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Jianzhen was born in Jiangyin county in Guangling (present day Yangzhou, Jiangsu) China, with the surname of Chunyu (淳于). At the age of fourteen, he entered the Buddhist church as a disciple of Daming Temple (大明寺). At twenty he travelled to Chang'an for study and returned six years later, eventually becoming abbot of Daming Temple. Besides his learning in the Tripitaka, Jianzhen is also said to have been expert in medicine. He opened the Buddhist church as a place of healing, creating the Beitian Court (悲田院)—a hospital within Daming Temple.
In autumn 742, an emissary from Japan invited Jianzhen to lecture in his home country. Despite protests from his disciples, Jianzhen made preparations and in spring 743 was ready for the long voyage across the East China Sea to Japan. The crossing failed and in the following years, Jianzhen made three more attempts but was thwarted by unfavourable conditions or government intervention.
In summer 748, Jianzhen made his fifth attempt to reach Japan. Leaving from Yangzhou, he made it to the Zhoushan Archipelago off the coast of modern Zhejiang. But the ship was blown off course and ended up in the Yande (延德) commandery on Hainan Island (海南岛). Jianzhen was then forced to make his way back to Yangzhou by land, lecturing at a number of monasteries on the way. Jianzhen travelled along the Gan River to Jiujiang, and then down the Yangtze River. The entire failed enterprise took him close to three years. By the time Jianzhen returned to Yangzhou, he was blind from an infection.
In the autumn of 753, the blind Jianzhen decided to join a Japanese emissary ship returning to its home country. After an eventful sea journey of several months, the group finally landed at Kagoshima, Kyūshū, on December 20. They reached Nara in the spring of the next year and were welcomed by the Emperor. At Nara, Jianzhen presided over Tōdai-ji, now among the oldest Buddhist establishments in Japan. The Chinese monks who travelled with him introduced Chinese religious sculpture to the Japanese. In 755, the first ordination platform in Japan was constructed at Tōdai-ji, on the place where including former Emperor Shōmu and Empress Kōmyo received ordination by Jianzhen a year earlier. In 759 he retired to a piece of land granted to him by the imperial court in the western part of Nara. There he founded a school and also set up a private temple, Tōshōdai-ji. In the ten years until his death in Japan, Jianzhen not only propagated the Buddhist faith among the aristocracy, but also served as an important conductor of Chinese culture.
Jianzhen died on the 6th day of the 5th month of 763. A dry-lacquer statue of him made shortly after his death can still be seen at Tōshōdai-ji. Recognised as one of the greatest of its type, the statue was temporarily brought to Jianzhen's original temple in Yangzhou in 1980 as part of a friendship exchange between Japan and China.
In May 2010, the Taiwanese Buddhist organization Tzu Chi organized and produced an animated drama on Jianzhen's life and journey to Japan.
Notes and references 
- The statue is made public only during a limited number of days around the anniversary of Jianzhen's death (see it on the right). (Planned June 2nd - 10th for year 2007.)