JIEN (1155–1225), a Japanese Buddhist leader and renowned poet, was a highly influential figure at a critical time in the political, social, and religious life of Japan. Appointed abbot of the Tendai sect four times, he enjoyed close family ties with emperors and regents, composed poems that made him a leading poet of the day, and wrote Japan's first known interpretive history, the Gukanshō.
At the age of eleven, Jien was entrusted to the Enrya-kuji, a Buddhist temple, for training under a monk who was the seventh son of Retired Emperor Toba. Early poems by Jien, as well as entries in the diary of his distinguished brother Kanezane (1149–1207), indicate that he was a lonely child who was soon attracted to Buddhist teachings on transience and impermanence. A biography (the Jichin kashōden ) states that when he was about twenty-five and was fasting at a temple on the Katsura River, he had a miraculous vision of the Buddhist deity Fudō Myō-ō.
Jien was ordained as a Buddhist monk, appointed to the headship of several important temples, and selected as personal priest to the emperor Go-Toba (r. 1183–1198) before reaching the age of thirty. When he was thirty-one, his elder brother Kanezane was designated regent, an appointment that further enhanced Jien's influence within Buddhist centers and at the imperial court. At the age of thirty-seven he received his first appointment as Abbot of Tendai. During the four years that he held the post, he devoted considerable time to the conduct of Buddhist rites in high places. He built new temples and promoted the practice and study of Buddhism in diverse ways.
In 1196 Jien and other members of his house (the Kujō) were ousted from office. Until his death nearly thirty years later, neither he nor his house ever again reached the dizzy heights attained during the Kanezane regency. For a time, Jien continued to be a favorite at court, largely because of his fame as a poet and his personal relationship with Go-Toba, but gradually the latter (who was now attempting to control state affairs as a retired emperor) moved to establish independence from bakufu control, rather than adopt the compromises favored by Jien and the Kujō house.
In the years immediately preceding the outbreak of civil war in 1221—a time of intense political rivalry within the court and between the court and the Kamakura bakufu —Jien turned frequently to written prayers, rituals, dreams, letters, and finally history in trying to convince Go-Toba and his advisers that drastic steps against the bakufu should be avoided. What Jien wrote in those troubled years suggests that he was especially interested in signs and revelations of what the native kami (gods) desired or had ordered.
Jien's history (the Gukanshō ), written a year or so before the outbreak of war in 1221, was meant to show how national events had taken, and would continue to take, an up-and-down course in the direction of a political arrangement that would end the current crisis, an arrangement in which the Kujō house would figure prominently. He tried to show how a complex interplay of divine principles (dōri) was propelling events along that course: Some Buddhist principles were forcing it downward to destruction, and some kami -created (Shintō) principles were pulling it upward toward a state of temporary improvement.
Because Jien was primarily interested in kami -created dōri that would bring improvement, scholars have concluded that native Shintō belief was stronger than imported Buddhist ideas in his interpretive scheme, although the Buddhist flavor was strong. As the outbreak of civil war in 1221 attests, Go-Toba did not ultimately adopt the compromises that Jien favored and that the Gukanshō predicted as inevitable. But Jien remained convinced, to the end, that he had charted the "single course" of Japanese history correctly.
For a Jien biography, see Taga Munehaya's Jien (Tokyo, 1959), vol. 15 of "Jinbutsu Sōsho." His study of Japanese history has been translated by Delmer M. Brown and Ishida Ichirō in The Future and the Past: A Translation and Study of the Gukanshō, an Interpretative History of Japan Written in 1219 (Berkeley, Calif., 1979).
Delmer M. Brown (1987)