Myoan Eisai (Senko Kokushi 1141-1215)

A number of monks were concerned that buddhadharma had been obscured by decadence and laxity, and they sought to inaugurate reforms. The greatest and most enduring of the reformers in the twelfth century was Eisai, who breathed new life into the dharma and sangha in Japan.

1191 Eisai Myoan, the monk who brought Zen Buddhism to Japan, returned from a trip to China with tea seeds, which he planted on the grounds of his temple near Kyoto. Eisai experimented with different ways to brew tea, finally adopting the Chinese whisked tea.

Eisai was born in 1141 into the Kaya family in Bitchu province (modern Okayama). His family consisted of reputable provincials, and tradition affirms that his father was affiliated with the Kibitsu Shinto shrine and had studied at a Tendai temple. Eisai’s aspiration and intelligence, coupled with his father’s connections, allowed him to enter the Annyoji Temple near his home at the age of eleven.

He began his studies under the priest Joshin, who was deeply involved in the mikkyo or tantric tradition. Two years later he went to Mount Hiei, where he was ordained in 1154. During the next few years Eisai travelled back and forth between the Tendai centres on Mount Hiei and the tantric institutions near his birthplace. He was initiated into tantric rituals and he practised shikan, a Tendai form of meditation. He has been credited with founding a tantric school, but his great achievement was the introduction of Zen to Japan just as it was beginning to wane in China.

Eisai became convinced as a young monk that the Buddhist schools needed reform, and he set his heart on going to China to garner purer teaching. Whilst waiting in Hataka for the opportunity to sail west, he met the Chinese interpreter Li Te-chao, who first told him about the emergence of ch’an (meditation) as a practice. Although its methods seemed strange, Eisai was inspired to seek out ch’an teachers in China because of his conviction that only there could the true dharma be found during the age of mappo, the degeneracy of the Teaching.

In 1168 he grasped a chance to sail to China and landed in the vicinity of Mount T’ien t’ai. Although he remained in China barely half a year, he met the Japanese monk Shunjobo Chogen, with whom he visited the T’ien-t’ai monasteries. There he discovered the roots of the Tendai tradition as well as a variety of ch’an methods. When he returned to Japan, he brought sixty volumes of scriptures with him, which he deposited in a temple library.

Realizing the subtlety of ch’an, Eisai refrained from instructing others in what he had initially learnt of it. Rather, he immersed himself in the Tendai Zen of Mount Hiei, which had been transmitted by Saicho, and in various esoteric doctrines in preparation for a more extensive sojourn in China and, he hoped, India, where Buddha had walked the earth and taught.

For almost ten years Eisai studied and taught in his native province, a period when the mighty Taira family, based in Kyushu, controlled the imperial capital. When suddenly the Tairas were swept aside by the Minamoto clan, Eisai retreated to Kyushu, where he remained, writing and teaching, for a decade. The hazards of civil war denied Eisai access to adequate collections of sacred texts, found only in large urban temples, but he mastered everything available and studied accounts of Chinese pilgrims who had gone to India.

In 1187 he secured passage to China and sailed at once, but upon his arrival the Chinese government flatly refused to grant him right of passage beyond its borders. Disappointed but undaunted by his inability to journey to India, he made his way to Mount T’ien-t’ai, where he undertook serious study of Lin-chi (Rinzai) Zen under the teacher Huai ch’ang, who also taught him tantric Buddhist rituals. Although he had been ordained a monk as a boy in Japan, he received the Bodhisattva ordination on Mount T’ien-t’ai and turned his attention to the vinaya code of conduct.

During his studies in China under Huai-ch’ang, Eisai came to appreciate fully the importance of vinaya discipline, long the victim of laxity in Japan. Eisai later made the vinaya rules fundamental to Zen life and inaugurated the revival of Zen monasticism in his homeland. When his teacher moved north to Mount T’ien t’ung, a renowned ch’an centre, Eisai followed him, and in 1193 he received the inka or seal which recognized him formally as a Zen teacher. He was the first Japanese monk so recognized. He also threw himself into restoring temples on Mounts T’ien-t’ai and T’ien-t’ung, raising funds and working on plans.

While in China, he sent a bodhi tree to the Kashii shrine in Chikuzen province, and when back in Japan, he sent lumber and building materials to the Chinese temples he had helped to restore. As a consequence, he almost single-handedly rejuvenated relations between monks of both lands and sparked the interest of Chinese monks in going to Japan. More than any other Japanese monk, Eisai won enduring respect in China for his character and work.

In 1191 Eisai returned to Japan to begin the most sensitive and strenuous activities of his life. He immediately built the Hoonji Temple next to the Kashii shrine and dedicated it to Rinzai Zen. He deliberately rooted his more rigorous Zen methods in the relatively remote island of Kyushu because he knew that any significant innovation would be resisted by the establishment on Mount Hiei, just as the early monks of Mount Hiei had faced the bitter resistance of Nara.

Upon his return to Japan, Eisai also introduced tea drinking, initially as an aid to monks sitting in the formal practice of meditation. He also believed that tea was generally health-giving, and so he wrote Kissa Yojoki (Drinking Tea for Health), which advocated tea as a general restorative:

In the great country of China they drink tea, as a result of which there is no heart trouble and people live long lives. Our country is full of sickly looking, skinny persons, and this is simply because we do not drink tea. . . . When the whole body feels weak, devitalized and depressed, it is a sign that the heart is ailing. Drink lots of tea, and one’s energy and spirits will be restored to full strength.

Not interested merely in a health aid or a stimulus to remain awake during meditation, Eisai elaborated his views through a profoundly arcane interpretation of the human organs and their psycho-spiritual correspondences, which are reflected to a degree in the tea ceremony.

Eisai developed his Zen teaching in Japan carefully, for he wanted to establish a stable and enduring movement before drawing the attention of the imperial court or the monks of Mount Hiei. Another Zen monk, however, frustrated his plans. Without an identifiable lineage and ignoring the vinaya, this monk boldly demanded the recognition of the court and the right to propagate Zen. When the establishment at Mount Hiei vigorously resisted, the court prohibited him from teaching.

Alerted to the unusual methods of Zen teaching, including the use of the koan, the court’s attention fell on Eisai in 1195, and he was summoned to face a formal enquiry. He began to compose his Shukke Taiko (Essentials for Monks), which explained the nature, importance and scope of the vinaya rules. Facing the monks of Mount Hiei, he argued that the illustrious Saicho had incorporated Zen thought and practice into the Tendai tradition. If they rejected Zen, he insisted, they would be rejecting the teachings of their own founder.

Although the monks found his line of reasoning unacceptable and launched many criticisms against him, he managed to avoid an official confrontation. Winning the respect of the ruling Minamoto clan, he chose to avoid conflict with Mount Hiei and Nara and returned to Kyushu, where he built the Shofukuji Temple under Minamoto sponsorship. He turned his attention to the defense of Zen and the cultivation of friends in the imperial court.

Eisai began to write his chief work, Kozen Gokokuron (Propagation of Zen and Protection of the Nation), in which he answered the most serious criticisms from Mount Hiei. Against the charge that Zen held only to shunyata, emptiness, and ignored study, Eisai pointed to his own extensive studies in several traditions. The fact that Zen is a single practice and not part of an elaborate set of rituals does not denigrate other activities, though it gives priority to living the dharma.

The monks of Mount Hiei had claimed that Zen was not the dharma of mappo, the period foretold by Buddha when his Teaching would be degraded, and Eisai easily showed the speciousness of such speculation. To the assertion that Zen was unnecessary, for Japan, Eisai replied that rigorous discipline and vigorous practice were very much needed everywhere. The most serious criticism, however, was that Eisai himself lacked the qualifications, ability and social position to teach Zen. This accusation masked the fact that only aristocrats were thought to be suitable for the monastic life and as teachers. Eisai’s qualifications and abilities could not be disputed, and so he concentrated on the charge that he should not teach because of his social position.

One’s social status, Eisai maintained, brings no lustre to buddha dharma, the Teaching of Buddha, which stands alone as Truth. Rather, knowing and practising Truth illuminates one’s own being. For oneself, recognizing this naturally produces humility. When looking at others, however, one cannot respect dharma without respecting the one who teaches or transmits it. This stance ? that the Truth exalts the person and never the other way around was as revolutionary in the Japan of Eisai’s time as it was irrefutable:

In our country the emperor shines in splendour and the influence of his virtuous wisdom spreads far and wide. Emissaries from the distant lands of South and Central Asia pay their respects to the court. Lay ministers conduct the affairs of government; priests and monks spread abroad religious truth. Even the truths of the four Hindu Vedas are not neglected. Why then reject the five schools of Zen?

When Eisai submitted his treatise to the imperial court, he gained friends there, but rather than rashly push his advantage, he with drew in 1199 to Kamakura, where he was made head of a temple. Soon he was given funds to establish the Kenninji Zen Temple in Kyoto, which was completed in 1205. While it was being built, Eisai succeeded in winning the respect of both sides in the intermittent war for the imperial throne.

Although he now had imperial patronage, a number of monks and aristocrats sought to negate his influence in Kyoto by spreading the rumour that unusual phenomena occurring in the city were due to his strange practices. When in 1205 he was blamed for severe wind damage in Kyoto, he answered the charges publicly. Denying that he was a wind god or capable of raising a storm, he said that if people insisted on believing the contrary, they should at least respect him for his powers. The argument silenced his opponents and deeply impressed the emperor.

Despite the strain of moving back and forth between Kyoto and Kamakura, Eisai steadily improved his relations with the old aristocracy and with the de facto samurai government. In 1206 Shunjobo Chogen, the Japanese monk Eisai had met on his first journey to China and who had been put in charge of temple restoration, died, and Eisai was given the responsibility for rebuilding the war-damaged Todaiji Temple in Nara. His work was so well executed that the emperor personally attended the rededication of the temple. Although the suggestion that Eisai be given the hitherto posthumous title daishi (Great Master) was eventually turned down, the emperor awarded him high priestly rank and honorary purple robes.

After the dedication of the Todaiji in 1213, Eisai retired to the Kenninji Temple, where he was abbot. There he met Dogen, who became his devoted disciple because of the purity and simplicity of the way of life he taught and exemplified, and who would, more than any other human being, further Zen in Japan. Eisai died in 1215 at the age of seventy-five, honoured by many monks and mourned by the imperial court. He was given the posthumous title senko kokushi, Master of a Thousand Lights, in part because lights had once emanated from his body when he performed a rain ceremony in China. But the title reflected the way he had brought the light of Zen to Japan in a purer form than before, even though he skilfully accommodated his goals to the social and political climate of his time. The fact that the restrictions under which he worked did not dilute his efforts is eloquent testimony to his service of Truth. Pre paring the way for reorganizing monastic discipline, establishing Zen practice, renovating the temple establishment and rejuvenating buddhadharma, he is considered the father of Japanese Zen.

Although Eisai used his remarkable abilities to gain great honour in a hostile milieu, he sought nothing for himself. Believing that all honour belongs to the dharma and is only reflected in its transmitters, he secured such renown as could be given to the Teaching and its propagation. He taught monks to avoid the peculiar, eccentric and even wild behaviour of some Chinese monks, not because such activity was intrinsically wrong, but because it caused misunderstanding and could bring dishonour to the dharma. Should a monk receive a gift or donation, he said, it was to be received on behalf of the Three Treasures ? Buddha, dharma and sangha ? and not for oneself.

Teaching others to live a pure and simple life, he did so himself, and it was this seamless fusion of theory and practice that inspired Dogen, who never wavered in his reverence for Eisai. He once saw Eisai hand over a rare temple treasure to a layman caught in extremis. At the same time, Eisai was exceptionally alert to appearances. Living the simplest of lives himself and dwelling cheerfully in what others would consider poverty, he was careful to cultivate a suitable appearance at court. When he journeyed to the imperial seat, he always rode in a fashionable new carriage, for he knew that nobles and war-lords were disinclined to listen to a monk in rags.

Eisai believed that Japan had reached a critical point in history, marked by the sundering of the aristocracy from real strength and the rise of the samurai war-lords. He thought that if he did not act, Buddhist practice would continue to decline to the mimetic rigidity of meaningless ritual. The political and social problems of his time gave him the golden opportunity to enshrine essential Buddhist truths in the inmost heart of Japanese society. In this he was somewhat successful, as signified by the initiation of his people into the sacred tea ceremony, cherished by many in that land even unto the perplexing present.

He saw himself as laying the corner-stone of the ethics of Zen for those who would come after him. He thereby brought to the ruling martial elite the exacting discipline of vinaya into Zen, and over time the samurai found such teachings more pertinent than the over-elaborate rituals of the effete aristocracy. The ideal of spontaneity in conduct, attained through progressive self-mastery, and serene tranquillity in the secret heart served the samurai, who crystallized it in their programmes of military training.

In so doing, however, they began to live out the time-honoured metaphor of spiritual life as an extended military campaign first made clear in the Bhagavad Gita, and at least some rose from mere focus on the ceaseless turba of mundane affairs to an inward recognition of deeper insights flowing from the fundamental resolve at the root of self- transformation. In this way, Eisai, the monk who sought nothing for himself save to serve Buddha, won an abiding debt of wide spread gratitude.