Musō Sōseki

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MUSŌ SŌSEKI (12751351), a monk of the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism in medieval Japan. Born into an aristocratic family, he entered the religious life at an early age, rose to become head of some of Japan's most influential Zen monasteries, and left his stamp on Rinzai Zen and medieval culture.

Musō's earliest Buddhist training was not in Zen, but in esoteric Tendai and Shingon Buddhism. He was drawn to Zen at about the age of twenty and went to study under the Chinese Zen master Yishan Yining at the monastery of Engakuji in Kamakura. Although an able pupil, Musō was unable to convince Yishan that he had attained a valid enlightenment experience. Finally, he left Engakuji to seek his understanding of the buddha-nature in a life of solitary wandering and meditation, and to test his Zen with other masters. He attained his enlightenment one night, deep in a forest, watching the embers of his campfire. This enlightenment experience was formally recognized (inka) by the Japanese Zen master Kōhō Kennichi, with whom Musō studied for several years.

After Kōhō's death in 1314, Musō returned to his solitary wanderings, deepening his insight through meditation in mountain hermitages. His spiritual reputation eventually reached Kyoto and Kamakura. In 1325, at the age of fifty-one, he was invited by the emperor Go-Daigo to head the important Kyoto monastery of Nanzenji. Musō also came to the attention of the Hōjō regents in Kamakura and the early Ashikaga shoguns, all of whom were eager to patronize the monk and study Zen under his guidance. After Nanzenji, Musō went on to head several other important Rinzai gozan monasteries. By the close of his life, he was regarded as the most eminent monk in Japan, had become the leader of a rapidly growing band of disciples, and had seven times been the recipient of the prestigious title of kokushi, or National Master.

Musō's considerable contributions to medieval Zen and Japanese culture were made in several areas. As a Zen master, with a large following of monks and laymen, Musō advocated a kind of Zen practice that was readily accessible to the Japanese of his day. Although he studied under Chinese Zen masters, Musō himself never visited China. His Zen incorporated the traditional Rinzai practices of seated meditation and kōan study, but its Chinese character was tempered by his own early religious training, his continued devotion to Japanese Esoteric Buddhism, and his strong interest in Japanese poetry and culture. In his book Muchu mondo (Dialogues in a dream), Musō tried to explain Zen in straightforward, everyday language as he responded to the questions raised by the warrior Ashikaga Tadayoshi.

Musō also played an important role as a monastic leader and regulator who shaped the character of Rinzai Zen monastic life in medieval Japan. Although his Zen was easily accessible to monks and laymen, he set high standards for his monks. He divided them into three categories: those few who singlemindedly pursued enlightenment, those whose Zen practice was diluted by a taste for scholarship, and those who merely read about Zen and never threw themselves into a search for self-understanding. To help and discipline the practice of all his followers, Musō laid down strict rules for his communities in codes such as the Rinsen kakun, a set of regulations for Rinsenji. In this, Musō was setting himself in the tradition of such famous Chinese and Japanese monastic leaders as Baizhang and Dōgen Kigen, both of whom had devoted considerable attention to the proper practice of Zen community life.

Musō was also an intellectual and a man of culture. Schooled in Chinese, he wrote poetry in both Chinese and Japanese. He is also renowned as a garden designer. In addition, Musō was a major political figure in his day. He served as confidant and go-between for the emperor Go-Daigo, the Hōjō, and the Ashikaga, encouraged the sending of trading missions to China and the building of new Zen monasteries, and raised Rinzai Zen to a position of political prominence in medieval Japanese society.

See Also

Gozan Zen.


Collcutt, Martin. Five Mountains: The Rinzai Zen Monastic Institution in Medieval Japan. Cambridge, Mass., 1981.

Fontein, Jan, and Money L. Hickman, eds. Zen Painting and Calligraphy. Boston, 1970.

Kraft, Kenneth L., trans. "Musō Kokushi's Dialogues in a Dream." The Eastern Buddhist, n.s. 14 (Spring 1981): 7593.

Martin Collcutt (1987)

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Musō Sōseki

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