Journey to the East
During the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907), a Buddhist monk attempted to travel from China to Japan to spread Dharma. After many years and five unsuccessful attempts, he finally made it and contributed much to the development of Japan.
During the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907), two eminent monks were widely known: Master Xuanzang, who lived during the reign of Emperor Taizong of Tang (AD 626–649) and travelled west to collect Buddhist scriptures and Master Jianzhen, who lived during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (AD 712–756) and voyaged east to Japan. Both men made great contributions to the promotion of the Dharma. After undergoing tremendous hardships, Master Xuanzang finally brought the authentic scriptures back to China, whist Master Jianzhen, at the invitation of Japanese emissaries, attempted six sea voyages disregarding the safety of his life before he finally reached Japan. With his knowledge of Chinese medicine, music and architecture, Jianzhen contributed much to the development of Japan, earning him the nicknames “Master from across the Sea” and “Father of Culture.”
The story of Jianzhen’s sea voyages has been around for over 1,200 years. Finally, in 2016, the Jiangsu Performing Arts Group created and performed the epic opera Jianzhen Goes East. Composer Tang Jianping, screenwriters Feng Boming and Feng Bilie and director Xing Shimiao worked together to bring this grand historical story of cultural communication between China and Japan to the opera stage.
Religious and Cultural Envoy
Originally surnamed Chunyu, Master Jianzhen was born in Yangzhou in AD 688 and became a monk in the city’s Daming Temple at the age of 14. Later he travelled to Chang’an and Luoyang for study. After returning to Yangzhou, he constructed the Chongfu Temple and Buddhist halls such as the Fengfa Hall as well as pagodas and statues, and preached the Vinaya Pitaka. With his diligent and studious spirit, he became an eminent monk in his middle age and was honoured as “Master Shoujie” (“Master of Imparting Precepts”) having spent over 40 years tonsuring laymen and imparting Buddhist knowledge.
At that time, the Japanese Buddhist precepts were incomplete and so monks there were unable to be ordained. In AD 733, two Japanese monks named Yōei and Fushō travelled with Japanese diplomats to China, attempting to invite eminent monks to impart the precepts to Japan. After a decade of searching, they finally reached Yangzhou and requested Master Jianzhen sail eastward to Japan to impart the Dharma. However, the first voyage failed before it even began.
Two years later, they attempted a sea voyage for the second time. A total of 17 monks including Master Jianzhen and over 80 hired craftsmen set off, but were shipwrecked due to strong winds and waves in the Yangtze River Delta. After the ship was repaired, they set off again. Caught in a gale this time, their ship drifted to a small island in the Zhoushan Archipelago. Five days later they were finally rescued and taken to the Temple of Asoka in Zhejiang. In early spring, temples in Yuezhou, Hangzhou and Huzhou each invited Master Jianzhen to give lectures on the Dharma and so his second sea voyage came to an end.
After his lecture tour, Master Jianzhen returned to the Temple of Asoka and prepared for his third attempt. However, little did he know that monks in Yuezhou had been informed of this matter. To keep Master Jianzhen there, they reported to the local government that some Japanese monks had infiltrated China in order to “lure” Master Jianzhen into going to Japan. As a result, Yōei was thrown into prison and then sent back to Hangzhou, only managing to escape by feigning his death through illness. As such, the third attempted voyage failed.
At his fourth attempt, Master Jianzhen procured a ship in Fuzhou, then set off from the Temple of Asoka with a team of 30. The moment they arrived at Wenzhou however, they were intercepted. It turned out that Lingyou, a disciple of Master Jianzhen back in the Daming Temple, was so worried about his master that he beseeched the Yangzhou government to stop them. The caifangshi [the official responsible for imprisonment affairs and supervising of officials] for Huainan then sent men to intercept the team and force them back to Yangzhou.
In AD 748, Yōei and Fushō again visited the Daming Temple where they earnestly asked Master Jianzhen to attempt another sea voyage. Master Jianzhen immediately led a team of several dozen including monks, craftsmen and sailors in departing from the Chongfu Temple, beginning his fifth eastward journey. By this time, Jianzhen was already 60 years old.
In AD 753, Japanese emissaries to the Tang Dynasty including Fujiwara Kiyokawa, Kibino Makibi, Chao Heng (original name Abeno Nakamaro) and