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
To organize is to destroy
In 1571, shortly before the Tokugawa era began, the warlord Oda Nobunaga laid out an aggressive campaign
to break the power of the great Buddhist sects in Japan. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries
Buddhist monasteries had accumulated vast wealth and the mightiest temples even maintained their own armies.
Amida (Pure Land) Buddhism in particular was extremely popular among both the samurai and common folk. With
its simple message of ending suffering and the promise of a better future if one persevered through the
present, Buddhism had rapidly become a dominant religion in Japan, largely supplanting the Shinto faith.
The Tendai monks had achieved enormous influence in the shogunate court by following in the line of Eisai,
but it was the Amida Buddhists that caused the greatest concern among the powerful in Japan. In the late
fifteenth centries, Amida followers had revolted in a number of provinces in central Japan, seizing control
and establishing a new domain that rivaled the powerful daimyo.
Oda Nobunaga saw the clear threat to the traditional power of the daimyo and led his armies against the
Tendai monastery on Mount Hiei, destroying thousands of buildings and slaying thousands of monks. The
retaking of the Amida controlled provinces took nearly a decade more, resulting in the deaths of tens of
While the powerful Tendai temple had suffered heavily as the Tokugawa era began, the "pure" Zen sects were
relatively untouched. Rinzai Zen monks had largely avoided the political and social upheavals of their
Buddhist brothers by remaining aloof from the political bickerings. Moreover, the Rinzai sect was highly
literate and well acquainted with Chinese customs and mores. Because Rinzai Zen monks were familiar with
Chinese culture, they were well schooled in academics and Confucian studies, and thus made valuable
contributions as diplomats to the Chinese and Koreans. Additionally, when the Tokugawa shoguns began to
look about for teachers and defenders of shogunate rule, they found a ready tool among the adherents of Zen.
As the Tokugawa Shogunate stabilized the nation, Zen became one of the foundations for the society it was
building, largely supplanting other forms of Buddhism due to government patronage and the suppression of
"more rebellious" sects.
Zen paid a high price for such patronage and esteem. Zen schools and monasteries were classified by the
state as either honji (major temples) or matsuji (branch temples). All families
were ordered to join a Buddhist group. In exchange for state patronage, Buddhism was forced to submit to
stringent controls that even extended to questions of theology and doctrine. Innovations in philosophical
thought and teaching were no longer permitted as the shogunate pursued what at times could be a grim quest
for stability and order. Conflicts between major temples and outlying ones, once common, became far less so
as the state decided such questions in favor of the large temples. Buddhism as a whole enjoyed a period of
unprecedented material prosperity, but this same prosperity contradicted many of the basic doctrines of
Zen particularly appealed to the samurai. The samurai "bible," the Hagakure opens with,
"The way of the samurai is found in death." The harsh reality of ever present death caused many samurai to
turn to the comforting doctrines of Zen, which preached a fearlessness toward death. The Hagakure
refers to Zen doctrine in several places while explaining the appropriate manner in which to face
death. Equally significantly, Zen doctrine offered a means to maintain spirituality even while engaging in
warfare and killing. This is perhaps best illustrated by the following section from Takuan's short treatise
on "The Sword of Taia."
The Art of the sword, as I see it, consists in not vying for victory, not testing strength, not moving one
step forward or backward; it consists in your not seeing me and my not seeing you. When one penetrates as
far as where heaven and earth have not been separated, where the yin and the yang
have not yet differentiated themselves, one is then said to have attained proficiency.
A man who has thoroughly mastered the art does not use the sword, and the opponent kills himself; when a man
uses the sword, he makes it serve to give life to others. When killing is in order, it kills; when giving
life is in order, it gives life. While killing there is no thought of killing, while giving life there is no
thought of giving life; for in the killing or in the giving life, no Self is asserted. The man does not see
"this" or "that" and yet sees well what is "this" or "that"; he makes no discrimination and yet knows well
what is what. He walks on water as if it were on earth; he walks on earth as if it were water. One who has
attained this freedom cannot be interfered with by anybody on earth. He stands absolutely by himself.
As can be seen, the Way of the Samurai was deeply influenced by Zen. Even the most powerful samurai were not
immune: Tokugawa Ieyasu converted to the Tendai faith in 1614.
As the shogunate established a stringent order on society, it also increased its control over the priesthood.
Priests were limited to the study of religion, and the shogunate itself became the patron for the various
sects. The Rinzai sect, which was heavily invovled with Confucianism, was particularly popular with the
Tokugawa Shogunate. Unfortunately, as the shogunate aged, it became ever more rigid and rule-bound. So too
did the sects most closely associated with it. Rinzai Zen grew increasingly complex and elaborate, focusing
far more on the rituals derived from the Tendai and Confucian traditions than on the doctrine of Enlightenment.
Even the Koans, a powerful mainstay of Rinzai Zen, became more an intellectual exercise than a means to
break the train of rationality. Neo-Confucianism became as deeply a part of Rinzai Zen as it did Tokugawan
society. Among the most celebrated of Neo-Confucianists was the aforementioned Takuan Soho, who was also
a Rinzai teacher. Takuan helped lay the foundations for the unification of Buddhism, Shintoism, and
Confucianism and had a profound influence on several generations of samurai, including the famed
As Zen became more systematic and widely studied, it also became associated with a number of arts. The
essential tenets of Zen were applied to various martial arts, painting, calligraphy, writing, poetry, and
many others. In a sense, the "Way of Zen" had become the way of all Japanese arts.
Other than Dogen, no one had a greater impact on Japanese Zen than Hakuin. D.T. Suzuki has called
him the "father of modern Japanese Zen," and every authority agrees that the intense Rinzai monk forever
changed the course of Zen. Hakuin appeared during a period of renewal, and represents the height of
Japanese Zen during the Tokugawa period. Hakuin was a frail but brilliant child who was unusually sensitive.
His mother belonged to the Nichiren
sect, and brought Hakuin to a temple where he heard the teachings of Nichiren in the form of a sermon on the
Eight Hot Hells. Hakuin had delighted in killing insects
and birds, and his fear of karmic retribution deeply affected him throughout his youth. He continuously asked
his mother how he could escape from torment in hell, and she directed him toward Buddhism. Hakuin became
particularly enamored with the
Lotus Sutra, which claims to protect its devout adherents from fire and water. The young man recited the
dharani for days, then touched a white-hot rod to his thigh. Hakuin quickly realized that no
mystical transformation had occurred when the hot rod seared his flesh. Convinced that he could never
achieve understanding on his own, he turned to asceticism and became a Buddhist monk.
Hakuin initally sought out the local Zen temple in his village, Shoinji, where he was ordained a monk by the
master Sokudo. Hakuin pursued Enlightenment at Shoinji and the larger Daishoji temple without success until
he was nineteen years old, whereupon despair drove him to the life of an itinerant monk. During an
intense crisis of faith he rededicated himself to Zen, so much so that even news of his mother;s death could not
dissuade him from his pursuit of enlightenment. Finally, at a lecture by the master Shotetus, Hakuin
achieved his first moment of satori. He next traveled to the Shojuan temple, and studied
under the guidance of the merciless master Etan until summoned to care for his aged master Sokudo.
Hakuin continued to push himself to extreme levels in his zazen practice, suffering a series of nervous
breakdowns. Once more suffering from despair, he journeyed to the hermit Hakuyu, who taught him a treatment
for "Zen sickness." Returning to his home village, he established a temple of his own, had numerous
other satori experiences, and finally began to accept students after his penultimate
satori experience when he was forty one. He wrote of the experience in his biography, Wild
"A cricket made a series of churrs at the foundation stones of the temple. The instant they reached the
master's ears, he was one with enlightenment."
Hakuin quickly became the foremost Zen master in the land, overrunning the tiny hamlet and turning the area
into an enormous Zen center. Hakuin continued the intense practices of meditation, driving his students with
the same rigor he had once been endured under Etan. His students were soon thin and often suffered from
Zen sickness, which the master treated while admonishing them against allowing their bodies to fail from
the intense effort. Even so, there remains a long row of tombstones where his disciples were buried alongside
him. A number of novices met an early death striving to emulate their beloved master.
Hakuin painted much and wrote even more. He was also unfailingly kind to all he encountered, surprising
to those who know little of Zen and interpret his brusque treatment of his disciples as cruelty. He was also
blunt in his determinations of what was Zen and what was not, as when he continued the doctrinal disputes
between the Rinzai and Soto sects. His greatest talent, however, was in translating Buddhist teachings
into common language which the people could grasp. Hakuin used analogy and metaphor extensively, often
outraging his listeners with his utterances, but he flatly refused to allow his words to be limited to only
one meaning. Above all, Hakuin had a powerful sense of humor.
Hakuin believed that even the most powerful satori experience was only the beginning of the
quest for true wisdom. Enlightenment granted one the opportunity, but it had to be honed and refined. For
Hakuin, the koan was the highest form of refinement, and the method for both achieving satori
and continuing the process beyond. It was from Hakuin that we have what is perhaps the most famous of all
koans, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Among his many reforms and changes, Hakuin organized the
koans into categories, creating a tiered approach to learning. Each koan level had to mastered before
advancing to the next. The Rinzai school continues this tradition to this day, with five levels of koans
and considerable structure to the private sessions between master and student.
Hakuin's presence continues to dominate the spirit of Zen today. He is truly the "father of modern Zen."
While Hakuin's influence had a lasting effect beyond the Tokugawa period, Zen entered the Meiji era heavily
tied to a government that had lost all popularity. Corruption had deeply penetrated the temples, further
alientating Japanese society from Buddhism. As the the Meiji period opened, riots broke out as temples were
put to the torch, and the people of Japan were less inclined to look favorably on the wealthy and powerful
Buddhist monks. As part of its attempts to reform Japanese society, the Meiji government attempted to
suppress Buddhism and restore the native Shinto religion. This time, Zen was placed on the outside, along
with the other Buddhist sects. In 1868, the Meiji government ended a thousand years of tradition by
ordering the separation of Buddhism from Shintoism, and then proceeded to confiscate lands and wealth
from Buddhist temple. Monks were encouraged to leave the monastic path and return to a lay life. The final
result was a closing of roughly twenty percent of Japan's Buddhist temples by 1876. As Buddhism reeled under
the assault of the Meiji regime, it was also forced to contend with the new openness that allowed
Christianity to reenter Japan. Many Buddhists virulently opposed Christianity, denigrating its tenets and
basic underlying doctrine.
The attempt to promote a "State Shinto" had dubious results. Zen roots had struck too deep, been present
for too long to quickly disappear. Far from vanishing, Zen continued to play an important role in the daily
life of Japanese citizens. But there is no question that the attempt to merge State and Shinto had succeeded
to a great extent. If Zen had not disappeared, it was no longer a player in the halls of political power. In
order to once more enjoy state sanction and support, Zen Buddhists had to endorse the Meiji view of the
emperor and cooperate with the creation of a western-style society. The largest sects did so, often
Equally significant was the change in Japan's education system. For generations, nearly all schools in
Japan had received were run by Soto monks. In 1870, the Meiji government was looking for a means to create
a modern, educated population. They turned to the Soto Zen schools to help. By 1899, however, the Soto
schools were closed, replaced by new, Western methods of instruction. Interaction with the West was
increasing, and Zen was destined to travel over the seas.