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Jian Zhen: The Indomitable Priest

He braved shipwrecks, prison breaks, and ill health to advance Buddhism in Japan


Jian Zhen: The Indomitable Priest

He braved shipwrecks, prison breaks, and ill health to advance Buddhism in Japan


Master Jian Zhen (鑑真) (688–763) suffered shipwrecks, prison breaks, howling storms, and government threats, all for the humble mission of spreading Buddhism to Japan, a task that would cost him a great deal. Despite treacherous journeys, various risks to his own life, and the eventual loss of his sight, Jian Zhen, the great Tang Chinese Buddhist monk, never gave up on fulfilling his mission to propagate righteous Buddhism in Japan.

During the Tang Dynasty period, Japan regularly sent delegations called Kentōshi (遣唐使), mainly consisting of monks and students, to China in the hopes of bringing back the rich and varied culture. In 733, the Japanese government appointed two priests Yoei (栄叡) and Fusho (普照) as the 9th Kentōshi emissaries. Their mission was to bring back a noble Buddhist monk to Japan where the lack of noble priests (incapable of ordination) was causing social disorder. Monks, as it happened, were exempt from the heavy taxes of the age, and ordinary citizens found that they could skip out on their tax bill by pretending to be monks by simply shaving their heads. Lacking a true system of ordination, Japan longed for a Chinese Buddhist to put things right.

However, Yoei and Fusho’s diplomatic travels didn’t go very well. They found no noble priests worth the title and missed their opportunity to return to Japan, stuck in the Middle Kingdom for nine years. Hopeless and homesickness, they finally met Jian Zhen, one of the most respected Buddhist priests of the age, in Yangzhou. Having handed down the precepts to more than 40,000 monks, Jian Zhen was an ideal candidate for the trip to Japan. When Yoei and Fusho implored him to send some of his disciples to Japan, Jian Zhen was deeply moved by their passion and asked his followers if they were willing to go on a missionary trip. The disciples, as it turned out, lacked Jian Zhen’s faith and courage and refused to speak up, largely out of a fear that they would never make it safely to Japan’s shores. Eventually, Jian Zhen decided to go himself, and his troubled journey to Japan began.

The following year, 743, Yoei, Fusho, and Jian Zhen implemented their plans to go to Japan, having garnered a total of 21 disciples, but Chinese law forbade them. As such, they managed to hire a ship in secret. Finally ready to leave, their plans were foiled by a disciple with cold feet; the scared monk told the local government about their plans and even told them that Yoei and Fusho were pirates. The ship was confiscated and both Yoei and Fusho were arrested. This marked Jian Zhen’s first failed attempt.

Yoei and Fusho were finally vindicated after four months of imprisonment, and they attempted to leave the country again in January, 744. This time, with even more thorough and careful preparation, they safely left the coast, but, shortly after, a sudden storm ruined both their ship and the second attempt at one blow. Fortunately, they were saved by people in Mingzhou, a large port city nearby. Undeterred, they prepared for another journey.

When they were about to leave for the third time, government officials surprisingly came to arrest them again. Whereas their last trip was foiled by a betraying monk, this on was ruined by locals that reported them to the government for fear that Jian Zhen wouldn’t survive the journey. Kind as they may have been, it ended in the arrest of Yoei, and they stood no chance of legally ensuring his release. They had only one option left: a prison break.

The two remaining companions realized that, in order to save Yoei, they would need to fake his death, and, while history books are vague on the subject, they somehow succeeded in convincing the guards that Yoei had already died in prison. After that, the rescue was a piece of cake.

Again, they tried to fulfill their mission, and, again, one of the disciples betrayed them. Yoei and Fusho, feared being jailed again and fled. Fugitives from justice, they had to hide, lay low until an opportunity arose to go back home.

That opportunity didn’t present itself for four years, in 748, when they finally made their fifth attempt. However, a sudden storm struck them once again, and, adrift with few provisions, their ship was eventually cast ashore on an island, Hainan Island in the South China Sea, far from their destination of Japan. They stayed there for a year while Jian Zhen shared his medical knowledge with the islanders.

On their way back to the mainland, Yoei became seriously ill and died. In mourning for his comrade’s death, Jian Zhen went blind with stress and fatigue, the culmination of more than a decade of failure to reach Japan’s shores.

Still, Jian Zhen never gave up.

In 753, Japan sent Kiyoka Fujiwara as the head of their Kentōshi, five years after Jian Zhen’s fifth attempt. Kiyoka promised to bring Jian Zhen back to Japan with him. The idea was strongly opposed by the Chinese Emperor, and Kiyoka easily broke his promise. His vice-commander, though, secretly put Jian Zhen in his ship and, after two full decades of struggle, Jian Zhen finally made it to Japan at the age of 66.

Jian Zhen built Japan’s first ordination platform and gave ordination to more than 400 Buddhists, from an emperor to lower class nuns. Later, he established the Tōshōdai-ji (唐招提寺), a private temple where he taught Buddhism to the masses. He also dedicated his life to taking care of the poor till his death in 763.

After so many trials and tribulations, Jian Zhen today embodies the indomitable spirit of Buddhism.


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