Saichō (最澄) was a monk from the Heian period who founded the Tendai school of Buddhism (天台宗) in Japan.
He also brought tea from China to Japan with Kūkai, another famous monk.
The story of Saichō
Saichō’s birth name was Hirono. He was born in 766 in present day Ōtsu city in Shiga prefecture.
At age 13 he became a disciple of a monk named Gyōhyō.
He became a novice monk when he was 14 years old, and received the name Saichō.
In 785 he was already an official monk. He could continue on to become a member of the elite, but instead chose to retreat to Mount Hiei.
While devoting himself to Buddhism in Mount Hiei, he composed his 5 vows:
- So long as I have not attained the stage where my eyes and heart are pure and close to Buddha, I will not venture out into the world.
- So long as I have not realized the absolute, I will not acquire any other teachings except for Buddha’s.
- So long as I have not kept the precepts purely, I will not participate in any ceremonies for lay donors.
- So long as I have not attained the Buddha’s wisdom free from any attachment, I will not participate in worldly affairs.
- May any merit from my practice in the present be given not to me, but to all sentient beings so that they may attain supreme enlightenment.
As time passed, more monks came to Mount Hiei and it eventually became a monastic community.
Saichō established a temple and carved an image of Yakushi Nyorai (Medicine Buddha), and lit a lamp of oil for it.
He prayed that this lamp would burn eternally, and it has been lit for more than 1,200 years. It’s known as the Fumetsu no Hōtō (不滅の法灯).
This temple would later be known as Enryaku temple (延暦寺).
When Saichō was 31 he gained recognition by Emperor Kanmu and thus became an influential monk.
Later on, Saichō asked the emperor for permission to a trip to China in order to study under the Chinese Tendai priests and bring back more texts.
And so in 803 he boarded a ship in Osaka Bay. Unfortunately, the ship became damaged during a storm and he had to stay in Kyushu for over a year.
In 804 he was able to set sail again but again encountered bad weather. Two ships sunk, but his ship managed to arrive at Ningbo in Zhejiang province.
Once in Mount Tiantai, Saichō studied primarily under Daosui, the seventh patriarch of Tiantai.
After nine months in China, Saichō returned to Japan in 805. Emperor Kanmu recognized the Tendai School as an offficial school of Buddhism.
As a side note, the records mention that Saichō brought tea to Japan. Some people credit him with being the first to plant tea in Japan, but there is no substantial evidence about it.
At this point, the monastery in Mount Hiei was one of the most powerful centers of Buddhism in Japan.
Saichō made a deep impact in Japanese Buddhism because many founders from other important schools studied at Mount Hiei.
For example the schools of Jōdo, Nichiren, Sōtō and Rinzai have roots in there.
Saichō passed away in 822 at age 56.
Tea wasn’t widely known in Japan at the time. But some centuries later, another monk from Mount Hiei named Eisai would popularize tea drinking.