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Saichō's Monastic Reforms

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 Saichō 最澄 (767–822) is a notable individual in Japanese Buddhist history not only because he was the founder of the Japanese Tendai 天台 sect, but also because he relegated the śrāvaka vinaya to a secondary position in his reformed monastic system, though allowing for “provisional ordination” probably for the sake of bureaucratic convenience, in favour of Mahāyāna bodhisattva precepts as a primary set of monastic precepts, which he felt could make a person a renunciate just as much as the traditional bhikṣu and bhikṣuni vows. I have long been under the impression that he outright rejected the vinaya, which served as the catalyst for Japan's ultimate abandonment of the vinaya ordination system, though in actuality this is not the case. Saichō did in fact support bhikṣu ordinations in his newly founded school of Tendai on the condition that such an ordination would only be possible twelve years after having received the Mahāyāna bodhisattva precepts. The work where he elucidated at length his position is the Kenkairon 《顯戒論》1, rendered into English as the Treatise on Clarifying Precepts. However, prior to writing it he drafted a document detailing four provisions (四條式) in 819,2 which outlined his new education system which did away with the śrāvaka vinaya for new ordinands. This was part of his numerous plans for a newly reformed monastic system. Here I would like to take a brief look at some of his arguments and discuss the implications of his reforms.

Firstly, let us look at the four provisions (四條式) Saichō drafted in 819.

First Provision





Buddhist temples are of three types.

I. Temples which are strictly Mahāyāna. These are temples where bodhisattva monks who are new to training reside.

II. Temples which are strictly Hīnayāna. These are temples where only the Hīnayāna and vinaya teachers reside.
III. Temples where both Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna practice together. These are temples where bodhisattva monks who have trained for a long time reside.

Now in the Tendai Lotus School the annual ordinands [candidates for ordination) are all new practitioners who have all directed their minds to the Mahāyāna and for twelve years will be made to reside deep in the mountains at the temple Shishu Sanmai-in 四種三昧院. Upon completion of their training they will provisionally receive the lesser (Hīnayāna) precepts as it benefits others and they will be permitted to provisionally reside in a temple where both (Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna) practices are carried out.

Saichō in the Kenkairon presents a question asked by the monk superintendent (僧統) on how he justifies this distinction of three types of temples. He does it by referencing the travel journal of Xuanzang 玄奘 (602-664), who travelled from China throughout Central Asia into India in the seventh century.




The monk superintendent writes, “Where are these three kinds of temples now?”

Those three kinds of temples are faraway in the five regions of India. Midway they are in the country of the Great Tang (China). Closer they are here [in Japan). Practitioners of the Hīnayāna, Mahāyāna and both reside in a saṃghārāma, which is called a temple. The verse is not degenerate [mistaken]. Why the doubt?

Source – In Tripiṭaka Master Xuanzang's chronicle of the western regions there are countries with the three [aforementioned kinds of] trainings, detailed as follows. ...

Saichō then references at length the numerous countries Xuanzang visited and their reported sectarian allegiances, many of which concurrently practised both the Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna.

Second Provision






The head seat in the Buddhist temple – two seats are placed, one greater and one lesser.

I. In temples which are strictly Mahāyāna the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī will be placed on the head seat.

II. In temples which are strictly Hīnayāna the master Piṇḍola will be placed on the head seat.

III. In a temple where both (Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna) practices are carried out both Mañjuśrī and Piṇḍola will be placed on the high seat. On days when the Hīnayāna precepts are recited (poṣadha) it will be Piṇḍola on the head seat. The seating will follow the Hīnayāna order [where it is determined by when individuals received the Hīnayāna ordination). On the days when the Mahāyāna precepts are recited it will be Mañjuśrī on the head seat. The seating will follow the Mahāyāna order. This seating order has yet to be implemented here.

Again Saichō had to justify himself to the ecclesiastical authority regarding this innovation. The Japanese at the time were unfamiliar with placing Mañjuśrī on the head seat, which according to Saichō was something he had observed while studying in China. This may seem like a superficial matter, but in actuality it was a challenge to orthodoxy. Again he cites a question posed to him by the monk superintendent regarding this innovation and cites other texts justifying his position while pointing out in the western regions the purported custom of placing Mañjuśrī on the head seat in Mahāyāna temples. The superintendent monk issued some sharp criticism against Saichō, doubting the trustworthiness of his account.


The monk superintendent writes, “Those monks who went to the Tang to study before spent much time in that country and all were without mention of this, and now you write stating that in Dali 4 (769) they initiated a Mahāyāna high seat where the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī is placed in all temple dining halls across the land. From then until Zhenyuan 22 (806)3, exactly thirty-eight years have passed. It corresponds to Enryaku 25 (806) in the country of Great Japan. As they say, 'Looking at outward appearances unaware of their contents.'”4


Saichō was able to reject such criticism by simply citing the Tang annual almanac of rulings for the year 769 and having the superintendent effectively eat his words.


Source – In the Tang almanac for rulings in Dali 4 (769) it states, “From hereon in all (temple) dining halls across the land will have an image of Mañjuśrī placed especially on the head seat atop of Piṇḍola.” It also states, “Is is to forever be a permanent convention.” It is clearly understood that those who spent much time in that country and made no mention of this are, on the contrary, to be ashamed of studying abroad. Also, as to looking at outward appearances unaware of their contents – wouldn't it be better to take everything into account?

Clearly Saichō was not making this up and could back up his remarks with formal documentation. The criticism of course was legitimate as the superintendent was baffled as to why no other monk who had studied abroad made mention of such reformations to the monastic dining halls on the mainland.

Third Provision




There are two Buddhist precept [sets].

I. The precepts of the great monks of the Mahāyāna, systematizing ten heavy and forty-eight light precepts. To be regarded as precepts of great monks.

II. The precepts of the great monks of the Hīnayāna, systematizing two-hundred and fifty precepts. To be regarded as precepts of great monks.

420 japan.jpg

This is straightforward. The second article refers to the traditional śrāvaka vinaya, which for most of East Asia has been the Dharmaguptaka vinaya transmitted from India. We should note here there is no mention of bhikṣunis or nuns. These articles are strictly concerned with male monastics. The next provision details the differences in how ordinations are carried out.

Fourth Provision






There are two Buddhist ordinations.

I. Mahāyāna precepts. Relying on the Samantabhadra Bodhisattva Sūtra, we request three masters and the witnesses. We request Śākyamuni to be the preceptor of the bodhisattva precepts. We request Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva to be the reciting preceptor (karmācārya) of the bodhisattva precepts. We request Maitreya Bodhisattva to be the judge of qualifications for the bodhisattva precepts. We request all the buddhas of the ten directions to be the witnessing masters of the bodhisattva precepts. We request all the bodhisattvas of the ten directions to be our fellow practitioners. We request our manifest precept conveying master to be our manifest master. If there is no precept conveying master, then one may ask for one within a thousand miles. If within a thousand miles there is nobody who can render the precepts, then with the utmost mind one practices confession and must obtain auspicious signs. In front of the buddha image one then alone makes vows and receives the precepts.

Now in Tendai the annual ordinands are all new practitioners who have all directed their minds to the Mahāyāna. Rendering unto them the aforementioned Mahāyāna precepts they will be regarded as great monks.


II. Hīnayāna precepts. Relying on the Hīnayāna vinaya, we request ten manifest teachers for the announcement-four ceremony. We request ten individuals of great virtue who purely maintain the vinaya to be our three masters and seven witnesses. If there is one person lacking then the precepts may not be obtained.

Now in Tendai the annual ordinands are all new practitioners who have all directed their minds to the Mahāyāna. They are not permitted to receive these precepts, the exception being those who have practised for a long time.

This last provision highlights the key point I wanted to stress: Saichō did not reject the śrāvaka vinaya. While he did clearly distinguish between it and the Mahāyāna bodhisattva precepts, he did not disallow his disciples from receiving the former ordination, though as revealed in the first provision this is only to be permitted after twelve years of training “deep in the mountains” and moreover it is only a “provisional ordination” (假受小律). It should be noted that both here in the fourth provision and in the first provision the disciple of twelve years may undergo a Hīnayāna ordination, but it is not specified as necessary. By Saichō's own admission this is only because it “benefits others”, which leads me to suspect this was simply for bureaucratic convenience and because the rest of the Buddhist community in his time did not necessarily recognize the existence of a monk who only maintained the bodhisattva precepts. This inevitably lead to some problems, which shall be discussed below.

Mahāyāna Bodhisattva Precepts

What are the Mahāyāna Bodhisattva precepts Saichō is speaking of? He answers this same question from the monk superintendent. His questions, which appear to have been asked in an exchange of letters, is preserved in the Kenkairon.



Monk superintendent writes, “Now you speak of ten heavy and forty-eight light precepts, which are to be regarded as the great monastic precepts of the Mahāyāna. In what sūtra is this taught?”

Buddha Jap.jpg

Ten heavy and forty-eight light precepts, which are to be regarded as the great monastic precepts of the Mahāyāna, are taught in the Brahma Net Sūtra 《梵網經》. Thus Master Tiangong 天宮 states, “According to the main text of the Brahma Net (Sūtra), any who arouse a great mind and receive the Bodhisattva precepts are all to be called renunciate bodhisattvas.”5 It should be understood that the ten heavy and forty-eight light precepts are to be regarded as the precepts of renunciate great monks.

The Brahma Net Sūtra, available in full translation here, while said to have been translated by the Central Asian translator Kumārajīva (344-413), is generally thought to be a Chinese composition by the academic community, though this has not been absolutely proven. In any case, it has been an important text in East Asia, not only in China, but also in Korea and Japan, serving as the source of bodhisattva precepts for numerous schools throughout the centuries. The other major bodhisattva precept set is the “yoga precepts” (瑜伽戒), otherwise known as the “bodhisattvabhūmi precepts” (地持戒) prior to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), derived from the Bodhisattvabhūmi Sūtra 《菩薩地持經》 , which were incorporated into the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra瑜伽師地論》, and hence the latter nameyoga precepts”.6

The ten heavy precepts in the Brahma Net Sūtra are as follows.

1. Not killing 殺戒

2. Not stealing 盜戒

3. No lasciviousness (celibacy) 淫戒

4. No false language 妄語戒

5. No selling of liquor 酤酒戒

6. No discussion of the faults of other sangha members 說四衆過戒

7. Not praising oneself and criticizing others 自讚毀他戒

8. Not harming others through stinginess 慳惜加毀戒

9. Not accepting the repentance of another while maintaining one's anger 瞋心不受悔戒

Buddha zg70.jpg

10. Not slandering the Triple Gem (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) 謗三寶戒

One will note that the fifth precept does not actually prohibit the consumption of alcohol, but merely selling it. However, the second lesser or “lightprecept expressly prohibits the bodhisattva from consuming alcohol. In other words, it is a heavy offence to sell alcohol, but only a minor offence to consume it. Fazang 法藏 (643-712), who wrote a notable commentary on said sūtra, explains that this is due to the sale of alcohol harming others while the consumption of it only harms oneself.7 One other opinion I have heard is that this is because this text was penned in a cold climate where both laity and monastic alike might have consumed liquor during the winter to fend off the cold. This modification seems to have been done with a climate different from India in mind, however that is just speculation. As noted above this text is said to have been translated by Kumārajīva in the fifth century. Whether this is true or not is uncertain because there is no extant Sanskrit or even Tibetan version of the text and moreover no mention of it is made outside of East Asian traditions. It was around this period for the first time that the various śrāvaka vinayas were being translated into Chinese, as was the Brahma Net Sūtra. Prior to this Chinese monastics operated with codified monastic regulations (僧制), though no translation of the vinaya existed until the fifth century. The Brahma Net Sūtra in general prohibits the same serious misdeeds as the vinaya does such as killing, theft, sexual activity and lies. Any renunciate practising the precepts contained in said text would indeed have been living a lifestyle more or less equivalent to a bhikṣu upholding the śrāvaka vinayas with a few exceptions. This leads me to suspect the text was penned with this mind – there was no vinaya available in Chinese, though some desired to have a strict system of monastic rules, appropriate to the climate and culture of China as well as the Mahāyāna inclinations at the time.

As far as Saichō was concerned this system of precepts made a man a renunciate monastic just as much as any śrāvaka vinaya could. This is of course different from modern Japanese interpretations where consumption of alcohol, marriage and meat eating are all regarded as acceptable, though for Saichō such activities were to be prohibited for anyone in robes.

The Brahma Net Sūtra also includes a section of forty-eight “light” or minor precepts. For the sake of brevity I will not list them all, though those interested may find them listed here. However, we might take a brief look at some of the more notable precepts. One example is the prohibition against consuming meat.


If one be a son of the Buddha (buddha-putra), one must not intentionally eat any meat as it severs the innate seed of great compassion. Sentient beings will see [a meat eater] and flee. It is for this reason that all bodhisattvas must not eat the meat of any sentient being. There are immeasurable transgressions when one eats meat. If one intentionally eats [meat], one violates a minor defiling transgression.

Daibutsu todaiji.jpg

This stands in stark contrast to the śrāvaka vinaya where a bhikṣu is permitted to consume meat provided he did not see the animal being butchered for him and that there is neither suspicion nor word that it was killed for him. In East Asia Buddhism and vegetarianism became quite intertwined to the point that by default all Buddhist monks and nuns were expected to be vegetarian. In Chinese Buddhist communities this is still the case, while in present day Japan meat eating is commonplace amongst Buddhist priests. This stems primarily from scriptural influences including texts such as the Brahma Net Sūtra and Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra among others which explicitly condemn meat eating. Consider the following quote from the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra.

《入楞伽經》卷8〈16 遮食肉品〉:「佛告大慧:「夫食肉者有無量過,諸菩薩摩訶薩修大慈悲不得食肉,食與不食功德罪過我說少分,汝今諦聽。大慧!我觀眾生從無始來食肉習故,貪著肉味更相殺害,遠離賢聖受生死苦;捨肉味者聞正法味,於菩薩地如實修行速得阿耨多羅三藐三菩提,復令眾生入於聲聞辟支佛地止息之處,息已令入如來之地。大慧!如是等利慈心為本,食肉之人斷大慈種,云何當得如是大利?是故,大慧!我觀眾生輪迴六道,同在生死共相生育,迭為父母兄弟姊妹,若男若女中表內外六親眷屬,或生餘道善道惡道常為眷屬,以是因緣我觀眾生更相噉肉無非親者,由貪肉味迭互相噉,常生害心增長苦業流轉生死不得出離。」」9

The Buddha told Mahāmati, "Meat eating has countless offences. Bodhisattva mahāsattvas practise great compassion and cannot eat meat. I will speak of eating [meat], not eating [meat], the merits and the offences. You now must listen well.”

Mahāmati! I see that because of the habits of sentient beings from the beginningless past to eat meat, they crave the flavour of meat and mutually kill and harm one another. They are far departed from the wise and holy, and experience the suffering of saṃsāra. Those who reject the flavour of meat hear of the flavour of the true true dharma and properly practise through the grounds of the bodhisattva to quickly attain unexcelled perfect enlightenment (anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi). One also makes sentient beings enter the grounds of the śrāvaka and pratyekabuddha - a place of rest, whereupon resting they enter the ground of the Tathāgata.”

Mahāmati! These benefits have at their foundation the mind of compassion. The person who eats meat severs the seed of great compassion. How does one attain these great benefits? It is thus, Mahāmati, that I see sentient beings being born in the six paths through cyclic existence. Together within saṃsāra they give birth and nurture each other, alternating as father, mother, elder brother, younger brother, elder sister and younger sister. They may be male or they may be female and born as kinsmen, or they may be born in other paths including good paths and evil paths. They are frequently relatives. With these relations I see that the meat mutually consumed by sentient beings are all of one's relatives. It is due to craving meat that they alternate in consuming one another. They constantly give rise to a mind of harm, increasing the karma of their suffering and being unable to escape from the stream of life and death."

We might imagine that for Saichō such sentiments against meat eating were to be found lacking in what he would have considered Hīnayāna texts, and hence his support of a strictly Mahāyāna based monastic system, at least for the first twelve years of a disciple's training until presumably they were suitably grounded in their cultivation of bodhicitta. There indeed was a fear that a junior practitioner if exposed to Hīnayāna texts would waver towards it. This will be discussed below.

Another minor precept includes a prohibition against any kind of weapon or tool used for hunting and trapping.



If one is a son of the Buddha, one should not store any weapons such as knives, clubs, bows, arrows, spears, axes or other weapons of war as well as evil nets, traps and tools used in killing beings. All of these must not be stored. Furthermore, a bodhisattva must not even avenge the killing of their parents, let alone other sentient beings. If one intentionally stores any knife or club, they commit a minor sin.

This is a particularly important precept to take note of as in Tendai's history there were warrior monks (sōhei 僧兵), who were employed to enforce the institution's will with the threat of violence or at times with violence itself. It was in 1571 when Oda Nobunaga sought to remove his rivals and razed Tendai's Enryaku-ji to the ground while slaughtering monks, indeed demonstrating the potential military threat Tendai at the time posed.

There is also a prohibition amongst the minor precepts against keeping slaves, though this is a minor offence embedded in another minor precept against exacting revenge. This same paragraph prohibits violent revenge, again raising questions about the ethics of the later warrior monks of Tendai.


The Buddha said, “A son of the Buddha must not return anger with anger, blow for blow. If someone should kill his father, mother, elder brother, younger brother and relatives, he must not exact revenge. If a country's ruler is killed by others, again one must not exact revenge. To take a life to avenge a life does not abide with the way of filial piety. Furthermore, one must not keep slaves, striking and scolding them – everyday accumulating the three karmas (verbal, mental and physical) with verbal misdeeds immeasurable. How much more so intentionally carry out the seven heinous sins! Therefore should a renunciate bodhisattva, lacking a compassionate mind, even for misdeeds carried out against his relatives, seek out revenge he commits a minor offence.12

Avoiding the Hīnayāna

Moving on we might ask precisely why Saichō felt it necessary to isolate newly ordained disciples away from Hīnayāna precepts until at least their twelfth year of training. One reason for this is the statements in chapter fourteen of the Lotus Sūtra, which is entitled “Practices of Ease” (安樂行品). Saichō quotes the following directly from the Lotus Sūtra.

《妙法蓮華經》卷5〈14 安樂行品〉:「又不親近求聲聞比丘、比丘尼、優婆塞、優婆夷,亦不問訊。若於房中,若經行處,若在講堂中,不共住止。或時來者,隨宜說法,無所悕求。」13

(Bodhisattvas) also do not go near those bhikṣus, bhikṣunis, upāsaka (laymen) and upāsikā (laywomen) who seek [to become] śrāvakas. They also do not enquire after their health [as a salutation]. If they be in a room, on a terraced walk or in a lecture hall, they will not remain together with them [the aforementioned bhikṣu, bhikṣunis, etc.]. If at some time they should come, the dharma will be taught as appropriate without anything being desired.

Dairyuji-Gifu D01.JPG

The prohibition against bodhisattvas staying together with anyone following the śrāvaka path lead to the fear that they would be tainted and drawn into such an ideology before being fully matured to the ways of the Mahāyāna. Saichō quotes the Sanlun (三論) master Jizang (549–623) 吉藏 on this matter.


Master Jizang of the Sanlun school in his commentary states, “'Also does not go near those seeking [to become] śrāvakas'. This is the fifth condition in departing from the Hīnayāna. Those bodhisattvas who are beginning their practice have yet to perfect the great illumination and there is the fear that they will be tainted by the lesser dharma and thus sound and shape are appropriate separated. Their activities are not to be done together [with Hīnayāna proponents]. 'If at some time they should come, the dharma will be taught as appropriate without anything be desired.' If there is a response to a capacity [for the higher teaching), then one teaches the dharma, not for name and profit, which is not having anything desired.”

The key point of this quotation is the reference to bodhisattvas who are beginning their practice. This is support for Saichō's idea that junior renunciates should remain apart from Hīnayāna influences, which even means in the Japanese context those Mahāyāna monks with a śrāvaka vinaya ordination. Jizang himself might not have drawn such a conclusion regarding junior disciples, but Saichō indeed did.

Criticism of Saichō's Reforms

Saichō's reforms indeed raised questions from the authorities. The monk superintendent pointed out that, in his opinion, no such monks as described in the Lotus Sūtra even existed in Japan. Saichō explains that on the contrary such monks do exist.



The monk superintendent writes, “The Lotus Sūtra refers to one seeking the lesser fruit and states, 'Does not go near.' None of the bhikṣus of this country seek the lesser fruit.”

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Although the goat carriages and the elephant carriages do not seek out the lesser fruit, they do fall into the ground of the two vehicles and their practices of curing evil karmas are carried out for eighty-thousand kalpas. Although the bhikṣus of this country do not seek the lesser fruit, they do seek the deportment of a śrāvaka, which is seeking out the lesser cause. How is that not going to bring about the lesser fruit? The sūtra verses do not distinguish between the lesser cause and lesser fruit, having already prohibited seeking out the other sūtras. It is clearly understood that the prohibitions against going near those who seek the [lesser] cause also means prohibiting both the cause and effect.

Elephant carriage” (象車) here is clearly an error as it is a reference to the three carriages (三車) parable in the Lotus Sūtra. The three carriages include a goat carriage (羊車), a deer carriage (鹿車) and an ox carriage (牛車). The goat carriage refers to the śrāvaka path, the deer carriage refers to the pratyekabuddha path, and the ox carriage refers to the bodhisattva path. This is either an error on Saichō's part or in fact a scribal error. The Taishō edition likewise has the character xiang 象 or elephant. I suggest that this is a scribal error given the vague similarity between the two characters xiang 象 and lu鹿 (deer).

In any case, Saichō's argument is that by seeking out the cause of becoming a śrāvaka, i.e. an individual whose behaviour is more in line with the Hīnayāna and not the Mahāyāna, one will inevitably bring about that effect, even if they do not necessarily desire it. In this case it means a practitioner receiving a Hīnayāna ordination will bring about a homogenous result. This means a bodhisattva aspirant is advised to “not go near” such causes and in effect isolate him or herself away from such causes. This explains why Saichō believed it best for a junior disciple to receive the bodhisattva precepts and then train in the deep mountains for twelve years before being permitted to “provisionally receive” a vinaya ordination.

Nevertheless, there were still concerns over Saichō's reforms, even an accusation that such reforms of his were akin to the sectarianism purportedly initiated by Mahādeva. Again, Saichō quotes the monk superintendent.



The monk superintendent writes, “Long ago it was due to Mahādeva that there were twenty schismatic sects. It was due to this that the Buddhadharma was forced into decline. Now at Mount Hiei [your] sect divides people and dharma. Therefore we know this is an omen of the demise of the dharma.”

As to [what happened] after the death [of the Buddha) with Mahādeva, there were transgressions and people sinning. As to the semblance and ending ages [of the dharma), and Mount Hiei, there are no transgressions and people sinning. Long ago there were the five theses [proposed by Mahādeva), which deceived disciples and hence made the Buddhadharma decline. Now the four provisions rely on citations from sūtras and hence will make the Buddhadharma regenerate. The omen the monk superintendent has divined should not be believed.


Mahādeva is traditionally held as an early propagator of the Mahāsāṃghika sect and said to have provoked the first schism. The five theses that Saichō is referring to here were five apparently heretical views that caused the schism. According to the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism they are as following.

  • Arhats can be led astray by others.

  • [various forms, all revolving around the notion that] it is [somehow] permissible or good to say "Oh, the suffering!" [etc.]14

Saichō defends himself by asserting his views are based on citations from sūtra, and thus the superintendent's fears are unjustified. The language here appears rather straightforward and even blunt. The Kenkairon displays a tone of straightforward honesty on Saichō's part with no effort made to soften the force of his replies to criticism.

Post-reform Issues

Moving on we should consider how this reform played out. In 822 Saichō passed away and seven days later official permission from the government was received granting Tendai the right to ordain monks in the reformed manner Saichō had prescribed. Tendai from thereon was effectively able to operate a unique monastic training system in Japan, but this did not come without problems as the other contemporary schools of Buddhism in Japan did not utilize the same system.

As Katsuno Ryūkō 勝野隆広 points out it was the mixed seating arrangements that initially caused problems within the school.15 As per orthodox conventions the seating arrangement is by the date the individuals ordained, however in this case there would have been a difference between those who had received a traditional vinaya ordination and those who only underwent the reformed ordination system with only bodhisattva precepts. Saichō is recorded as follows making an injunction regarding this matter just prior to his death.



I. Furthermore within our dharma the foremost thing is a fixed hierarchy. Those who have received the Mahāyāna precepts first sit in front. Those who have received the Mahāyāna precepts later sit behind [those who received the precepts prior to them]. If it be a day where [everyone] assembles, in all places one is to hide one's bodhisattva practices within and externally manifest an image of a śrāvaka. One should join the row of novices, except when another yields to you [the privilege of sitting amongst the fully ordained monks).

It is curious that Saichō would tell his disciples to simply take a seat amongst the novices in an assembly where monks of both ordination types would gather. This is indeed probably due to the fact that he realized not everyone would accept his reformed ordination system and for the sake of avoiding trouble he instructed his disciples to hide their bodhisattva practices and take a seat amongst the novices, which indeed would avoid confrontations. We must keep in mind this injunction was given before official government sanction was received. Saichō himself never lived to actually receive it.

However, this newly reformed ordination system also brought about problems initially within the school itself. As Katsuno Ryūkō explains a certain Egyō 慧曉 had received the full śrāvaka ordination prior to Tokuzen 德善, but was away from Mount Hiei when Saichō passed away and furthermore not present for the Mahāyāna ordination session the same year where Tokuzen became the elder monk (上﨟) based on his Mahāyāna ordination. Egyō returned to Mount Hiei and an argument over the seating order, where he would have had to sit behind Tokuzen, erupted and became an issue that the elder monks of the school had to deal with.17 The situation became one where within the assembly they had monks of both ordination systems present.

As recorded in the Denjutsu Isshin Kaibun《傳述一心戒文》the solution to the problem was the following decree.


If Ācārya Egyō does not turn his mind [to the Mahāyāna), then he should sit under Ācārya Tokuzen. If Ācārya Egyō does turn his mind [to the Mahāyāna), then he should sit above Ācārya Tokuzen.

As Egyō was already a Mahāyāna monk this probably just meant receiving the bodhisattva precepts. While this apparently did not satisfy all the parties involved, it did set the precedent at Mount Hiei where a bodhisattva ordination would take precedence over a śrāvaka ordination. As one might imagine this did not apply to institutions outside of Tendai, but this is presumably why Saichō said a disciple may after twelve years “provisionally” receive the lesser (Hīnayāna) precepts, so as to be able to formally reside in temples of other schools where no such bodhisattva ordination system existed.



While Saichō did not entirely reject the vinaya, his reforms may perhaps be regarded as the catalyst for Japanese Buddhism ultimately abandoning the vinaya. Anyone having read his literature and understood his meaning when he suggested monks after twelve years could “provisionally receive” a Hīnayāna ordination will understand he felt such an ordination was not truly necessary, but merely just a means to an end in securing government sanction and the cooperation with other schools, which in his time was a bureaucratic necessity. The four provisions he put forth was clearly not acceptable to everyone in the greater Japanese Buddhist community at the time and the monk superintendent made clear his own criticisms of Saichō's proposed reforms, which Saichō then borrowed when writing the Kenkairon as a response to questions he was receiving. He was also well aware that his own disciples might face problems when leaving the school and going elsewhere, so he instructed them to “conceal their bodhisattva practices” and just sit amongst novices when outside the Tendai school. Despite the government formally approving his reforms Saichō died shortly before word of the approval was received. His Mahāyāna ordination system went into operation, but not without problems arising. The issue of the seating order between Egyō and Tokuzen as briefly outlined above was one issue that the school had to contend with.

Saichō's reforms also summons a question applicable to any time and place within the greater Buddhist world: is it permissible to heavily reform the ordination system and even do away with the vinaya? Clearly this is the case in modern Japanese Buddhism as every sect has effectively abandoned the vinaya. Whether it is appropriate or not to call Japanese renunciates “monks” is an issue. In English they are more likely to be referred to as priests rather than as monks because they lack bhikṣu vows. Setting aside the situation with modern Japanese Buddhism, the question is still relevant as to whether or not Buddhist traditions can and/or should reform their ordination systems to the extent that Saichō did in the ninth century. I imagine proponents of Theravada might point to the following quote by the Buddha in the Pāli canon.

"The growth of the bhikkhus is to be expected, not their decline, bhikkhus, so long as they assemble frequently and in large numbers; meet and disperse peacefully and attend to the affairs of the Sangha in concord; so long as they appoint no new rules, and do not abolish the existing ones, but proceed in accordance with the code of training (Vinaya) laid down; so long as they show respect, honor, esteem, and veneration towards the elder bhikkhus, those of long standing, long gone forth, the fathers and leaders of the Sangha, and think it worthwhile to listen to them; so long as they do not come under the power of the craving that leads to fresh becoming; so long as they cherish the forest depths for their dwellings; so long as they establish themselves in mindfulness, so that virtuous brethren of the Order who have not come yet might do so, and those already come might live in peace; so long, bhikkhus, as these seven conditions leading to welfare endure among the bhikkhus and the bhikkhus are known for it, their growth is to be expected, not their decline.” 19

However, in the same sutta the Buddha is quoted making the following statement.


"If it is desired, Ananda, the Sangha may, when I am gone, abolish the lesser and minor rules.”20

Many Buddhists to this day lament the fact that Ananda failed to ask which rules were to be considered lesser. Still, the fact that the Buddha gave the sangha permission to reform the minor rules as desired demonstrates that precept systems can and should be heavily revised if necessary. Saichō took the Brahma Net Sūtra as his key text when devising a new strictly Mahāyāna-oriented monastic system and further cited the Lotus Sūtra to justify isolating junior disciples from anything Hīnayāna. The Brahma Net Sūtra might be said to prescribe the same major rules as found in any vinaya system, particularly in regards to celibacy and refraining from killing, stealing and lying. Thus it may be said that he did not in fact deviate in any excessive way from the Buddha's prescribed discipline and the leeway he gave for future reforms. Saichō was in fact quite innovative.



2See 《天台法華宗年分度者回小向大式 》(四条式).

3There actually was no Zhenyuan 22. The Zhenyuan period ended the previous year. This is either a scribal error or the monk superintendent was simply mistaken.

4This statement is from the Book of Han 《漢書》. 「揚雄傳下」 翰林主人曰:“吁,謂之茲邪!若客,所謂知其一未睹其二,見其外不識其內者也。僕嘗倦談,不能一二其詳,請略舉凡,而客自覽其切焉。”

5Saichō is probably quoting from Mingkuang 明曠. See 《天台菩薩戒疏》卷2:「天宮云。據梵網大本合有。凡發大心稟菩薩戒並名出家菩薩。故淨名云。夫出家者為無為法等(云云)。」(CBETA, T40, no. 1812, p. 593, a28-b1)

6For more on this see the following (in Japanese). 吉村誠 「玄奘の菩薩戒―『菩薩戒羯磨文』を中心に―」(『印度學佛教學研究』第五十四巻第二号 平成十八年三月)610頁.

7《梵網經菩薩戒本疏》卷3:「又五戒中此當第五不飲酒戒。但以飲唯損己一身。過未深故屬下輕垢。酤損多人故今制重。」(CBETA, T40, no. 1813, p. 625, b20-22)


8(CBETA, T24, no. 1484, p. 1005, b10-13)

9(CBETA, T16, no. 671, p. 561, b8-23)

10(CBETA, T24, no. 1484, p. 1005, c14-17)

11(CBETA, T24, no. 1484, p. 1006, b21-26)

12It would be worth noting here that the Chinese Tiantai author Mingkuang 明曠. Commenting on this minor precept he makes the following declaration. Mingkuang's opinion is important because Saichō himself made use of his works and cites him, particularly his commentary on the bodhisattva precepts.


“In the renunciate system they may not keep [slaves]. The laity may keep them. They must not unreasonably strike and scold them, giving rise to (unwholesome) karma.”(CBETA, T40, no. 1812, p. 593, a24-25)

13(CBETA, T09, no. 262, p. 37, a28-b2)

14See the following:

15See the following (in Japanese). 勝野隆広「仮受小戒をめぐる諸問題」Journal of Indian and Buddhist studies 56(2), 2008-03-20, p637.


17勝野隆広「仮受小戒をめぐる諸問題」Journal of Indian and Buddhist studies 56(2), 2008-03-20, p638.


19DN 16 Maha-parinibbana Sutta: Last Days of the Buddha (excerpt). Translated by Sister Vajira & Francis Story.