The Taika Reform of 645 C.E. helped to implement many of Prince Shotoku's ideals, but the reformers recognized the need to establish a permanent imperial capital in Japan. Emperors ruled from their palaces, and according to Shinto belief, the death of an emperor rendered his seat impure and therefore unusable by his successor. Buddhist institutions were fixed locations, however, and a shifting imperial throne could not readily exercise authority over them. Despite religious resistance to the idea, in 710 a splendid capital was located at Nara, a city built as a scale model of Ch'ang-an in China. There great temples were constructed, the arts flourished, the aristocracy gathered, and Buddhist schools were welcomed in the imperial court. Following the lead of the emperor, aristocrats lavished great sums on Buddhist temples, monasteries, hospitals and colleges. Gradually, the Buddhist schools allied themselves with the aristocracy and became conservative and almost élitist.
Six schools gained recognition at Nara and provided a lasting foundation for buddhadharma, the Teaching of Buddha, in Japan. Each school or shu (literally, a group of scholars devoted to one tradition) had its favourite sacred texts and traditions, but they were mutually supportive and amicable. At one time, for example, all six schools were housed in the great Todaiji Temple and the Ritsu shu provided ordination for all the schools. Each school could point to ancient and honourable antecedents, even though each took on the tone and tenor of its new home.
The Kusha shu based its learning on Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakosha as transmitted by the Chu-she (Kosha) school in China. Following Sarvastivadin tenets, the Kusha shu linked Buddha's teaching of non-self, anatman, with his doctrine of the impermanence, anitya, of things. In attempting to show that all phenomena were void of self-subsisting essence, this school analysed and classified all dharmas or elements of existence. Whilst insisting upon the impermanence of the dharmas, it also asserted a theory of instantaneous being which gave a brief reality to each dharma. The Jojitsu shu, based on the third-century Indian text known as Satyasiddhi (Establishment of Truth), sought to remove the Four Noble Truths from scholastic classification and to understand them philosophically as the path to enlightenment. The Satyasiddhi emphasized the concept of One Truth, nirodha satya, the truth of cessation, which was equated with nirvana. Unlike the Kusha shu, the Jojitsu shu flatly denied any kind of reality to the dharmas, pointing instead to shunyata, the Void, as the ultimate nature of both self and the dharmas.
The Ritsu shu was devoted to the vinaya rules for monks and assumed authority for ordination in all the schools. The Sanron shu represented the Madhyamika or Middle Way standpoint based upon three treatises, including one by Aryadeva and one by Nagarjuna. Since paramarthasatya, absolute truth, transcends both speech and thought, this school rejected attempts to prove that the dharmas are either real or unreal. Nirvana was characterized as shunya, void, which is the only way the Absolute can be indicated. The Hosso shu derived from the Vijnanavada school, based on the work of the mysterious Maitreya and the brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu. Drawing inspiration from the opening verses of the Dhammapada, this standpoint saw in consciousness the key to enlightenment and the origin of the dharmas. It distinguished seven levels of consciousness which were dependent upon an eighth, the alayavijnana or storehouse of consciousness. This source of consciousness is also the source of ignorance, which is the subjective misperception of reality, for it contains the bija or seed of phenomenal existence. In Japan, the idea of different kinds of bijas in consciousness led to the notion that different individuals were destined for different kinds of nirvana.
The Kegon shu was inspired by a third-century Indian scripture, the Avatansaka Sutra, and meditation practices developed in China. Holding that there are three levels of existence owing to three states of consciousness – kamadhatu, the realm of desire; rupadhatu, the realm of form; and arupadhatu, the formless realm – Kegon shu sought to attain dharmadhatu, the essence of enlightenment. Since the dharmadhatu is latent in all conscious ness, each thought of every being potentially embraces the totality of existence. Hence the degree of realization of the ultimate unity of all things can be directly correlated to stages of enlightenment. The Bodhisattva Path is, in fact, just these stages understood as a moral and meta-psychological sequence.
By the end of the eighth century, the six schools at Nara had provided a firm foundation for Buddhist thought, but were more oriented towards a scholastic turn of mind than towards those practices which led in the direction of enlightenment. The support and encouragement monks received from the imperial throne and aristocracy gradually made the Nara schools 6litist, as if buddhadharma had been promulgated solely for the benefit of the court. At the same time, the emperor began to feel that his authority was being usurped by the Nara orders which dominated court life. Although a number of monks resisted the worldly atmosphere of the imperial city, most of these retired to obscurity in the countryside. Growing increasingly concerned about monastic dominance in Nara, Emperor Kammu rather impulsively decided to move the court to Nagaoka. During the next decade the site was found to be quite unsuitable as the centre for regal government, but the experiment coincided with the emergence of two monks who rejected the sterility of the Nara schools and transformed Buddhist life in Japan. Saicho and Kukai founded orders which returned to the general population, pleasing the emperor and maintaining the respect and support of the aristocracy.
Saicho was born in Shiga (now Otsu on Lake Biwa) in Omi province, not far from Mount Hiei, in 767. His father was such a devotee that he had converted the family home into a temple. Saicho combined exceptional intelligence with a deeply spiritual sensitivity to all life, and he sought and received preliminary ordination at the age of twelve, becoming a full monk seven years later in 785. Barely three months after his full ordination, Saicho left Nara and retired in solitude to Mount Hiei. There he lived near an abandoned temple, reflecting on the scriptures, meditating and discoursing with the yamabushi (those who sleep in the mountains), monks and ascetics who were honoured by the rural population for their holiness or accomplishments in the magical arts. In 788 Saicho built the Hieizanji Temple, carved and placed an image of Yakushi, the Healing Buddha, in it, gathered other monks who had retired from Nara around him, and undertook a rigorous study of sacred texts favoured by the T'ien-t'ai school founded by Chih-i in China.
Saicho kept in touch with the imperial court in Nagaoka, and he knew that the emperor had come to prefer the ascetic idealism of monks dwelling in distant hermitages to their courtly counter parts. When it became clear that the emperor wished to relocate his capital, Saicho prevailed on him through court friends to establish himself in Kyoto, on the western side of Mount Hiei. Saicho realized that the shift in location signalled a change in imperial support, away from purely courtly Buddhist practices, and towards Buddhist work in the general populace. In 793 Saicho purified the ground of the new capital – a ritual formerly reserved exclusively for the priests at Nara – and in 794 the emperor changed residences. In 797 Saicho was appointed one of ten naigubuso, imperial court priests. In 804 Emperor Kammu ordered a Lotus Sutra Meeting, devoted to the Saddharma Pundarika or Lotus Sutra. Ten eminent priests from Nara presided, but Saicho was the chief speaker. His eloquence and earnestness so impressed the emperor that he undertook to send Saicho to China to gather up T'ien-t'ai scriptures and teachings. In addition, he gave generous support to Saicho's temple and monastic school, inaugurating the grand complex of temples and colleges which characterized what historians have come to call the Heian period.
In 804 the emperor sent four ships to China, with Saicho on one and Kukai on another. Curiously, only two of the four ships setting sail survived the crossing, and these two carried the initiators of Heian Buddhist thought. Whilst Kukai journeyed to Ch'ang-an, Saicho made his way to Mount T'ien-t'ai, where he studied under its leading monks and received instruction in meditation. Just before he returned to Japan almost a year later, he met the accomplished tantric teacher Shun-hsia of the Lung-hsing Temple and was initiated into esoteric practices. When he reached the shores of his homeland, he carried with him four hundred and fifty volumes of Buddhist texts, the sanction to teach T'ien-t'ai doctrines in Japan, an introduction to Ch'an (Zen) practice, and an abiding interest in mikkyo or tantra. Although his teachings followed T'ien-t'ai doctrines, his own experience and interests gave the Tendai school he founded a distinctive Japanese flavour. In addition, he sought to strengthen the emerging national integrity of Japan, which he hoped might eventually become a Buddha-realm on earth, and he advocated social reform in contrast to the more contemplative T'ien-t'ai view. He invented the phrase dainipponkoku, "great country of Japan".
When Saicho returned to Mount Hiei in 805, he found a flourishing community of temples, colleges and monasteries which had been declared the "Chief Seat of the Buddhist Religion for the Safety of the Nation". The emperor, however, was gravely ill, and Saicho rushed to the imperial palace to perform a healing ceremony. In gratitude, the emperor accorded the new school two nembundosha, annual priests appointed by the emperor, thereby granting official status to the Tendai shu. When Emperor Kammu died in 805, his successor showed little interest in Tendai affairs, but he died after a short reign. When Emperor Saga ascended the throne in 809, warm relations were quickly re-established. In the same year, Kukai returned to the capital and Saicho undertook to bring him to imperial notice.
Saicho borrowed several mikkyo texts that Kukai had secured in Ch'ang-an and incorporated their ideas into the growing Tendai school. But even though the two monks maintained friendly relations for a number of years, their radically different temperaments eventually sundered them. Kukai could not accept Saicho's view that Tendai philosophy and Shingon esoteric practice (brought to Japan by Kukai) were identical. He even refused Saicho's later requests for mikkyo texts. Perhaps the most tragic development in their relationship was the strange events surrounding Taihan, a close disciple of Saicho. Taihan had come from Nara to join the Tendai shu after meeting Saicho, and he eventually became his most trusted disciple. In 812 Saicho named Taihan his successor. A few months later, Taihan abruptly left Mount Hiei on the grounds that he could not square his onerous duties as successor with his personal failings as a monk. When Saicho's pleas had no effect, he entrusted Taihan to Kukai for esoteric instruction. By 816 it was clear that Taihan would not return, and Saicho was broken-hearted.
Saicho himself decided to leave Mount Hiei and take up residence in the Kaito area. He visited the shrine of Prince Shotoku on the way and soon found many monks sympathetic to the Tendai movement. Hardly had he settled when he wrote his Ehyo Tendaishu (Basic Principles of Tendai). A brilliant scholar of the Hosso shu wrote a critical response, and Saicho wrote a treatise on Tendai, defending the concept of ekayana, the one vehicle, against the Hosso triyana, the view that shravaka, pratyeka buddha and bodhisattva were three different destinies given to different people. Suddenly Saicho discovered a strength in himself and his teachings that he had not realized before, and in 818 he took a bold step. He announced that he was renouncing his ordination and requested the emperor to permit the founding of an independent Mahayana kaidan or initiation centre, and he returned to Mount Hiei to secure it.
Although the emperor was sympathetic to Saicho's request for freedom from Nara, the monk had gone so far as to advocate the elimination of all imperial control of Buddhist orders. Nara, its schools jealous of their prerogatives, exploded in petitions seeking denial of the request. Thus a lively debate began which centred on religious issues, but had enormous political implications. Although Saicho was not to see the new kaidan in his lifetime, his death produced the most convincing argument. His health had been frail ever since he had named Taihan his successor, but the strenuous struggle to realize his dream visibly took its toll. When he died at the age of fifty-six in 822, the emperor was shocked. Within a week, permission for the new kaidan was granted. Forty- four years later, Saicho became the first person in the history of Japan to be granted the posthumous title of daishi, 'great master'. Emperor Seiwa named him Dengyo Daishi, 'Propagator of the True Religion'.
According to Saicho, the Tendai tradition could be traced back to Nagarjuna through Kumarajiva, who translated Nagarjuna's writings and the Lotus Sutra into Chinese. Chih-i was the first T'ien-t'ai teacher and patriarch, and the seventh patriarch, Tao sui, was Saicho's teacher. In addition to the Lotus Sutra, Tendai shu revered the Maha Parinirvana Sutra, which affirms that all beings are capable of eventual enlightenment, the Maha Prajnaparamita Sutra, which balances the Void and phenomenal existence through the concept of the Middle Way, and the writings of Chih-i which focussed on the Lotus Sutra. Respecting all texts as scriptures, Saicho accepted Chih-i's division of them into five periods of teaching and eight levels of doctrine.
Fundamental to the Tendai view is a threefold conception of truth, inspired by Nagarjuna. First of all, there is the principle of "following the transient and realizing shunyata, the Void". Known as ku, this approach realizes the emptiness of temporary phenomena without reifying either shunyata or things. Secondly, there is ke, the principle of "following shunyata and understanding the temporary", which emphasizes the movement from enlightenment to action in the phenomenal world without being ensnared in it. Thirdly, the principle of chu is the Middle Way, which balances realization and application, insight and right action. Saicho emphasized the threefold nature of truth to counter the error of becoming either worldly or other-worldly, since the Bodhisattva Path requires both an understanding of truth and work for others, prajna and karuna.
All dharmas, Chih-i and Saicho taught, can be subsumed under ten aspects of existence, from enlightenment down through the most temporary phenomenon. In addition, the aspects represent a movement from potentiality through manifestation and culminate in a unity. The possible forms of existence begin with potentiality: as so, external appearance; sho, internal characteristics; and tai, their combination as a totality. The four aspects of manifestation are riki, inherent capacity or power; sa, function; in, immediate cause or origin; and en, indirect cause, conditions or circumstances. Two aspects fall under the category of results: ka, result of causation; and ho, its tangible manifestation. Finally, there is a consistency or unity which is called honmatsu kukyo, the consistency and unity of the previous nine aspects, best expressed in terms of ku, ke and chu. These ten aspects represent the ten stages of man (jikkai), the world of Buddha from the standpoint of enlightenment, the process of separation and unification, and the ten stages of spiritual practice. The jikkai combine the six existences – hell, hungry ghost, animal, asura, human and deva – and the four Mahayana additions – shravaka, pratyeka buddha, bodhisattva and buddha.
In man, each of these is a psychological realm which contains the other nine realms within itself. This view led to the doctrine of ichinen sanzen, "one thought is three thousand worlds", meaning that even a single thought of the lowest state of consciousness contains the seeds of every other state, including supreme enlightenment. The practical implication of this doctrine is that all beings are potentially capable of attaining enlightenment.
Saicho also taught the shikan method of meditation, from shi (shamantha or concentration) and kan (vipashyana or insight), which involves the effort to experience shunyata, to void the seeming reality of phenomena in daily life, and to achieve a balance between these two activities. Different but related practices developed, including sitting in tranquil meditation for extended periods of time, chanting and venerating the image of Amida (Amitabba) whilst circumambulating it, a combination of these two, and the practice of contemplating ethical themes while engaging in ordinary activities. The broad aim of Tendai doctrines and methods is to unite firmly theory and practice.
Following Chih-i, Saicho sought to unify the historical Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha, with the eternal metaphysical reality of Buddha. In this view, the ultimate nature of things, dharmata, is the fundamental truth of being. This universal, eternal Truth is Buddha. But ultimate reality periodically manifests in transient phenomena to point the way to Truth, and the historical Buddha was chief amongst many such incarnations. In fact, this dual description is true of all beings, each of which is a transitory manifestation that nonetheless has the Buddha-nature within its mortal veil. The Middle Way synthesizes the realism demanded by common sense and the idealism inherent in any transcendental standpoint. The Middle Way is therefore ekayana, the one vehicle, which affirms the fundamental unity of Buddha and all beings. Tendai avers that every creature can attain the enlightenment of Buddha and, indeed, that it must do so. Gautama Buddha walked amongst men solely to induce beings to strive to realize this ultimate unity, which is the realization of their own true nature. Whenever beings caught in inferior states of existence need this kind of direct assistance, Buddha comes again into the world in whatever guise is necessary to redeem them.
Mankind occupies a position half-way between the supremely enlightened Buddha and the lowest of the Jikkai, the hell-being. This is why he can either sink to infernal states of consciousness or soar to union with Buddha. To do the latter, however, requires not just that one recognize the Buddha-nature within and then seek to realize it directly in meditative experience. One also has to recognize and realize in practice the essential unity of all things. For Saicho, the Bodhisattva Path was not an option on the way to enlightenment; it was a condition for attaining ultimate realization. One must come to see unity in diversity even whilst meeting the diverse needs of every creature. Saicho taught that the Middle Way is arduous, for even a single thought or act can awaken a tendency which plunges one into any of the realms of being from which return is difficult.
Tendai advises the earnest aspirant to attempt to live according to two principles. The first is to remember always that any state or condition that one might experience is merely a manifestation of one's own nature – a region in the geography of consciousness, so to speak. The second is to emulate the life of Buddha as the moral exemplar. "Save yourself by saving others, and save others by saving yourself." If one understands these two principles, one will find compassion for all beings arising spontaneously within oneself. Such a path requires an abiding faith not only in Buddha but also in oneself, for faith consists in identifying oneself with the arcane mystery of the Buddha-nature within, which is nothing but a radical identity with Buddha.
Such a community of faith includes monks and lay disciples alike, and in spirit embraces the whole of humanity. Prince Shotoku, whose teacher belonged to the T'ien-t'ai school, was long recognized as an advocate of just such a community. Nonetheless, his imperial position gave an unavoidable aristocratic tone to his work. Saicho sought to achieve a balance between the aristocracy and the general population, between monk and layman, by reformulating the idea of the sangha. For him, the sangha consisted of two parallel orders, one of monks bound by the vinaya rules, and the other of lay disciples who chose to follow buddhadharma within their worldly callings. However much rules have to apply to particular groups and not others, Saicho uncompromisingly held that the message of Buddha is for everyone and that each human being could follow it within the constraints of his or her particular life. For Saicho, the community of faith represented the practical meaning of his unitary philosophy – the unity of devotee and object of devotion. Saicho sought to live the life he taught all to live, which was more than a life of rectitude and exemplification. He combined faith and ethics into a single whole, teaching that each individual could and should live the life of the universal Self.