Where did the influence of Zen on Japanese Budo actually begin?
To attempt to answer that question we need to look at the arrival of Zen Buddhism in Japan and for the purposes of this column, we can’t give credence to the fullness of this topic here – but we can provide an insight.
There were hundreds of different sects and sub-sects of Buddhism in India, originating in the 6th Century BC and eventually spreading through Central Asia to China, each competing with one another for attention from the general populace, especially the ruling class, that no one sect could lay claim to having the advantage over another – or so say some scholars.
Buddhism arrived in Japan in 552 and over the centuries various sects were founded such as the Tendai (805) and the Shingon sect from China in 806.
The Jodo or Pure Land sect was founded in 1175, and in 1191 came a new sect also emanating from the cultural influence of China called Ch’an meaning meditation, a Mahayana school teaching the core beliefs of the Buddha - the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path and which later became known as Zen Buddhism.
11 years earlier in 1180, Minamoto no Yoritomo established his first military government in Kamakura, separated from the ruling class of the Emperor of Japan in Kyoto, which became known as the Shogunate and ushered in the era of the Samurai.
The medieval Japanese military class was attracted to Zen Buddhism, because of the discipline required in its daily practice and its notion of non- attachment, which served each individual well on a practical level as they could achieve an enlightened state which eliminated suffering – the central tenet of all Buddhism.
Zen monks occupied positions of political influence in both Kyoto, where the Emperor and the ruling family reigned supreme and in Kamakura, the new seat of the Shogunate, especially when Yoritomo took the title of Seii Taishogun in 1192.
Eisai, was a Tendai priest who studied extensively in China and returned to Japan in 1192. He was frowned upon by the Tendai establishment and moved to Kamakura, where he won the support of the newly established Shogunate and set up temples there and in Kyoto. Eisai was generally regarded as being responsible for introducing Zen to Japan and was both politically and artistically influential.
The Soto sect of Zen Buddhism was founded by Dogen Zenji with the building of the Eihei Temple in what is now the Fukui Prefecture in 1243.
Dogen lost his parents at an early age and was influenced by the impermanence of things. He began to teach Zazen and its central tenet of Shikan Taza or seated meditation as the most effective road to satori, which can mean personal enlightenment or self-realization.
Around about the same time the Rinzai Sect of Zen Buddhism had also become established, and whilst both Soto and Rinzai, agreed with the overall objectives of Zen, they chose two different pathways to achieve them.
The Soto sect was always associated with “quiet illumination” with the emphasis on zazen or seated meditation. The Rinzai sect was definitely associated with “dynamic illumination” and they chose to emphasise the Koan, which is a paradox in the form of a sentence or a statement to be meditated upon in order to abandon dependence on reason and to gaining sudden intuitive enlightenment.
Both the Soto and Rinzai sects each lay claim to the fact that that they were the practice of choice of the military classes and the samurai at the time.
In fact there is a Japanese saying – “Rinzai Shogun, Soto Domin” – which means “Rinzai for the Shogun – Soto for the peasants”.
In truth, both Soto and Rinzai were adopted by the military classes in Japan in Kamakura and Kyoto - an influence which spread to all parts of the country over time – an influence which was not only martial but cultural and artistic.
It is from this background, that Zen became influential in Japanese Budo and Culture.