A Brief History of Rinzai Zen in Japan

The Silver Pavilion 2

After my experiences with Rinzai (臨済) Zen in Arizona and later in Seattle, I became curious about the history of Rinzai in Japan, but I was surprised to find that information is limited. Most Rinzai historical information in English focuses on Hakuin and on ancient Chinese masters, but there’s a huge gap in information on everything in between. Then I found a book called Five Mountains: The Rinzai Zen Monastic Institutions in Medieval Japan which provided a nice, readable explanation of the history. If you’re interested, I think it’s a great book to read. I wanted to write this post almost 6 months ago, but I’ve been so busy with the new baby, that I haven’t been able to write until now.

So, I wanted to share what I learned from the book, as Rinzai in Japan underwent many changes in its 800+ year history. It’s certainly not critical to Zen practice, but it’s nice to have the background anyway just for reference (i.e. “why does my temple do things the way they do?”). It’s also nice to see all the contributions Zen teachers have made across many generations.

Eisai and “Esoteric” Rinzai

The first person to bring Rinzai to Japan was the monk Eisai, who was part of the state-sponsored Tendai sect. He went to Song-Dynasty China (宋) twice, and brought back the first Rinzai lineage to Japan (along with green tea, according to tradition) on his second trip. During his second trip to China, Eisai encountered a Chinese Zen monk named Xu-an Huai-chang (虚庵懐敞, Kian Eshō in Japanese) who trained him for more than 3 years. Xu-an was also interested in esoteric Buddhism (密教, mikkyō) so Eisai was able to learn Rinzai Zen, but also keep his training as a Tendai monk. This worked well for him when he returned to Japan.

In Japan, Eisai started to setup new monasteries, introduce Zen teachings and such, but the Tendai monastery of Enryakuji (Mt. Hiei) opposed the new teachings, and Eisai teachings were banned for a few years starting in 1194. Back then, the new Zen teachings were called the “Daruma School” after Bodhidharma (daruma in Japanese). Although Eisai was able to defend himself in a treatise called the Kōzen Gokokuron (興禅護国論) or “Treatise for Promoting Zen for the Protection of the Nation”, he eventually moved to Kamakura, where Enryakuji had much less influence.

The new Kamakura government was more open to Eisai’s teachings, and Hojo Masako was impressed enough to make him an abbot of a small Zen monastery, Jufukuji, the first Zen temple in Japan. Later he was given funds to build a new temple called Kenninji (建仁時, website here). Eisai’s version of Zen continued to blend the Zen teachings from Song-Dynasty China with esoteric teachings. He also spent his life working to revive the Buddhist monastic discipline which had become lax during that period.

Kamakura Period Zen and Chinese Teachers

Eisai’s Zen community was very small, and remained small until a few generations later under the 5th shogun of Kamakura, Hojo Tokiyori (1227 – 1263), who was personally devoted to Zen and eventually become a serious disciple.

By this time, China had changed as well: the Mongols had conquered China and setup a new dynasty, the Yuan Dynasty (元). The Mongols did not destroy Buddhist institutions in China, contrary to belief, but actively supported some Zen schools (specifically the school founded by Ta-Hui), over others. Schools which were not supported by the new Mongol government focused their energy elsewhere, and monks from China began to arrive in Japan.

These Chinese monks were greatly welcomed by the Kamakura Government because they brought much-needed Zen training and discipline, but also the latest Chinese culture: Confucian learning, art, culture, poetry, etc. This helped to improve the culture and prestige of Kamakura. The first such monk was Lanqi Dao-long (蘭渓道隆, Rankei Doryu in Japanese, 1213-1278). He was already middle-aged when he came to Japan. Shogun Tokiyori consulted with Lanqi on building a new, proper Zen temple in the Chinese-style, and this became Kenchōji Temple (website here). By the time that Lanqi died, he left behind a power school of Rinzai Zen called Daikaku-ha (大覚派) which was based in Kamakura around Kenchoji.

Other monks followed after that, some more successful than others. The second monk to arrive, Wu-an Pu-ning (兀庵普寧, Gottan Funei in Japanese, 1197-1276) was already a famous monk in China when he arrived in Japan at the age of sixty. However, his stern nature, and purist approach annoyed many people in Kamakura. It is said that he refused to bow to a statue of Jizo Bodhisattva because he was a Buddha and Jizo was only a bodhisattva. Further, people in Japan had a strong anti-Mongol sentiment, and Wu-an was accused of being a spy for the Mongols (Lanqi was briefly accused too). So, after Shogun Tokiyori died, Wu-an returned to China.

On the other hand, a younger monk from Lanqi’s school, Taxiu Zhengnien (大休正念, Daikyū Shōnen, 1214-1288) was well received in Japan, and stayed for 20 years until his death, and helped contribute to Zen teachings and training through this time.

Another important monk who came later was I-shan I-ning (一山一寧, Issan Ichinei in Japanese, 1247-1317) who was an official monk from the Yuan Dynasty. The Kamakura government recognized his training and qualities and decided to make him an abbot of Kenchoji and other important monasteries in Kamakura. I-shan was well trained in many aspects of Chinese culture, and his time in Kamakura and Kyoto was highly influential to “Zen culture” at the time, and to his Japanese disciples we will see shortly.

Throughout the Kamakura Period, the Shoguns actively supported Zen institutions and monks from China continued to arrive and train Japanese monks and help bring new Buddhist training and culture as a result.

Kyoto and the Five Mountain System

Toward the end of the Kamakura Period above, the powerful monasteries in Kamakura were organized into a system that was modeled from the “5 Mountains” system in China. This was called the gozanjissetsu system (五山十刹). Specifically, the system was organized like so:

  • The top five monasteries were gozan (五山, “five mountains”) monasteries.
  • Below this were 2nd-rank monasteries called jissetsu (十刹) or jissatsu.
  • 3rd-rank temples were called shozan (諸山) which meant “various temples”.
  • Finally, many temples were left out of this system altogether. These were called rinka (林下) and considered inferior or backwater temples. As we’ll see though, this was not always true.

When the government changed from Kamakura to the new government in Kyoto (the Ashikaga Shoguns/Muromachi government), the basic system stayed the same. The only difference was which temples were Gozan temples and so on.

Eventually, the new Muromachi government decided to compromise and have 5 monasteries for both Kyoto and Kamakura, which means there were 10 Gozan temples total, 5 in Kyoto and 5 in Kamakura. The ones in Kyoto, of course, were considered more important.

During this time, the most influential monk was a Japanese monk named Musō Soseki (夢窓 疎石, 1275-1351). He had studied under the Chinese monk, I-shan I-ning, and other teachers, until he became an important teacher of the new Ashikaga Shoguns. Musō Soseki was a man of many talents. He was an excellent teacher of Zen, but also brought a lot of culture and refinement to the urban Zen culture. He was also the designer of many famous Zen gardens in Kyoto, though none of the originals survive now. Nevertheless, Musō’s lineage of monks became the most powerful lineage in Japanese Zen at the time and were frequently abbots and teachers to the Muromachi government.

Overall, the Ashikaga Shoguns were less personally interested in Zen than the Kamakura Shoguns, but they heavily promoted it as a way of under-cutting monasteries like Mt. Hiei and its army of warrior-monks (sōhei 僧兵). But also, as a way of adding more culture and civilization to Kyoto.

Rinzai Zen at this time was at the height culture. Zen training and discipline gradually declined in the urban temples, but the poetry, art, tea ceremony and sophistication reached higher and higher levels. Eminent monks at the time served as political advisors, ambassadors, and envoys too. Much of what we know as “Zen culture” now dates from this period, especially through the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, ironically the worst shogun ever.

But not everything was rosy though.

First, as the Ashikaga Shoguns weakened, they were less and less able to protect the gozan temples. Eventually, when the disastrous Onin War broke out, Kyoto was almost totally destroyed, and the gozan temple system was severely damaged, and never fully recovered. The Onin War essentially spells the end of the Gozan System of Rinzai Zen.

Also, not all Zen monks were content with this system. Two famous monks from this time, Ikkyū Sōjun (一休宗純, 1394–1481) who was the inspiration for the Japanese character, and Yōsō Sōi (養叟宗頤, 1379–1458), were dissatisfied with the Zen culture in the gozan system.

Both left the system and became abbots of a temple named Daitokuji (大徳寺), which we’ll talk about next.

Alternative Temples in Rinzai Zen

While the Gozan system grew and flourished, some temples were excluded from the system. Ironically, over time these temples became very important to Rinzai Zen today.

The temples of Daitokuji and Myōshinji were both excluded from the Gozan System. Daitokuji was a temple that had been loyal to Emperor Go-Daigo, who opposed the Ashikaga Shoguns, and so it was punished later. The temple of Myōshinji (妙心寺, website here), on the other hand, was just not that important in the first place.

The two temples had a series of important monks who rejected the worldly culture of the Gozan temples, and focused on more strict Zen practice:

  • Nanpo Jōmyō (南浦紹明 1235–1308), who founded Daitokuji.
  • Shūhō Myōchō (宗峰妙超 1282–1337), who was the disciple of Nanpo Jomyo, and
  • Kanzan Egen (関山慧玄 1277-1361), who was the disciple of Shuho Myocho and founded Myoshinji.

Kanzan is the most famous of the three. He was known as a strict Zen master, who was not interested in worldly affairs. According to tradition, even after he was famous, he lived in a small hut with a leaky roof, and served only rice crackers (senbei) to guests. Emperor Hanazono was so impressed by Kanzan Egen, that he gave Kanzan one of his villas, which became Myoshinji. Also, because of Kanzan’s efforts, he is frequently cited in Rinzai Zen lineages during ceremonies or chanting. You can read more about him here.

Anyhow, Myoshinji and Daitoku benefitted from the merchants of Sakai, a port town near Osaka, and from the new warlords who became powerful during and after the Onin War such as Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and so on. So, as the Gozan temples declined, the temples of Myoshinji and Daitokuji began to flourish.

However, eventually Myoshinji and Daitokuji eventually became victims of their own success, just like the Gozan temples. Myoshinji in particular grew very rapidly into a powerful temple, but also became more and more involved in politics, public ceremonies and business ventures and so on. By the 16th century, it was politically powerful, but monastic discipline had greatly declined. For this reason, Hakuin became a famous reformer of Myoshinji, its monastic lineage, and of Rinzai Zen as a whole.

The rest, as they say, is history.


The Rinzai Zen we know today descends from Hakuin, Kanzan Egen, and the Myoshinji lineage as a whole. But if you look further back, you can also see contributions (direct and indirect) by many other monks who came and went.


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.

3 thoughts on “A Brief History of Rinzai Zen in Japan”

  1. There seem to be a fairly large number of temples associated with Myoshinji. I think the group is very dedicated to the welfare of their congregations as well as various humanitarian causes. Of course, all temples work in this direction, but this emphasis is a bit stronger here. By the way, I was interested in the history of the Gozan system–although Kenchoji is a major attraction in Kamakura, others in the ‘group of five’ have become sleepy backwaters. And Daitokuji! Still a huge complex today, but not part of the Gozan system. Daitokuji was one of my earliest temple experiences–it is a strong recommendation for tourists in Kyoto. Anyway, thanks for the especially interesting post!


    1. Hi Doko OBrien,

      How true. Rinzai is famous for Hakuin and crazy stories in the form of Koans, but based on my limited experience, I realize now that there’s more to it, and I feel it gets overshadowed by its more well-known cousin Soto Zen.

      Although this post won’t help a person be a better Buddhist, I hope it helps explain why it is what it is. 😉


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