Tendai Buddhism: a one-page summary

For Ohigan, I wanted to pass along this interesting article I read which summarizes Tendai Buddhism quite nicely in a single page, and touches about aspects of Japanese Buddhism in general. For most people not living in Japan, Zen and (sometimes) Pure Land Buddhism tend to dominate the dialogue. People are most familiar with them, and have very little exposure to other Buddhist sects from Japan.

However, Tendai’s role in Buddhism shouldn’t be ignored, for many reasons:

  • Many of the famous Buddhists in Japanese history were former Tendai monks (e.g. Dogen, Honen, Eisai, Shinran, Nichiren, etc). Although they had their different teachings, they tend to still carry a “Tendai outlook”. IT’s hard to see this until you compare with something like Shingon Buddhism or Hosso Buddhism (or Nara Buddhism in general) which had different assumptions.
  • For centuries, Tendai was the de facto state Buddhist sect in Japan. This changed when the Heian Period ended, and Buddhist gradually, gradually moved east (and newer sects gained prominence), but Tendai still is deeply rooted in the culture. Technically, I think it’s still the “official” sect of the Imperial Family, and the Tokugawa Shoguns, but I might be wrong here.
  • Tendai still maintains a considerable presence in Japan, and many famous temples you visit are in fact Tendai temples. As reader “Jeff” pointed out, Sanjūsangendō with the famous images of Kannon Bodhisattva is one such example.
  • Tendai’s broad approach to Buddhism, contrasted with narrowly defined sects like Zen and Pure Land, provides an alternative approach to Buddhism in Japan.

In order to get a more well-rounded picture of Buddhism in Japan, it helps to get familiar with other sects like Shingon, Tendai and Hosso which provide a counter-balance to the more familiar sects like Zen and Pure Land (Jodo Shu, Jodo Shinshu).

Also, one point in the article really caught my attention:

For instances, one priest of Dai-Ajari rank, but not a kaihogyo practioner asked me the following questions and then provided the answers as well: “Did Sakyamuni Buddha practice kaihogyo? No! Did he burn goma? No! Did he say prayers? No! Did he recite mantra? No! Did he speak the lotus Sutra? No! Was he a vegetarian? No!” …. The Mahayana tradition as it has come down to us may be understood as deriving from Sakyamuni’s final instructions to the Sangha: “Work out your own realization with diligence!” Many lineage holders have done just that over the last 2500 years, and what they have found to be true and beneficial, and in harmony with Sakyamuni’s words, that they have passed on to us.

It’s an interesting affirmation that Buddhism is broad, and within in it there are many people trying to follow the Dharma in their own way. I liked the command about the Buddha not reciting mantras, burn “goma“, etc. This is not meant to criticize existing practices, but rather to emphasize that no one sect or group has a monopoly on the Dharma and can’t dictate how things should be. Instead, in the spirit of flexibility and tolerance, people adapt the teachings in their own time/place.

A nice message for Ohigan I thought. :)

P.S. A double-post. I have a backlog of posts, and can’t get them out fast enough. ;p

P.P.S. A post on Tendai liturgy for those who are curious.


6 Comments on “Tendai Buddhism: a one-page summary”

  1. johnl says:

    I think the Tokugawas first used Kaneiji, a Tendai temple situated in what is now Ueno Park in Tokyo, for their funeral and memorial ceremony needs. Somewhere along the line, someone wanted to use Zojoji, a Jodo (Pure Land) temple, for such things. It caused terrible friction, and finally they reached a compromise of alternating the ceremonies between the two temples. Kaneiji is now only a shadow of its former glory. It was destroyed in a battle of the Meiji Restoration. I think the main hall was originally where the National Museum is now, commanding a view of the cherry-lined avenue that is now a reflecting pool. The temple is now on the other side of Tokyo University of Arts (Geidai).

  2. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi John,

    I remember reading about Kaneiji’s demise and its current status but I had no idea about the Shogunate switching allegiance to Zojoji. Gotta love it when religion+politics mix. :-)

  3. Jeff says:

    Not to get nickpicky on you, Doug, but Kiyomizudera is Hosso, not Tendai, and Sensoji went independent years ago, so it too is not Tendai. Perhaps you were thinking of Sanjusangendo, another famous tourist temple, which is indeed Tendai. Just thought you’d want to know. Thanks for an interesting post, as always!

  4. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Eek! Wow thanks for pointing that out. I honestly thought all these years that Kiyomizudera was a Tendai temple, not Hosso. But you’re right it’s (independent) Hosso. Sensoji I admittedly forgot.

    I better fix up that part though. Thanks much!

  5. Andrew says:

    Things have really come full circle for me. I first found your blog two years ago by looking for instructions for how to make Okayu and found the post you made on the subject. I wasn’t a buddhist yet but your post got me very interested. After a while I bought some of the books you recommended and are still some of my favourites. Eventually, I started living in temples. I stopped reading your blog as much. I forgot a lot of what i learned here, but I think the attitude it gave me protected me from many buddhist pit falls. I came back from time to time, but never like I used to. After living monastically for 18 month, I took a break and lived on my own for the first time. I didn’t think about buddhism much and for six months I was standing pretty still. But somehow I started practicing again and before I knew it I was on my way to a tiny up and coming Tendai monastery in Northern California for a one week stay. Now I come back and have new energy for practice. I come back to your site and feel very nostalgic. The Koreaphile is new. I have to say it’s not as catchy as your old title. I was just browsing your Buddhists’ Field Manual, which I don’t think was here last time, when I found this “interesting article” written by Vk Leary, with whom I had very intimate training last week at the California Tendai Monastery. But even before I found that neat coincidence, I was meaning to write you a message to e you know how vital this blog has been to my buddhist career. Are you still in Washington? I would very much like to visit you sometime.

  6. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Andrew and welcome (back) to the JLR! Thanks very much for the encouraging words.

    Yeah the blog, like my life, has evolved and changed over the last few years. It’s probably not worth catching up on two years of posts though. :-)

    I’m not too happy with the title either but I haven’t found a suitable alternative yet. Oh well.

    P.S. Sorry for the late reply.


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