The Japanese School of Tendai Buddhism was founded by Ven. Saicho 最澄 (Dengyo Daishi 伝教大師 767–822) after he travelled to China to bring the Lotus teachings of the T’ien-t’ai school back to Japan. T’ien-t’ai was said to have been founded by Ven. Zhiyi 智顗 (Chih-i 538-597) even though he is considered the 4th patriarch.
Through his travels in Tang China, Saicho also studied in the Ox Head school of Chan (Zen) Buddhism, Vinaya, and Esoteric traditions. Along with the Lotus teachings of T’ien-t’ai, he brought these other schools to Japan to establish a truly Ekayana school – Tendai Shu 天台宗.
Having returned to Japan in 805CE, Saicho built a temple on Mt Hiei and spent the rest of his life striving to gain imperial approval to establish his new school and ordination platform away from the capital city. Sadly, he did not live to see his dreams fulfilled as, in 822, just days after his death, the Enryaku-ji 延暦寺(temple) on Mt Hiei was given official approval by Emperor Saga as the head of Tendai Buddhism and ordination platform in Japan. The Tendai Shu became the first school to ordain people using the Mahayana Bodhisattva Vows instead of the traditional Vinaya.
After Saicho’s death, many Tendai monks continued to add to the school, notably Ennin 圓仁 (794 – 864) who brought back from China full esoteric (mikkyo 密教) transmissions and Enchin 圓珍(814–891) who united the esoteric and exoteric teachings.
Today, the Tendai Shu is arguably the most influential school of Buddhism in Japan, having given rise to schools such as Nichiren, Zen (Dogen), Jodo Shu and Jodo Shin Shu. Even though it is so influential in Japan it is almost non-existent in the West with only a small number of groups. Slowly and steadily, there are now Temples and groups in Hawaii, America, Canada, Brazil, India, Denmark, Australia, England, Wales, Italy and Germany. The Hawaii Betsuin and the Tendai Institute in America have excellent facilities for westerners who wish to ordain. With hope, and much hard work, more ordination platforms will open up in the west, and the Tendai Shu will continue to grow.