Soto After Dogen and the Arrival of Rinzai

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Rinzai comes to Japan

As we saw in Lesson 26, because Eisai's temple was the first to include Chan practice, he has received credit for founding Japanese Rinzai Zen. History, however, has glorified matters somewhat, for in fact Eisai was little more than a Tendai priest who dabbled a bit in Chan practice. During the early era Zen was mainly a reformation within the Tendai school. The Japanese understanding of Chan was hesitant and inconclusive — to the point that few Japanese of the mid-thirteenth century actually realized a new form of Buddhism was in the making.

Soon after Dogen returned to Japan from China, however, Rinzai arrived with a number of Chinese masters who began emigrating to teach the Japanese in Kamakura. As well, Japanese monks were traveling to China in such numbers that those aspiring to the Dharma were referred to as "longing for the Dharma, entering the land of Sung."

. . . longing for the Dharma, entering the land of Sung

While Soto became the low-key home-grown Zen, Rinzai became a vehicle for importing Chinese culture to the ruling classes, both the imperial court and the shogunate warrior class. Rinzai Zen appealed to the warrior samurai because of its emphasis on discipline, on experience over education, and on a rough-and-tumble practice including debates with a master and blows for the loser—all congenial to men of simple, unschooled tastes.

At the same time, the perceptive Chinese missionaries, hampered by the language barrier, rendered Zen as simplistic as possible to help the faith compete with the salvationist sects among the often illiterate warriors.

Rinzai Zen soon was effectively established as the faith of the Kamakura rulers, supported by new Chinese masters who also began teaching Chinese culture (calligraphy, literature, ink painting, philosophy) to the Kamakura warriors along with their Zen. Out of this era in the late thirteenth century evolved an organization of Zen temples in Kyoto and Kamakura based on the Sung Chinese model. Chinese culture became so fashionable in Kamakura that collections of Sung art began appearing among the illiterate provincial warriors — an early harbinger of the Japanese evolution of Zen from asceticism to aesthetics.

Although Rinzai Zen had made much visible headway in Japan—the ruling classes increasingly meditated on koans, and Chinese monks operated new Sung-style monasteries—the depth of understanding appears to have been superficial overall. The gozan system soon turned so political, as monasteries competed for official favor, that before long establishment Zen was almost devoid of spiritual content.

In many ways, Japanese Zen became decadent almost from the start. The immense prestige, of imported Chinese art and ideas, together with the powerful role of the Zen clerics as virtually the only group sufficiently educated to oversee relations with the continent, meant that early on, Zen's cultural role became as telling as its spiritual place.

By the mid-fifteenth century Zen teaching had virtually disappeared in the temples, and the priests devoted themselves mainly to ceremonial and administrative duties. Authentic Zen practice had become almost completely emasculated, overshadowed by the rise of a Zen-inspired cultural movement far outstripping Chinese prototypes.

Several hundred years later Hakuin would restablish a Rinzai Zen in Japan in a form fully as rigorous as ever practiced in the monasteries of Tang and Sung China and at the same time meaningful to large numbers of people from all classes and religions.

Before we look at Hakuin in Lesson 32 we visit several iconoclastic individuals who bucked the trend of a ceremonial and superficial Zen and helped keep Zen alive. Not inclined to make themselves subservient to monastic zen, they occupied no place within a no line of succession but inspired future Zen students and masters.