A Taste of Tendai
- By The Reverend Jion Prosser
- Jun 17
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Tendai Lotus Teachings: www.tendai-lotus.org
Forward by Rev. Chuan Zhi Shakya, OHY
We are pleased to present the following article by the Reverend Jion Prosser of Tendai Lotus Teachings, a Minneapolis based sangha of the Tendai school.
It may be of interest to our sangha members that our Grandmaster Hsu Yun studied for several years under Tendai Master Yang Ching - in fact, it was Yang Ching who taught him the koan "Who is it who is dragging this corpse before me?"We thank the Reverend Jion Prosser for the insight into this revered Buddhist path.
It's quite a long walk down to the Byakuryu (White Dragon) waterfall on the reverse slope of Mount Hiei. The long, winding path isn't frequented by many folks, the majority of people content with touring the large expanse of temples along the southern ridge of Mount Hiei, which looms off the northern edge of Kyoto, Japan. Along that weathered path are a number of smaller religious sites and holy relics, yet the Byakuryu waterfall lies hidden behind an old shrine, no neon sign proclaiming its location.
I was walking the path with my Master, toward the very waterfall which I had heard legends about and under which numerous Gyoja, or ascetic monks had stood to brave the chilling waters during their religious trainings. I was new to Japan and was well underway in the spiritual pursuit of the Tendai Dharma, yet really had no concept at all of what I was undertaking. The waterfall meditation, or takigyo of which I was to undertake was really a symbolic gesture of inner faith…
I had moved to Japan to study Tendai Buddhist after a very brief, few years of contemporary Dharma study. A professor in college, himself a staunch Zen adherent after spending some years in Japan as part of the American occupation force, recommended a quick stint in Japan for me. I was game to the idea, saw the value of experiencing a drastically different culture and welcomed the opportunity to try my hand at the spiritual quest for real.
The Tendai Sect has often been referred to as the "Mother of all Japanese Buddhism," mainly because so many of the auxiliary sects which would in later years establish themselves as independent denominations had as their founders original Tendai monks. The sage Saicho, later referred to as Dengyo Daishi or "Great Teacher and Transmitter of the Dharma," endured the voyage to China to investigate what he envisioned as "true Dharma" after a discouragement of then-prominent Nara sectarianism. Saicho would study with many legendary masters atop Mount T'ien-t'ai and return to his native Japan with a wealth of insightful and provocative teachings, eventually establishing the Tendai sect (the Japanese reading of Chinese T'ien-t'ai).
In short time following Saicho's death, many of his closest disciples would alter the course of the Tendai sect by investing within its canon of teachings many diverse and esoteric tenets. Pure Land teachings would grow to great popularity as would abstruse practices of ultimate awakening. The Tendai sect would evolve into a distinctly Japanese interpretation of classic Chinese T'ien-t'ai Buddhism and influence the development of numerous other Japanese denominations throughout the long history of Japanese Buddhist evolution.
Yet for all its doctrinal prowess, what the Tendai sect would be remembered most vividly for is its rigorous and severe commitment to ascetic practices. Mount Hiei is often referred to as "the mountain of severe ascetic practices." During my stays on the mountain, I witnessed the wide fluctuation of temperatures for which the region is known. During the brutally hot summer months, the damp air seemed to hang like moist curtains and drape the entire mountain in shrouds of sweltering canvas. The winter season brought bone-chilling temperatures and waves of snow. Yet throughout this antagonistic environment, the whole of Mount Hiei remained a very serene place resplendent with a certain spiritual poignancy. As I learned to navigate more of the mountain, it amazed me how often the very environment actually contributed to deep spiritual insights. Certainly it was a monastic mountain retreat for the monks in residence, but it was also a testament to the spiritual awakening we all can claim as our birthright as humans. When I witnessed the tourists who flocked to the mountain (Mount Hiei is one of the most-visited monasteries in Japan), I saw a look of serene appreciation for the spiritual in their eyes as they entered the religious confines. A sense of awe was replaced by a growing cognition of the intrinsically pure within themselves. I was often fortunate enough to speak with many of the tourists as they moved from one temple location to the next. I imagine being a bald-headed, non-Japanese priest gathered some attention; they were always very eager to discover just what brought me this far north!
That inner faith that I mentioned previously in regards to traveling to the famed Byakuryu waterfall was such a powerful force in my experiences of the Tendai Sect. Walking with my Master down that long and winding path was a journey in itself. There was no quick road to heaven. No magical formula to break my ignorance. No enlightenment potion. As I reached the waterfall, this during the already chilly autumn month of October, I was struck with how rather natural it appeared. A non-descript funnel of crisp, clear water cascaded off a rock crevice some ten feet high, splattering in a chorus of brilliant sounds on the rock platform below. On the wall bordering the waterfall, as if carved in icy stone, sat a ledge of candlesticks along with a small shrine to the deity of the waterfall. Lighting incense and candles and removing my work robes, I paused to take in what had transformed from the magical and legendary to the very mundane and simply pure. I imagine this is what real Dharma can be for us, approachable and welcoming. In traveling the long path to the mystical waterfall, I could do away with the incessant need to transmute the provisional into the wonderful. I could see the purity of a simple moment in nature, aligned with a spiritual conscious that didn't require the added ingredients of any artificial state or condition.
Autumn winds reminded me that I was standing in the cold with nothing on more than a modest loincloth and bearing witness, I met with the waterfall. More than the cold, which was "awakening" enough of its own right, the powerful, single-pointed focus of the water upon the crown of my head was the most memorable aspect for me. And as the mind traveled back up the waterfall and as the mantra broke loose, the Dharma became a bit more impersonal and a touch more approachable.
The taste of that frigid waterfall will always be with me, I think. It wasn't the distinctly different or delicious flavor of the waters, but the originality of the moment that stays with me, maybe as I reminder of my own inability to detach from it all. Attachment or not, the flavor of spiritual awakening for us all is uniquely indescribable I imagine. Searching for words, struggling for clarity, a taste of the Dharma smiles back.