Zen in Japan: Up to the Meiji Restoration

circle of the way



This is part of a series of articles on the arc of Zen thought, practice, and history, as presented in The Circle of the Way: A Concise History of Zen from the Buddha to the Modern WorldYou can start at the beginning of this series or simply explore from here. 

Twilight Landscape In the Style of Ikkyū Sōjun Japanese. From the Met.

Explore Zen Buddhism: A Reader's Guide to the Great Works 


Chan in China

Zen in Korea

Zen in Japan

> Zen in Japan up to the Meiji Restoration 

Additional Resources

The period after Dogen and the early period of Zen saw rich developments, including of course the Rinzai school and the Samurai which are covered in the sister guides to this article. Here are some of the works we publish from after the early period up to the 19th century Meiji Restoration when changes in power made for a more challenging environment for Zen practitioners and institutions throughout Japan.

Secrets of the Blue Cliff Record: Zen Comments by Hakuin and Tenkei

Secrets of the Blue Cliff Record is a fresh translation featuring newly translated commentary from Hakuin of the Rinzai sect of Zen and Tenkei Denson (1648–1735) of the Soto sect of Zen.


Chinese Poem Lamenting the Death of a Friend by Ryokan from the Met

Ryokan (1758–1831) is, along with Dogen and Hakuin, one of the three giants of Zen in Japan. But unlike his two renowned colleagues, Ryokan was a societal dropout, living mostly as a hermit and a beggar. He was never head of a monastery or temple. He liked playing with children. He had no dharma heir. Even so, people recognized the depth of his realization, and he was sought out by people of all walks of life for the teaching to be experienced in just being around him. His poetry and art were wildly popular even in his lifetime. He is now regarded as one of the greatest poets of the Edo Period, along with Basho, Buson, and Issa.

sky above

Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan

He was also a master artist-calligrapher with a very distinctive style, due mostly to his unique and irrepressible spirit, but also because he was so poor he didn’t usually have materials: his distinctive thin line was due to the fact that he often used twigs rather than the brushes he couldn’t afford. He was said to practice his brushwork with his fingers in the air when he didn’t have any paper. There are hilarious stories about how people tried to trick him into doing art for them, and about how he frustrated their attempts. As an old man, he fell in love with a young Zen nun who also became his student. His affection for her colors the mature poems of his late period. This collection contains more than 140 of Ryokan’s poems, with selections of his art, and of the very funny anecdotes about him.

Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: Zen Poems of Ryokan

Deceptively simple, Ryokan's poems transcend artifice, presenting spontaneous expressions of pure Zen spirit. Like his contemporary Thoreau, Ryokan celebrates nature and the natural life, but his poems touch the whole range of human experience: joy and sadness, pleasure and pain, enlightenment and illusion, love and loneliness. This collection of translations reflects the full spectrum of Ryokan's spiritual and poetic vision, including Japanese haiku, longer folk songs, and Chinese-style verse. Fifteen ink paintings by Koshi no Sengai (1895–1958) complement these translations and beautifully depict the spirit of this famous poet.

One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan

The hermit-monk Ryokan, long beloved in Japan both for his poetry and for his character, belongs in the tradition of the great Zen eccentrics of China and Japan. His reclusive life and celebration of nature and the natural life also bring to mind his younger American contemporary, Thoreau. Ryokan's poetry is that of the mature Zen master, its deceptive simplicity revealing an art that surpasses artifice.


Twilight Landscape

In the Style of Ikkyū Sōjun Japanese. From the Met.

Finally, there is the figure of Ikkyu (1394–1481).  While we do not have any stand-alone works on or by him, he appears in many, many works.  In The Circle of the Way, he gets a few pages that begins:

Of all Muromachi-period Zen monastics, with all of their talent and accomplishments, the monk most well known today was something of a black sheep. Ikkyu Sojun (1394–1481) remains so popular in Japan that he has been portrayed in anime and the popular graphic art of manga.

Peter Matthiessen, In Nine-Headed Dragon River: Zen Journals, adds more color with his flowing prose, describing him as

A bastard son of the emperor, pauper, poet, twice-failed suicide, and Zen master, enlightened at last by the harsh call of a crow. At eighty-one Ikkyu became the iconoclastic abbot of Daitoku-ji. ('For fifty years I was a man wearing straw raincoat and umbrella-hat; I feel grief and shame now at this purple robe.')  His 'mad' behavior was perhaps his way of disrupting the corrupt and feeble Zen he saw around him: 'An insane man of mad temper raises a mad air,' he wrote.  He also said, 'Having no destination, I am never lost.' One infatuated scholar has called him 'the most remarkable monk in the history of Japanese Buddhism, the only Japanese comparable to the great Chinese Zen masters, for example, Joshu, Rinzai, and Unmon.' Ikkyu found no one he could approve as his Dharma successor. Before his death, civil disorders caused the near obliteration of Kyoto, forcing Rinzai Zen to follow Soto from the decadent capital city into the countryside.

After Ikkyu and Other Poems

After Ikkyu and Other Poems

by Jim Harrison

A collection of poems inspired by Ikkyu by the great novelist and essayist Jim Harrison who said of this work,

The sequence After Ikkyu- was occasioned when Jack Turner passed along to me The Record of Tungshan and the new Master Yunmen, edited by Urs App. It was a dark period, and I spent a great deal of time with the books. They rattled me loose from the oppressive, poleaxed state of distraction we count as worldly success. But then we are not fueled by piths and gists but by practice—which is Yunmen’s unshakable point, among a thousand other harrowing ones. I was born a baby, what are these hundred suits of clothes I’m wearing?

Naked in the Zendo

Naked in the Zendo: Stories of Uptight Zen, Wild-Ass Zen, and Enlightenment Wherever You Are

While not by Ikkyu, he makes an appearance  in this work over a few very entertaining and moving pages.

Zen in the Age of Anxiety

Zen in the Age of Anxiety: Wisdom for Navigating Our Modern Lives

Ikkyu makes an appearance for several pages of Tim Burkett's excellent work which includes translations, by John Stevens, of several of his poems

You Have to Say Something: Manifesting Zen Insight

Dainin Katagiri Roshi shares this story about Ikkyu in this work:

A man who was soon going to die wanted to see Zen master Ikkyu. He asked Ikkyu, ‘‘Am I going to die?’’ Instead of giving the usual words of comfort, Ikkyu said, ‘‘Your end is near. I am going to die, too. Others are going to die.’’ Ikkyu was saying that we can all share this suffering. Persons who are about to
die can share their suffering with us, and we can share our suffering with those who are about to die.

Ikkyu’s statement comes from a deep understanding of human suffering. In facing your last moment, you can really share your life and your death.

minding mind

Minding Mind: A Course in Basic Meditation

One of the meditation manuals in this work date from pre-Meiji Restoration Japan.

The second, An Elementary Talk on Zen, is attributed to Man-an, an old adept of a Soto school of Zen who is believed to have lived in the early seventeenth century. The Soto schools of Zen in that time traced their spiritual lineages back to Dogen and Ejo , but their doctrines and methods were not quite the same as the ancient masters’, reflecting later accretions from other schools.

Man-an’s work is very accessible and extremely interesting for the range of its content. In particular, it reflects a modern trend toward emphasis on meditation in action, which can be seen in China particularly from the eleventh century, in Korea from the twelfth century, and in Japan from the fourteenth century.

Pure Land: History, Tradition, and Practice

This recent work by Professor Charles B. Jones, a leading scholar on Pure Land Buddhism, goes into much detail of Pure  Land and its intertined relationship with Zen.  The sections on Japan include its introduction from China, Ryonin and the Yuzi Nenbutsu, Honen and Jodo Shu, Shinran and the Jodo Shinshu, and Ippen and the Jishu.

Continue to our next article in the series: A Readers Guide to the Heart Sutra >