Were Samurai Really Zen Buddhists?

Takeda Shingen

It’s a common belief that Zen and Samurai culture are closely related. A popular image about Japan by both foreigners (and Japanese) is a cultured warrior, who is skilled both with a brush and a sword, and isn’t afraid to die for his honor.

As a teenager, I thought this kind of image was so cool that it motivated me to study Zen when I was 16. That was my image of Japan and Zen until many years later when I met my wife, who’s Japanese, and visited Japan for the first time after we got married. Even now, when I go shopping with my wife downtown in Japan yearly, I inevitably see souvenir samurai swords and shirts with 武士道 (bushido) on them, and sometimes I even see foreigners wearing them in popular tourist places. I am not an expert, but believe me, nothing says TOURIST more than a Bushido shirt in downtown Tokyo. Just saying. 😉

Knowing what I know now, I’ve always felt this image was exaggerated and romanticized, but I couldn’t find any evidence until I read Martin Collcutt’s “Five Mountains“, a history of Rinzai Zen in Japan (which I’ll write more about in a later post). This book explores the history of Zen in Japan and helps to clarify some vague points.

Page 80, pretty much sums it up though:

Zen in the Kamakura and Muromachi periods can be called “the religion of the samurai” only in the sense that most patrons of Zen were samurai, not in the sense that it was practiced assiduously or exclusively by all, or even perhaps the majority, of those who would be described as samurai.

In the book, Professor Collcutt explains that during the Kamakura Period, when the samurai first gained power away from the Imperial Court, they were greatly interested in Song-Dynasty (宋朝) Chinese culture and because Zen was recently imported from China, it also brought these new cultural elements with it. Thus, early samurai leaders in Kamakura and later the Muromachi Period patronized Zen monasteries as a way of fostering new Chinese culture (calligraphy, Confucianism, poetry, etc), while making their regimes look more legitimate. This also helps to explain the particular way that Zen is associated with these arts even now, mainly thanks to Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who was probably the worst Shogun in history but a great patron of Zen and the arts.

That’s not to say there were some sincere Zen followers though. For example, Hōjō Tokiyori, who was the 5th regent of the Kamakura government, was a genuine follower of Zen under a Chinese monk named Wu-an Pu-ning who had come to Japan from China and was abbot of Kenchōji temple. Tokiyori’s awakening was even recognized by his teacher. Or, centuries later, the famous warlord Takeda Shingen, ordered his samurai followers to study Zen.

But even many sincere samurai followers did blend Zen teachings with their devotion to such Shinto deities as Hachiman (god of war) who is the main deity of Tsurugaoka shrine (which I’ve enjoyed visiting over the years) in Kamakura. Or, as in case of the Kamakura government, or the Tokugawa government, they were patrons of other Buddhist sects as well. Also, Collcutt mentions that lower-ranking samurai, who had less education, sometimes found Zen somewhat obtuse, and gravitated toward more popular, simpler Buddhist sects such as Pure Land Buddhism or Nichiren Buddhism.

So, the picture is a bit more complicated than popular imagery suggests. Zen became a major sect in Japan through the patronage of early samurai families, and the culture it brought helped became an essential part of Japanese culture. At the same time though, the image of a Zen/Samurai follower may be more romantic ideal than historical fact.


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.

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