Part 1: Introduction of Zen to Japan and Its First Warrior Proponent

Is there an established link between Zen and the acquisition of martial skills? Is it necessary to engage in Zen meditation in order to reach the highest levels of martial proficiency? Did warriors practice Zen for the purpose of dis-attaching their minds from the fear death during combat?

The association of warriors and Zen has to begin with a brief examination of two issues: a. the introduction of Zen teachings and practices to Japan, and b. the role of religion in a warrior’s life. Then we can inquire about the link, or lack thereof, between training for war and Zen practice.

Zen teachings penetrated the well-guarded hegemony of the long established Buddhist institutions through the incessant efforts of Eisai and Dogen, two prominent monks who were active in early Kamakura period (1185-1333), and who are credited with introducing Zen to the Japanese people.

Early Kamakura period was a defining time in Japanese history during which warriors became semi-autonomous, and new buddhist schools competed with “old buddhism” in what scholars refer to as the dichotomy of “new-old” Buddhism (shinkyû ryô bukkyô), which in fact measures pre-Kamakura Buddhist schools--Tendai, Shingon, and the six Nara schools--against those schools that made their initial appearance on the Buddhist directory during the Kamakura period. Until recent years, the prevalent view of Kamakura Buddhism was that charismatic buddhist monks, namely Eisai, Dôgen, Hônen, Shinran, Nichiren, and Ippen, had separated Amidism and Zen from a more inclusive collection of Buddhist doctrines, and promulgated them as exclusive paths to salvation.

Although these reformer monks indeed focused on single doctrines, their attempts at promulgating single practices were unsuccessful until their successors were able to achieve recognition, which happened either very late in the Kamakura period or afterward. That was because Tendai, Shingon, and the Nara schools enjoyed a major revival, which in fact overshadowed Amidism and Zen. This, in turn, led reformer monks to emphasize lineage in continuation of Heian traditions or even since their Chinese and Indian origins. They did so for historical legitimation based on continuity of teachings and lineages. Zen, then, was introduced as a “peripheral” doctrine, and taught within the framework of the “old schools.”

The first warrior to accept and promote Zen was Hojo Tokiyori, the fifth Kamakura Regent. Under his rule as the Kamakura Regent during the middle of Kamakura period, the Hojo reached their peak of political power. It was the “golden era” of the Kamakura period. In 1249, Hôjô Tokiyori, founded a Jizô Hall in Kobukuro Pass, and construction of a larger temple began almost immediately. Four years later Tokiyori appointed the Chinese monk Rankei Dôryû (Ch. Lan-ch'i Tao-lung, 1213-1278) as the founder (kaizan) of Kenchôji, which then became the First of the Five Zen temples of Kamakura (Kamakura Gozan).

Tokiyori's early retirement from political life initiated a wave among warriors of taking Buddhist vows to become lay monks. On the second month of 1256, a measles epidemic broke out in the western provinces, and a year later it spread to Kamakura, causing many deaths in warrior houses. On the twelfth day of the second month of 1257, an attendant died at the regent Hôjô Tokiyori’s house, and by the end of the month Tokiyori was also gravely ill. While Tokiyori was able to recover, many others died, and the epidemic continued to take lives. Upon learning of many deaths in the Nagoe, Utsunomiya, and Gokurakuji houses, Tokiyori began to plan his retirement to religious life. After losing his daughter and other relatives to the disease, Tokiyori fell ill again and remained unconscious for a few days. His surprising return to consciousness, followed by full recovery from his illness, seem to have left a strong impression on Tokiyori.

Upon his recovery, Tokiyori transferred the title and office of Regent to Gokurakuji (Hôjô) Nagatoki, and a short while later, in the eleventh month of 1256, he took Buddhist vows at Saimyôji temple, adopting the Buddhist name Dôsû. Conducting the ceremony was the Chinese monk Lan-chi Tao-lung (Rankei Dôryû, 1213-1278), who had benefitted from Tokiyori’s patronage since 1249. In any event, the ceremony took place a month after Hôjô Tokisada took Buddhist vows in a ceremony that received little attention. However, Tokiyori’s retirement caused immediate reaction, and in no time Yûki Tomohiro, Tokimitsu and Tomomura, Sahara (Miura) Mitsumori, Moritoki and Tokitsura, and Nikaidô Yukiyasu, Yukitsuna and Yukitada, all took Buddhist vows. There is little doubt that the long period of epidemics had its effect on Kamakura warriors, who had confronted death not on the battlefield where they could take some action, but rather at home, where they felt helpless. Taking Buddhist vows and retiring to temples was their way of seeking atonement. The Azumakagami certainly conveys such a despondent atmosphere in which turning to the buddhas was the only available way. But pragmatism was always a driving force in the life of Kamakura warriors, and it is possible they believed that retiring to a temple was a viable way to avoid contact with diseases.

(Above: Hojo Tokiyori's grave at Meigetsu-in, Kamakura)

Hojo Tokiyori indeed was a pivotal figure in elevating Zen from the periphery of Buddhist doctrines to the center of Japan’s Buddhist community. Yet, Tokiyori and his warriors did not practice Zen in preparation for battle. They practiced Zen just as others practiced Shingon or Jodo, as retired lay-monks passing their retirement years without the burden of office and duty. One can also argue that Tokiyori’s warriors engaged in Zen because of their sense of loyalty to Tokiyori and not because they recognised the benefits of Zen practice.

Part 2: From Sengoku to Takuan and Munenori (Forthcoming)