Understanding Rinzai Zen Lineage

Zen, along with esoteric Buddhism (Shingon, Tibetan, etc), places a heavy emphasis on lineage. I never really understood this since lineage is not an important part of Pure Land Buddhism, but then when I started going to a Rinzai Zen temple here in Seattle, I noticed that as part of the Saturday morning liturgy, they would recite a lineage like so:

  • Shakyamuni Buddha (naturally)
  • Bodhidharma
  • Rinzai Gigen (d. 866 臨済義玄) Zenji
  • Kanzan Egen Zenshi (1277–1360 關山慧玄)
  • Hakuin Ekaku Zenshi (1686-1769 白隠慧鶴)
  • Contemporary Zen masters in the lineage, etc.

This surprised me for a few reasons. First, it surprised me that this was a part of normal Zen liturgy anyway. In the case of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, there are hymns which mention past Pure Land masters in India, China and Japan, but it’s not emphasized. In fact, in the case of Pure Land Buddhism, the lineage isn’t passed from master to disciple. In some cases they were hundreds of years apart.

The other big surprised, is that there is no mention of Eisai, who first brought Rinzai to Japan. I never even heard of Kanzan Egen Zenshi.

So why is this recited the way it is?

I had to do a little research on this.

Both existing Rinzai lineages in Japan trace back to Hakuin whose lineage is the only one that survived after the 19th century. I’m not sure why the others died out in the 19th century, or when in the 19th century, but I’ll keep researching it. One thing I do know, Hakuin certified many, many students to teach the dharma, and at least some of these went on to be abbots of other Rinzai temples, so my guess is that at least some temples “switched” lineages to Hakuin’s lineage when abbotship changed hands.

Ok, that makes sense, but whose Kanzan Egen?

It turns out that the existing Rinzai lineages trace the import of Rinzai Zen to Japan through something called the Ōtōkan (応灯関) lineage. These three Chinese characters break down to:

  • Nanpo Jōmyō 南浦紹明 (1235–1308), also known as Daiō Kokushi國師, where 應 is now written as 応.
  • Shūhō Myōchō 宗峰妙超 (1282–1337), also known as Daitō Kokushi國師, where 燈 is now written as 灯
  • Kanzan Egen 山慧玄, where 關 is now written as 関

These three people were not the first to introduce Rinzai Zen to Japan (that was Eisai), but they did start a parallel Rinzai lineage. Nanpo Jomyo apparently went to China and studied under Chinese Rinzai before coming back and teaching his student Shuho. Shuho founded Daitoku-ji Temple in Kyoto, and taught his student Kanzan who founded another important temple called Myoshin-ji (homepage). Myoshin-ji’s temple network is by far the largest in Japan, and Myoshin-ji is one of the central temples of Rinzai Zen in Japan.

Kanzan, also known as Musō Daishi (無相大師), was actually an impressive monk himself, even though there’s almost nothing about him. According to Myoshin-ji’s biography, he was a noteworthy monk of his era who was honored by the reigning emperor upon his death for his contributions to spreading the Dharma, and for being humble and upright in conduct.

Also, as mentioned earlier, there are two existed lineages (hōkei 法系) of Rinzai Zen that extended from Hakuin, through his own student Gasan Jitō (峨山慈棹 1727–1797):

  • Inzan (隠山)
  • Takujū (卓洲)

So Rinzai temples in Japan, and through the world will fall into one of these two lineages. The differences are pretty minor (mainly liturgy).

So, that’s a look at the lineage used in Rinzai Zen Buddhism, and by extension Obaku Zen since the disciples of Hakuin took over administration of Obaku Zen temples (since they have the same origins in China). It doesn’t cover all members of the lineage, but for practical purposes these are the principal members of the Rinzai lineage.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

12 thoughts on “Understanding Rinzai Zen Lineage”

  1. While you’re most likely the expert here I believe Kokushi means national teacher. And of course the Zen lineages are somewhat myths as there are a few holes in it. In fact it seems doubtful that Hakuin was actually given formal transmission (not that it wasn’t offered). James Ford’s book “Zen Master Who” is a good book on the subject though it’s been awhile since I read it. At the Zen Center I go to we chant the “KO ZEN DAITO KOKU SHI YUI KAI”


  2. Hi Carl, yes, kokushi is 国師 which means “national teacher/master”. It’s an honorific title that Emperors would bestow on various Buddhist figures, often posthumously.

    I’ve not heard of the term “ko zen daito koku shi yui kai” before. Is that the lineage liturgy I mentioned or something else?


  3. ko zen daito koku shi yui kai Is either and or the title-first line to a chant that is chanted in Rinzai groups that are in in the lineage of Daito. It is the final instructions to his disciples right before he died. It is chant 64 in this chant book.http://onedropzen.org/uploads/sutrabooksogenji.pdf. Also you can hear it from the Mount Baldy chants I linked to in an early post of yours and I believe there’s a translation on the Albuquerque Zen Center web site. I think Daito left the monastery after his awakening and lived with the homeless under a bridge and the emperor found him and made him the abbot of a major monastery. His legs were severely mangled from something and before he delivered this talk he force his legs into full lotus which meant breaking them and he died in zazen posture after this talk.


  4. I read an article quite a while back about the importance of lineage and, according to the article, it seems to be more of an issue in the west than in Japan. If I can find it, I’ll post a link. I am curious about this. I follow Shin Buddhism and, as you mentioned above, lineage is not viewed the same.


    1. Hi Michael, I think you may be right: lineage is emphasized more along Western Buddhists. Maybe because there aren’t enough priests and institutions overall so people are looking for credentials.

      Having a sense of connection to the Buddha and Asian teachers is nice, but somehow seems open to abuse too if there’s no institution to regulate it either.


      1. I agree that there should be some sort of ethics and institution, to a point. However, I think we go overboard here. It seems that one must have a Masters Degree in Buddhist “Priesthood” to be considered having enough credentials to be a “real” teacher. I don’t know of many institutions of higher learning that really teach life as it is. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with higher education. I just think that true Dharma must be experienced and dynamic in one’s daily life.


      2. Ironically, I tend to think the opposite: more than a few priests here are insufficiently trained in Buddhist “basics” of their religion, focusing only on what “sells” in convert culture and discarding the rest. Not enough immersion/training in Buddhist environments perhaps, I’m not sure.

        But then such a person was trained under so-and-so teacher so he or she automatically gets creds that might imply greater training than they actually have. Not enough “flight time” as it were.


      3. Sure there should be some basics taught. I agree that most follow along with what is popular. What I’m getting at is that in our culture, we tend to equate Buddhism for psychology and science. While there are some good applications for this, we tend to lose sight of what is dynamic in the teachings. We tend to overlook what is all around us and instead, look to textbooks and experts from universities. Maybe more of a middle path as far as study and experiential training.


      4. That makes a lot of sense (I think I misread your earlier post). But yeah, I too agree that it’s too easy to try to shoe-horn Buddhism into psychology which is kind of silly and sucks the life out of it.


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