(110)Section 5: The Rise and Fall of Polytheistic Civilization II

(110)Section 5: The Rise and Fall of Polytheistic Civilization II

Chapter 1: The Indus

12-1 A Battle for Dominance—Zen and Confucianism in China and Japan

   When the founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism first arrived in Song dynasty China during the Middle Ages after making the perilous passage across the East China Sea, the Japanese priest awakened to an unusual beginning to his scholarly journey. Dogen’s (1200-53) unexpected encounter is chronicled in the essay Tenzo Kyokun or Instructions for the Cook. Tenzo was the title reserved for monks whose chief role was head of the kitchen in Buddhist monasteries.
   Dogen had arrived at the Song port, but was not granted immediate permission to disembark and instead came face to face with one such tenzo. Someone had told the elderly chef priest that Dogen’s ship was a Japanese trading vessel, and he wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity to buy Japanese shiitake mushrooms—the dried shiitake were renowned for their rich and complex flavor, especially when used to make dashi for noodle dishes. Dogen was ecstatic. He had come to Song China to learn Zen Buddhism, and a Zen Buddhist priest had come to him before even setting foot in the country. It wasn’t long before Dogen was asking a barrage of questions. He tried to prolong the serendipitous meeting with the Chinese priest, but could not convince him to stay. For the priest, the kitchen was waiting. Dogen was perplexed and suggested the older priest entrust such “menial” tasks as kitchen and food preparation to the young priests in training to focus on “more important matters” like zazen (seated meditation). The priest burst out in laughter, scoffing at the suggestion. Dogen’s comment had prompted a genial retort. Obviously, the priest explained, Dogen had no understanding of Zen Buddhist ascetic training. And with that, the tenzo returned to his kitchen.


▲ Oryoki set. The table manners are rigid in regard to oryoki, and they're part of the important ascetic practices in the Zen sect.

   You can almost picture Dogen’s astonishment. And clearly, the experience left a lasting impression on Dogen; it was his inspiration to pen Tenzo Kyokun. The encounter was so impressionable, Dogen writes in his treatise, that it was the elderly tenzo who had managed to awaken in him the essence of Zen Buddhism.
   On the surface, Tenzo Kyokun reads much like a cookbook. It’s later that you discover it is Zen that is the linking thread between the two seemingly incongruous subjects. So how does Dogen accomplish this?
First, a definition. Derived from the middle Chinese word chan 禪—a word originally referring to the rite offered by the son of heaven to heaven and earth as well as to the abdication of the emperor in favor of a virtuous, non-blood related successor—Zen is a Sino-Japanese term borrowed by Buddhism. The term Zen itself often refers to the ascetic practice of seated meditation. This type of seated meditation, or zazen in Japanese, traces its origins to India, where it was eventually adopted as a central ascetic practice in Buddhism. From India, the practice traveled to China before evolving into a school of Mahayana Buddhism known as Chan or Zen Buddhism. The original founder of Chan Buddhism was the Bodhidharma in India, but it was Huineng in China, the sixth patriarch or the sixth ancestor of Chan, who was responsible for transforming the practice into the full-fledged religion of Chan Buddhism. Following in the footsteps of Huinang came the formation of the Five Houses of Chan or Zen (the five houses during the Song dynasty), the five major schools of Chan Buddhism. Among the various schools, the Linji and Yunmen schools garnered the greatest number of followers, the former of which inspired Kanna Zen or Zen focused on the contemplation of Koans. The Yunmen school gave rise to the Caodong school, a Chinese Chan Buddhist sect that advocated a type of zazen meditation known as silent illumination.
   It’s not difficult to see that Zen the practice and Zen the school of Mahayana Buddhism both became well established in ancient China, which is why Dogen, founder of the Soto sect of Buddhism, traveled to Song China to study the philosophy at its source.
   It’s also safe to say, however, that in today’s China, Zen Buddhism is extinct. Zen Buddhism has had almost no bearing on the minds, behaviors, or culture of the Chinese people since the Song dynasty.
   Zen Buddhism’s influence on the culture of the Japanese people, on the other hand, has been immense. Look up the word Zen in almost any English language dictionary, and you will find the first entry is Zen not Chan. In China, Zen or Chan Buddhism was trampled under the overwhelming popularity of its ethnic religions, Confucianism and Daoism. In Japan, however, the traditions, beliefs, and spiritual philosophy of Zen Buddhism are alive and well, and have become the fundamental roots of the island nation’s culture and way of life.
   So how did Zen Buddhism manifest itself in Japan?
   The answer lies in Dogen’s initial culture shock in China. For the monk of Zen Buddhism, every aspect of life was an opportunity for ascetic training. In the mind of a Zen monk, this takes shape in day-to-day life as the so-called four postures, which encompasses walking, standing, sitting, and lying down.
   Take the simple act of cleaning. In Hindu and Confucian cultures, the task was reserved for those unfortunate enough to be condemned to the lowest level of the social stratosphere. It was a world far removed from the social elite. Not having to engage in such activities was proof positive of one’s elite status. In the world of Zen Buddhism, it doesn’t matter whether one is a king or noble. An aristocrat—or anyone else for that matter—will be assigned toilet cleaning duty upon entering the priesthood. Consuming food and producing waste are fundamental functions of every human life. Tasks traditionally carried out by those of low rank, usually women, were the sole responsibility of the Zen monk. Laundry, laying out and putting away one’s futon, everything was to be completed by monks themselves. In the eyes of a Zen practitioner, monks incapable of carrying out such basic life tasks were incapable of proceeding down the path of enlightenment, no matter how many hours of zazen training he or she endeavored.
   Dogen was basically a proponent of Shukkeshugi (world renunciation) and believed that the true path to enlightenment could be traveled only by entering the priesthood and forsaking all material wealth, rank, position, and all prospects of a wife or children like Siddhartha—in other words, a life dedicated to ascetic training. Of course, if all males in a society were to follow such a path, it wouldn’t be long before the population would drop to unsustainably low levels. Which is why Dogen’s disciples began to look toward lay believers, especially women. But it was a man known as Keizan (1264/68-1325) who truly established this distinctively Soto trend. Soon, the Rinzai school was following suit.

The Birth of Sado and Kado

   If our everyday lives offer the potential for spiritual and mental training, then there is no menial task—concentration and a spirit of commitment are all one needs to engage in Buddhist ascetic training.
   Take for instance the Buddhist tradition of offering flowers and burning incense for the deceased. In India, the birthplace of Buddhism, this was most likely a custom born of the desire to offset the unpleasant realities that come with rapidly decomposing bodies in stifling heat. In other words, it was a practical means of neutralizing the stench of death.
   In Japan, this method of arranging flowers was elevated to an art form as profound as sculpture and painting. This art of flower arranging became known as ikebana or kado.
Tea experienced a similar evolution. Originally a way of improving the flavor of acrid water, Chinese tea was highly sought after by both the British and the Mongols. Japan, on the other hand, has an overabundance of soft water. With the perfect balance of terrain and climate, the nation had no need for tea. When tea finally arrived from China in the eighth century, the prepared leaves weren’t exactly an instant hit—the Japanese had no cultural tradition of drinking tea.


▲ The garden of Saiho-ji Temple in Kyoto. Saiho-ji Temple is also called ‘Mossy Temple'.

   But Eisai (1141-1215), founder of the Rinzai school and bringer of Linji Buddhism from China to Japan, took notice of the stimulating properties of tea and soon became a major proponent of the drink for its health benefits and positive effect on ascetic training. Little did Eisai realize that he had not only started a new trend in Japan, he inspired an entirely new art known as cha-no-yu or sado. The act of drinking tea had become almost a sacred rite, a ritual that served as an introduction to the world of Zen.
   The Japanese word do, like the word zen, is Chinese in origin, and originally meant “path.” Eventually, do came to refer to the “path one is supposed to take” and, at the same time, the “path to morality” and the “origin of beauty.” In Japan, Zen Buddhism had transformed the simple act of drinking tea and arranging flowers into sado and kado.
   Zen Buddhism gave rise to yet another Japanese original, an entirely new type of landscape design. Wholly distinctive Kyoto gardens like Saiho-ji, a garden that showcases rather than hides the usual garden nuisance of moss, and Ryoan-ji, which employs not water but sand and stone to conjure up an enigmatic world of rippling, aqueous expanses. Both gardens are, by the way, Unesco world heritage sites.
   And both temples belong to the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. In most countries around the world, landscape design was often the work of anonymous professionals. In Japan, however, it was not unusual for samurai or high-ranking monks to be at the helm of a given garden’s design. Some of the most notable of these garden designers was the high-ranking Rinzai monk Muso Soseki (1275-1371) and the daimyo Kobori Enshu (1579-1647). Most importantly, even the gardeners and craftsmen involved in bringing these gardens to life were considered true artists and were highly respected by all strata of Japanese society.
   Confucian society’s occupation classification known as the four occupations categorized gardeners as the second lowest profession possible. The shi, the gentry scholars at the top of the Confucian social totem pole, thought very little of the gardeners and did not in any way consider their work to be a product of high culture, or culture at all, for that matter. Japanese society was of the exact opposite inclination. A world of difference separated the land of Confucianism and the land of Zen—or at least, the land where Zen and Confucianism coexisted.

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Editor/ Noriko Knickerbocker , Aquarius Ltd.
Translator/ Matthew Hunter , Aquarius Ltd.
©Motohiko Izawa 2018-2019 All rights reserved. No reproduction or republication without written permission.

Motohiko Izawa

Izawa tackles for the first time the mysteries of the world in a historical journey of intrigue and cross-cultural understanding.

Born in Japan, 1954, Nagoya native. Writer of historical nonfiction and mystery novels.