Japanese Zen

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Template:Needs-Attention Template:Chinese Template:Zen Buddhism Template:Japanese Buddhism

See also Zen for an overview of Zen, Chan Buddhism for the Chinese origins, and Sōtō, Rinzai and Ōbaku for the three main schools of Zen in Japan

Zen is the Japanese form of Chan Buddhism, which was imported into Japan in the 12th century.

Zen/Chan emphasizes direct insight into the nature of reality that is developed primarily through combining the practice of sitting meditation with a direct mind-to-mind transmission from master to disciple. While both philosophical study and good works are also emphasized in this school, these are considered of little use without the wisdom that comes from direct insight into true nature of reality. In this view, while philosophy and positive actions play in important role on the spiritual path, obstacles arise if the student becomes overly attached to these methods.


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Chinese origins

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According to tradition, Zen originated in India, when Gautama Buddha held up a flower and Mahākāśyapa smiled. With this smile he showed that he had understood the wordless essence of the dharma. This way the dharma was transmitted to Mahākāśyapa, the second patriarch of Zen.[1]

The term Zen is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of the Middle Chinese word 禪 (Chan) which traces its roots to the Indian practice of dhyāna ("meditation"). Buddhism was introduced to China in the first century CE. According to tradition, Chan was introduced around 500 CE by Bodhidharma, an Indian monk teaching dhyāna. He was the 28th Indian patriarch of Zen and the first Chinese patriarch.[1]

Kamakura (1185–1333)

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Buddhism was introduced in Japan in the 8th century CE during the Nara period (710-794) and the Heian period (794–1185). Zen was not introduced as a separate school in Japan until the 12th century during the Kamakura period (1185–1333), when Nōnin established the Daruma-school. In 1189 NōninTemplate:Sfn sent two students to China, to meet with Cho-an Te-kuang (1121–1203), and ask for the recognition of Nōnin as a Zen-master. This recognition was granted.Template:Sfn

In 1168, Eisai traveled to China, whereafter he studied Tendai for twenty years.Template:Sfn In 1187 he went to China again, and returned to establish a local branch of the Linji school, which is known in Japan as the Rinzai school.[2] Decades later, Template:Nihongo (1235–1308) also studied Linji teachings in China before founding the Japanese Ōtōkan lineage, the most influential branch of Rinzai.

In 1215, Dōgen, a younger contemporary of Eisai's, journeyed to China himself, where he became a disciple of the Caodong master Rujing. After his return, Dōgen established the Sōtō school, the Japanese branch of Caodong.[2]

Zen fit the way of life of the samurai: confronting death without fear, and acting in a spontaneous and intuitive way.[2]

During this period the Five Mountain System was established, which institutionalized an influential part of the Rinzai school. It consisted of the five most famous Zen temples of Kyoto: Kenchō-ji, Engaku-ji, Jufuku-ji, Jōmyō-ji and Jōchi-ji.Template:Sfn

Muromachi (or Ashikaga) (1336–1573)

During the Muromachi period the Rinzai school was the most successful of the schools, since it was favoured by the shōgun.


In the beginning of the Muromachi period the Gozan system was fully worked out. The final version contained five temples of both Kyoto and Kamakura. A second tier of the system consisted of Ten Temples. This system was extended throughout Japan, effectively giving control to the central government, which administered this system.[3] The monks, often well educated and skilled, were employed by the shōgun for the governing of state affairs.[4]

Gozan system
  Kyoto Kamakura
First Rank Tenryū-ji Kenchō-ji
Second Rank Shōkoku-ji Engaku-ji
Third Rank Kennin-ji Jufuku-ji
Fourth Rank Tōfuku-ji Jōchi-ji
Fifth Rank Manju-ji Jōmyō-ji


Not all Rinzai Zen organisations were under such strict state control. The Rinka monasteries, which were primarily located in rural areas rather than cities, had a greater degree of independence.[5] The O-to-kan lineage, that centered on Daitoku-ji, also had a greater degree of freedom. It was founded by Nampo Jomyo, Shuho Myocho, and Kanzan Egen.[6] A well-known teacher from Daitoku-ji was Ikkyū.[2]

Another Rinka lineage was the Hotto lineage, of which Bassui Tokushō is the best-known teacher.[7]


Soto too spread out over Japan. Gasan adopted the Five Ranks of Tung-shan as a fit vehicle to explain the Mahayana teachings.[8]

Azuchi-Momoyama (1573–1600) and Edo (or Tokugawa) (1600–1868)

After a period of war Japan was re-united in the Azuchi–Momoyama period. This decreased the power of Buddhism, which had become a strong political and military force in Japan. Neo-Confucianism gained influence at the expense of Buddhism, which came under strict state control. Japan closed the gates to the rest of the world. The only traders to be allowed were Dutchmen admitted to the island of Dejima.[2] New doctrines and methods were not to be introduced, nor were new temples and schools. The only exception was the Ōbaku lineage, which was introduced in the 17th century during the Edo period by Ingen, a Chinese monk. Ingen had been a member of the Linji school, the Chinese equivalent of Rinzai, which had developed separately from the Japanese branch for hundreds of years. Thus, when Ingen journeyed to Japan following the fall of the Ming dynasty to the Manchu people, his teachings were seen as a separate school. The Ōbaku school was named after Template:Nihongo, which had been Ingen's home in China.

Well-known Zen masters from this period are Bankei, Bashō and Hakuin.[2] Bankei Yōtaku (盤珪永琢?, 1622–1693) became a classic example of a man driven by the "great doubt". Matsuo Bashō (松尾 芭蕉?, 1644 – November 28, 1694) became a great Zen poet. In the 18th century Hakuin Ekaku (白隠 慧鶴?, 1686–1768) revived the Rinzai school. His influence was so immense that almost all contemporary Rinzai lineages are traced back to him.

Meiji Restoration (1868–1912) and Imperial expansionism (1912–1945)

The Meiji period (1868–1912) saw the restoration of the political importance of the Emperor after a coup in 1868. At that time Japan opened up to Western influences, restructuring all government and commercial structures to Western standards. Shinto became the state religion and Buddhism was coerced to adapt to the new regime. The Buddhist establishment saw the Western world as a threat, but also as a challenge to stand up to.[9][10]

Shinto became the official religion, at the expense of Buddhism. Buddhist institutions had a simple choice: adapt or perish. Rinzai and Soto Zen chose to adapt, trying to modernize Zen in accord with Western insights, while simultaneously maintaining a Japanese identity. This Japanese identity was being articulated in the Nihonjinron philosophy, the "Japanese uniqueness" theory. A broad range of subjects was taken as typical of Japanese culture. D.T. Suzuki contributed to the Nihonjinron-philosophy by taking Zen as the distinctive token of Asian spirituality, showing its unique character in the Japanese culture[11]

This resulted in support for the war activities of the Japanese imperial system by the Japanese Zen establishment—including the Sōtō sect, the major branches of Rinzai, and several renowned teachers. According to Sharf, Template:Quote War endeavours against Russia, China and finally during the Pacific War were supported by the Zen establishment.[10][12]

A notable work on this subject was Zen at War (1998) by Brian Victoria,[10] an American-born Sōtō priest. One of his assertions was that some Zen masters known for their post-war internationalism and promotion of "world peace" were open Japanese nationalists in the inter-war years.[web 1] Among them as an example Hakuun Yasutani, the founder of the Sanbo Kyodan School, even voiced antisemitic and nationalistic opinions after World War II. Only after international protests in the 1990s, following the publication of Victoria's 'Zen at war', did the Sanbo Kyodan express apologies for this support[web 2] This involvement was not limited to the Zen schools, as all orthodox Japanese schools of Buddhism supported the militarist state. Victoria's particular claims about D. T. Suzuki's involvement in militarism have been much disputed by other scholars.

Present time (after 1945)

Interest in Zen grew in the West after World War II. Westerners such as Philip Kapleau and the Dutchman Janwillem van de Wetering went to Japan to study Zen.[13] Japanese teachers came to the West to share Zen practice and philosophy.[14]

Some contemporary Japanese Zen teachers, such as Harada Daiun Sogaku and Shunryū Suzuki, have criticized Japanese Zen as being a formalized system of empty rituals in which very few Zen practitioners ever actually attained realization. They assert that almost all Japanese temples have become family businesses handed down from father to son, and the Zen priest's function has largely been reduced to officiating at funerals, a practice sarcastically referred to in Japan as Template:Nihongo.Template:Citation needed For example, the Sōtō school published statistics stating that 80 percent of laity visited temples only for reasons having to do with funerals and death.[15]


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Buddha-nature and Sunyata

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The Japanese term 悟り satori, made up of the Chinese character 悟 (pronounced wù in Mandarin and meaning "understand") and the hiragana syllable り ri.

Mahayana Buddhism teaches śūnyatā, "emptiness", which is also emphasized by Zen. But another important doctrine is the buddha-nature, the idea that all human beings have the possibility to awaken. All living creatures are supposed to have the Buddha-nature, but don't realize this as long as they are not awakened. The doctrine of an essential nature can easily lead to the idea that there is an unchanging essential nature or reality behind the changing world of appearances.[16]

The difference and reconciliation of these two doctrines is the central theme of the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra.[16]

Kensho: seeing one's true nature

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The primary goal of Rinzai Zen is kensho, seeing one's true nature, and mujodo no taigen, expression of this insight in daily life.[17]

Seeing one's true nature means seeing that there is no essential 'I' or 'self', that our true nature is empty.

Expression in daily life means that this is not only a contemplative insight, but that our lives are expressions of this selfless existence.[web 3]


Zen meditation is the essential method of Zen. In Rinzai Zen this is supplemented by kōan training.

Zen meditation

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Zen emphasizes zazen: meditation as the means to awakening. There are various methods of meditation. In Buddhism two main approaches are used, vipaśyanā (awareness training) and śamatha (concentration of the mind). Zen Buddhism emphasizes samātha. The Japanese word Zen is derived from the Chinese word , Template:Zh, which is derived from the Sanskrit dhyāna "concentration". The Japanese word zazen means "sitting meditation". However, Zen meditation ideally is not only concentration, but also awareness: being aware of the continuing changes in our consciousness, of all our sensations and our automatic reactions.

In alteration with zazen, there is walking meditation, kinhin, in which one walks with full attention.


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To facilitate insight, a Zen teacher can assign a kōan. This is a short anecdote, which seems irrational, but contains subtle references to the Buddhist teachings.[18] An example of a kōan is Joshu's 'Mu':[19]

A monk asked: "Does a dog have buddha-nature?" Joshu responded: "Mu!"

Contemporary Zen organizations

The traditional schools of Zen in contemporary Japan are the Sōtō (Template:Lang), Rinzai (Template:Lang), and Ōbaku (Template:Lang). Of these, Sōtō is the largest and Ōbaku the smallest. Besides these there are modern Zen organizations which have especially attracted Western lay followers, namely the Sanbo Kyodan and the FAS Society.


Sōtō emphasizes meditation and the inseparable nature of practice and insight. Its founder Dogen is still highly revered.


Rinzai emphasizes kōan study and kensho. The Rinzai organisation includes fifteen subschools based on temple affiliation. The best known of these main temples are Myoshin-ji, Nanzen-ji, Tenryū-ji, Daitoku-ji, and Tofuku-ji.


Ōbaku is a small branch, which organizationally, is part of the Rinzai school.

Sanbo Kyodan

File:Haku'un Yasutani and Phillip Kapleau.jpg
Haku'un Yasutani and Phillip Kapleau

The Sanbo Kyodan is a small Japanese school, established by Hakuun Yasutani, which has been very influential in the West. Well-known teachers from this school are Philip Kapleau and Taizan Maezumi.

FAS Society

The FAS Society is a non-sectarian organization, founded by Shin'ichi Hisamatsu. Its aim is to modernize Zen and adapt it to the modern world. In Europe it is influential through such teachers as Jeff Shore and Ton Lathouwers.

Zen in the Western world

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Early influences

Although it is difficult to trace when the West first became aware of Zen as a distinct form of Buddhism, the visit of Soyen Shaku, a Japanese Zen monk, to Chicago during the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 is often pointed to as an event that enhanced its profile in the Western world. It was during the late 1950s and the early 1960s that the number of Westerners pursuing a serious interest in Zen, other than descendants of Asian immigrants, reached a significant level.

Eugen Herrigel's book Zen in the Art of Archery[20] describing his training in the Zen-influenced martial art of Kyūdō, inspired many of the Western world's early Zen practitioners. However, many scholars, such as Yamada Shoji, are quick to criticize this book.[21]

D.T. Suzuki

The single most influential person for the spread of Zen Buddhism was D. T. Suzuki.[9][11] A lay student of Zen, he became acquainted with Western culture at a young age. He wrote many books on Zen which became widely read in the Western world, but he has been criticised for giving a one-sided and overly romanticized vision of Zen.[9][11][22]

Reginald Horace Blyth (1898–1964) was an Englishman who went to Japan in 1940 to further his study of Zen. He was interned during World War II and started writing in prison. While imprisoned he met Robert Aitken, who was later to become a roshi in the Sanbo Kyodan lineage. Blyth was tutor to the Crown Prince after the war. His greatest work is the 5-volume "Zen and Zen Classics", published in the 1960s. Here he discusses Zen themes from a philosophical standpoint, often in conjunction with Christian elements in a comparative spirit. His essays include "God, Buddha, and Buddhahood" and "Zen, Sin, and Death".

Beat Zen

The British philosopher Alan Watts took a close interest in Zen Buddhism and wrote and lectured extensively on it during the 1950s. He understood Zen as a vehicle for a mystical transformation of consciousness, and also as a historical example of a non-Western, non-Christian way of life that had fostered both the practical and fine arts.

The Dharma Bums, a novel written by Jack Kerouac and published in 1959, gave its readers a look at how a fascination with Buddhism and Zen was being absorbed into the bohemian lifestyles of a small group of American youths, primarily on the West Coast. Beside the narrator, the main character in this novel was "Japhy Ryder", a thinly veiled depiction of Gary Snyder. The story was based on actual events taking place while Snyder prepared, in California, for the formal Zen studies that he would pursue in Japanese monasteries between 1956 and 1968.[23]

Christian Zen

Thomas Merton (1915–1968) was a Catholic Trappist monk and priest.[web 4] Like his friend, the late D.T. Suzuki, Merton believed that there must be a little of Zen in all authentic creative and spiritual experience. The dialogue between Merton and Suzuki[24] explores the many congruencies of Christian mysticism and Zen.[25][26]Template:Primary source inline

File:Makibi Enomiya-Lasalle (1898-1990).jpg
Father Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle

Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle (1898–1990) was a Jesuit who became a missionary in Japan in 1929. In 1956 he started to study Zen with Harada Daiun Sogaku. He was the superior of Heinrich Dumoulin, the well-known author on the history of Zen. Enomiya-lassalle introduced Westerners to Zen meditation.

Robert Kennedy (roshi), a Catholic Jesuit priest, professor, psychotherapist and Zen roshi in the White Plum lineage has written a number of books about what he labels as the benefits of Zen practice to Christianity. He was ordained a Catholic priest in Japan in 1965, and studied with Yamada Koun in Japan in the 1970s. He was installed as a Zen teacher of the White Plum Asanga lineage in 1991 and was given the title 'Roshi' in 1997.

In 1989, the Vatican released a document which states some Catholic appreciation of the use of Zen in Christian prayer. According to the text none of the methods proposed by non-Christian religions should be rejected out of hand simply because they are not Christian: Template:Quote

Zen and the art of...

While Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig, was a 1974 bestseller, it in fact has little to do with Zen as a religious practice, nor with motorcycle maintenance for that matter. Rather it deals with the notion of the metaphysics of "quality" from the point of view of the main character. Pirsig was attending the Minnesota Zen Center at the time of writing the book. He has stated that, despite its title, the book "should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice". Though it may not deal with orthodox Zen Buddhist practice, Pirsig's book in fact deals with many of the more subtle facets of Zen living and Zen mentality without drawing attention to any religion or religious organization.

A number of contemporary authors have explored the relationship between Zen and a number of other disciplines, including parenting, teaching, and leadership. This typically involves the use of Zen stories to explain leadership strategies.[27]


In Europe, the Expressionist and Dada movements in art tend to have much in common thematically with the study of kōans and actual Zen. The early French surrealist René Daumal translated D.T. Suzuki as well as Sanskrit Buddhist texts.

See also



The start of this article was based on a translation of the Dutch Wikipedia (7 December 2011)

Web references

Further reading

Modern classics

  • Paul Reps & Nyogen Senzaki, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
  • Philip Kapleau, The Three Pillars of Zen
  • Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

Classic historiography

  • Dumoulin, Heinrich (2005), Zen Buddhism: A History. Volume 1: India and China. World Wisdom Books. Template:ISBN
  • Dumoulin, Heinrich (2005), Zen Buddhism: A History. Volume 2: Japan. World Wisdom Books. Template:ISBN

Critical historiography

  • Template:Citation
  • Victoria, Brian Daizen (2006), Zen at War. Lanham e.a.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. (Second Edition)
  • Template:Citation
  • Mcrae, John (2003), Seeing through Zen. Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism. The University Press Group Ltd . Template:ISBN
  • McMahan, David L. (2008), The Making of Buddhist Modernism. Oxford University Press. Template:ISBN

(Japanese) Zen as living religious institution and practice




External links




Sanbo Kyodan

Critical Zen-practice

Zen centers


Critical Zen Research

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Page is sourced from

www.encyclopediaofbuddhism.org Japanese Zen