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Dharma Master Jian Zhen

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The Transmitter of the Buddhist Precepts in Japan
Master Jian Zhen (鑑真) sat in front of a window overlooking the beautiful Japanese landscape. He was lost in thought. A passing observer might have assumed he was absorbed in the scenery, contemplating the splendor and serenity of the day. In reality, Jian Zhen was completely blind, his mind thousands of miles away from the room in which he sat. It had been seven years since he had left China for Japan. Now, in 760, he was feeling all of his 72 years. He was getting old. The past seemed to resurface in his mind as though it had all just taken place. Not even the passage of time could dim the memories of his dramatic life.


Jian Zhen was born in 688 in what is today the city of Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province, on China's east coast. Little is known of his childhood, other than that he grew up in a devout Buddhist family. One day, when he was 14 years old, he followed his father to worship at Dayun Temple in the city. At the temple, he was profoundly touched by the gigantic illuminated statues of the buddhas. The experience so moved the young boy that he immediately asked his father for permission to leave home and become a monk. His father, a devout Buddhist, could understand the zeal that the temple visit had awakened, and so he readily agreed to his son's request.

Soon after, Jian Zhen was accepted as a novice in the temple. He spent the next five or six years learning all that he could, and he was ordained a monk when he turned 20 years old. After his ordination, he left the temple in Yangzhou. The young monk traveled far and wide, studying all the doctrines, sutras and Buddhist precepts that he could. [The Buddhist precepts are the rules and etiquette governing the functions of the Buddhist congregation and the conduct of each individual monk or nun, so he or she will not go astray or do things improper or unaccepted by the congregation.] His knowledge and insight deepened immensely during this time. He returned to Yangzhou when he was 26, and he began to give lectures on the Buddhist precepts. Listeners were impressed by the young monk's wisdom and deep understanding of the precepts. As his reputation grew, so did his following. He soon became renowned as the "Master of Buddhist Precepts."

Jian Zhen lived during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), one of the most powerful dynasties in Chinese history. Surrounding countries would regularly dispatch ambassadors to China on diplomatic missions. A typical diplomatic group might consist of an ambassador and his deputies, sailors, doctors, scholars, students, and monks. Japan regularly sent such groups to China during this era.

Of all the persons in the Japanese delegations, the students and the monks shouldered the most important mission. They went to China to study Chinese culture, medicine, architecture, religion, and literature. They would then carry the newly acquired knowledge back to Japan and incorporate it into their own culture. In fact, modern historians recognize that many aspects of Japanese culture have their origins in China during the Tang Dynasty. Such aspects include, among other things, the structure of the government, architectural styles, written language, and even social customs.

By this time, Buddhism had begun to flourish in Japan. However, it had not reached the level of sophistication that it had in China. Japanese farmers often became monks simply to avoid paying taxes. They did not know the Buddhist precepts and therefore failed to abide by them. The disorder and lack of discipline among the monks and nuns resulted in a variety of social troubles. The Japanese government was at a loss as to how to address these problems.

Even worse, the Japanese monks were not actually monks at all. The Buddha had stipulated that a novice could only be officially ordained as a Buddhist monk in the presence of three senior monks and a minimum of seven witnessing monks. Any candidate who failed to find all ten monks for his ordination ceremony could not be considered a true monk. Because this protocol for official ordination was not practiced in Japan, Japanese "monks" lacked official status.

Yoei and Fusho begin their quest
Against this historical and cultural backdrop, two Japanese monks, Yoei and Fusho, traveled to China in 733 with a diplomatic delegation. They were hoping to find a Buddhist master who could preach and instill the Buddhist precepts among the Japanese. They had a dual purpose in this search. First, they wanted to help their fellow monks understand and abide by the precepts. Second, they hoped to help the Japanese monks achieve official status like their counterparts in China and in this way achieve social recognition.

The two Japanese monks searched for many years for the right master. Eventually, their search led them to Dao Hang (道航), one of Jian Zhen's disciples. Dao Hang told the two monks about his master, renowned for his deep understanding of the precepts. In 742, Yoei and Fusho visited Jian Zhen in Yangzhou and told him about their desire to bring the Buddhist precepts to Japan.

Sensing the imperative need of Japanese Buddhists, Jian Zhen asked his disciples if any of them were willing to shoulder the important task of going to Japan to promote the precepts. When no one spoke up, Jian Zhen scolded them: "How can you be so concerned about your own well-being? You are monks! Instead of fearing for your own safety, you should be more concerned about spreading the Buddha's teachings and precepts so others may learn from them."

At this, one of the disciples replied, "But Master, isn't it true that traveling to Japan is dangerous? We would be lucky to even arrive in Japan alive. It's more likely we would go down with our ships and become food for fish."

At this challenge, Jian Zhen became even more serious. "Have you all forgotten the history of Buddhism? Do you not remember how many people have sacrificed their lives to pass down the Buddha's teachings to us? They paid with their lives so that each of us here could become monks and study the Buddha's philosophy. If those who paid the ultimate price could hear you now, they would turn over in their graves! Have their precious lives been wasted because you are so concerned for your own physical security? You should be ashamed of your cowardice! We should follow in the footsteps of our brave forefathers, to the death if need be, so the Buddha's teachings may continue to flourish. We are monks--it is our obligation to preach the Buddha's teachings so that others may benefit from them. Our friends from Japan need our help. How can you possibly refuse such a request?"

Jian Zhen then turned to Yoei and Fusho and said to them, "Since none of my disciples is brave enough, I will go with you to Japan to spread the Buddha's precepts."

Upon hearing this, Jian Zhen's disciples were moved to courage. One by one, they spoke up and indicated their desire to brave the unknown for the sake of spreading Buddhism. Within a few minutes, 21 disciples had pledged to follow their master to Japan.

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