Saicho (767-822) was a Japanese Buddhist monk who bore the posthumous title Dengyo daishi. He was the founder in Japan of the Tendai sect, which he imported after a period of study in China.

In 783 the emperor Kammu decided to remove his capital from the city of Nara, where it had been since 710. By training, Kammu was Confucian and generally anti-Buddhist. He was opposed to the great power that the six Nara sects had amassed. He had been particularly alarmed when, in 764, the monk Dokyo had almost succeeded in having himself declared ruler of Japan. Kammu's decision to move was based on his desire to preserve the prerogatives of the imperial court. To counterbalance the influence of the old, still powerful Nara sects on his new capital of Heian (Kyoto), which he founded in 794, he encouraged the founding of two new sects, which were to maintain a close relationship with the new government: Tendai, established by Saicho and Shingon, by Kukai.

Of Chinese descent, Saicho was born in Shiga in the province of Omi, entered the priesthood at the age of 14, and was ordained in 785. He was, however, disenchanted with the worldliness of the Nara priesthood and was convinced of the need for a new location if there was to be a moral and ethical awakening. Thus, in 788, he founded a small temple, later called the Enryaku-ji, on Mt. Hiei. In 788 the area around Mt. Hiei was uncultivated marshland, but in 794 it was chosen as a site for the new capital of Heian. Perhaps Saicho was instrumental in the choice, for he enjoyed the patronage of the Emperor. He was asked to hold a ceremony for purification of the new emplacement, and in 797 the Emperor is said to have referred to Mt. Hiei as the true guardian of the empire.

Travel to China

In 804 Saicho was sent to China, forming part of the ambassadorial party of Fujiwara Kadonomaro. The Shingon master Kukai was a member of the group, but on a different ship, and it is not certain that the two men met. The purpose of this trip was most especially to obtain sanction for his temple on Mt. Hiei, Chinese approval being considered necessary for standing vis-a‧-vis the Nara sects. Saicho returned to Japan in 805.

It does not appear at first that Saicho wanted to found a new sect. His temple enshrined the Buddha of Medicine (Yakushi), as did many of the temples at Nara, but after a year abroad he was drawn to the universality of the T'ient'ai sect, which was flourishing at the time. The Tendai he introduced into Japan was essentially the same as the mother sect and was based on the Lotus Sutra. Nara sects, with the exception of Kegon, were all based on secondary sources—the commentaries—and Saicho considered Tendai superior to them, for it was based on the Buddha's own words, that is, a sutra. Tendai, for Saicho, was true Mahayana Buddhism.

Saicho's teaching was universal in that it claimed enlightenment for all. This universality stood against Hosso beliefs, for example, that some beings were excluded from Buddhahood by virtue of inborn defects. Tendai claimed that all men had the innate possibility of enlightenment. It also stressed the basic unity of the Buddha and other beings; even the wicked man is Buddha. For Saicho, Buddhist perfection was a life of moral purity and contemplation, and he strongly stressed moral perfection over metaphysics. In 807 Saicho held an ordination ceremony on a Kaidan (ordination platform) erected on Mt. Hiei. But such was the opposition of the Nara sects that further permission was denied until 827, five years after his death.

Tendai Sect

In contrast to Nara practice, Saicho demanded a severe discipline of the monks under him. In 818 he codified the rules for monks on Mt. Hiei. There they were obliged to remain 12 years, during which time they received the "training of a bodhisattva." This meant study of Mahayana sutras, most especially the Lotus, and a kind of mystic concentration called shikan. It was Saicho's intent that Mt. Hiei should supply the nation with teachers and leaders.

There were three classes of monks who received training. The first was the "Treasure of the Nation," those particularly gifted in actions and words. They would remain on Mt. Hiei and serve the country by religious practice. The less gifted would leave to serve the state: some would teach; others would engage in agricultural and engineering pursuits. Thus, unlike Nara Buddhism, the new sect was at the service of the court, and the Enryaku-ji was called the "Center for the Protection of the Nation."

Saicho's writing shows a streak of nationalism. His Defense of the Country (Shugo kokkai sho) considers Tendai teachings as a protection for Japan. He felt very strongly about the prestige of the court, and despite his Chinese origins he admired the "Country of great Japan" (dai nippon koku). Tendai monks were obliged to swear an oath which included acknowledgment of the sect's debt to the Emperor.

Kukai and Saicho

In 806 the emperor Kammu died, and Saicho and his sect were at once threatened, first by the Nara monks, who questioned his authority, and then by the return in the same year of Kukai, the Shingon ecclesiastic who gained the favor of Kammu's successor.

Relations between Kukai and Saicho were at first friendly. Saicho sincerely wanted to learn what Kukai had acquired and brought back with him from China. Indeed, Saicho was much impressed with Esoteric teachings. He went so far as to receive baptism from Kukai, and he borrowed works on Esotericism from him. Relations changed, however, when Saicho sent his favorite disciple, Taihan, to study with Kukai, for the latter refused to honor Saicho's request that his pupil return to Mt. Hiei. And when Saicho requested a loan of certain Esoteric sutras, Kukai's response was plainly impolite, if not insulting, and he suggested that if Saicho wished to learn he should become a regular student. Relations between the two men remained bitter until Saicho's death.

Saicho's contribution to Japanese Buddhism lies more in organization than in doctrine. His writing tends to be heavy and repetitious, lacking the distinction of Kukai's. His most winning feature, however, is his sincerity, his desire to know the truth, not only as it was propounded by his own sect but by others as well.

Further Reading on Saicho

Examples of Saicho's writings and an essay on his impact on Japanese Buddhism may be found in Ryusaku Tsunoda and others, eds., Sources of the Japanese Tradition (1958). There is no full-length biography of Saicho. However, Sir Charles Eliot, Japanese Buddhism (1935), discusses Saicho and the Tendai sect. An excellent book depicting the times when Saicho lived is Ivan Morris, The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan (1964).

Additional Biography Sources

Groner, Paul, Saicho: the establishment of the Japanese Tendai School, Berkeley: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of California at Berkeley: Institute of Buddhist Studies, 1984.