Nirmal DASS

Historical illustration of Buddhist monks at worship, a scene that would have been familiar to Jian Zhen, a monk who traveled to Japan to propagate Buddhism. The school of Buddhism that Jian Zhen followed and preached was the Ritsu rite, which focused on the discipline of monasticism.

Jian Zhen, a Buddhist monk who did much to bring Buddhism to Japan, is credited with founding the Ritsu school, which concerns itself with the proper observation of monastic rules.

Famed for introducing Buddhism into Japan, Jian Zhen was instrumental in establishing strong Sino-Japanese bonds that fostered much cultural exchange between the two nations. Also known by his Japanese name, Ganjin, Jian Zhen was born in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province, and is the first of the various Chinese monks who introduced and established Buddhism in Japan.

Jian Zhen began his studies at the Dayun temple in Yangzhou, and at the age of twenty he went to Chang’an to further his education. By the time he returned to Yangzhou, at age twenty-six, he was well versed in Buddhist scriptures, in architecture, in literature, and also in medicine. Soon after his return he was elected the abbot of Daming monastery in recognition of his great learning and his piety; he won over large numbers of converts to Buddhism and also had many of the important scriptures copied in order to make them more widely available. His reputation as a sage spread quickly, and he began to attract students from all over China as well as Japan.

In 742, a delegation of Japanese monks who had been studying in China came to Yanzhou to request Jian Zhen to travel to their homeland to teach the Buddhist way. Jian Zhen readily agreed, and the very next year he collected monks and craftsmen for the mission and set forth to propagate Buddhism in Japan. But his attempt to cross the East China Sea failed, as did four further attempts to cross over to Japan. Then, in 748, he tried again for the fifth time. But his ship was blown off course and he landed in Hainan Province, from where he made his way back to Yangzhou on foot and by boat. The journey was difficult, and along the way he contracted an eye infection; by the time he got back to his monastery he was blind.

In 753, Jian Zhen learned that a Japanese deputation in China would soon be returning home; he succeeded in securing a place on their ship. Thus, on his sixth attempt, Jian Zhen finally arrived in Japan, where he was eagerly received by the Emperor Sh?mu and Empress K?ken, whom he instructed and then ordained as Buddhists. It was at the ancient temple of Todai-ji, in Nara, that Jian Zhen took up residence. During the ten years that followed, Jian Zhen preached the Buddhist way to the nobles of the land, who came from near and far to hear him and to be ordained by his hand. Jian Zhen’s learning in Buddhist scriptures and his ability to expound simply what was contained within them made his style of preaching immediately accessible. This brought him much renown and the number of his disciples increased. The school of Buddhism that Jian Zhen followed and preached was the Ritsu rite, which focused on the discipline of monasticism. Jian Zhen thoroughly expounded the vinaya texts, which focused on the discipline required of monks; he centered his exposition specifically on the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, in which the process of monastic vows and duties is detailed, and discipline is emphasized over doctrine.

Although his chief aim was preaching Buddhism, Jian Zhen had also brought with him many monks and craftsmen who imparted Chinese knowledge of medicine, printing, architecture, and sculpture to the Japanese. Thus, missionary work went hand-in-hand with cultural exchange, since many of the monks that traveled with Jian Zhen were gifted artisans, writers, and physicians. Along with Buddhist doctrine, Jian Zhen brought to Japan the Chinese knowledge of architecture, dwarfed potted trees, calligraphy, printing, medicine, and literature. He also established several temples and monasteries in order to educate Japanese novices.

At the age of seventy-one, Jian Zhen retired to a house and property given to him as a gift by the emperor, where he established a school as well as a small temple he named Toshodai-ji, which still stands on the western section of Nara, Japan. Jian Zhen died at this temple, and at first the monks tried to mummify his body and to show it sitting in a meditative pose. But the process failed, and his remains had to be cremated. Where the mummy had sat, the monastic community placed a statue showing Jian Zhen in meditation; it is said that this statue may have been finished just a few years before his death. This statue may still be seen in Toshodai-ji temple.

The Japanese Association of Indian and Buddhist Studies

Only a few days after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, a pan-Asian organization was founded to encourage the study of Buddhism, a religion founded in India but of consequence in countries throughout East and Southeast Asia, and of renewed significant today in China.

On October 3, 1949, scholars representative of the fields of Indian and Buddhist Studies gathered in the University of Tokyo’s Department of Indian Philosophy and held a meeting to plan the formation of a scholarly association. The attending members were MIYAMOTO Shoson, KANAKURA Ensho, HIGATA Ryusho, HONDA Giei, YAMAGUCHI Susumu, TSUJI Naoshiro, HANAYAMA Shinsho, NAKAMURA Hajime, SAKAMOTO Yukio, NISHI Giyu, and MASUNAGA Reiho. The first general meeting was held at the University of Tokyo on October 15, 1951, bringing about the official establishment of the Association, with Professor Miyamoto as its first Chairman of Directors. This year, 2001, marks the 50th anniversary of the founding. At present the membership of the Japanese Association of Indian and Buddhist Studies exceeds 2,400, making it one of the largest scholarly organizations in the fields of the humanities.

In addition to aiming for the scholarly advancement of Indian and Buddhist Studies, the Association was founded with the purpose of contributing to the advancement of cultural sciences in general, through close cooperation with scholars in and outside Japan in related fields. The Association Office is located in the Department of Indian Philosophy at the University of Tokyo. The Association has as its members not only individual researchers and scholars, but also organizations, namely research institutions, universities, and junior colleges with departments or lectures relating to Indian Philosophy and Buddhist Studies.

Source: Retrieved March 16, 2009, from,

Jian Zhen was responsible for invigorating Japanese cultural and religious life by introducing into both ideas, practices and technologies that would align the island nation with the very best that Tang China had to offer.

Further Reading

Ch’en, Kenneth Kuan Sheng.. (1973). The Chinese transformation of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Groner, P. (2000). Saicho: The establishment of the Japanese Tendai school. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Hisashi, M., & Chie, W. (Trans.). (1977). Japanese portrait sculpture. Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd.
& Shibundo.

Soper, A. C. (1942). The evolution of Buddhist architecture in Japan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Suzuki, K., Parent, M. N., & Steinhardt, N. S. (1980). Early Buddhist architecture in Japan. Tokyo: Kodansha International & Shibundo.

Source: Dass, Nirmal (2009). JIAN Zhen. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1204–1206. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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