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Religion Library: Zen

Missions and Expansion

Written by: Julia Hardy

A famous reformer of Rinzai Buddhism during the late Tokugawa era was Hakuin (1686-1769). He entered Buddhism when he was very young, and became something of a prodigy in the study of both secular and religious texts. For eight years after receiving dharma transmission at the age of 24, he traveled and studied at Zen monasteries across Japan. Hakuin taught a strict regimen of koan study, and was the creator of the famous koan, "We know the sound of two hands clapping. What is the sound of one hand?" He was highly critical of sitting meditation, instead urging attention to maintaining a meditative state in the course of all daily activities. He also emphasized mystical experience, and wrote about what he called the Great Doubt, which results when all conventional categories and perceptions are eliminated. Rather than regarding this mental emptiness as a kind of nihilistic state, he believed that it cleared the way for dramatic and sudden moments of insight.

Hakuin was also noted for his painting and calligraphy. He had a unique, humorous painting style, drawing caricatures of monks and notable Zen teachers, as well as writing poems, Zen sayings, and single characters in his bold calligraphic style.

Despite restrictions on the entry of foreigners imposed by the Tokugawa government, the Chinese monk Yinyuan (1592-1673) was able to enter Japan in 1654 to serve a large group of Chinese traders that had gathered in the area around the port city of Nagasaki. Yinyuan's particularly Chinese brand of Zen became very popular and quickly spread across Japan.

In 1661, Yinyuan founded Mampukuji in Uji, near Kyoto. The new temple was built according to the Chinese Ming dynasty style. Yinyuan would come to be known as the founder of a new sect of Zen in Japan known as Obaku. Technically affiliated with Rinzai, Obaku was not officially recognized as a separate sect until 1876, but its practices were distinct from the beginning. Obaku Zen combined Zen meditation with Pure Land practices, especially recitation of the nembutsu, and it was known for the strong Chinese influence on its rituals, for its strict observance of the precepts, and for its commitment to preserving the sutras.

Obaku led a revival of interest in Chinese culture in Japan, and its monks were renowned for their abilities at calligraphy and painting. Mampukuji is also known for its unique style of vegetarian cooking. Printing blocks for a complete set of the Buddhist scriptures were commissioned by the sect, paid for by a national donation drive, and completed in 1678. These blocks, housed in a large warehouse near the temple, are still used today to print new copies of popular sutras.

Study Questions:
1.     How did art contribute to the spread of Zen?
2.     How was the spread of Zen tied to political power?
3.     Who created Obaku Zen? Why was it considered a new sect?


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