Module V
Zen in Japan

There is a twelfth-century story that the first Japanese monk who journeyed to China to study Chan returned home to find a summons from the Japanese court. There, in a meeting reminiscent of the Chinese emperor Wu and the Bodhidharma some seven hundred years before, Japan's emperor commanded him to describe the teachings of this strange new cult. The bemused monk (remembered by the name Kakua) replied with nothing more than a melody on his flute, leaving the court flabbergasted.

As in the China entered by Bodhidharma, medieval Japan already knew the teachings of Buddhism. In fact, the Japanese ruling classes had been Buddhist for half a millennium before Chan officially came to their attention. However, contacts with China were suspended midway during this time, leaving Japanese Buddhists out of touch with the many changes in China — the most significant being Chan's becoming the dominant Buddhist sect.

So when contacts with China resumed in the 12th century, the Japanese discovered, to their amazement, that Chinese Buddhism had become Chan. We must note, however, that the Chan they encountered in the 12th and 13th centuries bore little resemblance to the original teachings we have explored in this course. The Chan they encountered, which had become formalized and dry, was not the Chan of Huineng, Mazu and Zhaozhou they had read about.

The story of Chan's transplant in Japan is also the story of its preservation, since it was destined to wither away in China.

In this module we will see how Chan was imported to Japan by traditional Buddhists disillusioned with the spiritual decadence of existing Japanese sects and how Chan eventually became the most influential religion of Japan through its fortuitous. association with the rising military class. Although Zen evolved into a political and cultural rather than a spiritual force, few Japanese Zen teachers respected its original teachings and practice.

We will introduce several Japanese teachers who sought to restore Chan's original vigor by deliberately attacking its "High Church" institutions and contributing to the Chan (Zen) experience they had brought from China. Finally we meet an eighteenth century spiritual leader, Hakuin, who not only restored the original vitality of Zen but went on to refine koan practice and revolutionize the relationship of Zen to the common people—creating modern Zen.

As you can see from this map, Zen traveled to Japan from Korea. Ashoka will offer a course that will present the story of Zen in Korea.