Zen is the tradition of Mahayana Buddhism that places particular emphasis on the practice of meditation as the most direct means of awakening to our innate Buddhahood—our own true nature—and resolving the fundamental matter of life and death. The word “Zen” actually means “meditation”—it is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word chan 禅, an abbreviated form of chan’na 禅那, which, in turn, is the Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit word for meditation, dhyāna. Thus the term “Zen school” literally means “Meditation school.” Zen is also known as the Buddha Mind school, based on Zen’s view that truth lies not in words recorded in written texts and scriptures, but in awakening to the Buddha Mind that lies within us.
Meditation—zazen in Japanese—is the practice by which one quiets the deluded thoughts that ordinarily hide the Buddha Mind. As expressed by the great Chinese Zen master Linji, founder of the Rinzai school, “If you just bring to rest the thoughts of the ceaselessly seeking mind, you will not differ from the patriarch-buddha. Turn your own light inward upon yourselves!”
According to Zen tradition, the history of the Zen lineage began when the Buddha stood in front of the assembled disciples and, instead of speaking, simply held up a flower. No one responded except the monk Mahakashyapa, who broke into a smile. The Buddha, seeing that Mahakashyapa had realized the same Truth that he had, said, “I possess the treasury of the True Dharma Eye, the ineffable mind of nirvana, the true form of the formless, the subtle Dharma gate. It does not depend on words and letters, and is a special transmission outside the teachings. This I entrust to Mahakashyapa.”
After Shakyamuni’s passing, Mahakashyapa recognized the same awakening to Buddha Mind in Ananda, Shakyamuni’s cousin and personal attendant. These were the first links in the chain of transmission from generation to generation of Indian Zen masters. According to Zen tradition, the twenty-eighth of these masters, a monk named Bodhidharma (d. 528?), introduced the Zen teachings to China. There the tradition flourished, invigorated by its contact with Chinese culture and civilization. Over the years, with the appearance of outstanding masters like Huineng 慧能 (638-713), Mazu Daoyi 馬祖道一 (709-788), and Huangbo Xiyun 黄檗希運 (d. 850), Zen took on a distinctly Chinese form. The transmission of the Dharma from master to disciple continued through the centuries in China, and, following the introduction of Zen to Japan in the thirteenth century, in that country as well. This unbroken transmission from master to disciple through the generations, known in Japanese as shishisōjō 師資相承, is one of the defining features of the Zen tradition.
At present there are in Japan three Zen schools: the Sōtō shool, the Ōbaku school, and the Rinzai school (the tradition to which Myōshin-ji belongs).
■What is the Rinzai School?
The Rinzai school emerged in China from the teaching line of the Zen master Linji Yixuan 臨済義玄 (J., Rinzai Gigen, d. 866), and was first introduced to Japan in 1191 by the Japanese monk Myōan Eisai 明庵栄西 (1141-1215). Later the monk Nanpo Jōmyō 南浦紹明 (1235-1308), also known as Daiō Kokushi 大応国師, traveled to China and brought back the Rinzai teachings in a separate transmission; Nanpo’s student Shūhō Myōchō 宗峰妙超 (1282-1337), also known as Daitō Kokushi 大灯国師, and Shūhō’s student Kanzan Egen 関山慧玄 (1277–1360) maintained Nanpo’s teaching line to form the so-called Ōtōkan lineage (the term Ōtōkan comes from the “ō” of Daiō, the “tō” of Daitō, and the “kan” of Kanzan). This lineage, through the eighteenth-century master Hakuin Ekaku 白隠慧鶴 (1686–1769), includes every Rinzai Zen master in Japan today.
Rinzai training seeks to awaken us to our innate Buddha-nature through the practices of zazen, samu (physical work), and the use of meditation problems known as koans. Rinzai teaching stresses the importance of a clear realization of the Buddha-Mind. Zen master Rinzai explained this in his distinctive way as: “On your lump of red flesh is a true person without rank who is always going in and out of the face of every one of you. Those who have not yet experienced this person, look, look!”
Bodhidharma (circa 5th c.), the twenty-eighth ancestor of the Indian Zen lineage and the first patriarch of the Chinese Zen lineage, is said in some traditional accounts to have been the third son of a king in southern India. He met Prajñātara, the twenty-seventh Indian ancestor of Zen, and decided to become a monk and study Buddhism under Prajñātara’s guidance. He later made the long journey to China to spread the Zen teachings. The Zen records say that he first visited the land of Liang in southern China, where he met the ruler, Emperor Wu. The emperor, a devout follower of Buddhism renowned for his generosity toward the sangha, asked Bodhidharma, “I have founded temples and ordained monks. What merit have I thereby gained?” Bodhidharma answered, “No merit.” The emperor then asked, “What is the ultimate meaning of the holy truth?” Bodhidharma answered, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.” Confused, the emperor asked, “Then who is it that stands before me?” Bodhidharma responded, “I don’t know.”
Seeing that the emperor did not understand his teachings on nonattachment and the ultimate emptiness of all things, Bodhidharma journeyed north and settled at the temple Shaolin si, where he sat meditating in a cave for nine years. Among the disciples who gathered around him was the monk Huike, who became the Second Patriarch of Chinese Zen. Bodhidharma had his enemies as well, and it is said that he survived six attempts to poison him. Some accounts say that Bodhidharma finally returned to India, others that he died in China and was buried on Bear Ear Mountain.
Several of the sayings attributed to Bodhidharma are succinct summaries of Zen’s fundamental teachings. One of the best-known is the following four-phrase formula, which characterize the standpoint of Zen as:
Not relying on words and letters (furyū monji 不立文字) A separate transmission outside of the teachings (kyōge betsuden 教外別伝) Directly pointing to the human mind (jikishi ninshin 直指人心) Seeing self-nature and attaining Buddhahood (kenshō jōbutsu 見性成仏)
Huike 慧可 (487-593), the Second Patriarch of the Chinese Zen lineage, studied the Confucian and Taoist classics in his youth, then became a monk under a priest called Zen Master Baojing 宝静禅師 on Mount Xiang. After a pilgrimage during which he studied the Hinayana and Mahayana teachings, he returned to Mount Xiang at the age of thirty-two and spent eight years in meditation. This culminated in a vision that directed him to Bodhidharma.
He arrived at Bodhidharma’s temple, Shaolin si, on a winter day and patiently waited through the night in the snow outside the cave where Bodhidharma was meditating. Finally Bodhidharma asked him, “You have been standing long in the snow. What are you seeking?” Huike replied, “I request the master in his compassion to open the Gate of Ambrosia and liberate me.” The great teacher said, “The supreme, marvelous Way of the buddhas can be attained only by long effort practicing what is difficult to practice and enduring what is difficult to endure. Why should one with a shallow heart and arrogant mind like yourself seek the true vehicle and suffer such hardships in vain?” Huike thereupon cut off his left arm to demonstrate his detachment and determination. Seeing this, Bodhidharma accepted him as a disciple.
A famous story has it that during his training Huike once said to Bodhidharma, “My mind is not yet at rest. Master, please set my mind to rest.” Bodhidharma replied, “Bring your mind here and I’ll put it to rest for you.” When Huike replied that he had sought his mind but was unable to locate it, Bodhidharma said, “There, I’ve set your mind to rest.”
After transmitting the Dharma to his disciple Sengcan 僧璨 (d. 606?), Huike preached among the common people in the city of Ye for thirty years. His popularity finally attracted the envy of other Dharma teachers, particularly the priest Bianhe, who accused Huike of preaching false doctrines, leading to Huike’s execution.
Huineng 慧能, the Sixth Patriarch
After Huike and his successor Sengcan, the Zen teachings were passed down to Daoxin 道信 (580–651), the Fourth Patriarch, and Hongren 弘忍 (600–674), the Fifth Patriarch. Among Hongren’s Dharma successors was Huineng 慧能 (638-713), who is honored as the Sixth Patriarch and regarded as the master under whom Zen took on a distinctly Chinese character.
Zen records tell us that Huineng was a native of Xinzhou in present Guangdong 広東. His father, a minor official, died when Huineng was a child, so he was raised by his mother and helped support her by selling firewood. One day in the marketplace he heard someone reciting the Diamond Sutra. Deeply impressed, he began a life of ascetic practice in search of the Dharma. Eventually he found his way north to Hongren’s monastery on Mount Huangmei. When he arrived, Hongren commented to him that “a barbarian from the south like yourself cannot become a buddha.” Huineng responded, “In Buddha-nature there is no north and south.” Seeing his potential, Hongren allowed him to stay with the monastic community.
The most famous episode from Huineng’s stay at the monastery occurred when Hongren, wishing to name a successor, asked the monks to compose a verse on the Buddhist teachings. The head monk, Shenxiu 神秀 (605–706), wishing to remain anonymous, wrote on a wall: “The body is the bodhi tree, the mind is like the stand of a bright mirror. At all times strive to polish it, and let no dust collect.” The other monks were deeply impressed with this verse, but when Huineng overheard a monk reciting it he realized that it showed an incomplete understanding. The illiterate Huineng asked a monk to write the following verse on the wall: “Originally there is no tree of enlightenment, nor a stand with a bright mirror. Fundamentally not one thing exists—where is there for dust to collect?” Hongren recognized the superiority of Huineng’s understanding, but hid his approval so that Huineng would not be attacked by Shenxiu’s supporters. That night in secret, however, he designated Huineng a Dharma heir and presented him with his robe and bowl as symbols of the succession.
Huineng fled south for his own safety and spent the next sixteen years in solitary training. Finally, in 676 he appeared at the temple Faxing si 法性寺 to attend lectures on the Nirvana Sutra. There he heard two monks arguing over a flag that was flapping in the wind, with one monk claiming it was the wind that moved the other claiming it was the flag that moved. Huineng commented, “Neither the flag nor the wind are moving. It is your minds that are moving.” Impressed by this insight, the temple priest ordained him as a monk. Huineng later resided at the temple Baolin si, where he taught for the rest of his life. Among his students were the monks in whose lineages all of the subsequent schools of Zen developed.
The Cloistered Emperor Hanazono 花園法皇
Emperor Hanazono 花園 (1297-1348), the ninety-fifth emperor of Japan, was the fourth son of Emperor Fushimi. He succeeded to the imperial throne in 1308 at the age of twelve. At the time there was an agreement between the Shogunate and the imperial family that the family’s two competing branches, the Daikakuji lineage and the Jimyōin lineage, would alternate possession of the imperial throne every ten years. Thus the Jimyōin-line Emperor Hanazono duly abdicated in 1318 when his allotted ten years had passed. Unfortunately Hanazono’s successor, Emperor Go-Daigo of the Daikakuji line, was a politically ambitious sovereign who refused to leave the throne after his ten-year term was complete, one of a series of events that led to an era of armed strife between the two branches known as the period of North and South Dynasties.
Emperor Hanazono, following his retirement, devoted himself to the spiritual life, earnestly studying the Tendai and Shingon teachings before turning to the practice of Zen. In 1335 he was ordained as a monk under Enkan Echin 円観慧鎮 of Hassho-ji and took the Buddhist name Hengyō 遍行. His first Zen teacher was Getsurin Dōkō 月林道皎 of Chofuku-ji; later his enlightenment was certified by the great Zen master Daitō Kokushi, founder of Daitokuji Temple. In 1337 he converted his imperial villa in the Hanazono district into a temple, to which Daitō Kokushi gave the name Myōshin-ji 妙心寺. On Daitō’s recommendation the cloistered emperor Hanazono summoned Daitō’s disciple Kanzan Egen, then engaged in post-enlightenment practice in the province of Minō (present-day Gifu Prefecture), back to Kyoto to serve as Myōshin-ji’s founding priest.
Before he passed away on November 11, 1348, the cloistered emperor Hanazono, determined to repay his debt of gratitude to the Buddha and his teacher Daitō Kokushi, wrote a letter to Kanzan urging him to continue his efforts to develop Myōshin-ji as a place for Zen training.
Kanzan Egen 関山慧玄 (Musō Daishi 無相大師)
According to the Shōbōzan Rokuso Den 正法山六祖伝 (Biographies of Myōshin-ji’s First Six Patriarchs), Kanzan Egen was born in Shinano (present-day Nagano Prefecture), on January 7, 1277. Following his ordination at Kenchō-ji in Kamakura he met the master Nanpo Jōmyō, who was abbot of Kencho-ji at that time. It was from Nanpo that he received his Buddhist name, Egen 慧玄. After Nanpo’s death he studied under Shūhō Myōchō, the founder of Daitoku-ji. Kanzan completed his training under Daitō and was recognized as his successor.
Kanzan subsequently withdrew to the mountains of Ibuka in Minō (present-day Gifu Prefecture) to engage in post-enlightenment training. When the cloistered emperor Hanazono established Myōshin-ji, Kanzan was summoned to Kyoto to serve as the temple’s founding abbot. There he devoted himself to training his disciples and became known for his ascetic lifestyle and austere training methods. It is said that on December 12, 1360, just after his final words to his successor Juō Sōhitsu 授翁宗弼 (1296-1380), he passed away dressed in pilgrimage clothes, standing under a tree in front of the Fūsuisen 風水泉 (Wind and Water Spring) in the Myōshin-ji precincts. Several “Kokushi” (National Teacher) titles were bestowed upon him; the best-known is the title Musō Daishi, given to him by Emperor Meiji (1852-1912).
■Kou, sono moto wo tsutomeyo 請う、其の本を務めよ (I beseech you, examine the source!)
Kanzan left no collection of recorded sayings. Of his few remaining teachings, the following three are the best known:
“Egen ga shari ni shōji nashi” 慧玄が這裏に生死なし (There is no birth-and-death in my place)
This was Kanzan’s retort to a monk who said he had come to see the master regarding the great matter of birth-and-death.
“Hakujushi no wa ni zokuki ari” 柏樹子の話に賊機あり (The koan “Zhaozhou’s Juniper Tree” functions like a thief)
The koan referred to here is: “A monk asked Zhaozhou Congshen (J. Jōshū Jushin, 778-897), ‘What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?’ Zhaozhou answered, ‘The juniper tree in front of the garden.’” The phrase “Functions like a thief” means that this koan robs one of all discursive thoughts.
“Honnu Enjō Butsu” 本有円成仏 (Inherently Perfect Buddha)
One of the central tenets of Kanzan’s Zen teaching was the concept of the honnu enjō butsu 本有円成仏, the Inherently Perfect Buddha that is our original nature. Kanzan used this concept as a koan to help his students to awakening: “If we all are inherently perfect buddhas, why then have we become ignorant, deluded sentient beings?”
Among the few anecdotes involving Kanzan that remain, one tells of how the eminent Zen master Musō Soseki 夢窓疎石 (1275-1351) was on his way one day to lecture at the Imperial Palace when his palanquin passed in front of Myōshin-ji. There he saw Kanzan in the garden silently sweeping fallen leaves into a pile. Impressed by Kanzan’s quiet humility, Musō commented, “All my disciples may leave me for Kanzan.”
Kanzan’s approach to Zen practice is summed up in a statement found in the “Musō Daishi Yuikai 無相大師遺誡 (Final Admonitions of Musō Daishi): “Kō, sono moto o tsutomeyō” (I beseech you, examine the source!). Ordinarily the mind is occupied exclusively with the torrent of thoughts that ceaselessly pours through it, but these thoughts are, finally, just superficial busy-ness and noise. To realize our own true nature—our innate Buddhahood—we must contemplate the still, aware mind out of which thoughts flow. Enlightenment does not come from the outside, but is realized when we turn our light inward and illuminate the mind’s source.
Kanzan’s exhortation to “examine the source” continues to guide Zen practice at Myōshin-ji today.
Hakuin Ekaku 白隠慧鶴
Hakuin Ekaku (1686–1769) is the great Zen reformer who in many ways shaped the Rinzai school as it exists today. Born in the province of Suruga (present-day Shizuoka Prefecture), at the age of fifteen he became a monk at the local temple Shōin-ji, motivated in part by a deep fear of death. After many years of severe training under a number of masters, notably Dōkyō Etan 道鏡慧端 (1642–1721) of Shōju-an 正受庵 in what is now Nagano Prefecture, he returned to Shōin-ji, where at the age of forty-two he had a decisive enlightenment experience. He devoted the rest of his long life to teaching the Dharma, traveling and lecturing widely, training numerous students at Shōin-ji, writing voluminously on the practice of Zen, and beginning the systematization of the Rinzai koan curriculum. He stressed the importance of bodhicitta, in both its aspects of personal enlightenment and the saving of all sentient beings.
Hakuin was a particularly strong proponent of awakening (kenshō), but stressed in his famous “Zazen Wasan” 坐禅和讃 (Song of Zazen), that we are all originally buddhas. When we awaken to this fact, he says, the everyday world that we live in is the Lotus Land of Purity.