Tuesday, November 13, 2012



This is the story of the life and activities of an exemplary Tendai priest, Ryogen (AKA Jie Daishi, Ganzan Daishi, Tsuno Daishi, Mame Daishi, etc.), who lived 912-985AD, about 150 years after Saicho the Tendai founder.

A Tendai priest nowadays will usually undergo several years of broad and general training at a temple, followed by an intense 2-month "Gyo" resulting in ordination, and then he will specialize in one or two areas of the Dharma.  Ryogen with his extraordinary talent and energy embodied and manifested a full range of Tendai activities, innovations, and responses to the circumstances of his times.  At the base of all those activities was his burning desire to bring all sentient beings to awakening and to cause the Dharma to endure forever. The stories below are culled from Paul Groner's book "Ryogen and Mount Hiei" (2002), a thorough 500-page study with a wealth of information, including translations of some of the historical documents.  Here my intention is a much shorter retelling of Ryogen's important activities which in the book are often buried under scholarly verbiage and lost in the details of the Mount Hiei context.  All the quotes are from this book.  The material will be grouped in the following nine sections: 

1.  Childhood and Ordination                                                                            

2.  Early Renown Through Formal Debates                                                    

3.  Becoming the Priest for Japan's Rulers                                                      

4.  His Pure Motivation Maturing at Age 37                                                    

5.  As Founder of the Tendai Educational and Examination Systems              

6.  As Esoteric Master and Trainer of His Disciples                                      

7.  As Leader (Zasu) of the Tendai School for His Last 19 Years                  

8.  Ryogen's Devotion to His Mother                                                                

9.  Supernatural Powers and Legends  


Ryogen was born of poor parents in the town of Omi, on the north shore of Lake Biwa about 50 miles from the Tendai center on Mount Hiei.  From age 8 he was recognized locally as a special child.  It is probable his father died when Ryogen was about 9, and when he was  11 years old his mother agreed to the urging of the esoteric master Kakue that her son enter temple life on Mount Hiei, in particular at the Hodo-in temple where the abbot Risen resided and would become his teacher.

In that era the government granted each sect a very restricted number of 'yearly ordinands', that is, monks who would be supported by government funding, provided they passed the rigorous examination.  The plan for Ryogen to become a yearly ordinand (after 5 years in the temple) ran into a snag, however, when his primary teacher and sponsor Risen died.  It was then arranged through various connections that a temple of a different sect, Yakushi-ji of the Hosso Sect of Nara, would give up their yearly ordinand for Ryogen's sake.  The actual ordination, though, was conducted by Son-i, the Tendai Zasu, when Ryogen was 16 years old.  The usual minimum age of ordination is 20, but a younger age is permitted under Bodhisattva Precepts.


Education focused on learning to read and memorize sutras and other texts.  At age 17 he entered a debate on Mount Hiei, and after winning the debate, the priest who lost (Jo-e), asked to become Ryogen's disciple, even though Jo-e was 5 years senior.  Then  two brothers, Senga and Shoku, were made his disciples and yearly ordinands by Kizo of the Hodo-in temple, and these two, some 40 years later becoming great priests in their own right, were able to assist Ryogen's work. 

As his reputation spread, some rival monks wished to put him to the test.  Given only two days notice, Ryogen was forced to debate against an expert in a field he had not studied (Buddhist logic), but Ryogen stayed up all night memorizing the text, won the debate, and even advanced a new interpretation.

At age 25 he gained prominence outside Mount Hiei by accompanying Kizo who was chosen to be the Lecturer that year at the famous annual nation-wide assembly for the Vimalakirti Sutra (the Yuima-e) at Kofukuji temple in Nara.  The preliminary debate paired Ryogen with Gissho of the Hosso Sect; Ryogen won; the two became close friends; and the Imperial Emissary who attended the assembly spread word of Ryogen in the Court. 


When 27 years old he accompanied his esoteric master Kakue to do a service for Tadahira Fujiwara, the leader of one faction of the ruling Fujiwara  clan.  Tadahira asked Ryogen to stay behind after the other monks had departed, requesting him to pray for a good rebirth.  Tadahira was 60 at the time, dying at 70. Through his efforts and political maneuvering he had led his faction to the top of the clan, and this dominance continued with his son and grandson, both of whom in time became disciples of Ryogen.

At age 37 Ryogen went to the Fujiwara home in connection with Tadahira's funeral.  Tadahira had requested his younger son Morosuke to take Ryogen as his teacher.  The following is a long quote from Groner's book:  "About this time, Ryogen seems to have had an inauspicious dream that foretold of some disaster.  He decided to ask the Fujiwara clan for permission to return to Mount Hiei to practice.  However, Tadahira's oldest son, Saneyori, objected.  Only when Morosuke intervened and argued that Ryogen could pray for their father's repose while he was on Mount Hiei did Saneyori relent and agree that Ryogen could return to Mount Hiei.  Ryogen did not return to the central monastic complex on Mount Hiei; rather he chose a deserted and seemingly unimportant area called Yokawa."  (Yokawa was founded by Ennin about 100 years earlier for the same purpose, that is, as a place of intense and secluded practice about 5 miles distant from Hiei's central complex.) 

While Tadahira's branch of the Fujiwaras ascended to become the rulers of Japan, several sons entered Tendai and became religious leaders under the direction of Ryogen.  Morosuke's ninth son Jinzen was ordained at age 15 and then began his 12-year confinement in the Yokawa section of Mount Hiei, following which Ryogen gave him the abbacy of Yokawa.  24 years later Jinzen succeeded Ryogen as Zasu, the head of Tendai.

A document of the time reads, "Although simply called 'monks', [Morosuke's sons Jinzen and Jinkaku] have been the greatest wonder workers of our day.  There is nobody inside or outside of the Court who does not trust or revere them as though they were Buddhas."


While at Yokawa, Ryogen burned gomas (meditative fire rituals) for 300 consecutive days, an extremely demanding practice.  But just before starting, he made a secret set of vows which were found in his library only 36 years later after his death.  In these six vows he renounced any worldly motivation for activities that seemed from an outside viewpoint to be done for worldly purposes.  

The vows:  "When I had just begun my studies and religious practice, I participated in debates in order to defeat my opponents, and thereby I did wrong.  Now that I have performed my religious practices for a longer time, although outwardly I may appear to be acting in pursuit of fame, my actions are based on my intention to propagate the correct teaching.

"I ask (1) that the Buddhas of the ten directions protect this dull and foolish monk; (2) that all sentient beings empower (kaji) me; (3) that all those who vie with me in debate not succumb to anger, lust, and ignorance; (4) that even if I fall into adversity, others do not do so: (5) that those who hear my questions and answers develop the aspiration to enlightenment and that we plant the seeds for Buddhahood together; (6) that all those who neither hear nor see me still realize supreme enlightenment."

As another example, when at age 42 Ryogen was training his students at Yokawa, Morosuke and his retinue made an unannounced visit and found the teacher and students in the midst of ongoing activities such as: 1) the continuous and uninterrupted  recitation of the Nembutsu (i.e. calling on the name of Amitabha Buddha); 2) doing the Hokke Zanmai (the Lotus Sutra samadhi practice); and 3) lectures and questions on the Amitabha Sutra.  Obviously these were being done not for entertainment of the Fujiwaras nor to increase Ryogen's fame, but rather were from pure religious intent.

In his 51st year Ryogen arranged Lotus Sutra debates between the Tendai and Hosso Sects, intending that both 'losers' and 'winners' would benefit, as well as the audience.  The Hosso master said to Ryogen, "Your rhetoric is like that of Shakyamuni's disciple Purna.  How can I match it?"

Again consider as an example the following found in the written records:  When at age 60 Ryogen was ailing and thought he might soon die of the illness, he wrote out a detailed will.  In one section of the will, he urged his students to sponsor lectures and debates, and to continue giving the eight lectures on the Lotus Sutra at the annual Hiei memorial service "held for the sake of both ourselves and others throughout the Dharma Realm."  As a result of these lectures, "the merit is transferred to all sentient beings and eliminates their defilements, generates wisdom, and helps in the swift realization of Buddhahood."


Ryogen felt it necessary  to develop a new system of learning and examining to replace the existing systems in use at the Nara sects.  Emphasizing 'broad learning' and receiving government approval for the new system, Tendai monks were tested on Buddhist teachings outside of Tendai as well as kengyo (exoteric teachings) and mikkyo (esoteric teachings).

The examination was held twice a year, summer and fall, as part of the 'Four Seasonal Assemblies' he established at his headquarters in Yokawa.  Spring focused on the Nirvana Sutra; summer the Avatamsaka Sutra; fall the Lotus Sutra; and winter the large (600 volume) Prajnaparamita Sutra, Vimalakirti Sutra, and others.  Each assembly was at least 5 days duration.

The Tendai examination was grueling.  Only one candidate was chosen for each exam.  When Ryogen's disciple Kakuun was being examined, he answered the first nine questions so eloquently that the judge felt that his own knowledge on the subject had been exhausted.  At that point Ryogen took over the questioning and asked Kakuun something about esoteric Buddhism in order that Kakuun not achieve a perfect score.  Failing that question, Kakuun received 9/10 but subsequently became a master of esoteric Buddhism.

A popular examination topic was 'Sokushin Jobutsu', becoming the Buddha in this very body, with the answer required to be argued exclusively from esoteric texts.  A monk was encouraged to develop his own views on a topic, and many of these personal views ('shiki') were written down and studied by later  examinees.  In Ryogen's era, 18 topics had shiki, with each topic covered by a number of shiki, as many as ten.  Ryogen himself wrote shiki for nine of the topics, and other authors included Saicho, Ennin, and Chinese patriarchs such as Chi-i.

The examination questions were chosen randomly from a pile of sticks, each with one question.  Ryogen is said to have written 200-300 of these sticks, and then used 90 himself as subjects for a talk he gave each day during the 90-day summer 'rains retreat'.

As another scholarly and educational effort, Ryogen had written a list of 'shuyo' (major doctrines of the Tendai School), consisting of 100 primary questions and 100 secondary questions, which he then lectured on over a period of 100 days.

As a scholar, Ryogen is also recognized as the author of the first Japanese Pure Land work, a commentary on the Contemplation Sutra written when he was 48.  This was the beginning of a surge of interest in Pure Land thought, and within 150 years three major Sects had become established.  Today in Japan, the largest number of Buddhists are Pure Land devotees.


When Ryogen was 39, his esoteric teacher Kakue resigned his position as 'Master of Esoteric Buddhism' at Gangyoji temple in Kyoto and granted it to Ryogen.  During this time Ryogen and his disciples undertook the practice of copying a multitude of mantras and dharanis and placing them inside stupas.

Throughout his career Ryogen performed and adapted esoteric rituals, and besides the offering of gomas mentioned elsewhere, he is associated with: 1) the Ritual of the Seven Healing Buddhas; 2) the Five Platform  Ceremony (centered on Fudo Myo-O); and 3) the Ritual of Abundant Light (Shiho Koho).  He became known as a practitioner of esoteric ritual with superhuman powers of discernment, and he was said to look exactly like Fudo-sama when performing a ritual.  

His disciples were expected to know how to read and recite sutras, chant hymns, 'scatter flowers', and perform rituals. Also they should do ceremonies to remember their teachers -- from Shakyamuni Buddha down to Nagarjuna, to Chi-i, to Saicho and Ennin.  They should master Buddhist singing, and Ryogen founded several traditions of sacred music ('Shomyo' or sung mantra).  They should honor and revere the native deity of Mount Hiei, 'Sanno' (Mountain King), by "turning the pages of sutras during the day, and by recitation of memorized [my emphasis] sutras and mantras at night in their own residences." And also, every disciple "should be strong enough to mentally and physically persevere in cultivation and meditation practices."


Upon becoming Zasu at age 54, Ryogen had hoped to extend the same diligent and broad training given to his disciples to all the 2700 priests and monks of the sect.  However, two events soon after his ascension  in the month of August had great effect on the course of these plans.  In the following month of September his mother, to whom he was greatly devoted (see section 8 below), passed on, necessitating an elaborate funeral ceremony.  This however could not take place for another 13 years because in the month of October an accidental fire destroyed nearly all of the temples in the main complex of Mount Hiei, a total of 31 major buildings.

Even as the monks and lay followers were fighting the fires and the buildings were being reduced to ashes, Ryogen was drawing up plans for the rebuilding of the central complex.  Reconstruction was completed in six years, but Ryogen was also redesigning the other two complexes, Saito and Yokawa, making improvements and changes throughout Mount Hiei.  The records of his time list 38 new temples along with the religious activites for which each was designed.  Ryogen was directly responsible for determining each temple's size and architecture, its siting, the activities to be undertaken, for securing the building funds, and for the order in which they were constructed.  He based the priority on which religious practices were most essential.

The first two built were the Lotus Sutra Meditation Hall and the Constant-Walking Meditation Hall, and Ryogen was anxious that they be completed in time so that the annual performance of the Uninterrupted Nembutsu Meditation could be held on schedule.  The two buildings were adjacent with the same architecture and a connecting corridor  so that, aside from the annual ceremony, monks could chant the Lotus Sutra in the daytime and nembutsu in the evening.

The Constant-Walking Meditation was one of the Four Samadhis recommended by Chi-i (that is, samadhis of constant-walking, constant-sitting, half-sitting-half-walking, and neither-sitting-nor-walking), but when Ryogen became Zasu only this form was being practiced on Mt Hiei, leading him to re-instate the other three samadhi practices.  In Chi-i's 6thC T'ien-t'ai, the Constant-Walking Samadhi was done walking slowly around the inner perimeter of the temple for 90 days chanting the Nembutsu with a statue of Amitabha in the center.  In the 9thC Ennin brought back from Mt Wutai in China the version popular there, and this was the form being done in Ryogen's time.  There were three major changes: 1) the practice was shortened to 7 days; 2) the entire Amitabha Sutra was being chanted rather than the 6-syllable Nembutsu; and 3) the purpose was to express the intention to be reborn into the Pure Land, in addition to the meditation described in the Pratyutpanna-samadhi Sutra.

Further results of this practice are described in a book of Ryogen's time.  (1) By circumambulating the Buddha, all physical sins are vanquished.  (2) By constantly chanting the Sutra, all verbal sins are vanquished.  (3) By steadily thinking of the Buddha, all mental sins vanish.  Today on Mount Hiei, both the 7-day and the 90-day forms are being done.

 In the Lotus Samadhi Hall, the half-sitting-half-walking practice was used as a ceremony of confession and repentance performed for 21 days at the start of each of the four seasons.  But according to a manual of the times, the practice could also be used if one wishes "to see the Buddhas who have emanated from Prabhutaratna, to purify the six faculties, to enter the realm of the Buddhas, to be saved from various obstacles on the Path, or to enter the ranks of the bodhisattvas."

A Constant-Sitting Hall, also known as Manjushri's Tower, was completed 3 years after the fire.  Next was the Dharani Hall, the main center of esoteric practice, for which Ryogen petitioned the Court and received additional support for more 'masters of esoteric Buddhism'. But this Hall burned down again shortly after construction, angering Ryogen at the carelessness of the monks which caused the fire.  All other construction projects were suspended while rebuilding the Dharani Hall, and at the same time Ryogen penned the famous '26 Articles' (discussed below), regulations to reform the lax behavior and secular attitudes of the monks.  In relation to the Dharani Hall, an Esoteric Consecration Hall and a Mantra Hall were built next, and a Buddha's Relics Ceremony was held.

Following the construction of many other Halls, including a Lecture Hall, a Longevity Hall, a Hall for the Four Guardian Kings, libraries, worship halls, and living quarters for the monks, 14 years after the fire the large central hall of Mount Hiei, the Konpon Chudo, was completed and dedicated with a large public assembly.  Ryogen explained the reason for making the event public as follows:  "We have established assemblies in various places but very few people will come from nearby to hear the Dharma.  However, many people will travel from far off to hear music, see pageantry, and attend a celebration.  Thus through music, karmic ties to Buddhism are established."

The 26 Articles is a 20-page document too profound and detailed to be excerpted here. A complete translation is found in Groner's book.  In general, the Articles urged greater diligence in the religious aspects and the abandoning of secularism, laziness, carelessness, precept-breaking, fighting, and the love of food, socializing and entertainment.  It addressed the abuses of the monks of Mount Hiei, requiring them to be diligent religious practitioners and not lazy secular adherents, with a purpose and intention of causing the Dharma to abide forever.  Besides abuses particular to Ryogen's time, it  sought to re-establish the admonitions of Saicho and Ennin, the Bodhisattva Precepts, and the Buddha's own admonitions found in the Sutras.  Ryogen noted the following: some monks had neglected practices of study, chanting, singing, rituals, and ceremonies; were not attending services; were dressing in fancy robes; were concerned with receiving offerings of food and drink; were keeping horses, cows, and slaves; were carrying swords and weapons and disrupting services out of revenge; were administering punishments; were engaged in useless protocols requiring them to utter false platitudes; and were disobeying their teachers and failing to discipline their students.  Rather than these actions,  monks must devote themselves to all practices such as the 4 types of samadhi, the 12 year confinement, the uninterrupted nembutsu, the fortnightly recital of the precepts, and the offering of lectures and debates.

In other words, Ryogen wanted all Tendai Monks to practice the Dharma as assiduously as himself.  As one example, when he inaugurated the fortnightly (new moon and full moon) chanting of the Bodhisattva Precepts (an ancient Buddhist practice but not being done in Tendai at that time),   he prepared "by practicing reciting them every day for several weeks.  When the day of the first public recitation arrived and Ryogen began to chant, the characters chanted are said to have appeared  in light that issued from his mouth."

Ten years after publishing the 26 Articles, Ryogen carried out one of the Articles by expelling more than 1/4 (700 out of 2700) of the all the resident monks on Mount Hiei because they were absent from an important assembly.

While women were prohibited on Mount Hiei, according to Saicho's rules, Ryogen wanted to include and benefit them, which he did by moving some of the ceremonies to Kyoto.  By this innovation, women were able to attend, for instance, the Buddha's Relics Ceremony and the lecture on the 12th Chapter of the Lotus Sutra which tells the story of the daughter of the Naga King and how she became fully enlightened.


Ryogen's lifelong devotion to his mother was legendary.  Writing at age 37 (as part of a set of secret vows written then and discovered by others only after his death), he states, " Twelve or thirteen years ago, when I had just begun my quest for enlightenment, I had no wish for fame and fortune and only desired to retire to a deep valley to the south of the southern mountain [Mudo-ji].  But my old mother was still alive and without even coarse foods.  And so I went to live near her" and support her.

When Ryogen was 33 his mother turned 60 years old and he performed religious ceremonies for three days.  He copied six sutras, had six monks give lectures, and had another six ask questions.  For her 80th birthday the ceremonies were repeated with this time 80 monks participating.  When she passed away a year or two later, Ryogen had just been appointed Zasu and was forced to postpone her funeral due to the problems on Mount Hiei described above.  13 years later, carrying out her memorial service, "he performed the time-consuming and expensive 100-day goma service at her birthplace in Azai-ken."

Other Tendai monks before and after Ryogen sometimes had the same conflict between the twelve-year confinement or other religious obligations and caring for aged parents needing their support.  Often this caused monks to abandon their vows and return to the home life.  Ryogen sought to ameliorate the problem to some extent by specifying in his will that a stipend be provided for the support of the mothers of some of the monks.


Some of the incidents pointing to Ryogen's supernatural powers are documented. For others, documents were not found by Groner during his research and are therefore termed 'legends', though these too may have a factual basis.  Herein are included some of the stories and legends.

One such story is that while serving as Zasu he halted an ordination ceremony, predicting the immanent collapse of the platform ('kaidan'), which then occurred after the participants were safely evacuated.  He also was reputed to have played a magical role in getting the famous Gion Shrine in Kyoto transferred from the Hosso Sect temple of Kofuku-ji to Tendai's Enryaku-ji.  The Kofuku-ji had asked one of their most skillful debaters (Chuzen) to argue their case before the Court.  But Chuzen could not appear in court because he developed an illness one day after he said he had been speaking to Ryogen's spirit.  (Ryogen had died some time before.)

It is assumed that Ryogen's 70-day service for the Emperor's consort was successful due the subsequent birth of a future Emperor.  Four years after the birth, Ryogen held a service for Nyorin Kannon and held it at Gangyo-ji temple in Kyoto so it would be accessible to women.  He "demonstrated his seemingly superhuman powers of perception during the preparations for the ceremony.  When the main image for the ritual was missing, Ryogen suggested it might be found  in the repository where the founder of the temple Henjo had kept scriptures.  The monk in charge searched but could not find it, however upon returning at night to search again he found the image on top of a small shrine in the repository.  The monks who lived at Gangyo-ji had never seen the image before and were amazed at Ryogen's prescience."

When Ryogen was 68 years old, a disciple of his died and then a short while later revived, telling people that he had gone to the land of the dead and there had asked how to be reborn in the Pure Land, to which the official replied, "By following Ryogen who is a gongen (a transformed deity)."

Ryogen is also known for founding several divination systems, and it was believed that during a drought he could control rainfall.  He appeared in the auspicious dreams of later priests, and his posthumous spirit could be invoked as  a saint who had demon-conquering powers.

 One of the most widely believed legends, told more fully here, is how during an epidemic of plague in Kyoto, he tamed the demon of the plague, and then had a disciple make a wood-block image of Ryogen appearing to his disciples in the form of 'Tsuno Daishi'.  After having copies of this image posted at the entrance to afflicted residences all over Kyoto, the plague subsided.

To priests of his time and later, Ryogen was variously identified as the reincarnation of Shakyamuni Buddha, or of Saicho or Ennin, or again as an emanation of Kannon Bosatsu, Kokuzo Bosatsu, Fudo Myo-O, Shogun Jizo Bosatsu, and sometimes as a naga or kami-sama. 

Thus concludes the abbreviated story of a great innovator, leader, and inspirational practitioner of the Dharma. 






No comments: