The Tendai sect of Buddhism (天台宗 Tendai-shū) is the Japanese counterpart of the Chinese Tiantai (Tiāntái zōng) sect and was first brought to Japan by the Chinese monk Ganjin (鑑眞) in the 8th century. In 806, the Japanese monk Saichō (最澄; or Dengyō Daishi 伝教大師, 767-822) returned from China and re-introduced its teachings. Together with Shingon, it was the dominant sect of the Heian Period (794-1185). Although the popular Buddhist movements of the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) such as the Jōdō sect (Pure Land sect, 浄土仏教 Jōdo bukkyō) and Nichiren sect evolved from it, Tendai itself was closely identified with the court nobility through its history. In 1571, its temple headquarters of Enryakuji on Mount Hiei (比叡山 Hieizan) was almost destroyed by the first of the three great unifiers of Japan, Oda Nobunaga, and the sect never fully recovered from this blow.

Chinese Tiantai

The Tiantai sect in China was founded by Zhiyi (chin. 智顗, jp. Chigi, 538-597) and along with the Huayan (華嚴 Hua-yen; jp. 華厳宗 Kegon) sect was considered to be one of the two great philosophical sects of Chinese Buddhism. Regarding doctrine, Tiantai blends the diverse teachings of the Buddha as found in the Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna scriptures, utilising the message of the Lotus Sutra as its unifying framework. Classifying the sutras according to the time and manner in which the Buddha purportedly preached them and according to their content, Tiantai sees the Buddha's supreme teaching manifested in pure form in the Lotus Sutra, which taught the oneness of Buddhism and explicated a strongly affirmative attitude toward the phenomenal world.

Tiantai philosophy was based on the fundamental Mahayana teaching of emptiness - that all things, being impermanent, are devoid of self-entity. The main points of Tiantai's interpretation of this teaching are as follows:

  1. To say that all things have no self-entity is to say that nothing exists of itself.
  2. This is not to say that nothing at all exists, but rather that the state of ultimate reality is beyond all conceptualisation in such terms as existence or nonexistence.
  3. Whatever that state of ultimate reality may be, it never occurs in the abstract but is identical with this impermanent phenomenal world.
  4. Hence "everything is real," "each thing is identical with all things," and "one's ignorant, the unenlightened state is identical with the state of Buddhahood."

Tiantai also focused on meditation to aid in realising these teachings and established a set of meditational practices. These practices almost all involved meditation on a specific Buddha or bodhisattva, such as Amitabha (jp: 阿弥陀仏 Amidabutsu) or Avalokitesvara (jap: 観音 Kannon). Tiantai practices were highly eclectic, combining various types of meditational practices expounded in many sutras.


Although copies of Tiantai writings were available in Japan by the mid-8th century, they had no far-reaching influence until Saichō discovered them in the 790s. As a young man, Saichō had become dissatisfied with the increasing worldliness of the Buddhism of his day (called Nara Buddhism, since it was centred at the magnificent temples of Nara) and in 785 had secluded himself in a thatched hut on Mount Hiei to live in meditation and prayer. He gradually began to attract disciples and lay patrons, including the reigning Emperor Kammu, and to create a small monastic community.

After discovering Tiantai and seeing in it an alternative to Nara Buddhism, Saichō went to China in 804 to receive accreditation from a Chinese Tiantai master. During his nine-month stay, he fulfilled this goal at the headquarters of the Chinese sect, Mount Tiantai. At the end of his stay, he also learned some rituals from a master of esoteric Buddhism.

Founding of Japanese Tendai

After he had returned to Japan, Emperor Kammu officially recognised the Tendai sect on Mount Hiei. Kammu, however, stipulated that esoteric Buddhism is part of the Tendai sect. From its very founding, Tendai was unique in two ways:

  1. Unlike the schools of Nara Buddhism, several of which could be found coexisting in the Nara temples, Tendai transmitted only its teachings on Mt. Hiei.
  2. Esoteric rituals were incorporated into the Tendai sect from its inception, and for this reason, Japanese Tendai diverged from its Chinese counterpart, which transmitted only the Tiantai doctrines.

Kukai's esoteric Buddhism

The first challenge to the Tendai sect came from Kūkai (空海 774-835), the founder in Japan of the Shingon sect, who had acquired a mastery of esoteric Buddhism in China. Saichō's Tendai sect had the official mandate from the court for performing esoteric Buddhism, but Kūkai's knowledge of esoteric Buddhism was far superior to that of Saichō. At first, between 809 and 816, Saichō regarded Kūkai as a teacher and colleague. However, their friendship ended when Kūkai made it increasingly clear that he considered esoteric Buddhism to be superior to all other forms of Buddhism and, finally, refused to return one of Saichō's disciples who had defected to him.

The Bodhisattva precepts

An even graver challenge came from Nara. Under the existing system, all novice monks in central Japan were required to be tested and receive final ordination at Nara. Many novices from Mount Hiei who went to Nara chose to remain there. In 818, Saichō asked the court for permission under which the Tendai sect would utilise the Mahāyāna bodhisattva precepts as the basis for final ordination in place of the traditional Hinayana precepts. (The bodhisattva precepts were more straightforward and did not distinguish between monks and laypeople. Although they were widely accepted in China, they had never been used as the basis for ordination as had the traditional Hinayana precepts.)

Saichō was in effect petitioning for a separate ordination system for Tendai, which in fact constituted a request for institutional independence. He also proposed that Tendai monks serve the nation as teachers of Buddhism after having first stayed on Mount Hiei for 12 years of study.

Opposition from the Nara monks to Saichō's proposal was so intense that the court withheld its reply. Finally, seven days after Saichō's death in the sixth month of 822, the court gave its approval. The following year, the court recognised the Tendai centre on Mount Hiei by naming it Enryakuji after the name of the year period in which it was founded.

Saichō's Successors

After Saichō's death, Kūkai grew in dominance and was much honoured as a master of esoteric Buddhism. His centre was on Mount Koya (高野山 Kōya-san in modern-day Wakayama Prefecture). Not only did Kūkai have a better mastery of esoteric Buddhism than any Tendai monk, but he declared esoteric Buddhism to be superior to all other sects, including Tendai. Saichō's successors were unable to refute Kūkai, nor could they compete with him in the performance of esoteric rituals. At last, in 835, just before his death, the court officially recognised Kūkai's sect of esoteric Buddhism. This Shingon sect became Tendai's great rival.

Ennin and Enchin

Tendai's fortunes were revived by Ennin (圓仁 or 円仁, posthumously known as Jikaku Daishi 慈覺大師, 794-864), who went to China in 839 and stayed for nine years, thoroughly studying, among other things, esoteric Buddhism. Upon his return to Japan, Ennin revived the Tendai sect's position at court through his mastery of esoteric Buddhist rituals and received honour after honour from the emperor. It is to Ennin's credit that Tendai was firmly established in esoteric Buddhism.

Enchin (円珍, 814-891) repeated Ennin's accomplishment. He left for China in 853, also to study esoteric Buddhism and returned in 858. Like Ennin, he was much honoured by the court. In the 10th century, a bitter rivalry developed between monks of Ennin's line and those of Enchin's line, until finally in 993, the latter moved out of Enryaku-ji as a body and established themselves at Onjōji (三井寺 Miidera) at the foot of Mount Hiei. Subsequently, there were occasional armed clashes between the monks of Enryakuji and Onjōji.

Annen (安然, b 841), in a sense, completed the work of Ennin and Enchin. Whereas his predecessors had tried to merge the philosophies of Tendai and esoteric Buddhism, Annen took this to an extreme by interpreting Tendai entirely from the viewpoint of esoteric Buddhism, declaring it to be superior to Tendai and even claiming the name Shingon for his sect.

Hongaku philosophy

From the 9th century on, Tendai monks showed little interest in esoteric philosophy. Nevertheless, esoteric philosophy did have a significant impact on Tendai. The 11th and 12th centuries saw the proliferation of secret Tendai writings from master to disciple, displaying an extreme form of Tendai philosophy. Called hongaku (本覚, "original enlightenment" teaching), it affirmed the reality of the world-as-it-is and sentient beings as-they-are as identical to enlightened beings (仏 hotoke). It went so far as to deny any moral distinctions. This hongaku philosophy resulted from esoteric influence on traditional Tendai philosophy. Hongaku philosophy greatly influenced the sects that later grew out of Tendai.

Pure Land Buddhism

The most significant development in Tendai after the 9th century was the growth of Pure Land Buddhist teachings. Kūya (空也, 903-972), Ryōgen (良源, 912-985), Genshin (源信, 942-1017), and Ryōnin (良忍, 1073-1132) all contributed to the Tendai Pure Land movement, which culminated in the Kamakura Period with the establishment of independent Pure Land sects, such as the Jōdō sect of Hōnen (法然, 1133-1212) and the Jōdōshin sect of his disciple, Shinran (親鸞, 1173-1263).

At its peak, during the 10th and 11th centuries, Tendai received the generous patronage of emperors and powerful families such as the Fujiwara family. The Lotus Sutra was very popular among the Heian aristocracy, as were esoteric rituals. Aristocratic families built many private Tendai temples whose abbacies were restricted to family members. Like Shingon, Tendai eventually created a system whereby Shinto gods (kami) were incorporated as objects of worship. However, unlike Shingon, it made little effort to attract the masses. Instead, all its potentially popular elements broke away during the Kamakura Period. The Pure Land Buddhism of Hōnen and Shinran, the Lotus Sutra faith of Nichiren (1222-82), and even Zen all had their roots in Tendai but eventually asserted their independence. Thus, as the fortunes of the court aristocracy declined, so did those of Tendai.

Destruction of Enryakuji

Moreover, from the 11th century onward, as Enryakuji grew into a wealthy and powerful centre, a class of monks known as warrior monks appeared who did not hesitate to resort to violence to defend the temple's interests. They frequently put pressure on the court and often took sides in military and political disputes. Finally, in 1571, Oda Nobunaga ended their military and political influence by destroying almost all of the vast temple complex of Enryakuji. This act signalled the end of Tendai's influence. During the Edo Period (1600-1868), Tendai recovered somewhat, reviving its tradition of orthodox philosophical studies, but it never regained its former prominence.


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