Ennin: The Forgotten Tendai Monk

In my recent free time last month, I caught up on an old DVD video tour of Buddhist temples in Japan that my in-laws had given me years back. I also discovered that I could turn on the subtitles, which helped a ton as the Japanese is kind of difficult for me, but the content is very interesting. 😋

One interesting thing I noticed is that a surprising number of temples in Japan, especially older ones, could somehow tie themselves back to a certain Buddhist monk posthumously named Jikaku Daishi (慈覚大師). He is better known in English by his ordination name Ennin.

Ennin (円仁, 794?-864) was one of several, talented monks that were crucial to the early rise and foundation of Tendai Buddhist order in Japan. Tendai in Japan, a branch of the venerable Tiantai Buddhist school in China,1 was founded by the monk Saicho in the year 806 after spending some time training in China.

However, the early Tendai sect ran into some problems namely due to gaps in training and teachings, especially with esoteric Buddhism. Saicho had spent about one year in China, which was unusually short, and during that time had undergone training in disparate aspects of Tiantai Buddhism. On the other hand, the rival Shingon sect founded by Kukai (who also had stayed for one year) had been singularly focused on esoteric training, and brought back a complete set of training in the Womb Realm and Diamond Realm mandalas imported from India. Saicho unfortunately didn’t and this led to some tension between the sects. Kukai did not want to lend esoteric documents to Saicho and his disciples unless they formally trained under him, and Saicho became worried about losing disciples to the Shingon sect (some indeed were poached). While the two were still alive, this tension was not resolved.

After Saicho, early Tendai leaders decided the best way to solve this issue was to go back to China and gain deeper training themselves. This is not as easy as it sounds:

  • China had a strict policy of allowing only certain ships from Japan (the kentōshi 遣唐使), on a set schedule. Just getting on one of these voyages was no small matter.
  • Japanese ship technology was poor, and a storm could easily sink a fleet of ships. In Saicho/Kukai’s trip, they lost 2 out of 4 ships to a storm.
  • Once in China, the monk in question had to learn Chinese and communicate. The two languages are very different, so this is not an easy thing to accomplish.
  • Finally, such a monk required official permission from the Chinese-Imperial bureaucracy to train at such-and-such temple.
  • Once all that was complete, the monk in question would start the actual training which could take years.
  • Monks were then required to then leave China at a certain time, and hopefully the next diplomatic ship from Japan would arrive, and than safely return.
  • Finally, the monk, now safely in Japan, had to submit an official petition to the Japanese Imperial Court to return to the capitol, detailing his accomplishments, and cataloging anything he brought back. Until then, he’d be stuck in some rural port town waiting a response, which usually wasn’t very quick.

Needless to say, Ennin managed to accomplish all this, just as Kukai and Saicho had done previously by journeying to Tang-Dynasty China in 838. Unlike Saicho and Kukai, Ennin stayed in China much longer (as expected) and was only booted out of China in 847 due to a catastrophic anti-Buddhist purge at the time.

When Ennin came back to Japan, he brought back several noteworthy things:

  1. Ennin brought back training in the five-tone nembutsu, a wide-spread practice in the Pure Land tradition in China.
  2. Ennin completed the esoteric training Womb Realm and Diamond Realm mandalas, just as Kukai had done, but also brought back a third esoteric training regime in the Susiddhikara Sūtra tantra.2 This helped formalize the Tendai version of esoteric Buddhism called taimitsu (台密), along with efforts by rival disciple Enchin who also traveled to China.
  3. Ennin also wrote a lengthy account of his travels from day one in China. This journal, the Nittō Guhō Junrei Kōki (入唐求法巡礼行記, “The Record of a Pilgrimage to China in Search of the [Buddhist] Law”) has been a fascinating and valuable source of life in the Tang-Dynasty from a foreigner’s point of view.

Once back in Japan, Ennin eventually succeeded in becoming the 3rd zasu (座主) or head of the Tendai Order. He proved to be an active administrator, both in expanding and improving the training on Mount Hiei, but also in founding other temples in the provinces such as Yamadera (which was featured on my dvd tour). However, tensions between him and Enchin simmered for generations and eventually erupted in to a full-blown violent schism between their descendant lineages.

Nevertheless, Ennin’s contributions to both esoteric and Pure Land buddhist practices in Japan helped pave the way for many other great thinkers later, and many of the things followers take for granted today. 🙏🏼

P.S. I finished a draft of this post before the war in Ukraine, so I felt it was time to publishing rather than leave it languishing. However, since the war started I haven’t had much motivation to work on personal projects and such, so the blog might be a little quiet for a bit. We’ll see.

1 same Chinese characters (天台), different pronunciation

2 there was no information at all in English wikipedia on this sutra, so the linked article above was written by me, warts and all. ;p

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: