01 Japanese History

#09 Saicho & Kukai

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In 804, the 16th Japanese envoy to the Tang Dynasty was dispatched. Among them were two geniuses who would shape the future of Buddhism in Japan. They were Saicho and Kukai.

Saicho was born in Omi Province (present-day Shiga Prefecture). After training in the rugged mountains of Tang China, Saicho returned to Japan. He entered the Enryaku-ji Temple on Mount Hiei, and he founded the Tendai sect of Buddhism.

Kukai was born in Sanuki Province (present-day Kagawa Prefecture). He studied the latest Buddhism in Chang’an, the capital of the Tang Dynasty. After returning to Japan, he built the Kongobu-ji Temple on Koyasan (Mt. Koya), and he founded the Shingon sect.

They both studied the teachings known as Esoteric Buddhism and introduced them to Japan. Esoteric Buddhism is a branch of Buddhist teachings that originated in India, in which secret doctrines and rituals are transmitted orally from master to disciple.

The esoteric Buddhism of Saicho is called Taimitsu. It is believed that Dainichi Nyorai and Shakyamuni Nyorai are the same Buddha. On the other hand, Kukai’s esoteric Buddhism is called Tōmitsu. Dainichi Nyorai and Shakyamuni Nyorai are two different Buddhas, and Dainichi Nyorai is considered the supreme Buddha among all buddhas.

Saicho and Kukai, as pioneers of Japanese esoteric Buddhism, interacted and learned from each other, and finally insulated themselves due to doctrinal differences. Saicho’s Enryaku-ji Temple became the center of the Japanese Buddhist world, producing many famous monks in later years. Meanwhile, Kukai became a charismatic figure through his social projects such as flood control projects and relief for the poor.

The Tendai and Shingon sects are still widely practiced and considered to be influential among the Japanese people even after 1200 years.

Thank you for reading. I hope you have found the history of Japan interesting so far. I look forward to seeing you again soon.

Let's learn about wonderful history and culture of Japan together!  全国通訳案内士(英語) 英検1級

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