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Thu, Nov 4, 2021

Lucy Dayman: The influential art of Japan’s esoteric Tendai school of Buddhism

The “Buddhist Art of the Tendai School” exhibit in Tokyo

The portrait paintings on the left are the Prince Shotoku and the High Priests of Tendai Buddhism of Ichijo-ji temple in Hyogo Prefecture (11th century), all together a designated national treasure

This year is an auspicious day for the history of Japan’s culture and spirituality. 2021 is the 1200th anniversary of the death of Saicho (posthumous title of Dengyo Daishi), the founder of the Tendai school, one of the nation’s most influential Buddhist schools. In celebration of the anniversary and Tendai’s far-reaching impact on Japanese culture, three of the country’s most iconic museums, the Tokyo National Museum, Kyushu National Museum, and Kyoto National Museum are — in partnership with Japan Cultural Expo — hosting an exhibit titled “Buddhist Art of the Tendai School.”

To learn about Buddhism is to learn about the history, spirituality and cultural development of Japan as a whole. Being one of the most influential, Tendai’s Buddhist teachings are an ideal place to start. This exhibition was designed to introduce visitors to the history of Tendai school, and it works as an excellent touchstone for both those deeply educated about the Tendai school and those with just a fleeting knowledge of the religion.

Throughout Japan, Buddhism has reigned true as one of the nation’s most influential religions. Greatly influenced by Chinese Buddhism and Korean Buddhism, Japan’s form of Buddhism can be traced back to the sixth century, ‘officially.’ However, before this time, there were earlier attempts to introduce Buddhism to Japan. 

As a practice and spirituality, Japan’s form of Buddhism has shifted and evolved over centuries, reflecting the nation’s keen cultural ideologies and individualism. Within the umbrella of Japanese Buddhism are a family of different sects or schools, each representative of the teachers’ values, times and locations from which they formed.

Mandala of the Two Realms of Shitenno-ji temple in Osaka (12th-13th century)
How the Tendai school fits into Japan’s Buddhism

Tendai Buddhism, also known as the Tendai Lotus School, was spearheaded by monk Saicho, who rose to influence in the Heian period (794-1185). Based out of Kyoto and Shiga prefectures’ Mt. Hiei region, it had by the Kamakura period (1185-1333) become one of the nation’s most powerful and influential schools. Essentially, you can’t touch on Japan’s spirituality without exploring the depth, importance and cultural impact of Tendai. 

Tendai teachings are a hybrid of Chinese and Indian philosophies, then reinterpreted for Japanese followers; it’s essentially a religious form shaped by the world. It was the source of many of Japan’s Buddist traditions; from it came Soto and Rinzai Zen, the Pure Land (Jodo shu) and True Pure Land (Jodo Shinshu) schools, and the Nichiren school.

The teachings of Tendai come from one main text, the Lotus Sutra. It outlines the philosophies of the religion, and as Saicho taught, this school considers all Buddhist teachings and practices fitting united under the One Vehicle (ekayana) taught in the Lotus Sutra. 

Typically, Saicho leaned heavily on the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra as his main scriptural basis. The school’s potentially most powerful feature, and perhaps the reason it remained such an influential force — and still does to this day — is its advocacy for unity within all forms of Buddhism. Tendai believes that all humans are fundamentally equal. This passion for equality also expands to the following of Buddha’s teachings, advocating that they are contradiction-free and can be unified in one comprehensive and perfect system.

Tendai are many and include sitting meditation, sutra recitation and the various rituals of esoteric Buddhism, including the spectacular goma fire ceremony, in which monks lead prayer around an open flame. It’s a popular experience for many adventurous travellers heading to the famous Mt. Koya, located in Wakayama Prefecture, to the south of Osaka.

To dive deep into the heart of the religion, one should visit Mt. Hiei’s Enryaku-ji, the headquarters of Tendai. Not one particular temple, but a cluster of temples dotted among three key areas, Enryaku-ji’s centrepiece is the main hall Konpon chudo.

The Standing Kongo Rikishi (Buddhist Guardians) of Hoyo-ji temple in Fukushima Prefecture (12th century)
Showcasing the treasures of Tendai

For those who can’t visit Mt. Hiei, the next best opportunity to immerse yourself in the world of Tendai’s esoteric teachings and deep philosophical importance, Tokyo National Museum is hosting a very special exhibit, titled “Commemorating the 1200th Anniversary of Saichō’s Death: Buddhist Art of the Tendai School.”

The exhibit, housed in Heiseikan Special Exhibition Galleries, runs until Nov. 21, 2021. For those in Tokyo, this is an exclusive opportunity to witness first-hand objects associated with this esoteric form of Buddhism, which is not typically accessible, as they are esoteric and hold incredible spiritual significance.

Its depth and display of hard-to-access objects, both scripture, sculpture, painting and more, offers scholars of Tendai a chance to get up close with items that have shaped the intangible qualities of the nation. For those wanting to begin their journey into the world of Tendai, the display also introduces the history of Tendai Buddhism. Starting at its birthplace of Enryaku-ji temple and ending with the founding of Kan’ei-ji temple in Edo (now Tokyo) during a period in which the school held strong ties with the samurai government of the Edo period (1603–1868), it’s a sweeping overview of the religion that shaped this nation. 

Four of The Twelve Divine Generals of Takisan-ji temple in Aichi Prefecture (13th century)

Some pieces to keep an eye out for

With such a vast collection spanning such a wide scope, the exhibition offers plenty to sink your teeth into. But for those knowing what exactly to keep an eye out for could be a little overwhelming, so here are three key items that embody the spirit of the exhibition and the Tendai school as a whole. 

Item: Karabitsu (Box with legs) With Imperial Seal  

Early on in the exhibition, you’ll find a display showcasing a compact lacquer box and an Imperial seal. Imperial seals were used to seal items under the order of the Emperor. This box is an excellent example of how some of the religion’s most coveted items were guarded and stored at Enryaku-ji. The lacquer box on display here was made in 1891. Before the Edo period (1603-1868), an imperial envoy would make its way to Mt. Hiei for a ceremony that included checking the temple’s treasures like these, showing just how valuable a cultural asset Tendai was. 

Painting: Prince Shotoku and the High Priests of Tendai Buddhism

One of the most iconic images of the exhibit, this Heian-period painting, is an encapsulation of the religion’s valuable 11th-century paintings, which depict eminent Tendai priests from India, China and Japan (See top photo). It’s a great example of how the iconography of Tendai was transmitted throughout history. In this image is Prince Shotoku, a politician and the son of Emperor Yomei. Prince Shotoku is a key figure in the religion as he wrote about the Lotus Sutra and is believed to be a reincarnation of Huisi (Eshi), the master of Zhiyi (Chigi), a patriarch in Chinese Buddhism.

The Seated Fudo Myo’o of Isaki-ji temple in Shiga Prefecture (left, 10th century), and the Standing Thousand-Armed Kannon and Two Attendants of Myo’o-in temple in Shiga Prefecture (12th century)
Sculpture: Seated Fudo Myo’o (Acalanatha)

This Heian-period piece (important cultural property) hails from Shiga Prefecture’s Isaki-ji temple. Fudo Myo’o (Acalanatha) is one of Buddhism’s most widely represented deities and a figure you’ll see reimagined at temples across Japan. He’s a fierce protector of the Buddhist Law. As is typical of Fudo Myo’o sculptures, it featured the diety with his iconic braid and unique features just as he reportedly came to Tendai priest So’o (831–918), while training

(Photos courtesy of Lucy Dayman)

For more info on the exhibit:




Born and raised in Australia, Lucy is a currently Tokyo-based journalist with a passion and focus on Japanese travel, art and culture. Previously, she worked as a publicist, and later, as the editor of a music magazine in Melbourne, before relocating to Japan in 2016. In 2019, she co-founded the bilingual communications and creative agency Y+L Projects, based in Tokyo's Omotesando. Her first book, a guide to Tokyo, which she co-authored, will be out via U.K. publishing house DK in 2021.



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