Buddhist nations have long counted the ordination of monks and the founding of monasteries among the significant moments in their histories. The rules of monastic discipline (vinaya) require that a novice seeking to become a fully ordained monk (bhiksu) receive ordination from a group of ten fully ordained monks. If the ordination is to take place in a remote region, only five monks are required. When Buddhism has moved from one land to another, that movement has often been marked by the ordination of the first monks of the new land. But such ordination has sometimes been difficult because of the number of monks required to perform the ordination ceremony, and those foreign monks who make the journey to the new land to bestow ordination are regarded as heroes in the history of the tradition. In Japan, the monk most remembered for his heroic efforts is the Chinese master known as Ganjin (his Chinese name was Jianzhen).
Although there was considerable interest in the vinaya in the early Japanese schools of the Nara period (710-796), there were not enough fully ordained monks to perform proper ordination. The Chinese monk Daoxuan arrived in Japan in 738, where he taught not just vinaya but also Chan (Zen), Huayen (Kegon) and Tiantai (Tendai). Even after Daoxuan’s arrival, however, proper ordinations still could not be conducted in Japan because the required number of ten fully ordained senior monks were not present. Some schools developed their own ordination practices, including self-ordination. Other monks travelled to Korea to receive full ordination. The Emperor Shomu sent two monks to China to study the vinaya and determine the best means of properly establishing a sangha of fully ordained monks in Japan. They eventually met the vinaya-master Ganjin and invited him to return with them to Japan. Ganjin agreed to make the journey, despite the many obstacles he would face; his decision was seen as a sign of his heroic dedication to the dharma. Chinese monks were prohibited by the state from travelling abroad, making it necessary to elude government officials before setting out to sea, where a frightful array of dangers, both natural and supernatural awaited. Ganjin and his party failed five times over the course often years, suffering shipwreck and attack by pirates, before arriving in Japan in 753. The following account contains excerpts from a work written shortly thereafter. It is entitled Biography of the High Bishop, Chief Dharma Administrator Jianzhen of Tang China Who Journeyed Eastward across the Sea (Homuzo daisojo To Ganjin kakai tosei den) and was composed in 779 by Genkai (722785), based on records compiled by Ganjin’s disciple Situo (Japanese: Shitaku), who had accompanied his teacher on the voyages. Part adventure story, part travelogue, the account describes the repeated attempts of Ganjin and his disciples to make the perilous journey to Japan and fulfil his promise to bring the vinaya there.
Despite his imperial welcome at the capital of Nara and the grand ordination ceremony he conducted at the Todaiji temple, monastic officials at court, who had controlled the ordination system prior to his arrival, did not grant Ganjin full authority over the ordination of monks; Ganjin resigned from the office bestowed upon him just five years after his arrival. The question of who ordained monks and what constituted ordination has remained a persistent theme throughout the history of Buddhism in Japan.
Ganjin Agrees to Go to Japan
During the fifth year of the Tempyo period  the sramana [Buddhist ascetics] Yoei and Fusho and others accompanied the Japanese ambassador Tajihi no Hironari [d. 739] to Tang China to study Buddhism. In China it was the twenty-first year of the Kaiyuan period. In all the Buddhist monasteries of China the scripture masters and great worthies regarded ordination with the precepts of the vinaya as the correct entrance to the Buddhist path. Anyone who lacked the precepts could not be counted among the sangha. Yoei and Fusho thereby realized that no one had transmitted the vinaya ordination procedures to their own kingdom. They persuaded the sramana Daoxuanc [Japanese: Dosen, 702-760], a vinaya-master of Dafuxian Temple in the eastern capital [Loyang], to travel aboard the ship of the returning adjunct ambassador Nakatomi Ason Nashiro [d. 745] so that Daoxuan might be the first to teach vinaya in Japan.
After Yoei and Fusho had studied Buddhism in the Tang empire for ten years, they wanted to return home as soon as they could without waiting to accompany another official emissary. They requested assistance from the monks Daohang and Chengguan of the western capital [Chang’an; modern Xian], from the monk Deqing of the eastern capital and from the Korean monk Yohae. [Daohang introduced them to] Li Linzong, the brother of the minister Li Linfu, who helped them obtain an order, which they sent to Licang [Linzong’s nephew] in Yangzhou, requesting that a ship be constructed and stocked with provisions. Yoei and Fusho along with Genro and Genbo, two other Japanese monks who also had been sent to China to study Buddhism, travelled to Yangzhou.
It was the middle of winter, first year  of the Chinese Tianbao period.
At that time the great upadhyaya [master instructor], Ganjin [Chinese: Jianzhen; 688-763], was lecturing on vinaya at the Darning Temple in Yangzhou. Yoei and Fusho went to Daming Temple, bowed at the feet of Ganjin and told him in detail of their mission: ‘The Buddha’s dharma has flowed east to the Kingdom of Japan. Although the dharma exists in Japan, there is no person who can properly transmit the dharma [via ordination with the precepts of the vinaya]. Long ago in Japan there was a prince named Shotoku Taishi (574-622) who predicted that in two hundred years hence the holy teaching would be made to flourish in Japan. Now that time has come. We request that the great upadhyaya travel to the east to cause Buddhism to flourish.’ Ganjin replied: ‘I once heard that after Chan Master Huizi (515-577) died he was reborn as Shotoku Taishi in Japan where he promoted the Buddha’s teachings to save living beings. I also heard that your Prince Nagaya [d. 729] was a devout Buddhist. He presented the virtuous sangha of Japan with a donation of one thousand kasaya [robes] on which was embroidered this verse: “Mountains and rivers differ in each region, but the wind and the moon are the same throughout the heavens; give to all the sons of the Buddha and produce [good] future karma.” Reflecting on these stories, I know that your kingdom truly has good karmic conditions for the flourishing of Buddhism.’ Ganjin then turned to his assembled disciples and asked: ‘Now, who among this dharma community will respond to this request from afar and travel to Japan to transmit the dharma?’
The entire assembly was silent; not a single person replied. Finally, after a long while, the monk Xiangyan stepped forward and spoke: ‘That land is extremely far away. The journey would cost us our lives. Not even one out of a hundred people who try can make it across the raging seas. [As the scripture says,] it is difficult to attain birth as a human; it is difficult to attain birth in the central kingdom. We have not yet made sufficient progress in our training. We have not yet attained the fruits of the Buddhist path. For these reasons everyone has remained silent without replying.’ Ganjin spoke: ‘This journey is for the sake of the dharma. How can anyone begrudge losing his life? If you refuse, then I will go myself.’ Xiangyan replied: ‘If the great upadhyaya goes, then I will follow you. ’
Ganjin’s Six Attempts to Reach Japan
[Details of the first voyage are omitted.]
During the twelfth moon of the second year of Tianbao , Ganjin’s group [of disciples, Buddhist artisans and sailors, totalling eighty-five people] boarded ship, hoisted sails, headed east down the Yangtze River, and travelled into Langgou Bay. In the open sea, a vicious wind stirred up whitecaps which smashed over the ship. Everyone was washed up on to the rocky shore. Then the tide came in, and the water rose as high as a man’s waist. Only Ganjin could find refuge amidst some reeds; everyone else stood in the water. Exposed to the unrelenting cold winter wind, they suffered and suffered.
After their ship was repaired, they set out for a third attempt. They made it as far as Daban Island, but could not find any place to drop anchor. They drifted back to Xiayu Island where they waited one month for a favourable wind. Next they reached Sangzi Island, but strong winds and high seas prevented them from navigating past the island’s rocks. There was no way to plot a course. Just as they made it past some lofty crags, they ran aground. Both the men and the ship were stuck on an underwater ridge. They exhausted their supplies of food and water and became hungry and thirsty. Three days later the winds died down and the seas became calm. A fisherman found them and gave them food and water, saving everyone. Five days later a coastguard ship came to investigate. They were [taken back to the mainland] and turned over to the magistrate of the Ming District, who had them confined to the King Asoka Monastery [Ayuwang si].
That monastery has a stupa [pagoda] erected by King Asoka…. About one hundred years after the nirvana of the Buddha there was an iron wheel-turning king (cakravartin) named Asoka. He enlisted fairies to erect eighty-four thousand stupas, of which this is one. This stupa is not gold, not jade, not stone, not earth, not bronze and not iron. Its dark purple relief carvings are most unusual. One side depicts the bodhisattva [i.e., Sakyamuni during the lifetimes before he became a buddha] sacrificing his body to feed hungry tiger cubs. One side depicts him losing his eyes. One side depicts him offering his brains. Another side depicts him saving a dove. Its top umbrella lacks a dew basin, but in the middle there hangs a bell. Originally, no one knew of the stupa because it had become buried in the earth. There was only the square foundation, several fathoms high, but covered in weeds and moss. Rarely would anyone look to see what it was. Then, during the Jin Dynasty, first year of Taishi , a hunter from Lishi named Liu Sahe died and went to hell. Yama, the king of hell, told him of the buried stupa and ordered him back to earth to uncover it. Since that time down to the present Tang Dynasty many stupas and monasteries have been built there. On the mountain ridge to the southeast of the monastery there is a stone with a buddha’s right footprint. To the southwest there is a buddha’s left footprint. Both footprints are one foot four inches long, five and eight-tenths inches wide at the ball of the foot, and four inches wide at the heel. Their thousand- spoked wheel and fish symbols are clearly visible. People say that they are the footprints of the buddha Kasyapa [of the previous aeon]. Two li to the east beside the road there is a holy well. It is only three feet deep, but its water is pure and sweet. Even in the most severe rain it does not run over; even in the most severe drought it does not run dry. In the well there lives a fish one foot nine inches long. People call it the guardian of the King Asoka stupa. People make offerings of incense at the well and if their fortune is good, then they will be able to see the fish. But if their fortune is bad, then they are unable to see it even if they try year after year.
[Details of their confinement at King Asoka Monastery, of their walk back to Yangzhou, and of their fourth voyage are omitted.]
[The fifth voyage:] In the spring of the seventh year of Tianbao , Yoei and Fusho arrived at Chongfu Monastery in Yangzhou where the great upadhyaya Ganjin was residing. Ganjin had already arranged for the construction of a ship, the purchase of gear and the supply of provisions. Travelling with Ganjin were a total of thirty-five people, including fourteen monks [Xiangyan, Shencang, Guangyan, Dunwu, Rugao, Deqing, Riwu, Yoei, Fusho,
Situo, etc.] and a crew of eighteen. On the twenty-sixth day of the sixth moon they set out from Chongfu Monastery, walked to the new canal, boarded their ship, and travelled downriver as far as the Langshan delta. From that point, strong winds and rough seas forced them to circle among the three deltas. The following morning a favourable wind carried them to Tripoint Island, where they waited for one month. Another favourable wind brought them to Shufeng Island, where they waited one more month.
On the morning of the sixteenth day of the tenth moon, Ganjin said: ‘Last night in my dream I saw three officials. One of them wore scarlet and the other two wore green. They bowed farewell from cliffs. I know they were apparitions of the gods of this place. There can be no doubt that this time we will make it across the sea.’
Shortly there after the winds arose, and they set sail for Xuanshan Island [i.e., the last coastal island before the open sea]. At one point they had sighted land on the horizon. They travelled all day in that direction, but the land disappeared and they realized it had been a mirage. As they travelled further from land the winds became stronger and the waves rougher. The sea turned black like charcoal. When the ship pierced through the crest of a wave, it was like being on top of a mountain. When the ship crashed down into a wave’s trough, it was like being in a deep valley. Everyone became very seasick and could do nothing but call upon Avalokitesvara [the bodhisattva of compassion]. Then one of the sailors called out: ‘The ship is going to sink! Get rid of excess cargo!’ He picked up a trunk filled with incense and was about to throw it overboard when a voice in the sky commanded: ‘Stop! Do not throw it out!’ The sailor stopped. That night one of the sailors said: ‘Do not be afraid. The four divine kings are here, wearing their armour and holding their staffs. Two are at the bow and two are at the mast.’ Hearing this, everyone became reassured.
For three days they crossed a sea of eels. The eels were between five and ten feet long and spotted in colour. The surface of the water was filled with their coils. For three days they crossed a sea of flying birds. The white birds covered the skies with their wings, which measured one foot across. One day they crossed a sea of flying fish. Once birds as large as a man landed on the ship. With the added weight of the birds, the ship seemed as if it was about to sink. When the monks tried to shoo them away, however, the birds bit their hands. For two days nothing occurred – just strong winds and high seas.
By now everyone had collapsed from fatigue. Only Fusho was able to measure out a small portion of rice for each day’s ration and distribute it. There was no water left aboard ship, so everyone had to eat dry rice. It stuck in their throats. They could not swallow it nor spit it out. If they drank salt water their bellies swelled up in pain worse than they had ever experienced before. In the ocean there suddenly appeared four pairs of golden fish, each one about ten feet long, which circled around the ship. The following morning the winds calmed, and the crew sighted land. Everyone was so thirsty. Everyone was facing death.
Yoei’s complexion suddenly returned to normal and he looked happy. He explained to the others: ‘I dreamed I saw an official. He asked me to administer the rites of repentance and precept ordination. I told him that I was very thirsty and wanted water.
The official fetched some water and gave it to me. It looked like milk and tasted so sweet that it made my heart clear and refreshed. I told the official that there are more than thirty people aboard ship who have not had any water to drink for many days and who are dying of thirst. I asked, “Patron, please bring water quickly.” Thereupon the official summoned the old men who command the rains. He scolded them, “You’re in charge of this matter. Hurry up and bring the rains!” That is what I saw in my dream. Now the rains will come. Everyone, gather bowls to collect the rain.’ When his shipmates heard this news, everyone rejoiced. The following day clouds arose in the southwestern skies, moved over the ship and poured rain. Everyone held up bowls to catch the rain and drank it. The next day it also rained, so everyone had his fill.
The following day they came upon land. Four white fish appeared and pulled the ship straight into an inlet where they could lay anchor. The sailors took bowls and raced ashore to search for fresh water. On the other side of a small hill they found a pond with clear and delicious water. They battled to get the most water until each one had drunk his fill. They decided to return later to fill more containers, but when they went back the following day they found only land where the pond had been. Everyone was disappointed. They then realized that the pond had appeared through the magical power of the gods.
It was now the eleventh moon in the middle of winter, but in that land the flowers were in full bloom, the trees were full of leaf, and young bamboo shoots appeared just as if it were still summer. They had drifted at sea for fourteen days before reaching that place.
They set out to search for an inhabited inlet. Eventually they came across four travelling merchants, and called them over to the ship. The four merchants all spoke at once: ‘Great upadhyaya, you are so fortunate to have encountered us. Otherwise, you could have been killed. The people in this region are cannibals. Leave as quickly as you can.’ Then, the merchants shoved off their own boat and departed. That night the monks saw one native with dishevelled hair and a knife. They all were very frightened, but once they presented the native with food he left.
That night they set sail. After three days they arrived at Zhenzhou [on the southern tip of Hainan Island], where they dropped anchor at the mouth of a small river. The travelling merchants had gone ahead to report to the district office. The district prefect, Feng Chongzhai, sent more than four hundred soldiers to meet Ganjin’s group and escort them to the main settlement. Once they arrived, the prefect came out to address the group: ‘I had been expecting you. Last night I dreamed that a monk named Feng Tian would arrive and that he is a relative of mine. Is there a monk named Feng Tian among you?’ The monks replied, ‘No, there is not.’ The prefect said: ‘Even if there is not a monk named Feng Tian with you, surely the upadhyaya must be my relative.’ Thereupon he invited Ganjin to his home for a vegetarian meal and sponsored a lay precept ordination ceremony at the district headquarters. The prefect housed the monks at the nearby Dayun Temple. The Buddha Hall at that temple had been in ruins for many years. The monks were put to work repairing the Buddha Hall [with the Buddhist works of art they had intended to take to Japan]. After one year they completed its reconstruction….
[Details of the remainder of their stay in Hainan, of their trek across the mountains of Canton, and of Yoei’s death are omitted.]
Ganjin’s group stayed in Guanzhou for one year until spring. Then they set out for Shaozhou. The townspeople accompanied them far out of town to bid them farewell. They walked more than seven hundred li upstream until they arrived at Chanju Temple in Shaozhou, where they rested three days. The magistrate of Shaozhou next housed them in Faquan Temple. Faquan is the monastery that Empress Zetian Wuhou [623-705] had constructed in honour of Huineng, the sixth Chan patriarch. It still houses an image of Huineng. Later Ganjin’s group moved to Kaiyuan Temple.
Fusho thereupon decided to leave the group and head north back to the King Asoka Monastery. It was the ninth year of
Tianbao . Ganjin took Fusho’s hand. Crying tears of sadness, he reassured Fusho: ‘I made a vow to cross the sea to transmit the vinaya. I will not give up on my vow until I reach Japan.’ Their feelings were beyond description.
Ganjin developed a fever, which burned his forehead. His eyesight became dim. A barbarian who lived nearby said that he knew how to treat eyes. He applied his treatment, but Ganjin lost his sight….
[Later that same year] while travelling on the river to Jizhou, the monk Xiangyan sat up in a meditation posture on the deck of the boat. He asked Situo, ‘Is the great upadhyaya still asleep or has he awoken?’ Situo replied: ‘He is still asleep.’ Xiangyan said: ‘I am about to die.’ Situo woke Ganjin to inform him. Ganjin lit incense and brought out a small bench for Xiangyan to lean upon. They faced him towards the west to invoke the name of Amitabha Buddha. Xiangyan said the name once, and then his upright seated figure became still and silent. Ganjin cried out: ‘Xiangyan! Xiangyan!’ His grief and anguish was limitless..
[Details of the journey back to Yangzhou and of the sixth, successful voyage to Japan are omitted.]
Ganjin Arrives in Nara, the Capital of Japan
On the fourth day of the second moon [of 754] Ganjin arrived at the capital [Nara]. A government representative of the junior fourth grade named Asokao greeted Ganjin’s group outside the Raseimon Gate to the inner city and guided them to the Great Eastern Temple [Todaiji]. On the fifth day the Chinese vinaya- master Daoxuan and the Indian monk Bodhisena came to welcome Ganjin. The prime minister [saiso], the minister of the right, the councillor of state [dainagon], and all the other government officers also came to greet Ganjin. A few days later the court official Kibi no Makibi [695-775] [who had spent nineteen years studying in China] came to speak with Ganjin. He told him: ‘The great upadhyaya crossing the distant seas to arrive in our kingdom assists our court’s plans. Our pleasure is beyond description. The court constructed this massive Great Eastern Temple ten years ago with the desire of erecting an ordination platform for the transmission of the vinaya precepts. There has not been a day or night when we have forgotten this plan. Now all the senior virtuous monks [of Japan] are coming from distant provinces in order to receive vinaya ordination in accordance with our wishes. Henceforth you will be responsible for all details of the ordination procedures.’ In addition, Bishop Roben [689-773] was charged with the task of presenting the court with a census of all the monks who had accompanied Ganjin. Within days the court instructed Bishop Roben to award each of them with the title of Great Dharma- Masters Who Transmit the Flame.
By the fourth moon of that year, an ordination platform had been constructed in front of the colossal image of Vairocana
Buddha [within the Great Eastern Temple]. The heavenly sovereign [Shomu, 701-756] was the first to ascend the platform and receive ordination with the bodhisattva precepts. His queen and his princes followed him in receiving ordination. Next, the novice Shoshu and more than four hundred and forty others received ordination according to the vinaya. Next, more than eighty senior Japanese monks – such as Ryoyu, Ken’yo, Shichu, Zencho, Doen, Hyotoku, Ningi, Zensha, Gyosen, Gyonin, etc. – renounced their previous self-ordinations and received new ordinations from Ganjin….
Beginning in the second year of Tianbao , on five occasions the great upadhyaya had braved the hardships and dangers of crossing the sea to transmit the precepts. Although he was forced back each time, he did not abandon his vow. On his sixth voyage across the sea he reached Japan. Thirty-six of his companions, impermanent as are all things, perished along the way. More than two hundred others quit the mission. Only the great upadhyaya, the scholar-monk Fusho and the Tiantai monk Situo participated in all six voyages from start to finish. After twelve years of travel, Ganjin fulfilled his vow by arriving in Japan and transmitting the holy precepts of the vinaya. His accomplishment testifies to the fact that in his compassion for saving living beings, in his store of karmic fortune, and in his willingness to sacrifice his own life, Ganjin had perfected many virtues.
[Details of Ganjin’s subsequent career in Japan are omitted.]
Translation by William Bodiford of To daiwajo tosei den, (full title: Homuzo daisojo To Ganjin kakai tosei den), in Dai Nihon Bukkyozensho, vol. 113 (Tokyo: Bussho Kankokai, 1912-22).
Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.