Tuesday, August 09, 2011


By now I suppose most of you have at least a sketchy notion of the early journeys of Zen in Asia, and later in the Western world. Here is a very brief review of some of its travels.

-- The Indian teacher Bodhidharma brought Zen from India to China.

-- The Nichiren monks Dogen and Myozen traveled from Japan to China to study Ch’an.

-- Soyen Shaku, D.T. Suzuki, Thich Nhat Hahn, and other Asian teachers and academics moved from Japan to the United States and Europe.

To paraphrase the book The Roaring Stream, “[Historically] . . . so many Japanese monks had embarked for China that there was a stock phrase that said, ‘longing for the Dharma, entering the land of Sung.’

Interestingly, some of the Chinese masters were so awed with the numbers of Japanese seekers that came to their country that several of them went the other route to share the Dharma. They headed out of China and into Japan.

One notable Chinese master who went that route was named Lan-ch’i. Once he arrived in Japan he spent thirty-three years teaching Zen in that country, and he became so revered that he was given the posthumous title, Daikaku Zenji, Zen Master of Great Enlightenment.

I’d like to say a few words about Daikaku.

When Daikaku was a thirteen-year-old kid in China, he left home, determined to visit monasteries in the east of his country and to study under numerous Ch’an masters and teachers. Eventually, although he spoke only Chinese, he wangled his way into Japan, where he established himself in Kyoto.

Later he settled in Kamakura. It was there he met Hojo Tokiyori, a court official who was tired of the rules and regulations of Japanese Buddhist teachings and had a burning interest in the ways of Zen.

Tokiyori was drawn to supporting Daikaku, because he felt Zen added an air of cultural authority to the political scene.

Quoting from The Roaring Stream: “The leading position that Ch’an held in Sung China made Zen an attractive alternate to those Japanese institutions that had previously served as legitimators of power.”

In plain words that means if the great Chinese government was vitalized by the recognition of Zen, the practice might be good for Japanese politics.

Even though Daikaku was a popular teacher in Japan, there was a curious dilemma in his teachings, owing to the fact he spoke only Chinese.

Many of the Japanese students and monks understood written Chinese, which in most forms is similar to written Japanese, However, very few could comprehend spoken Chinese, and only a handful understood Daikaku’s idiomatic dialect.

So, how could he give an comprehendible Dharma talk?

This reminds me of a book I recently read about Britain’s King Richard (known as The Lionhearted) and his role in the Third Crusade to reclaim Palestine.

At one point Richard seemed to be winning a siege against the Muslim leader, Saladin, when the king became ill and lost his voice. Imagine the Monty Python sort of scene.

Richard shouts, “Mmmmwanov.”

“What did he say?” asks a general.

“I think he wants us to advance. Either that, or he said to fall back.”

“Mmmmwanov. Bracklesnog!”

“Ill be darned if I know what we’re supposed to do,” said another general. Let’s just pretend we didn’t hear him.”

Back to Japan.

After much trial and error, Daikaku adopted a three-stage teaching method.

His words were first written in Japanese phonetic characters. Next these symbols were turned over to another Szechwan monk who changed them into Chinese characters. These signs, in turn, were finally translated into spoken Japanese. It was a complicated process, but it eventually fell into place. A later Chinese master described the method as brush talk, and wrote:

“I express my mind using a brush instead of my tongue, and you seize my meaning hearing my words with your eyes.”

Usually the tactic succeeded, but there were many instances in which a student was completely baffled. History doesn’t mention them.

Another answer was to create koans as teaching tools.

Daikaku’s temple, Kencho-ji, became a desirable training center, and he was popular with the Japanese shogunate. However, he had his detractors.

Remember America’s hysterical Cold War hysterics in the 1950s?


Rumors circulated that Daikaku was a Chinese spy. He was exiled to a rural post, which would be like today sending him off to a hick church out in Arkansas’ Newton County.

Fortunately, after several years the accusers decided Daikaku was clean, and he was reinstated at Kencho-ji in Kamakura. He died there in 1279.

Daikaku may have instituted a bizarre teaching method, but he is honored as a respected Zen master as well as a skillful calligrapher and a sensitive poet.

A few sayings of Daikaku:

-- Zen practice is not clarifying abstract distinctions, but discarding one’s preconceived notions and views and discovering the self behind them.

-- The man resolute in the way must from the beginning never lose sight of it.

-- Understand that hearing a sound is to take it as sound; seeing a form, is to take it as form. Turn the hearing back until hearing comes to an end; purify awareness until awareness becomes empty. Then perception will become immediate.

-- Heaven and earth and I are of one root; the thousand things and I are one body.

-- Every day you should go into the calm quiet where you really belong.

Here’s a question from me. What does that last saying mean to you?

I’ll say it again.

Every day you should go into the calm quiet where you really belong.

To me, that says meditate.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dogen originally belonged to the Tendai sect, which taught early forms of Zen (challenged later by Eisai). He was perplexed with Tendai doctrine, that claimed that people are fundamentally enlightened but still must practice. To resolve this conflict he went to China and studied Ch'an, but likely not under an "official" master. You can do your own research on that topic.

He lived contemporaneously with Nichiren. It would have been exceedingly hard for him to be a "Nichiren monk" while Nichiren himself was forming his school, especially since Nichiren was exiled for some time.

I came across this link looking for an answer to whether or not Japanese monks were taught spoken Chinese... but this web page is not reliable as there are glaring errors. All it takes is a little research -- so fact check, please!

Friday, December 07, 2012 1:01:00 AM  

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