Lost 8th century Japanese medical text by Buddhist monk found

Lost 8th century Japanese medical text by Buddhist monk found

Enlarge / Meditating priest, 15th century. Possibly the blind Chinese priest Jianzhen (Ganjin in Japanese; 688-763).

Heritage Images/Getty Images

The practice of herbal medicine in Japan is known as Kampo, and these treatments are often prescribed alongside Western medicines (and covered by the national health system). The first person to teach traditional Chinese medicine in Japan was an 8th century Buddhist monk named Jianzhen (Ganjin in Japanese), who collected some 1,200 prescriptions into a book: Secret Ordinance of Jianshangren (Jianzhen Holy Priest). The text was thought lost for centuries, but the authors of a recent article published in the journal Compounds came across a book published in 2009 that includes most of Jianzhen’s original prescriptions.

“Before the book Jianshangren’s Secret Order was found, everyone thought he was missing around the world,” wrote Shihui Liu and his co-authors from Okayama University in Japan. “Fortunately, we found it before it disappeared completely. It is not yet listed as intangible cultural heritage. As we all know, intangible cultural heritage itself is very fragile. Everything has a process of generation, growth, continuation and extinction, and the remains of intangible cultural heritage are also in such a dynamic process. We hope to draw more people’s attention to the protection of many intangible cultures that are on the verge of extinction, including Jianshangren’s Secret Order.”

Born in what is now Yangzhou, China, Jianzhen became a disciple of Dayun Temple at the age of 14, eventually becoming abbot of Daming Temple. He was also known for his medical expertise – passed down from monks to disciples for generations – and even opened a hospital in the temple. In the fall of 742, a Japanese emissary invited Jianzhen to lecture in Japan, and the monk accepted (although some of his disciples were unhappy). But the crossing did not succeed. Nor will his next three attempts to travel to Japan.

A map of Jianzhen's six attempted trips to Japan.
Enlarge / A map of Jianzhen’s six attempted trips to Japan.

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 swept away by a storm and he ended up on Hainan Island. The monk made the arduous journey back to his temple overland, lecturing at monasteries along the way. It took nearly three years before he returned, and by then he had become blind due to an infection. The sixth attempt, however, proved successful. After a six-month journey, Jianzhen traveled to Kyushu in December 748, reaching Nara the following spring, where the monk received a warm welcome from the emperor.

According to the authors, Jianzhen brought many traditional ingredients with him to Japan, including musk, agarwood, snail, rosin, dipterocarp, fragrant gall, sucrose, benzoin, frankincense and Dutchman’s pipe root, as well as honey and sugar cane. which has served as the basis for some 36 different drugs. He also managed to collect other ingredients during his journey from China to Japan.

After settling in Toshodaiji Temple, the monk began to cultivate medicinal herbs in a garden, distributing his medicine to those in need, including Emperor Shomu and Empress Komyo. Although he was blind, Jianzhen could still rely on smell, taste, and touch to identify different drugs. And he also taught many Japanese people how to collect and make these medicines. In fact, many Japanese medicines were once wrapped in paper decorated with a portrait of Jianzhen.

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