Abigail I. MacBain
Columbia University, United States
The Tōdaiji Yōroku (東大寺要録) states that in 733, the Japanese court sent two Buddhist monks together with a diplomatic mission to Tang China in order to find a precepts master. While the envoy returned with the monk Daoxuan (Dōsen 道璿; 699-757) two years later, the court’s goal was fully realized in 753, when famed monk Jianzhen (Ganjin 鑑真; 688-763) reached Japan. There, he transformed the monastic ordination process through promulgating the Dharmaguptaka vinaya precepts (四分律 shibun ritsu) and establishing ordination platforms.
In this paper, I focus on this “precepts master solicitation” (律師招請 risshi shōsei) episode. In particular, I question the common argument that it was motivated by anxiety over whether Japan’s monastic tradition was legitimate or not. This model hinges on a quorum of ten fully ordained monks to oversee ordinations, which feasibly Japan never had prior to this point. However, this explanation is lacking from textual references, neglects the historical context of the Japanese court's overseas interactions, and ignores precepts use outside of monastic ordinations. Rather, I argue that the push for a precepts master was part of a larger interest in maintaining standards with Japan's overseas neighbors. In looking at the degree to which overseas monks were involved with major religious and political events, including bestowing non-vinaya precepts upon the imperial family, the Japanese court used monks like Daoxuan and Jianzhen to promote external appearances of religious, cultural, and political parity to neighboring countries.