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Religion Library: Zen

Schisms and Sects

Written by: Julia Hardy

Returning to Japan, Eisai began to promote Zen and established several small monasteries where Zen practice was combined with the study of the Lotus Sutra, about which he had lectured for many years. Criticized for his support of Zen, he wrote a defense that included four major points: 1) Zen was the essence of Buddhism; 2) Zen had been accepted as a part of Tendai for a long time; 3) Zen was based on disciplined application of the precepts; and 4) support of Zen would revitalize Buddhism. In 1199, Eisai moved to eastern Japan where he gained the support of powerful nobles in the Kamakura shogunate. For the remainder of his life, he continued to promote Zen practice and study in combination with Tendai and esoteric Buddhist practices.

These events occurred against a background of political turmoil. The Heian period of Japanese history ended in 1185 with the destruction of the ancient capital at Nara. Monasteries in Nara were destroyed as well, as many monks had been actively engaged in the war. In 1192, the Kamakura Shogun became the de facto ruler of Japan. Eisai's relationship with the Kamakura nobility was advantageous for Zen.

Dogen (1200-1253), born just after these conflicts concluded, also became a monk at an early age. He studied Tendai and esoteric Buddhism, and also studied Zen under one of Eisai's successors. In 1223 he accompanied his teacher, Myozen, to China. When Myozen died there two years later, Dogen became a student of the abbot of a major Chan monastery. In 1227, he became the heir of that lineage and returned to Japan where he established a new Zen community outside of Kyoto. There he opened Koshoji, which was the first Zen monastery in Japan to have a Chan-style meditation hall. Dogen preached enlightenment for all who practiced sitting meditation, including women and laypersons. Later, however, he would state that enlightenment was only possible for male monks.

Dogen was joined in Kyoto in 1241 by many of the remaining students of the Daruma school. Their thinking strongly influenced him, and his successors (after the first) for several generations were members of the Daruma school. In 1242 Dogen gained the support of a powerful military family, and in the following year he moved his community to that family's estate. There he founded Daibutsuji, later renamed Eiheiji, which is now one of two temples that are headquarters for Soto Zen.

A prolific writer, Dogen left a number of texts when he died at age 52, including essays, sermons, and poetry in both Japanese and classical Chinese. His most famous work, Shobogenzo, which reflected the influence of members of the Daruma school, was not published in his lifetime. Several drafts, in multiple volumes, formed the basis for several editions published after his death. The current version, compiled in 1906, consists of hundreds of koan with commentaries, as well as commentaries on passages from the Buddhist canon. A compilation of his essays on the Vinaya, or monastic rules, was published in 1667.

Centuries later, Dogen would be identified with the "just sitting" approach to enlightenment, in contrast to the "sudden" approach of the Rinzai school that focused on koan study. While there are institutional and doctrinal differences, as the schools evolved, inter-institutional rivalries led to an exaggeration of the differences between these sects.

Study Questions:
1.     What are the two major divisions of Zen, and how do they differ from each other?
2.     Who was Eisai? How did he handle criticism of Zen?
3.     Describe Dogen's contribution to the Rinzai school of Zen.


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