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  • Japanese/Chinese: 禅 (zen / chán), 禅宗 (zen shuu / chánzōng)

Zen (from the Sanskrit dhyan, meaning "meditation")[1] is one of the most prominent sects of Buddhism in Japan. It is distinguished by its rejection (to a large extent) of sacred texts, doctrine & dogma, the Buddhist pantheon, and discussion of heavens and hells, emphasizing instead meditative and intellectual practices towards the pursuit of personal enlightenment.

Though Zen is among the chief things stereotypically associated with Japan among Westerners, within Japan, Zen has traditionally been considered a more strongly Chinese - that is, a less Japanized - form of Buddhism. Zen temples generally have more strongly Chinese architectural styles, stone floors into which one enters with shoes on, and are often furnished with chairs, in contrast to Japanese temples of other sects, where one typically removes one's shoes before stepping up onto bare wooden verandas, and sitting on tatami-covered floors. Zen temples were also traditionally centers of Chinese cultural practices and Chinese studies, and it was through Zen that Zhu Xi Neo-Confucianism, as well as certain forms of tea and tea ceremony, painting, and calligraphy were introduced and promoted. Zen monks also played a prominent role in foreign relations, especially during the Muromachi period, both as diplomatic envoys and as foreign policy advisors to the shoguns.



The Indian monk Bodhidharma, commonly known as Daruma in Japan, who introduced the school to China in the 6th century, is considered the first patriarch of Zen. However, he is also considered the twenty-eighth generation down from Maha Kashyapa, a direct disciple of the historical Buddha, known for being the only one to grasp the true significance of a lecture given by the Buddha wordlessly, by simply holding up a flower. Such a legend reflects Zen's emphasis on teacher-student relationships, and understandings beyond the power of words to describe them; in Zen, knowledge is passed on from master to disciple, and texts are not revered as in other sects.

The Chinese monk Huineng (638-713) is considered the sixth patriarch. By the end of the 8th century, Chán Buddhism had gained a widespread following among Chinese elites.

Introduction and Development of Zen in Japan

Zen was first introduced to Japan during the Heian period, from Tang Dynasty China. However, both in China and in Japan, Chán/Zen was divided at this time into a great number of differing lineages, with widely differing beliefs and practices, each claiming lineage from a different ancestor or teacher who had found personal enlightenment. It was not until the Song Dynasty (the Kamakura period in Japan) that these were consolidated into a limited number of schools of Chán, which incorporated all of these Chán ancestors into a single Chán tradition. The stories of the various Chán masters were compiled into hagiographical compendiums known as dēnglù (燈録), and all of their various modes of attaining enlightenment were incorporated into Chán belief. Chán had not quite broken off from mainstream orthodox Buddhism yet, however; rather than rejecting (or being rejected by) other schools, to the contrary, Chán belief and practice revitalized other schools of Buddhism, by re-injecting them with the idea that their own practices - chants, rituals, etc. - could be seen as meditative practice, filled with meaning and potential towards a personal enlightenment. As a result, Chán came to be embraced by the Song Court as an all-accepting or all-encompassing form; officially designated state monasteries where monks from many sects gathered to pray for the state & for the emperor came to be frequently designated as Chán monasteries.

Thus Chán Buddhism reached the heights of its popularity in China during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), and was first introduced to Japan at that time. The Japanese monk Eisai, who traveled to China in 1168 and again in 1187, first introduced Rinzai Zen (C: Línjì Chán) to Japan in 1191, along with powdered tea. Establishing himself first in Kamakura, his teachings included, notably, the introduction of the concept of the kôan, a riddle, often unanswerable, which forces the adept to think outside of normal modes of thought, potentially in this way discovering enlightenment. Encountering difficulty in having these new, heterodox, Zen ideas accepted in Kyoto, Eisai accommodated some elements from Tendai and Shingon teachings into his school's Zen practice.[2] A few decades later, in the 1220s, the Japanese monk Dôgen returned from China to introduce Sôtô Zen (C: Cáodòng Chán), a school which focused more chiefly on zazen meditation. Unlike Eisai, who promoted his school in the major political centers, Dôgen retreated to the mountains, establishing his temple of Eihei-ji in a remote area of Echizen province.

Rinzai Zen was strongly patronized by the Hôjô clan during the Kamakura period; many of the most prominent Zen temples in Kamakura have a connection to the Hôjô. Kenchô-ji was the first temple to be established in Japan as a Zen temple,[3] being founded in 1253 by the Song Dynasty monk Lanxi Daolong, who was invited by Hôjô Tokiyori for that purpose. Lanxi Daolong then became the first monk to be recognized as a Zen master by a Japanese emperor, and Kenchô-ji is regarded as the first among the Five Mountains (Five Zen Temples) of Kamakura (Kamakura Gosan).[4] Many of these temples were founded with the aid of Chinese Chán masters who fled to Japan from a China in the process of being conquered by the Mongols. Settling in Kamakura, they brought a cosmopolitanism that the warrior city had theretofore lacked, but even as the Hôjô and others built what remain today some of the most famous and prominent Zen temples in the country, Eisai and Dôgen had only limited impact during their lives, and Zen only really began to catch on a generation or two later. Though often mistakenly represented as enjoying a grand blossoming and widespread following almost immediately, along with the other new Buddhist sects of the Kamakura period - Nichiren Buddhism and Pure Land Buddhism - Zen initially had to compromise with the dominant Buddhist establishment, or establish itself out in remote areas, in order to gain traction, and did not see considerable success for several generations at least.

The Ashikaga shoguns, like the Hôjô before them, were great patrons of Zen. Tenryû-ji, today considered first among the Five Mountains (Five Zen Temples) of Kyoto (Kyoto Gozan), was founded by the first Ashikaga shogun, Ashikaga Takauji, in 1339. Kinkaku-ji, originally built by Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1397 as his private retirement villa, and Ginkaku-ji, built by his grandson Ashikaga Yoshimasa in the 1480s, both later became Zen temples. Ashikaga Yoshimitsu also employed Zen monks as envoys to China; in this capacity, they played a key role in establishing tribute/tally trade relations between Japan and Ming Dynasty China. Under the Ashikaga, the "Five Mountain" system, originally established by the Hôjô as merely an honorary designation for prominent temples, was made more systematic, and roughly three hundred Zen temples associated with the shogunate or Imperial court came to be incorporated into the system, ranked into three tiers and administered within a hierarchy under the five lead temples of Kamakura and Kyoto. Meanwhile, small Zen temples located in more remote regions, and in commercial towns, began to pop up; known as Rinka Zen temples, these institutions were chiefly sites of zazen meditation, and of local religious services. They were popular among merchants, lower-ranking samurai, and peasants who sought simplified rituals, and religious services such as exorcisms, blessings, and funerals.

The Ôbaku sect of Zen was introduced to Japan in the 17th century, as Chinese in Nagasaki helped to bring a group of monks from China to help establish the first Japanese Ôbaku temple, the Manpuku-ji in Uji.[5] Its presence in Japan was first established by Yǐnyuán Lóngqí, known as Ingen in Japanese, head of the temple of Wanfu-si (J: Manpuku-ji) on Mt. Huangbo (J: Ôbaku) in Fujian province at that time; invited by Japanese Rinzai monks to come to Japan to help revive Rinzai, which had fallen into decline, Ingen initially refused, but was later invited to come to Japan by members of the Nanjing temple in Nagasaki, at which time he came, arriving in Japan in 1654. He and his disciples introduced a new revised ordination ceremony, and taught a more literal interpretation of Buddhist scriptures. After being granted audiences with Emperor Go-Mizunoo and Shogun Tokugawa Ietsuna, Ingen was granted permission to establish a Manpuku-ji temple in Japan, which he did, employing mostly Chinese workers and completing the project in 1669. The temple remains today likely the finest surviving example of Ming Dynasty architecture in Japan today.[6]

The sect was strongly supported by Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, and daimyô Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu, and quickly became closely associated with and involved in the kangaku (Chinese Studies) movement in Japan. Tsunayoshi and Yoshiyasu frequently invited Ôbaku monks and Japanese kangaku scholars such as Ogyû Sorai to discuss the Chinese classics, practice Chinese language, and so forth.[7]

The first Sôtô Zen temple in Hawaii was established in 1903.[8] Beginning in the 1920s or '30s, but particularly in the 1950s, Zen was first introduced in a prominent way to Americans, through a series of lectures delivered by D.T. Suzuki. The conception of Zen, and of Japanese culture, introduced by Suzuki continues to have a profound impact upon conventional wisdom and stereotypical popular understandings among Americans about Japan today.

Zen in Ryûkyû

Zen was adopted by the kings of the Ryûkyû Kingdom, who established the Zen temples Engaku-ji and Sôgen-ji in the 15th century as two of the chief patron temples of the royal family. Zen monks played a prominent role in foreign relations for Ryûkyû, as they did in Muromachi era Japan.

Cultural and Intellectual Impact

Powdered tea was first introduced to Japan by Eisai, in 1191, along with the introduction of Rinzai Zen.[2] Song Dynasty Neo-Confucianism may have been introduced to Japan as early as the late 12th century as well, even before the death of Zhu Xi, its main proponent. The Ritsu sect Buddhist monk Shunjô (1166-1227) may have been the first to introduce Zhu Xi's teachings into Japan, when he returned from China in 1211;[9] however, scholars such as Takatsu Takashi have pointed out the existence of copies of Zhu Xi's teachings, signed by Japanese scholars in 1200, and extant today in Kamakura archives.[10]

During the Muromachi period, before popular publishing took off in the Edo period, it was Zen temples which were the chief patrons of the printing of copies of the Confucian classics and other non-Buddhist works.[11]

Song dynasty Chán painters such as Muqi and Liang Kai, and perhaps Zen painting as a style overall, gained a greater following in Japan than in China, and today those two artists are more well-known from works held at Daitoku-ji in Kyoto, and at the Tokyo National Museum, than from works remaining in China. Along with paintings by the Yuan Dynasty Indian monk Yintuoluo and others, these works inspired the flourishing of Zen painting in Japan, beginning with Muromachi era painters such as Sesshû, Shûbun, and Jôsetsu, all of whom were associated with the Kyoto temple of Shôkoku-ji; Edo period artists such as Itô Jakuchû also drew inspiration from the works of Mu Qi held at Daitoku-ji.[12]

Zen rock gardens are, of course, among the most stereotypically famous aspects of Zen culture, and of Japanese culture more broadly. The garden at Ryôan-ji in Kyoto, where from any given vantage point, at least one rock will always be hidden from view, is perhaps that which the stereotype most draws upon. The dry landscape (kare sansui) garden at Ginkaku-ji, which includes a mound of pebbles meant to resemble or evoke Mt. Fuji, is another famous example. However, Zen gardens, including those designed by the likes of Musô Sôseki and Kobori Enshû, take many forms, and some are quite green, including moss, water features, and even trees and other plants.


  • William de Bary, Sources of Japanese Tradition, vol 1, Columbia University Press (2001), 306-313.
  1. Via the Chinese, chán. Francis DK Ching, A Global History of Architecture, Second Edition. John Wiley & Sons (2011), 444.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Conrad Schirokauer, David Lurie, and Suzanne Gay, A Brief History of Japanese Civilization, Wadsworth Cengage (2013), 81.
  3. It is not the first Zen temple to be established in the country, temples founded under a different sect having previously been converted to Zen use.
  4. Plaques on-site at Kenchô-ji; and "Kenchô-ji." 鎌倉ぶらぶら.
  5. Marius Jansen, China in the Tokugawa World, Harvard University Press (1992), 10.
  6. Jansen, 55-56.
  7. Jansen, 56-57.
  8. Franklin Odo and Kazuko Sinoto, A Pictorial History of the Japanese in Hawaii 1885-1924, Bishop Museum (1985), 77-78.
  9. Robert Morrell, "Zeami's Kasuga Ryûjin (Dragon God of Kasuga), or Myôe Shônin," Early Kamakura Buddhism: A Minority Report, Asian Humanities Press (1987), 103.
  10. Takatsu Takashi, “Ming Jianyang Prints and the Spread of the Teachings of Zhu Xi to Japan and the Ryukyu Kingdom in the Seventeenth Century,” in Angela Schottenhammer (ed.), The East Asian Mediterranean: Maritime Crossroads of Culture, Harrassowitz Verlag, 2008. 254.
  11. Eiko Ikegami, Bonds of Civility, Cambridge University Press (2005), 291-292.
  12. Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 202-203.
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