Buddhism Premodern Japanese Zen
Taigen Leighton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0182


Japanese Zen developed in distinctive ways after the Chan traditions were imported from China during the Kamakura period (1185–1333) and during the subsequent Muromachi period (1336–1573). The two main schools of Japanese Zen are Rinzai (initiated from the Chinese Linji tradition) and Sōtō (developed from the Chinese Caodong lineage). One stereotype about the two schools is that Rinzai was for samurai and Sōtō for peasants. While there are exceptions, it is true that Rinzai was the dominant form of Zen in the capitals of Kyoto and Kamakura, whereas Sōtō came to have many more temples and parishioners in the countryside, where it spread more widely. The word “Zen” comes from the Chinese chan as a transliteration of the Sanskrit dhyāna, in China implying meditation generally. So Zen is the meditation school, although another, misleading stereotype is that Sōtō specializes in seated meditation, or zazen, while Rinzai specializes in the study of koans, the classic teaching stories. The reality is that both schools included both zazen and koan practice. Rinzai was more influential in Zen culture as a leading force in the development of many unique Japanese aesthetic and art forms. Arguably Zen had its largest impact in Japan generally through Japanese everyday arts, many associated with the Way of Tea, such as calligraphy, landscape painting, garden design, pottery, flower arrangement, and architecture. Both schools of Zen, though perhaps Rinzai somewhat more, were influential in supporting samurai religion and codes. This entry is organized somewhat chronologically in terms of the medieval periods (Kamakura and Muromachi) and then the Tokugawa (1600–1867), thus covering material up to the mid-19th century. Entries are divided for convenience between Rinzai and Sōtō developments and figures, although many practitioners and teachers had some exposure to both schools as well as other branches of Japanese Buddhism. Between the medieval and Tokugawa headings, entries that pervaded all of these periods are presented thematically, that is, the arts, monasticism, koan practice, meditation, and samurai Zen.

General Overviews

Dumoulin 2005 (new edition), Foster and Shoemaker 1996, and Addiss, et al. 2008 are reliable surveys of Zen worth consulting. Matsunaga and Matsunaga 1976 and De Bary, et al. 2001 are surveys of Japanese Buddhism with useful sections on Zen. Despite scholars’ critiques that the author romanticizes Zen and ignores the complexity of religious practices, Suzuki 1970 remains a classic, seminal work arguing the strong relationship between Japanese Zen and culture. Stevens 1993 gives popular accounts of three major Zen figures—Ikkyū, Hakuin Ekaku, and Ryōkan Taigu—all discussed further in other sections of this entry. Kasulis 1981 is a wide-ranging philosophical survey of aspects of Zen practice and thought.

  • Addiss, Stephen, with Stanley Lombardo and Judith Roitman, eds. Zen Sourcebook: Traditional Documents from China, Korea, and Japan. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2008.

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    This useful selection of primary Zen sources from China, Korea, and Japan includes selections from Japan by Eihei Dōgen, Musō Soseki, Ikkyū Sōjun, Bankei Yōtaku, Hakuin Ekaku, and Daigu Ryōkan, all discussed further in other sections of this entry.

  • De Bary, William Theodore, Donald Keene, George Tanabe, and Paul Varley, comps. Sources of Japanese Traditions. Vol. 1, From Earliest Times to 1600. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

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    This survey of Japanese history is a much-improved second edition that includes new contributions by many excellent scholars with a fine introduction and primary material on Japanese Zen contributed by William M. Bodiford. First edition was published in 1958.

  • Dumoulin, Heinrich. Zen Buddhism: A History. Vol. 2, Japan. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2005.

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    A useful detailed historical survey, although some included perspectives are questioned by more recent scholarship. This second volume, following a first on Zen in India and China, is not to be confused with the earlier and significantly less detailed or useful single-volume Macmillan edition of 1963. The 2005 edition features a useful introduction by Victor Sōgen Hori.

  • Foster, Nelson, and Jack Shoemaker, eds. The Roaring Stream: A New Zen Reader. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco, 1996.

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    A very helpful anthology with excerpts of primary texts with introductions for major figures. More than half of the book is for Chinese figures, but the eighteen for Japanese Zen figures, from Eihei Dōgen to Ryōkan Taigu chronologically, are useful, including bibliographies.

  • Kasulis, T. P. Zen Action/Zen Person. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1981.

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    An insightful philosophical survey of Zen practice, thought, and personhood, reaching back to Nāgārjuna and Taoism but discussing Japanese Zen approaches from Eihei Dōgen, Hakuin Ekaku, and others.

  • Matsunaga, Alicia, and Daigan Matsunaga. Foundations of Japanese Buddhism. Vol. 2, The Mass Movement (Kamakura and Muromachi Periods). Tokyo: Buddhist Books International, 1976.

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    A useful and fairly detailed survey of Japanese Buddhist history including sections on Zen. See pp. 183–264.

  • Stevens, John. Three Zen Masters: Ikkyū, Hakuin, Ryōkan. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1993.

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    An accessible popular account of the lives with colorful anecdotes of three of the most celebrated Zen figures, all discussed further in other sections of this entry.

  • Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro. Zen and Japanese Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1970.

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    This classic work argues the major influence of Zen in Japanese culture, including its influence on samurai culture, poetry, and the arts of tea, all imbued with the Japanese veneration of nature. First published in 1938 as Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture (Kyoto: Eastern Buddhist Society).

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