Tokugawa Zen


Last week Justin Whitaker over at American Buddhist Perspective  issued a challenge:

The story of Buddhism has always been one of adaptation and transformation. This month I am inviting a discussion about how Buddhism has adapted to and transformed America…

I’m declining the invite, but I’ve been stimulated by his reference to Buddhism’s continual adaptation and transformation.  Buddhism’s malleability in the face of changing conditions is a theme I’ve addressed before here and here, but today I want to focus exclusively on the lessons we can learn from Buddhism’s evolution in another time and place. I’ve just finished reading Peter Haskel’s introduction to his translation of Menzan Zuihō’s Tōsui Oshō Densan [ref] Haskel, P. (2001). Letting Go: The Story of Zen Master Tōsui, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu. [/ref] along with David Rigg’s biography of Menzan. [ref] Riggs, D.(2004). The Life of Menzan Zuihō, Founder of Dōgen Zen, Japan Review,16, 67-100. [/ref] Both of these works explore Japanese Zen’s decline and rebirth during the Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1868), a topic I’m just beginning to gain acquaintance with.  Everything in this post is gleaned from my reading of Haskel and Riggs, and I apologize in advance for any errors in recounting or construing their thoughts.


Zen’s Decline (1400-1600)

From 1192 to 1868, Japan was ruled by a series of hereditary military generalissimos called shoguns who, while nominally appointed by the Emperor, were the de facto rulers of the country.  The Tokugawa Shogunate began in 1600 with Tokugawa Ieyasu’s seizure of the reins of power, and lasted until 1868 with Tokugawa Yoshinobu’s abdication to the Emperor Meiji, ushering in the Meiji Restoration.

Tokugawa Yoshinobu
Tokugawa Yoshinobu


Zen was in steep decline before the start of the Tokugawa shogunate. The flame of its originators had dwindled to a flicker, and the Buddhist clergy had become largely ignorant and corrupt.  Koan study had devolved into just getting the approved written ”solutions” to koans on a piece of paper from one’s teacher, a practice called missan, or ”secret study.” These ”answers” were often drawn from koan capping phrases, sometimes blended with esoteric Shingon mantras and Taoist doctrine.

There were pockets of awareness about the fallen state of Zen.  As early as 1455, Zen master Ikkyō« Sōjun criticized a fellow teacher, saying ”Whether it’s a man, a dog, a fart, or a turd, he’s ready to cajole them, selling koans and then calling it transmission.”

Master Ikkyō«
Ikkyō« Sōjan

Shidō Mu’nan (1603-1676) criticized the priests of his own day as being ”the worst sort of evil there is, thieves who get by without having to work.”  Mangen Shiban (1703) thought authentic Zen had ceased to exist after the first five or six generations of teachers.  Early Tokugawa practitioners who experienced some degree of genuine realization were in a quandry because they couldn’t find authentic teachers to validate their realization.  Daigu Sōchiku (1584-1669) bemoaned:

”For two hundred years now the Zen of our land has been divorced from the true Dharma so that no more clear eyed teachers remain.  While there are many people in the world of Zen, there is none able to sanction my own present experience of enlightenment.”

Dokuan Genkō (1630-1698) said ”those nowadays who claim to be Dharma heirs are merely receiving paper Zen.”  Neo-Confucianist scholar Kumazawa Banzan (1609-1691) thought Zen teachers were prepared to ”flatter any daimyo (feudal warlord), millionaire, or rascal” and proclaim him enlightened, and Menzan Zuihō observed over a half-century later (1768):

”In our own corrupt period…. Monks covet rich storehouses of rice and millet, devouring the nation’s wealth, merely scheming to live at ease with servants to carry them in litters and wearing robes of embroidered brocade.  Examine such people and you will find  they neither uphold the precepts, practice meditation, nor cultivate wisdom.  Instead they shorten the summer days by playing chess and keep the winter nights from stretching on endlessly by guzzling wine.  If eight or nine in ten are like this, how can they conduct themselves like followers of the Buddha?”

While Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō was considered a ”secret treasure,” no commentaries were written on it for almost four centuries.  Fragmentary Shōbōgenzō texts were handed down from teacher to student to signify transmission, but it was the text’s possession that mattered, not an understanding of its contents.  Dōgen’s writings didn’t resume their central place in Sōtō Zen until Tokugawa scholars revived his works as part of a back-to-basics movement based on ”fukko,” or ”return to the old.”  As David Riggs points out, however, this was not so much a return to Dōgen Zen —  many of the old ways had in fact been lost forever — but a re-imagination and reconstruction with Dōgen’s texts as their inspiration.


 Militarism and Xenophobia

The shogunate solidified the samurai’s position at the head of the social pyramid, and Zen temples were often dependent on the patronage of daimyos and the military elite.  Is it any wonder that Zen learned to find ways to ease the inherent contradiction between the values of Bushido and Buddhadharma?  Suzuki Shōsan (1579-1655), for example, was a samurai warrior who became a Zen monk in 1621.  Never receiving inka, he declared himself self-enlightened, and developed a huge following.  He formulated a type of Zen based on martial values:

”It is a good practice doing zazen in the midst of pressing circumstances.  For the samurai, particularly, it is essential to practice the sort of zazen that can be put to use in the midst of battle.  At the moment when the guns are blazing, when lances cross, point to point, and the blows of the enemy rain down, amid the fray of battle — here is where he must practice, putting his meditation immediately to work…. However much a samurai claims to love Buddhism, if it doesn’t do him any good when he finds himself on the battlefield, he’d better give it up.”


Suzuki Shosan
Suzuki Shōsan

In addition to Zen’s accommodation to military values, Tokugawa fears of foreign influence led to distrust against both Christian missionaries and Ming-era Chinese ōŒbaku priests who migrated to Japan to meet the religious needs of the Chinese merchant community that had grown up around the port of Nagasaki.  The Shogunate forbid Japanese from adopting Christianity, and to assure conversions did not occur, all Japanese had to register with a Buddhist temple and receive documents from the local Buddhist priests attesting to their status as Buddhists in good standing.  Those who refused to re-convert to Buddhism were ruthlessly exterminated by methods that included public crucifixion and incineration.  In order to fulfill this mission, the Shogunate reorganized Buddhist temples into a root-and-branch parish system.  Buddhist funerals became mandatory, which meant more money flowing into Temple coffers, and temple building accelerated.  While these political and social events strengthened Zen as an institution, they eroded its role as the transmitter of the Dharma.  Priests occupied a social status below the samurai but above the commoners, and the priesthood became a means of upward social mobility.  The priesthood swelled.

The Chinese ōŒbaku priests were another story.  Dōgen had gone to China to find his teacher, but during the shogunate, foreign travel was forbidden.  The arrival of new priests from China created quite a stir, and many Rinzai and Sōtō priests visited the ōŒbaku temples to see what 17th Century Chinese Ch’an was all about.  Ming-era Chinese Ch’an combined Ch’an and Pure Land elements (e.g., the recitation of the nembutsu) and followed more vinaya precepts than Japanese Zen. The Shogunate initially kept the Chinese priests under surveillance and restricted their movements.  Many of the great Zen masters in the Japanese Zen revival (see below) regarded ōŒbaku Zen as inferior to Japanese practice, but the encounter with Ming-era Ch’an may have stimulated reformers to think more critically about some of their own practices including the role of the precepts and certain monastic regulations.  It also might have helped re-popularize the writings of Linji.



Much of what we consider Zen today is due to the reinvention and revival of Zen in the Tokugawa era.  Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769) systematized and re-energized koan study in the Rinzai tradition.  Manzen Dōhaku led an effort to restore Dōgen’s conception of face-to-face lineage transmission in the Sōtō tradition.  Authentic Rinzai teachers like Gudō Tōshoku, Ungo Kiyō, Daigu Sōchiku and Isshi Bunshu helped reinvigorate Zen practice. Scholars like Menzan Zuihō — and the introduction of moveable type — helped re-familiarize Sōtō Zen with Dōgen’s writings.  Menzan also turned Sōtō Zen temple meditation halls back into “monks halls” where the monks ate and slept as well as meditated while on sesshin, just as they had back in Dōgen’s day, and attempted to revitalize the meaning of precept transmission.  As Peter Haskel suggests, ”the Japanese Zen as we know it today is Tokugawa Zen, a teaching that looks back to its medieval roots but does it through the prism of its own special concerns.”



Whenever we’re tempted to think of Zen, or of Buddhism, as one static unchanging thing; whenever we start to think that revisionism, reinvention, or the remolding of Buddhism by social, political and economic influences is unique to our time and place; whenever we bemoan the fallen or corrupted state of contemporary Buddhism; the history of Tokugawa Zen can help us put things in perspective.  Fall, reinvention, and renewal are common to every era.  It’s also a reminder that whenever we try to restore what we think was the past, we can only do so through the eyes of the present.

The past is always past.

Now is just this.