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Home Global Activities Taiwan Dharma Master Jian Zhen - Important contributions

Dharma Master Jian Zhen - Important contributions

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Dharma Master Jian Zhen
Jian Zhen's first attempt
The fourth attempt is sabotaged
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Important contributions
Not only was Master Jian Zhen an expert on the Buddhist precepts, but he was also a good doctor of traditional Chinese medicine.

Jian Zhen introduced traditional Chinese medicine to Japan soon after he arrived in 753. He even offered medical treatment to the emperor and his mother for their illnesses. He taught people how to distinguish true medicinal herbs and false ones, and how to preserve, refine and mix them. Eventually, the use of traditional Chinese medicine became widespread in Japan. For this reason, Jian Zhen is seen as the founder of traditional Chinese medicine in Japan. Even today, there are devotees in Japan that cultivate Chinese herbs and promote their medicinal qualities.

Jian Zhen also heavily influenced the development of Buddhist schools in Japan. The master had studied the Tientai School of Buddhism in China, and he had brought with him to Japan several important books on Tientai philosophy. A Japanese monk, Sai Cho, read these books, and he subsequently traveled to China for further study in the Tientai School. When he finally returned to Japan, he founded the Japanese Tientai School on Mount Hiei. Thus, it can be said that Jian Zhen was the originator of the Tientai School in Japan.

Jian Zhen had also studied Esoteric Buddhism in China. The arrangement of Buddhist figures in the main hall of Toushoudai Temple indicates his background in this area. In the center of the main hall is a statue of the Vairocana Buddha, to the east is the Medicine Buddha, and to the west is the Great Compassion Bodhisattva. The Four Deva Kings stand in the four corners, and the rest of the space is filled with other deities. The organization of the temple reflects a mandala altar, a round or square altar on which statues of buddhas and bodhisattvas are placed for the purpose of concentrating their spiritual powers.

It is very interesting to note that the arrangement of the statues in Kanzeon Temple (in Fukuoka, southern Japan) and Yakushi Temple (in Tojiki County, north of Tokyo) is the same as that in Toushoudai Temple. Actually, Jian Zhen requested the establishment of these temples too. The two temples, plus the Toushoudai Temple, were once seen as the major centers for promulgating the Buddhist precepts in Japan. In fact, monks and nuns had to be ordained in one of the three temples to receive their official status.

Yet another of Jian Zhen's contributions to Japanese culture is his influence on Buddhist architecture. The main hall in Buddhist temples constructed before Jian Zhen's time incorporated a "double layer" feature: a second roof layer was built on top of the lower roof. However, the main hall of the Toushoudai Temple broke with traditional Japanese-style architecture and featured a single-layer roof. Thereafter, many new temples in Japan would also adopt a single-layer roof style for the main hall.

The fourth and most important of Jian Zhen'ss contributions was the establishment of the Buddhist precepts and the official ordination ceremony. In the beginning, not all the Japanese monks and nuns favored the precept ideology and ordination system. Prior to Jian Zhen's visit, Japanese novices simply took an oath before a buddha's statue in an ordination ceremony to become monks or nuns. The candidates might receive their precepts in the ordination ceremony, but the precepts were not complete. Sometimes the precepts received were not even correct for them.

Many monks felt that Jian Zhen's system made things too difficult. They felt that the new precepts had too many restrictions, and they were upset by the notion that they would have to re-take the precepts just to maintain the status quo.

Eventually, those opposed to the changes brought by Jian Zhen publicly debated with him. In the end, the opposing monks admitted defeat and asked the master to grant them the complete precepts. The victory further helped Jian Zhen establish the proper precepts in Japan.

In 763, Ren Ji (忍基), one of Jian Zhen's disciples, dreamed that a pillar in the Toushoudai Temple suddenly broke in two. Ren Ji knew that this symbolized the death of his master in the near future. He informed all the other disciples about the sad news, and he also had someone make a sculpture of Jian Zhen. The sculpture is now an important historical artifact and is currently on display in Toushoudai Temple.

In the same year, Jian Zhen sat in the meditation posture and died peacefully at the age of 76.

In 764, a new emissary traveled to China and brought the news of Master Jian Zhen's death. All the monks in Yangzhou held memorial services for three days to commemorate the great dharma master.

Source: Tzu chi Quarterly Summer 2006

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