Kamakura Zen

The Zen tradition is said to be ‘outside the scriptures, not setting up words, a finger direct to the human heart, seeing the nature to be Buddha’. It was brought from India by Bodhidharma, who came to China by sea in AD 520 according to tradition5 one of the koan riddles is the meaning of this journey from the West by the patriarch (p. 119).

In China the tradition assumed certain forms which experience showed to be suited to the mind of the people. These forms were called collectively ‘patriarchal Zen’ as distinguished from the ‘Buddha Zen’ of India. Patriarchal Zen mostly concerns stories of Tang dynasty Chinese masters, which were used as koan riddles.

After several introductions to Japan, this Zen took firm root in the thirteenth century. But there was a difference between the lines founded by Japanese monks like Eisai and Dogen, who had gone to China and finally been awarded a mandate to teach, and the Zen taught at Kamakura, the military capital of Japan, by Chinese monks who mostly knew but little Japanese. Their pupils, mainly samurai and women, knew little Chinese – some of them could hardly read the sutras or the Zen stories, written in the Chinese of some centuries earlier.

Thus Kamakura Zen interviews had to be conducted with very few words, and the masters began to use not classical Chinese Zen stories but incidents in Japan itself. The Kyochuzakki (Jottings from a mountain ravine) written by Gio, a disciple of Master Daikaku, describes how the master initiated this ‘on-the-instant’ Zen, relating to something which happened to the pupil himself, and not something that happened long ago in China to someone else.

According to the Kamakura Zen teachers, when a country faces war, the warrior – if he is attracted towards Zen at all – has certain advantages. One of them is, that he knowrs his life may be lost the next day. This frees him from many bonds of worldly ambition and planning for the future, and gives his koan an urgency which a comfortable civilian may find it difficult to rouse. Hakuin, much later, repeats the point with emphasis. He remarks that a warrior can accomplish in Zen in a few days what will take a monk a hundred days to do. Some Zen priests do not care for these remarks of Hakuin, but they are repeated elsewhere also; for instance the Zen priest Tanzen was saying at nearly the same time that Zen priests had almost given up Zen, so that it remained only among the warriors. This is an interesting contrast with the traditional attitude in China, where warriors were by no means considered as specially good material for spiritual practice, and a parallel with that of India, where they were. One of the tests for passing a koan was, that it should give freedom, at least for a time, from anxiety about personal concerns, even life and death.

Kamakura Zen was sometimes called ‘one-word’ Zen. This was specially appropriate for warriors facing a foreign invasion, but in later centuries of peace, when there was leisure for intellectual speculation and aesthetic refinements, the single-word Zen did not hold the attention of people comfortable and secure. So Koan Zen was reshaped into an elaborate system of progressive koans by Hakuin (1685-1768), and Kamakura Zen fell largely into oblivion. A few of the koans continued to be used in certain lines, but it was generally thought that these were all that had existed. However, it is now clear that there were at least a hundred purely Japanese koans, though not much material remains about them. The earliest collection seems to have been the Record of Kamakura Koans (Shonankattoroku)j it was published in a small edition of 500 by the great Uesugi family in 1543. This contains a hundred koans, mostly referring to the earliest days of Zen in Kamakura. Nothing can be traced of this original edition today. At the end of the nineteenth century Imai Fukuzan found a few copies at Kenchoji temple, but already damaged by damp and worms. A few hand-written copies did circulate5 at the end of the century one was possessed by Abbot Shunpo of Daitokuji, and another by Yamaoka Tesshu, a famous fencing master and also a fully qualified Zen teacher.

In 1926 Imai Fukuzan, a pupil of Shunpo, published a little edition from Sofukuji. This is now very rare5 I had the fortune to see and photograph what may be the only surviving copy. It is not mentioned in a survey of the literature of Zen published in 1939 under the joint supervision of Dr D. Suzuki, Dr H. Ui, and 36 Kamakura Zen

Dr Inouye Tetsujiro. Inouye, however, may have discovered the Imai booklet shortly afterwards 5 in 1942 he published a twelve-volume anthology of certain old manuscripts related to the warrior tradition of Japan, and included Imai’s annotated text of the Shonankattoroku, which was thus preserved, though apparently unnoticed, in volume seven. Inouye thought it important, and added a special note to it.

Most of the Shonankattoroku stories are supplemented by sassho or supplementary questions, which are given when a pupil has already arrived at some sort of answer to the main koan. Sometimes what is listed as the first sassho is in fact the formulation of the koan itself. The sassho were developed by many Kamakura teachers up to the publication of the book by the Uesugis in 1545. The sassho were selected (by Master Muin) out of those in use at the time; there were of course many others.

There is a characteristic of Kamakura Zen which gives it a particular relevance for the West today. Besides their warrior pupils, the masters made some fully realized disciples among women, mainly but not entirely from the warrior class. The cases are parallel in that the warriors were too busy to study Chinese, and it was not then the fashion for any woman to study it, however accomplished she might be in Japanese literature. This meant that the Kamakura pupils, men and women alike, were unable to quote from Chinese Zen classics, but had to make their own answers. Blind quotation is the bane of Zen, and it was an advantage that the pupils could not quote. There was not even the temptation to quote; there was nothing in Japanese literature as yet, and they did not know Chinese. They had to be creative. For instance, a number of poems have been preserved which the nuns of Tokeiji presented at Zen interviews with their teachers. Some of these poems became koans in their own right. By the fifteenth century however this creativity was waning, because more pupils had some knowledge of Chinese. At one big training session at the time, it is recorded that less than half the nuns presented their own Japanese poems; the others were quoting from the anthology of Chinese Zen phrases called Zenrinkushu, just as is done today.

Many of the warriors whose interviews are recorded in the Shonankattoroku were what was called ‘nyudo’, which meant that they had taken Buddhist vows and shaved their heads, though without leaving their families as a priest had to do. According to the researches of Imai among the Kamakura records before these perished in the earthquake of 1924, there were 565 names of warriors listed as having taken these vows, but Zen interviews are recorded of only 172.

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