Zen Buddhism in Early Japan


Early Zen History

The Trip to China

Zen Spreads to Japan

Tokugawa and the Dawn of the Modern Era

Zen During the War Years

Zen in the Modern World

Zen Links

To study Buddhism is to study the Self. To study the Self is to forget the Self and to forget the Self is to be enlightened by the Ten Thousand Things.

According to the Japanese chronicles, the first Buddha image was brought from Korea to Japan in approximately 552 C.E. Zen appeared roughly a century later, brought to Japan by the followers of Hui-K'o. Dosho was the first Japanese monk to build a Zen monastery in Japan, and in the seventh century a Chinese Zen master from the northern sect came to the monastery in Nara and greatly contributed to the growth of Japanese Buddhism. None of these efforts created a sustained Zen movement in Japan. The Buddhist schools of Hosso, Kegon, Tendai, and Shingon were dominant, but they were mysterious, magically oriented, and largely incomprehensible to the common man. Because of this, the honor of being declared the "Father of Japanese Zen" is universally granted to Myoan Eisai.


Eisai (Zenko Kokushi, 1141-1215) was a disciple of the Tendai sect from an early age, before travelling to China in order to visit the birthplace of his sect. Instead, Eisai was exposed to the vigorous Rinzai School of Zen, and became convinced that he had found the true message of Buddhism. Upon returning to Japan, Eisai built the first Rinzai temple in Japan at Kakata. The temple, Shofukuji, attracted relatively little attention until Eisai proclaimed the superiority of Zen over Tendai and all other Buddhist Schools in Japan. The remaining Japanese schools went on the offensive, periodically succeeding in banning the new school until Eisai found a protector in the Shogun Minamoto Yoriie. The Shogun appointed him the head of the Kenninji temple in Kyoto, from which he continued to promote Zen, eventually composing a treatise titled "The Spread of Zen for the Protection of the Country."

Although he did not introduce tea to Japan, Eisai is widely considered to be the father of Japanese tea culture. Eisai brought seeds from the mainland and cultivated them on the grounds of Kenninji temple. He also wrote a book on tea.

While Kenninji was a "Zen" temple, as a national temple it also sheltered Tendai and Shingon schools within its walls. After Eisai's death, it quickly became riddled by "magical rites" and a lack of discipline. Eisai's successors attempted to reinvigorate Rinzai Zen without success until the establishment of the Tofukuji temple. The first head of the temple, Shoichi Kokushi, restored discipline and the preeminence of Zen, but he continued to practice the mystical rites of Tendai and Shingon.


The Zen master Dogen is by far the dominant figure in Japanese religion, venerated by the members of all Buddhist schools as a Bodhisattva. It has been said that Dogen is the greatest and most original thinker in all of Japanese history. In an ironic twist, Dogen began as a member of the Rinzai School, but would later introduce the Soto School to Japan.

Dogen was born into a distinguished family and received a formidable education. At the age of four he was reading Chinese poetry, and his early life was heavily influenced by Chinese thought and teaching. In his later life, however, his writings appear far more original, as he surpassed the education of his youth.
Dogen lost both of his parents while very young and was deeply affected by their loss. His mother requested on her deathbed that he become a monk, and Dogen earnestly followed his mother's wishes. Unfortunately, Dogen was adopted by one of his uncles, a powerful noble who was seeking an heir and successor. When Dogen realized the course of his future, he ran away at the age of twelve and joined a younger uncle living as a hermit near Mount Hiei. He was quickly ordained a Buddhist monk of the Tendai order and devoted himself to the study of the sacred writings and the quest for Enlightenment. Dogen soon began pondering questions for which no one could provide answers, and he was finally urged to seek out the Rinzai master Eisai. Dogen entered the Kenninji temple, but there is no evidence he ever met Eisai, who had already left the temple to one of his disciples, Myozen. Although Dogen visited the temple several times and enrolled in the Rinzai School, even developing a close relationship with Myozen, he remained unsatisfied in his religious pursuit. Eventually, Dogen convinced Myozen to accompany him to China, where Dogen hoped to find answers to his many questions.

Dogen wandered from temple to temple in China until he met the famous Zen master Ju-ching, the head of the Tien-t'ung-szu temple. Under Ju-ching, Dogen meditated day and night, finally achieving Enlightenment. Ju-ching joyfully gave him the transmission of a Soto patriarch, and after an additional two years of training, Dogen returned to Japan. Dogen had no plans to found a new temple in Japan, but he felt uncomfortable in the laxness and moral lassitude of the Kenninji temple. He left the temple and moved to a smaller, rural temple near Fukakusa. Under Dogen's inspired leadership, this temple quickly grew to become an important center for the study of Zen. Dogen and his disciples eventually outgrew the tiny temple, and a new temple, Koshohorinji, became the first temple in Japan devoted solely to Zen.

Dogen touched many lives and had a major impact on the practice of Zen in Japan. Meditation was the hallmark of Soto Zen, and Dogen spread the practice of zazen in the Soto manner into nearly every Buddhist School in Japan. Dogen's method was closely bound to the practice of zazen, which he considered a purer form of Buddhism, closer to the original meaning of the Buddha. In the history of Japanese Zen Buddhism, Dogen stands above all others.

By the Tokugawa period, Zen had spread into virtually every element of Japanese society. The strict discipline and indifference to death found in Zen appealed to the samurai, and the increasing "Japaneseness" of Zen endeared it to the lower classes. Zen became an inmportant part of culture in part through the tea ceremony, which was created and popularized by Eisai The artisan class saw the influence of Zen grow in such diverse arts as gardening, flower-arranging, painting, poetry, calligraphy, and the incomparable Zen gardens. It was the Tokugawa Shogunate, however, that would cement the place of Zen in Japanese society through its pogrom against Buddhism.