Jianzhen's Voyage to Japan
Jianzhen (688-763), with family name Chunyu, was from Yangzhou. During the Tang Dynasty, Buddhism was popular in Yangzhou, where crowds of monks collected from across the country and even from abroad, and Buddhist temples numbered over 30 to 40. Jianzhen's home also was bathed with a prevailing Buddhist aura. Under the influence of the family, at an early age, Jianzhen developed a strong interest in Buddhism. At the age of 14, with the approval of the Master Zhiman, he became a monk at the Dayun Temple. From then on, "Jianzhen" became his religious name. At the age of 45, disciples under him numbered over 40,000, as he had become an eminent disciple of Buddhism.
Among the Japanese envoys to the Tang court there were two monks, Rongrui and Puzhao. Entrusted by Buddhist circles in Japan, they came to Daming Temple in Yangzhou to pay a courtesy visit to Jianzhen, who was well versed in theory of the Buddhist precepts, and said to him: "It is about 180 years since Buddhism was introduced to Japan. However, we lack higher-status monks who are qualified to preside over ceremonies to ordain monks. For this, we intend to invite to Japan a learned, respected monk, to promote Buddhism and restore the disciplines." Jianzhen thus decided he would go in person. After four failed attempts to make the crossing, on the 27th day of the 6th lunar month, 748, he set out on a fifth voyage. The ship lost its bearings and drifted to Hainan Island, a long distance from Japan. After wandering around for a year, in 751 Jianzhen returned to Yangzhou. Tormented by the scorching heat of south China, on top of his years of suffering, he completely lost his eyesight. In 754, Jianzhen at the rather advanced age of 66, with a Japanese diplomatic corps, boarded a large ship bound for Japan. He eventually reached his destination and fulfilled his lifelong wish.
From 742 to 753, Jianzhen made 6 attempts to sail over to Japan, spanning over 12 years. In this period, more than 200 followers had wavered and deserted him, while 36 people had died during the voyage. Two people from the beginning persevered, following Jianzhen until his arrival in Japan; these were his disciples Situo, and a Japanese monk Puzhao. Both the Japanese government and the public were moved by Jianzhen's dedication, and prepared a grand and solemn ceremony in his honor. The Japanese emperor Syoumu then granted him the title Dai-sozu, and placed him solely in charge of the preaching of Buddhist precepts. Jianzhen thus became the founder of the Risshu Buddhist doctrines on precepts in Japan. His lofty ideals, forwhose fruition he had toiled for decades, were finally realized.
Most of the Buddhist scriptures found in Japan had been handed down through word of mouth by monks, and were thus flawed, with many errors and omissions. Jianzhen, though blind, had an astonishing memory, and so was able to redress these deficiencies. Jianzhen, steeped also in Tiantai (or Tendai) doctrines, played an important role in their dissemination in Japan.
Jianzhen and his disciples also bequeathed a valuable heritage in architecture and sculpture. He had brought aboard the ship some figures of the Buddha. In Japan, he and his disciples, through the medium of dry paint (painted many times with lacquer over a mold, which is removed when the painting is completed), molded many such figures. Best known were the seated Buddha, Tathagata the Apothecary, a l,000-armed Mother Buddha, among others, found in the Hall of Gold at Tousyoudaiji Temple in Nara. Promoted by Jianzhen and his disciples, such sculpture techniques then were popularized in Japan. Jianzhen also brought along embroidered and painted portraits, copybooks of Chinese calligraphy, etc. Among these were authentic works by the calligrapher Wang Xizhi and his son Wang Xianzhi, both were great calligraphers of the Eastern Jin Dynasty.
These later became standards for Japanese calligraphy and profoundly influenced this branch of the arts. It has been claimed that the inscription on the horizontal board hung in the Tousyoudaiji Temple was by the Empress Kouren in imitation of Wang Xizhi's style.