The Buddhist clergy continued to serve as an adjunct to the aristocracy, not only performing state rituals but also helping the privileged gain salvation. During these centuries, however, several changes overtook this class and Japanese religion in general. Buddhism and the native cult, already starting to meld in the 600s, became amalgamated and local gods and goddesses turned into protectors of the Buddhist law and then manifestations of Buddhist deities. Buddhist temples and shrines combined into powerful religious complexes, such as Kasuga Shrine and Kōfukuji, and helped the religious class acquire even more wealth and power.
The gender and class composition of Buddhist devotees also began to change. The state all but stopped ordaining women and banned them from some sacred sites because they might be a temptation to sin. Still, some women, especially of aristocratic birth, continued to accept unofficial ordination. The class origins of powerful monks began to shift as rank holders with many sons and no other outlets for them started to place them in high positions at famous temples. For example, between 782 and 990, ninety-seven percent of these powerful monks were of commoner background, studying for and attaining ordination. Between 990 and 1069, however, that proportion slipped to fifty-two percent. In other words, the crowded aristocratic class began to seek religious appointment as a way to produce an income for their children. Temples no longer followed rules of seniority but instead rewarded their aristocratic patrons, despite loud protests from well-qualified ordinands.
The increased role of aristocratic offspring in administering the daily affairs and extensive estate lands of these temple complexes helped to politicize these institutions and increase factionalism. By the mid-tenth century, violence occasionally broke out among factions within and between religious complexes. These confrontations could cause considerable damage, as when more than forty buildings were destroyed on Mount Hiei in a factional dispute in 993. Many monks of minimal education were there merely for the tax exemption—and readily took part in scuffles. These same clerics engaged in all sorts of behavior once banned by monastic rules, including eating meat, drinking rice wine, and engaging in homosexual and heterosexual liaisons. Some abbots such as Ennin (794–864) condemned these violations of religious conduct, but until 1050 the anticlericalism implied in terms like “evil monk” (akusō) [悪僧] was not yet widespread.
Ryōgen (912–985) was a powerful monk of this time. Born to a poor commoner family, he ascended Mount Hiei at the age of eleven, found a suitable teacher, and was ordained in the Tendai sect at sixteen. Lacking a powerful sponsor and ambitious for a career that included more than just performing everyday ceremonies, Ryōgen succeeded in attaching himself to more powerful monks and showing off his knowledge in a series of religious debates. This attracted the attention of court aristocrats, especially members of the northern branch of the Fujiwara. In exchange for his expertise at various esoteric rituals employed when Regent Fujiwara no Tadahira died, Ryōgen became a protege of Tadahira’s son Morosuke. Morosuke obtained a series of important appointments for Ryōgen and cemented his alliance with the monk. Eventually, Ryōgen was appointed to the headship of the Tendai sect. In that post, he strengthened monastic discipline and helped rebuild many structures on Mount Hiei after the disastrous fire of 966. He also expanded Tendai power into the provinces and aided in the ordination of women. He remained the head of the Tendai sect until his death.