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Journey to the East

A very short poem went a long way toward inspiring a Buddhist monk of the Tang Dynasty to undertake a perilous journey to re-establish the calssical precepts and practices of Buddhism in Japan

By Lü Weitao , Zhang Jin Updated Dec.1

When the first round of the Covid-19 pandemic broke out in Wuhan, capital of Central China’s Hubei Province in early 2020, many countries recognized its inherent risk to global health and donated gloves, masks, hazmat suits – sending whatever they could to help combat the virus. Among the supplies sent from Japan were shipments from the organization that locally administers the HSK, the official Chinese language proficiency test of the Chinese mainland.  

They never expected the Chinese phrase written on the relief packages would go viral on Chinese social media. The lines read, “Even though we live in different places, we live under the same sky.” Chinese netizens praised the words as a sign of heartfelt support for China in its struggle to cope with the coronavirus.  

The phrase comes from a Chinese-language poem written by Japanese Emperor Tenmu’s grandson Prince Nagaya. About 1,300 years ago, during China’s Tang Dynasty (617-907), Prince Nagaya donated 1,000 traditional Buddhist robes, called kasayas, to Chinese monks, with the poem embroidered vertically down the outer rim of each robe. The poem made such an impression on the high monk Jianzhen, that it helped persuade him to make the dangerous voyage to Japan to propagate Buddhism. 

Tōshōdai-ji temple in Nara, Japan built by Jianzhen and his disciples in 759

Heroic Voyages 
Born in 688 with the name Chunyu in what is now Yangzhou, East China’s Jiangsu Province, Jianzhen was ordained as a novice monk at 14 and traveled with his teacher to the Tang capital Chang’an to further his studies in Buddhism. He also mastered a broad range of subjects, such as medicine, architecture, horticulture and calligraphy. Six years later, he returned to his hometown and became the abbot of Daming Temple. 

Over the following decades, Jianzhen traveled extensively in Yangzhou and beyond to propagate Buddhism, delivering lectures on the precepts of the Buddhist faith to more than 40,000 disciples. His reputation grew, and he became known as a Dharma master of Buddhism.  

The Tang Dynasty is considered a pinnacle of Chinese civilization. Its capital Chang’an, today’s Xi’an in Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province, was the most advanced and the largest city in the world, attracting tens of thousands of people from far and wide to admire its splendor and conduct trade.  

The Japanese court frequently dispatched delegations of government officials, scholars, Buddhist monks, doctors, craftsmen and technicians – the elites of Japanese society. They were royal ambassadors who embarked on hazardous sea voyages to learn from China for the benefit of Japan.  

One important aspect of the missions was to learn more about Buddhism, as some inaccurate doctrines and practices of Buddhism had become prevalent in Japan. Many selfprofessed monks were laymen in disguise because of the privileges and reverence accorded to monks, such as tax and military service exemptions.  

Many ambassadors would remain in China for long periods, traveling widely to learn the correct Buddhist teachings from venerated Dharma masters. By royal command, they invited the most eminent and dedicated Chinese Dharma masters to travel to Japan to help re-establish the correct precepts and practices of Buddhism. 
Yoei and Fusho, two of the most revered monks among the Japanese emissaries, were tasked with such a mission in 733. After serving in several temples in China, they traveled extensively in search of a Chinese Dharma master to return with them.  

A Chinese monk named Daohang suggested the respected Dharma master Jianzhen. Daohang had been a disciple of Jianzhen, and in 742, he accompanied Yoei and Fusho to Yangzhou to seek Jianzhen’s help.  

When Jianzhen learned about the mission, he gathered many of his former disciples who had become successful monks in temples in and around Yangzhou, to meet them. The story goes that Jianzhen asked for volunteers to undertake this challenging but worthwhile mission. After a prolonged silence, they declined one by one for fear of perishing at sea.  

After recounting the story of Prince Nagaya donating 1,000 kasayas to Chinese monks and reciting the poem embroidered on the robes, Jianzhen decided he would go to Japan. Moved by their master’s bravery and conviction, 20 of his former disciples changed their minds and followed him.  

Jianzhen, then 55, and his followers set sail for Japan the following year. But the mission did not make it that year, or the next. In the 11 years from 743 to 754, they made five failed attempts because of unfavorable weather, legal complications and other setbacks. Finally, Jianzhen succeeded on his sixth attempt in 754. By then, he was 66, had lost his eyesight due to disease, and Yoei, one of the two Japanese monks who recruited him, had died the year before. 

Tablet bearing the name Tōshōdai-ji temple

Jianzhen lacquer statue in Tōshōdai-ji temple depicting him attaining nirvana

Great Impact 
Jianzhen and his delegation arrived in Nara, the Japanese capital, and were greeted by the emperor in person, a rare honor accorded only to top-level foreign dignitaries. The emperor put him in charge of Tōdai-ji, one of Japan’s most famous and historically significant temples and a landmark of Nara.  

At a grand ceremony at Tōdai-ji, the emperor gave him the title “grand master of transmitting the light,” which enabled him to teach the correct doctrines and disciplines of Buddhism in Japan. The royal family officially accepted Buddhist doctrine, and court officials followed their example.  

In 758, Jianzhen was appointed Minister of Monastic Affairs. This made him the ultimate authority on all matters relating to Buddhism in Japan. Over the next decade, Jianzhen trained and ordained some 400 monks.  

In 759, Jianzhen and his disciples built Tōshōdai-ji temple in Nara in the Tang architectural style, and used building techniques previously unknown to the Japanese. The temple became a center for propagating Buddhism. Tōshōdai-ji has stood the test of time as a precious example of Tang architecture to this day.  

The Tang style had enormous influence on the architecture of Japanese temples. For instance, the colors used in some of Japan’s most famous temples are very similar to those from the Tang Dynasty. Both feature white walls and red beams and trim, giving them a solemn and distinct look. Tang style also influenced the structures of shrines and palaces, which evolved into a uniquely Japanese aesthetic.  

Besides Buddhism and architecture, Jianzhen’s greatest gift to the Japanese was pharmacology and medicine. He introduced traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to Japan, which is still being practiced today. He cured members of the royal family and others through the application of TCM. Until the end of the 19th century, Jianzhen’s portrait appeared on packets of Chinese medicine in Japan. He is revered as a forefather of Japanese medicine.  

Another aspect of Jianzhen’s legacy stems from his artistic talents. Jianzhen and his disciples were skilled calligraphers. They brought original works from famous Chinese calligraphists to Japan, which influenced Japanese calligraphic art. His own work, Calligraphy Model of Buddhist Scriptures, was cherished as a national treasure of Japan.  

Jianzhen lived and taught at Tōshōdai-ji until his death in 763. Legend has it that at 75, with his Japanese mission successfully completed and sensing his imminent death, Jianzhen sat in the Buddhist lotus position facing west toward China and serenely passed away. Foreseeing his death, Jianzhen’s disciples had a dry-lacquer statue of him constructed. The statue is a national treasure of Japan.  

Jianzhen’s legacy continues. Today, Japan has one of the largest populations of practicing Buddhists. According to the Statistics Bureau of Japan, 66.7 percent practiced Buddhism as of 2018, second only to Shintō at 69 percent (many Japanese practice both Shintō and Buddhism). There are about 75,000 temples and more than 300,000 Buddhist statues in Japan.  

In 1980, not long after China and Japan re-established diplomatic relations, Jianzhen finally returned to China. The lacquered statue of Jianzhen, which resides at Tōshōdai-ji, was featured in a 23-day exhibition in Beijing and his hometown Yangzhou. More than 500,000 people paid homage to the Dharma master, who reformed Japanese Buddhism to become a household name in Japan, where he is called Ganjin.  

“Even though we live in different places, we live under the same sky” – this simple poem encouraged a Chinese monk to embark on a challenging journey to the east. More than 1,300 years later, that same poem returned to China, with support for its people in their time of need.

Statues of Jianzhen and his disciples, Jianzhen Culture Square, Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province