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How East Asian pioneering monks innovated and adapted Buddhism as their own

It has always been a personal curiosity of mine on how early monks from China and later Japan adapted what was basically an Indian religion and made the principles and teachings into their own. What challenges did they face? Was it required for them to be multi-lingual (since Indian texts were rendered in Pali or Sanskrit)? What kind of controversy did they create? How did they manage to convince their countrymen to embrace these new teachings? What did they do to make this happen?

Like anything new, innovators and pioneers always inadvertently face uncertainties simply because there was no precedence ahead. Any new creations that challenges the status quo and bring uncertainties will certainly almost always face headwinds, such as obstructions, threats and retaliation.

What kind of courage and intellect that drove them to look deeply at Buddhist teachings so that their society could benefit from? What lessons can we learn from these monks?

Today, Buddhism in general faces a situation that if not countered, could truly usher its Dharma ending age. Issues like pervasive capitalistic life style, materialistic culture, over dependence and addiction to use of technology, social fragmentation and isolation, passive (more like non-existing) intellect, hedonistic "scrolling" habits i.e. TikTok, Instagram culture could finally do Buddhism in.

What is needed are not cosmetic efforts to adapt the Dharma to face current challenges. We need an overhaul of ideas, intellect, approach and new levels of like minded support to face what is mounting to be a "samsaric" behemoth.

But first, let us go back to history and see what lessons we can learn from 2 pioneering East Asian monks and how their endeavor planted Buddhism firmly in their respective country and changed the face of Buddhism forever.

Zhiyi (China) and Shinran (Japan)

Zhiyi (538-597) and Shinran (1173-1262) were two of the most important figures in the history of East Asian Buddhism, and their ideas had a profound impact on the development of the religion in China and Japan respectively. Both Zhiyi and Shinran were innovative thinkers who challenged the status quo. Their work had a profound impact on the development of Buddhism in China and Japan, and their teachings continue to inspire people around the world today. Let's take a look at each of their contributions.


Zhiyi (538-597) was a Chinese Buddhist monk who founded the Tiantai school of Buddhism. He was a prolific writer and produced over 300 works on a wide range of topics, including philosophy, meditation, and ritual. Zhiyi's most famous work is the Fahua xuanyi (Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sutra), a commentary on the Lotus Sutra, one of the most important Buddhist scriptures.

Zhiyi's contributions to Buddhism in China were significant. He was well versed in the broad tradition of Indian asceticism and the first major teacher to form an indigenous Chinese system.

He was famous for helping to synthesize the various strands of Buddhist thought that had been introduced to China, and he developed an elaborate and systematic classification of the Buddha’s teachings.

Zhiyi's ideas also influenced the development of Buddhism in Japan, where the Tiantai school remains an important tradition.

David Wellington Chappell (1940–2004), a professor of Buddhist studies whose specialties were Chinese Buddhist traditions and inter religious dialogue. holds that Zhiyi "... provided a religious framework which seemed suited to adapt to other cultures, to evolve new practices, and to universalize Buddhism."[1]

Here are some of Zhiyi's contributions to Buddhism in China:

  • He developed a comprehensive system of Buddhist thought that incorporated elements of both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism, synthesizing the many streams of Buddhist teachings coming out of India.

  • He emphasized the importance of meditation and contemplation as a means of achieving enlightenment.

  • He promoted the Lotus Sutra as the highest expression of Buddhist truth.

  • He founded the Tiantai school of Buddhism, which became one of the most popular schools of Buddhism in China and Japan.

Zhiyi's ideas were not without controversy. Some of his critics accused him of being too intellectual and of neglecting the importance of rituals and devotional practices. His other ideas, such as his belief in the universal attainability of enlightenment, were seen as unorthodox by other Buddhist schools. However, Zhiyi's ideas were eventually accepted by many Buddhists, and the Tiantai school became one of the most popular schools of Buddhism in China.


Shinran (1173-1263) was a Japanese Buddhist monk and the founder of Jōdo Shinshū, or True Pure Land Buddhism. He was born into a high-ranking family at a time of great turmoil in Japan. The Heian period was coming to an end, and the country was entering a new era of political and social upheaval.

Shinran was initially ordained as a Tendai monk, but he eventually became disillusioned with the traditional Buddhist teachings. He believed that they were too complex and inaccessible for ordinary people. He also believed that they placed too much emphasis on self-effort and not enough on the power of Amida Buddha's vow to save all beings.

Shinran developed a new form of Buddhism that was based on the simple practice of chanting the nembutsu, or the name of Amida Buddha. He taught that anyone, regardless of their social status or spiritual attainment, could be reborn in Amida's Pure Land through faith and devotion. He was one of the first monk to use Japanese instead of Chinese (which was the official court system language at that time) in his writings to spread Buddhist teachings. This went against established Buddhist mainstream norm and he was excommunicated and exiled to northern Honshu.

Shinran's contributions to Buddhism in Japan include:

  • He simplified the Buddhist teachings and made them more accessible to ordinary people.

  • He used Japanese instead of the Chinese language in his writings to spread Buddhist teachings.

  • He emphasized the power of faith and devotion in attaining enlightenment.

  • He founded Jōdo Shinshū, which is now one of the largest schools of Buddhism in Japan.

Shinran's teachings have had a profound impact on Japanese culture and society. They have helped to shape the Japanese people's understanding of Buddhism and their relationship with the divine.

Here are some of the reasons why Shinran was controversial:

  1. He challenged the authority of the traditional Buddhist schools.

  2. He taught that salvation could be attained through faith alone, not through self-effort.

  3. He allowed his monks to marry, which was considered unorthodox at the time.

Despite the controversy, Shinran's teachings eventually gained widespread acceptance. His legacy continues to this day, and he is considered one of the most important figures in Japanese Buddhism. Jōdo Shinshū is now one of the largest schools of Buddhism in Japan, and it has also spread to other countries around the world.

What did Zhiyi and Shinran really do?

Collectively and in summary, both Zhiyi and Shinran clearly did three things:

1) Systematizers

They both took the complex and sometimes contradictory teachings of Buddhism and organized them into a coherent system that could be understood and practiced by ordinary people.

2) Reformers

They both rejected some of the traditional practices of Buddhism and replaced them with new practices that they believed were more in line with the original teachings of the Buddha, as well which can be applied in their respective community.

3) Influencers

Their ideas have had a profound impact on the development of Buddhism in China and Japan, and they continue to be influential today.

In conclusion, Zhiyi and Shinran were two of the most important figures in the history of East Asian Buddhism. Their ideas have had a profound impact on the development of the religion in China and Japan, and they continue to be influential today.

Let just sleep on this for the time being and reflect what we can do to emulate the efforts of Zhiyi and Shinran. They have shown us the way, but surely the quest for bravery and determination must now take the lead!



1. Chappell, David W. (1987). 'Is Tendai Buddhism Relevant to the Modern World?' in Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 14/2-3, 247-266. Source: PDF; accessed: Saturday 16 August 2008. p.247


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