Before we begin the story of the Japanese connection with Chan, we first look very briefly at Buddhism in Japan prior to this connection.
Before the break
In the mid-9th century Japan broke off relations with China and for three hundred years the doors were closed between China and Japan. Prior to this break, there was a lively movement of people and ideas.
During the sixth century, about the time of Bodhidharma, a statue of the Buddha and some sutras were transmitted to Japan as a gift/bribe from a Korean monarch seeking military aid. He claimed Buddhism was very powerful although difficult to understand. While those promoting the existing Shinto religion tried to discredit Buddhism, other trying to overthrow the Shinto-based ruling clique triumphed, and by the middle of the seventh century, the Japanese were constructing Buddhist temples and pagodas.
These early mainland contacts also resulted in the importation of Chinese writing and the Chinese style of government, including a recreation of the Tang capital city at Nara, Japan's first real city. Soon Japan was now awash in third-hand Buddhism, as Chinese missionaries patronizingly expounded Sanskrit scriptures they themselves only vaguely understood. Buddhism's reputation for powerful magic soon demoralized the simple religion of Shinto, with its unpretentious shrines and rites, and this benign nature reverence was increasingly pushed into the background. For the most part the Buddhism of this time was scholastic, although devotional Buddhism was becoming more common among the common people.
The impact of Buddhism became so overwhelming that the alarmed emperor finally abandoned Nara entirely to the Buddhists, and at the close of the eighth century set up a new capital in central Japan, known today as Kyoto. The emperor also decided to discredit the Nara Buddhists on their own terms, sending to China for new, competing sects. Back came emissaries with two new schools: Tendai and Shingon. Tendai Buddhism (named after the Chinese Tientai school) with its teachings centered on the Lotus Sutra which taught that the human Buddha personified a universal spirit assumed dominance and soon Kyoto sprouted several thousand temples. The Tendai monks became the authority on Buddhist matters in Japan for several centuries thereafter, and later they also began meddling in affairs of state. Tendai was a faith for the fortunate few and served the idle aristocracy perfectly.
Shingon, from the Chinese school Chenyen, was as well an aristocratic version of Buddhism. A magical-mystery sect thriving on secrecy and esoteric symbolism. It appealed less to the intellect than did Tendai and more to the taste for entertainment among the bored aristocrats. Although Shingon monasteries often were situated in remote mountainous areas, the intrigue of their engaging ceremonies and their evocative mandalas made this sect a theatrical success.
While many Japanese monks traveled to China during this period, some spending years studying with Chinese masters, what Zen was brought back to Japan had little impact.
With the fall of the Tang dynasty, the Japanese government broke off relations with China less than a hundred years after the founding of Kyoto. For some three hundred years mainland contacts virtually ceased, and consequently both Japanese culture and Japanese Buddhism gradually evolved away from their Chinese models.
The Japanese aristocracy became obsessed with aesthetics, finery, and refined lovemaking accompanied by poetry, perfumes, and flowers. They distilled the vigorous Tang culture to a refined essence, rather like extracting a delicate liqueur from a stout potion.
Buddhism finally degenerated largely into an entertainment for the ruling class, This carefree aristocracy also allowed increasing amounts of wealth and land to slip into the hands of corrupt religious establishments, and as it grew ever more powerful, the Buddhist church also grew decadent.
During this time, the Japanese aristocracy preserved its privileged position through the unwise policy of using an emerging military class, the samurai, to maintain order, especially in the provinces, where they governed untamed outlying areas.
In the middle of the twelfth century, these rural clans and samurai effectively seized Japan, and their strongman invented for himself the title of shogun, proceeding to institute what became almost eight centuries of unbroken warrior rule, paying mere ceremonial homage to the emperors. The age of the common man had arrived, and one of the shogun's first acts was to transfer the government away from aristocratic Kyoto, whose sophisticated society made him uncomfortable, to a warrior camp called Kamakura, near the site of modern Tokyo. The rule of Japan passed from perfumed poetry-writing aesthetes to fierce, often illiterate swordsmen.
Coincident with this coup, the decadence and irrelevance of traditional Buddhism had begun to weigh heavily upon a new group of spiritual reformers. Soon the Tendai and Shingon were challenged by new faiths recognizing the existence and spiritual needs of the common people.
Turning to China
There were others, however, who believed that the aristocratic sects could be reformed from within—by importing them afresh from China, from the source. These reformers hoped that Buddhism in China had maintained its integrity and discipline during the several centuries of separation. And by fortunate coincidence, Japanese contacts with the mainland were being reopened, making it again allowable to undertake the perilous sea voyage to China.
But when the first twelfth-century Japanese pilgrims reached the mainland, they were stunned to find that traditional Buddhism had been almost completely supplanted by Chan. Consequently, the Japanese pilgrims returning from China perforce returned with Zen, since little else remained. However, Zen was not originally brought back to replace traditional Buddhism, but rather as a stimulant to restore the rigor that had drained out of monastic life, including formal meditation and respect or discipline."