A lost 8th-century Japanese medical text by a Buddhist monk has been found

Zoom in / 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 such treatments are often prescribed alongside Western medicines (and covered by the NHS). The first person to teach traditional Chinese medicine in Japan was an 8th-century Buddhist monk named Jianzhen (Ganjin in Japanese), who compiled some 1,200 prescriptions into one book: The secret prescription of Jianshangren (Holy Priest Jianzhen).. The text was believed lost for centuries, but the authors of a recent article published in Compounds magazine came across a book published in 2009 that includes most of Jianzhen’s original prescriptions.

“Before the book Jianshangren’s Secret Prescription was found, everyone thought it had disappeared in the world,” wrote Shihui Liu and his co-authors at Okayama University in Japan. “Fortunately, we found it before it completely disappeared. It has not yet been included in the intangible cultural heritage. As we all know, the intangible cultural heritage itself is very fragile. Everything has a process of generation, growth, continuation and extinction, and the remnants of intangible cultural heritage are also in such a dynamic process. We hope to get more people’s attention to protect many intangible cultures that are about to disappear, including Jianshangren’s Secret Prescription.”

Born in what is now Yangzhou, China, Jianzhen became a disciple of Dayun Temple at age 14, eventually becoming abbot of Daming Temple. He was also known to have medical expertise, passed down from monks to disciples for generations, and had even opened a hospital within the temple. In fall 742, a Japanese emissary invited Jianzhen to lecture in Japan, and the monk agreed (although some of his disciples were disgruntled). But the crossing failed. Nor did his next three attempts to travel to Japan.

A map of Jianzhen's six travel attempts in Japan.
Zoom in / A map of Jianzhen’s six travel attempts in Japan.

S.Liu et al., 2022

On Jianzhen’s fifth attempt to go to Japan in 748, he made some more headway, but the ship was blown off course in a storm and ended up on Hainan Island. The monk made the arduous journey back to his temple overland, lecturing at monasteries along the way. It was nearly three years before he returned, and by then, he had been blinded by an infection. The sixth attempt, however, was successful. After a six-month journey, Jianzhen arrived in 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, perfumed gall, sucrose, benzoin, frankincense and Dutch pipe root, as well as honey and sugar cane. , all of which formed the basis for about 36 different drugs. He also managed to collect other ingredients on his journey from China to Japan.

After settling at Toshodaiji Temple, the monk began growing medicinal herbs in a garden, distributing his medicines to the needy, including Emperor Shomu and Empress Komyo. Although he was blind, Jianzhen could still rely on smell, taste, and touch to identify various medicines. And he also taught many Japanese how to collect and produce those medicines. Indeed, many Japanese medicines were once wrapped in paper decorated with a portrait of Jianzhen.

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