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Books on Zen Buddhism

The Kamakura era (1185-1333) witnessed the emergence of Zen—the branch of Japanese Buddhism that is best known outside Japan. Its founders were Eisai (1141— 1215) and Dogen (1200—53), both of whom trained at the Tendai “seminary” on Mount Hiei (Hieizan).

Eisai became disillusioned with what he considered the lax monastic discipline on Hiei and set our on a five- month pilgrimage to China, visiting the major temples of the Tiantai sect (from which Tendai had sprung) and collecting sacred texts as yet untranslated into Japanese. On a longer pilgrimage (1187— 91), he became acquainted with Xu’an Huaichang, master of the Linji sect of Chan, a school of Buddhism centered on intensive meditation (the word “Chan” derives from Sanskrit dhyana).

Inspired by Xu’an’s teachings, Eisai returned to Japan to preach the doctrines of Linji Chan, or “Rinzai Zen” in the Japanese articulation. He left Hieizan and went to Kamakura, where he gained the patronage of the shogunate and produced several important writings, including Shukke Taiko (“Essentials of the Monastic Life”), Kozen Gokku ron (“The Promulgation of Zen as a Defense of the Nation”), and Nihon Buppo Chuko gammon (“A Plea for the Revival of Japanese Buddhism”).

Dogen, the founder of the Soto Zen sect, also studied on Hieizan, and like Eisai he became disenchanted with what he saw as its spiritual laxity. His doubts led Dogen to leave for nearby Kenninji, a Rinzai Zen monastery. Six years later, Dogen also made a pilgrimage to China, where he studied under a master of the Cuotong sect of Chan.

Dogen returned home to establish a Japanese sect of Cuotong Chan (“Soto Zen” in Japanese). Soto Zen is characterized by its emphasis on sitting zazen, that is, cross-legged in the “lotus position,” as a prerequisite for attaining satori, or enlightenment. Unlike Eisai, who advocated the study and contemplation of koans, Dogen felt that the key to spiritual enlightenment lay in individual discipline focused on an intense understanding of one’s own “buddha-nature.” He elaborated this idea in Fukan Zazengi (“A Universal Promotion of Zazen Principles”), one of his many influential treatises.