Jianzhen, Missionary to Japan

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on August 3, 2015.)

The statue of Jianzhen at Daming Temple, Yangzhou, a gift from the Japanese

In some temples you will find images of great monks from Chinese tradition. We have already discussed Xuanzang, who went "west." Today let's look at Jianzhen, who went "east."

He was born in what is now Yangzhou, Jiangsu, in 688. At age 14, he became a monk at that city's Daming Temple, where--after six years study in Chang'an (modern Xi'an)--he became abbot. He also established a hospital in the temple, and his fame spread.

If this were all he had done, he would simply be known as one of China's many great monks. But in 742, when he was around 54 years old, visitors from Japan asked him to come lecture on Buddhism in that country. Although his disciples wanted him to stay, he set out to cross the sea in 743.

That attempt failed. Over the next few years, he was to try several more times, always foiled by high seas or a government unwilling to let him go.

On his fifth try, in 748, he was blown so far off course that he landed on Hainan Island. Traveling back to Yangzhou over land, he lectured along the way. The trip took three years, and he contracted an eye infection which blinded him.

In 753, now 65 years old and blind, he made his sixth attempt--and was successful. After several months at sea, he landed in Kyushu and traveled to Nara, where he became abbot of Todai-ji. After "retiring" he built Toshodai-ji, where he died in 763. He had spent ten years teaching Buddhism and transmitting Chinese culture to Japan.

In 1980, Toshodai-ji presented a replica of an ancient statue of Jianzhen to his home temple in Yangzhou, where it can be seen today.

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