Zen and Zen Priests


1) Zen master, Yukei Isobe 五十部友啓, Taikô-in, Tôfukuji
(Lecturer by Prof. Catherine Ludvik)

Zen Buddhism began some 1500 years ago in China with the first Zen Patriarch Bodhidharma, or Daruma. However, Eisai, the Tendai priest credited with introducing Zen to Japan wasn’t born until almost 500 years after Daruma first set foot in China. Previous attempts had been made to introduce Zen to Japan, but nothing seemed to stick until the Kamakura era began and the new government of warriors broke from old traditions. The discipline and rigor of Zen suited this new warrior class and in 1202 Eisai was placed in charge of Kennin-ji temple in Kyoto.

The teaching that Eisai propagated at Kennin-ji derived from the teachings of a Chinese monk given the Japanese name Rinzai. This is one of the three major sects of Zen mentioned in John Dougill’s Kyoto: A Cultural History — the other two sects being Soto Zen and Obaku Zen. According to Dougill, Rinzai is known as a “rough” school that uses techniques such as riddles, or koan, to “jolt” students into enlightenment. Soto Zen was developed by a pupil at Kennin-ji named Dogen (1200-1253). It is the largest sect by numbers in Japan. It is said to take a more gradual approach to enlightenment. The final sect is Obaku Zen. This was founded much later than the other two sects which arose around the same time in the early 1200s. Obaku Zen was not founded until 1661. It is rather similar to Rinzai Zen, save for the fact that it retains more distinctive Buddhist elements such as the recital of the nembutsu.

Within the last fifty years, Zen Buddhism has become a global phenomenon, spreading from Japan and the Far East to the West.  Zen gained prominence in the United States in the 1960s and 70s as a result of the writings of D. T. Suzuki, which appealed to the disillusioned youth of America searching for deeper spiritual life.  Zen gained further accessibility from the work of Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi Roshi (1931-1995), the founder of the Zen Center of Los Angeles.  Maezumi’s twelve dharma heirs worked to found Zen centers across North America, laying the foundation for a global movement.

Much of the contemporary appeal of Zen stems from a desire to relieve the stress of our fast-paced, technologically-driven society.  Zen may also see a continued rise in appeal in contemporary society because, unlike other religions, it lacks a teleological basis, making it more compatible with science.

While Japanese Zen took hold in an era of discipline, American Zen arose in an era of rebellion. Ultimately, Zen adopts a unique character to suit the cultures where it appears, but retains its fundamental practice of zazen.  As a result, Zen is uniquely accessible to anyone in pursuit of the dharma.

“The way of Zen is not only for people who are Buddhists…the spirit of Zen goes far beyond religion.” – Hozumi Roshi, founder of Kyoto International Zendo

Zen priests aim to guide others in their journeys with Zen.  Traditionally, priests operated within monasteries and served as human vessels of the dharma, either by teaching others or by pursuing their crafts.  In modern society, particularly in Japan, many monks train as priests in order to inherit leadership of a family temple.  However, the role of a priest is not limited to monastic services.  Some Zen priests may perform other roles in society, such as that of therapists, activists, or authors, among other professions.  Just as Zen practice takes on a new character in its spread through the modern world, so does Zen priesthood.


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