Ryōzen (759-827) was a Buddhist monk of the Hossō sect in the early Heian period. He travelled to Tang China to study Buddhism and achieved the status of Sanzō Hōshi, one who has gained complete mastery of the Buddhist canon. There were only twelve of these masters in the world, and Ryōzen was the only one from Japan.
His origin isn’t known with certainty, but he was either from Ōmi or from Tokushima. At the foot of Mt. Ryōzen in Samegai, Maibara is Matsuo-ji Temple. According to the priest of Matsuo-ji, Ryōzen was born at the foot of Mt. Ryōzen to Okinaga no Niu no Mahito, member of a powerful local clan. He entered the priesthood at an early age and studied at Konjō Betsuin Ryōzen-ji Temple in Ōmi and then at Kōfuku-ji Temple in Nara.
After studying at Kōfuku-ji, at age 45 he went to China in 804 as part of the eighteenth Japanese mission to Tang China. The mission included such luminaries as Saichō, Kūkai and Tachibana no Hayanari. He studied at Chang’an and in 810, at Li Quan Si Temple, he translated a text which covers the practice and discipline of the monk, as well as the obligations to one’s parents, one’s fellow sentient beings, the king and the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha). It was brought from Kashmir by the Indian monk Hannya Sanzō. This became one of the key texts for Japanese Buddhism. In 811 he was awarded the title Sanzō Hōshi, establishing him as a complete authority on Buddhist texts.
Tang Emperor Xianzong was an enthusiastic sponsor of Buddhism. He bestowed favour on Ryōzen, including the transmission of esoteric rites. However, the Emperor feared that Buddhism’s secrets would leak from the country, and he barred him from returning to Japan. When Xianzong was assassinated by anti-Buddhists, Ryōzen moved to Mt. Wutai, then a major Buddhist centre, for fear of persecution.
In 825, he received gold entrusted by Japanese Emperor Junna to the monk Teiso of the territory of Balhae. In return he gave Teiso some of the Buddha’s ashes and sutras to deliver to Japan. The Japanese rewarded Teiso’s efforts and asked him to send additional gold to Ryōzen, as well as to pay Ryōzen’s younger brother and sister who were left in Japan to provide rice tax to Awa, today’s Tokushima.
It seems that Ryōzen was dead by 828, and according to one theory, he was poisoned in the bathroom at Lingjing Si Temple at Mt. Wutai. After leaving Japan for Tang, Ryōzen never returned to his country of birth.
In 840, the Japanese monk Ennin, who stopped by Lingjing Si Temple, heard about the last days of Ryōzen, which he recorded in the records of his travels in China. When the Japanese monks Engyō and Jōgyō arrived in China, they were treated kindly by a monk who was a pupil of Ryōzen, who gave them relics of his master and esoteric rituals which they brought back to Japan.
In 2000, an organisation was established to commemorate Ryōzen and through its efforts, the Ryōzen Sanzō Memorial Hall was built at Matsuo-Ji Temple in Samegai. This pretty pavilion features a seated wooden statue of Ryōzen. There’s also a standing bronze statue of him in front of Samegai Station. These images show an imposing man with a stern look. He has a high forehead and prominent eyebrows. Recently a comic has also been published to increase public awareness of Ryōzen’s contribution.