Priest in Meditation, 15th century.  Probably the blind Chinese priest Jianzhen (Ganjin in Japanese; 688-763).
Expand / Priest in Meditation, 15th century. Probably the blind Chinese priest Jianzhen (Ganjin in Japanese; 688-763).

Heritage Images/Getty Images

In Japan, herbal medicine is known as kampo, and such treatments are often prescribed over Western medicine (and covered by the national health care system). The first person to teach traditional medicine in Japan was an 8th century Buddhist monk. Jianzhen (Ganjin in Japanese), which collected some 1,200 prescriptions in one book: The Secret Order of Jianshangren (Saint Priest Jianzhen).. The text was believed to have been lost for centuries, but the a Recent paper Compounds published in the journal He stumbled upon a book published in 2009 that included most of Jianzhen’s original prescriptions.

“Before the book The Secret Order of Jianshangren It was found, everyone thought it was lost in the world, “said Shihui Liu and his co-authors at Okayama University in Japan. “Fortunately, we found it before it was completely lost. It is not yet included in Intangible Cultural Heritage. As we all know, intangible cultural heritage itself is very fragile. Everything has a process of birth, growth, continuity and destruction, and the intangible cultural heritage remains in such a dynamic process. We hope to attract the attention of many people to protect many intangible cultures, including those that are about to disappear The Secret Order of Jianshangren.”

Born in what is now Yangzhou, China, Jianzhen became a disciple of Dayun Temple at the age of 14, eventually becoming abbot of Deming Temple. He is also known to have had medical knowledge – passed down from monk to disciple for generations – and to have opened a hospital in the temple. In late 742, a Japanese envoy invited Jianzhen to lecture in Japanese, and the monk agreed (although some of his disciples were displeased). But the termination failed. So did his three attempts to travel to Japan.

Map of the Six Japanese Voyages of Jianzhen.
Expand / Map of the Six Japanese Voyages of Jianzhen.

S. Liu et al., 2022

On Jianzhen’s fifth attempt to sail to Japan in 748, he made a little more progress, but the ship was blown away by a storm, and ended up on Hainan Island. The monk made the arduous journey to reach the temple teaching at the monasteries along the way. It was about three years before he came back, and at that time, he was blinded by an infection. But the sixth attempt was successful. After a six-month journey, Jianzhen set out for Kyushu in December 748, arriving in Nara the following spring, where the monk received a warm welcome from the emperor.

According to the authors, Jianzen brought with him many traditional ingredients to Japan, including musk, agarwood, snail, rosin, dipterocarp, aromatic gall, sucrose, benzoin, frankincense, and Dutchman’s pipe root, as well as honey and sugar caneā€”all for 36 It is based on different drugs. During his journey from China to Japan, he was able to collect other elements as well.

After settling down at Toshodaiji Temple, the monk began growing medicinal plants in his garden, distributing the medicinals to those in need, including Emperor Nomu and Empress Komyo. Even though Jianzhen is blind, she can rely on smell, taste, and touch to identify different drugs. And many Japanese taught them how to collect and process these medicines. In fact, many Japanese medicines were once wrapped in paper decorated with the image of Jianzen.

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