut I open On the mountain top. [Source: Dengyō Daishi zenshū IV, p. 756 (1912 ed.)]
In “On the Possibility of Enlightenment for All Men”, Saich wrote: “In the lotus.flower is implicit its emergence from the water. If it does not emerge, its blossoms will not open: in the emergence is implicit the blossoming. If the water is three feet deep, the stalk of the flower will be four or five feet; if the water is seven or eight feet deep, the stalk will be over ten feet tall. That is what is implied by the emergence from the water. The greater the amount of water, the taller the stalk will grow; the potential growth is limitless. Now, all human beings have the lotus of Buddhahood within them. It will rise above the mire and foul water of the Hīnayāna and Quasi.Mahāyāna, and then through the stage of the bodhisattvas to open, leaves and blossoms together, in full glory.” [Source: Dengyō Daishi zenshū, IV, p. 436 (1912 ed.)]
In “Vow of the Uninterrupted Study of the Lotus Sūtra”, Saicho wrote: … I vow that, as long as heaven endures and earth lasts, to the most distant term of the future, this study will continue without the intermission of a single day, at the rate of one volume every two days. Thus the doctrine of universal enlightenment will be preserved forever and spreadthroughout Japan to the farthest confines. May all attain Buddhahood![Dengyō Daishi zenshū IV, p. 749 (1912 ed.)]
In “The Mahāyāna Precepts in Admonitions of the Fanwang Sūtra”, Saicho wrote: “At that time, the Buddha Shākyamuni, seated under the Bo tree after having attained supreme enlightenment, first set up the Precepts (Pratimoksa): to be filial to one’s parents, teacher(s), members of the Buddhist community, and the Three Treasures. Filial obedience is the way by which one attains the Way...In the case of a son of the Buddha lying, urging others to lie, or lying for expediency — whatever the cause … condition … method … or the act of lying — even if one says one sees something without actually seeing it or says one did not see something when one has seen it — a bodhisattva should always give rise to correct speech and [help] all sentient beings to give rise to correct speech and correct views. If, on the contrary, one prompts sentient beings to evil speech or evil views, one commits a most unpardonable offense for a bodhisattva. [Fanwang jing, TD 24, no 1484.24:1004a.5a, CHD]
Mappo: Buddhist Cosmic Cycles
According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: One of the characteristics of the Mahayana forms of Buddhism is a theory of cosmic cycles in which a Buddha appears to show others how to attain enlightenment. Then, as time goes on, this Buddha’s teachings deteriorate, leading eventually to a long period of general misery and social unrest. Then, a new Buddha appears to start another cycle. Thus, there has been a series of cosmically-ordained Buddhas in human history, with the Buddha Shakyamuni (the historical Buddha who founded Buddhism as we know it today) simply being the most recent, that is, the Buddha for the present cycle. Of course, it is possible that other other Buddhas have existed after Shakyamuni in the form of people who have attained enlightenment. The theory of cosmic cycles pertains only to the Buddhas that appear as part of the cosmic order of things. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]
“The term mappo literally means something like "end of the dharma." It is the last of the three temporal stages Buddhism mentioned earlier: the true dharma, the semblance dharma, and the last dharma. Let us examine some of the details of this theory, which came into Japan along with the vast corpus of Buddhist texts from India, China, and Korea.~
“According to the theory of cosmic cycles, the age of the true dharma is characterized by three qualities: 1) theory or teachings, 2) the practice of those teachings, and 3) true insight capable of leading to enlightenment. In the age of the semblance dharma, Buddhists go through the motions of practice (2), but without benefiting from them owing to worldly corruption. Therefore, they will not attain true insight (3). So in the semblance age, 1 and 2 are present, but not 3. In the final age, 2 is also gone. Though some may claim to be practicing Buddhism, they do not even go through the motions correctly, and disputes between monks and religious factions become heated. The teachings themselves (1) remain (recall that they are the unchanging essence of the diamond world in esoteric Buddhism), but nobody really understands them, much less putts them into practice. ~
Saicho and Mappo
According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “Among the first Japanese Buddhists to act on the implications of the theory of mappo was a prominent monk named Saicho, who was active at the start of the Heian period. At this time, the theory of cosmic cycles, while known to some monks, was not generally a concern among the Japanese aristocracy or clergy. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]
“By Saicho’s calculations, the true dharma age lasted 500 years; the semblance dharma age 1000. Based on the traditionally accepted death of Shakyamuni, which was significantly earlier than the estimates of most scholars today, Saicho thought that he lived right at the start of mappo. Not everyone accepted Saicho’s timing. Recall that some regarded the true dharma age to last 1000 years, not 500. Also, there were two possibilities for the semblance dharma age, 500 or 1000 years. Why? The main reason seems to be the discussion of time periods found in a scripture called the Great Collection Sutra. ~
According to it, there are five 500-year periods (go-gohyakusai) after the death of the Buddha during which teachings and practice decline. Each period is characterized by a particular feature: 1) firm attainment of liberation (gedatsu kengo), 2) steadfast practice of meditation (zenjo kengo), 3) steadfast hearing of Buddhist teaching (tamon kengo), 4) building of many temples (zoji kengo), and 5) steadfast engagement in doctrinal disputes (tojo kengo). For Saicho, the first of these five constituted the age of the true dharma, the second and third were the semblance dharma, and the final age began with the fourth, that is, the massive building of temples. ~
“Notice that there is room here to make the true dharma last either 500 or 1000 years and the semblance dharma last either 500 or 1000 years. Another possible area of flexibility concerns the length of mappo itself. Might it last only 500 or 1000 years instead of the 10,000 years according to conventional belief? Another factor that added flexibility to the periodization was different dates for the Buddha’s death, some several decades apart.” ~
Doomsday Aspects of Saicho and Mappo
According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “In any case, Saicho thought that he lived at the very start of mappo. He had other evidence to support this belief. For one thing, another Buddhist theory claimed that typical human life spans varied, from about 80,000 years at the longest to ten at the shortest, that is, during the depths of mappo. That typical life spans were well under 100 years in Saicho’s day further pointed to the conclusion that final age was at hand. The short life spans were part of a larger collection of symptoms of the approach of mappo. The full list is called the "Five Defilements" (gojoku), which are: 1) famines plagues, wars, etc.; 2) the arising of false views; 3) intensification of evil passions; 4) rejection of moral laws and the physical and mental degeneration resulting from that rejection; and 5) short life spans. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]
“According to Buddhist theology, although these defilements began to appear when human life spans went below 20,000 years, they became especially obvious when life spans went below 100 years. Think of our own times right now. Does it not seem that the Five Defilements are abundantly present? Probably so. And the same impression would have prevailed at virtually any point in human history. In any case, for Saicho, all the evidence pointed to entry into mappo. Regarding this point, Nakano Masayuki argues convincingly that many of Saicho’s activities in establishing Tendai on Mt. Hiei reflect an active attempt on his part to protect both the state and Buddhist teachings during the impending last age. ~
“There is one essential point in the above paragraphs about Saicho’s theory of mappo: nobody could be certain exactly when mappo would start. One reason was Saicho’s compressing a 5-stage cycle into three stages, thereby leaving room for debate over whether the true dharma stage lasts 500 or 1000 years and also whether the semblance dharma state lasts 500 or 1000 years. Add in some slack for different sets of dates for the Buddha’s death, and one could never be completely certain whether the world was about to enter the final stage or whether it had already entered that stage--an ideal condition for anxiety.
Doomsday Mappo Catches on Late Heian and Kamakura Periods
According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “Few Japanese at the time of the early Heian period shared Saicho’s sense of doomsday. Using the variables in timing described above, other Buddhists in the ninth century said that mappo was over two centuries away and would not start until 1052. Furthermore, few Japanese outside of the elite members of the clergy knew much about the more sophisticated doctrines of Buddhism during the early Heian period. By the end of the period, however, many things had changed. First, nearly all monastic and aristocratic Japanese were familiar with the major doctrines of Buddhism. Second, it became increasingly difficult to theorize the start of mappo farther into the future, especially after 1052. Third, from the standpoint of the aristocracy especially, it seemed as if society was indeed entering a period of major decline. Problems collecting revenues, political strife between the emperor and retired emperor, the increasing power of warriors and the increasing frequency of warfare, the decline of the central civilian government’s authority, and the increasingly apparent corruption of the Buddhist establishment all contributed to anxiety concerning entry into mappo. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]
According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “That this anxiety became acute is not to say that all learned Japanese understood mappo in the same way. Some rejected the theory entirely, and those who accepted it were not unanimously agreed about the timing. Furthermore, there was disagreement about how best to react to mappo. In other words, was there anything people could do about it? How could or should Buddhism be altered to suit the conditions of the time? Is it still possible to become enlightened, or at least to avoid rebirth in the lower realms of existence, while in the present, degenerate age? These were the sorts of questions on the minds of many elite Japanese in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and, to some extent, all the way up to the seventeenth century. Even those who rejected the theory of cosmic cycles had to discuss and deal with it. In short, mappo was the defining issue not only in theology, but also in the literary, dramatic, and visual arts of mid-medieval Japan. ~
As William R, LaFleur points out: [I]t is important to realize that people in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries of Japan’s history were deeply absorbed in a debate as to whether the entire world had just entered a necessarily evil era called mappo, the final epoch of the current Buddhist cycle. Many of those who embraced this idea had calculated that as of the year 1052 . . . there had commenced a lengthy period during which the correct understanding and practice of Buddhism had been virtually nonexistent. . . . Some took the calculations to be correct and the current laxity of monastic discipline as proof that the theory was true. Others, especially the Zen master Dogen (1200-1253), argued against the mappo theory; they held that the possibility of understanding and practicing Buddhism was as good as it had ever been and that theories such as that of mappo were merely mental contrivances by which shallow understanding and loose practice were rationalized. [Source: William R. LaFleur, The Karma of Words: Buddhism and the Literary Arts in Medieval Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), p. 3.]
“So, in the realm of religion, the fear of either being on the verge of entering mappo or of having already entered it was very much on the minds of elite Japanese during the late Heain period, the Kamakura period, and, to some extent, the Muromachi period. Furthermore, these centuries were a time of fundamental social change as the warriors replaced the civilian aristocrats as the dominant members of society. But these warriors tended to fight among themselves for territory and power, especially during the Muromachi period, when central government was weak or powerless.” ~
“Yamabushi” are Shugendo mountain ascetics. Also known as “shugenja”, they are members of Esoteric Shingon and Tendai sects of Buddhism. Traditionally they were shaman or hermits with long beards who lived in huts on sacred mountains and endured rigorous training and exercises. Yamabushi means “those who lie down in the mountains.”
Early yamabushi went on long treks and mountain climbs and lived for months and even years in the wilderness. Their training and lifestyle were believed to have given them magical and supernatural powers. Villagers welcomed them so they could perform rituals to prevent earthquakes and other natural disasters and bring rain and good harvests.
Yamabushi seclude themselves in the mountains for months or even years at a time, praying endlessly, performing fire rituals, fasting in caves, and subjecting themselves to various physical and psychological tests, such as hanging headfirst from cliffs and standing under frigid waterfalls. Early yamabushi not only pursued inner enlightenment they also sought magical powers which could used to cure disease and prevent disasters.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; Samurai websites, MIT visualizing history
Text Sources: Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com; Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Library of Congress; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO); New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Daily Yomiuri; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek, Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.
Last updated January 2024