Jianzhen or Ganjin (in Japanese)
(688 dC - 763dC)
Jianzhen was born in the Jiangyin region in Guangling (present day Yangzhou, Jiangsu, China) with Chunyu as his surname. At the age of fourteen, he entered the Buddhist temple as a disciple of Daming Temple to study the T'ien-t'ai teachings. At twenty-one he travelled to Chang'an, China's capital during Tang dynasty where he apprenticed to many renown monks such as Dao'an, Hengjing, and others. Under the guidance of his teachers, Jianzhen became well versed not only in Buddhism, but also in literature, art, medicine, architecture and sculpture.
He returned to Yangzhou six years later, eventually becoming Abbot of Daming Temple. Besides his learning in the Tripitaka, the three divisions of Buddhist Canon, Jianzhen is also said to have been expert in medicine. He opened the Buddhist church as a place of healing, creating the Beitian Court, a hospital within Daming Temple.
Jianzhen became a renowned Buddhism Master, and started to preach Buddhism attracting many followers. He also organized the transcription of over 33,000 rolls of scriptures, and designed more than 80 temples and monasteries. Many Japanese monks studying Buddhism in China greatly admired him. At forty-five, he became an authority in the Vinaya, the Buddhist monastic rules. He ordained more than 40,000. He spent ten years in promulgating the theories of Vinaya and was known as a Vinaya Master like his Master Dao'an.
During the years of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), China's economy and national power reached a new high. This led to unprecedented prosperity in the friendly relations and cultural exchanges between China and Japan. In order to learn of the political system and the profound culture of the Tang Dynasty, Japan sent various envoys, as students, monks and intellectuals, to China by sea many times.
In autumn 742, two Japanese monks, Yoei and Fusho, studying Buddhism in China, made a special trip to Yangzhou. They came to invite Jianzhen to do missionary work in Japan and instruct priests and nuns tin the Precepts. This was the wish of the Japanese Emperor Shōmu, by whom the pair was dispatched to invite Chinese priests well-versed in Buddhist Teachings and Precepts to teach in Japan. In addition, the Emperor wanted them to establish an authentic Buddhist Ordination platform, which Japan lacked.
Despite protests from his disciples, Jianzhen made his preparations, decided to go to Japan to lecture and spread Vinaya. In the spring of 743, aged forty-five and together with some of his disciples and some artisans, Jianzhen started off by the long voyage across the East China Sea to Japan. The crossing failed and in the following years, Jianzhen made three more attempts but was thwarted by unfavorable conditions or government intervention.
In summer 748, Jianzhen made his fifth attempt to reach Japan. Leaving from Yangzhou, he made it to the Zhoushan Archipelago off the coast of modern Zhejiang. But the ship was blown off course and ended up on Hainan Island in south China. Jianzhen was then forced to make his way back to Yangzhou by land, lecturing at a number of monasteries on the way. Jianzhen travelled along the Gan River to Jiujiang, and then down the Yangtze River. The entire failed enterprise took him close to three years. By the time Jianzhen returned to Yangzhou, he was blind from an infection, but still determined to go to Japan.
In the autumn of 753, at sixty-six, the blind Jianzhen decided to join a Japanese emissary ship returning to its home country. Leaving from Yangzhou, he started off for Japan from Huangsipu in Suzhou (in Jiangsu Province). After an eventful sea journey of several months, the group finally landed at Kagoshima, in Kyūshū island, on December 20. Jianzhen and his group reached Nara in the spring of the next year and were welcomed by the Emperor.
At Nara, Jianzhen was invited to teach at Todai-ji, now among the oldest Buddhist establishments in Japan. In 755, the first Ordination platform in Japan was constructed at Tōdai-ji and Jianzhen conferred the Precepts to many people. Also Emperor Shōmu and Empress Kōmyo received Ordination by him. Jianzhen established the Precepts school of Buddhism, which stressed discipline over doctrine and also brought with him the scriptures of the T'ien-t'ai school (Dengyo (767-822), the founder of the Japanese Tendai school, would later study them). In the fifth month of 756, he was appointed general supervisor of priests, and then, general administrator of priests. Ganjin is the Japanese reading of his Chinese name and is the name by which Jianzhen became known in Japan. Jianzhen is credited with the introduction of the Ritsu school of Buddhism to Japan, which focused on the Vinaya.
In 759 Jianzhen retired to a piece of land granted to him by the imperial court in the western part of Nara. There he founded a school and also set up a private temple, Toshodai-ji. It was built using the most advanced building techniques. Constructions were all planned and overseen by the blind Jianzhen and his disciples. Toshodai-ji became the model of Japanese Buddhist arts that influenced later temples greatly.
In the ten years until his death in Japan, Jianzhen not only propagated the Buddhist faith among the aristocracy, but also served as an important conductor of Chinese culture. Many of his Chinese disciples and travel companions were eminent architects and sculptors who introduced Chinese religious sculpture to the Japanese. Jianzhen's visit to Japan added new elements into Japanese culture and promoted the Sino-Japan cultural exchange. Jianzhen introduced the advanced technology and culture of the Great Chinese Tang Dynasty to Japan. In the field of Arts, he introduced Chinese Calligraphy and sculptures. He also introduced Traditional Chinese Medical Science to Japan and is regarded as the founder of Japanese pharmaceutics.
Jianzhen died on the 6th day of the 6th month of 763. He was posthumously called the Great Teacher Kakai, or the Great Teacher Who Crossed the Sea. His biography, The Life of the Great Priest of Tang China Who Journeyed to the East, was written in 779 by Omi no Mifune, a scholar and court official.
A dry-lacquer statue of him made shortly after his death can still be seen at Tōshōdai-ji. Recognized as one of the greatest of its type, the statue was temporarily brought to Jianzhen's original temple in Yangzhou in 1980 as part of a friendship exchange between Japan and China.
The temple of Daming in Yangzhou was built in 1974 the Jianzhen Memorial Hall, modeled after the main hall of the Toshodai Temple in Nara. A cedar wood statue of the famous Master stands in the hall. There are still religious and cultural exchanges between Nara and Yangzhou.
In May 2010, the Taiwanese Buddhist organization Tzu Chi organized and produced an animated drama on Jianzhen's life and journey to Japan.