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EISAI (11411215) was the founder of the Rinzai (Chin., Linji) school of Zen (Chin., Chan) in Japan. A scholarly monk and religious reformer, Eisai was also the popularizer of the practice of tea drinking in Japan. Although he began life in modest circumstances, he eventually gained the patronage of the shogun heading the warrior government, the bakufu, in Kamakura. With the shogun's backing he built monasteries in which Zen was fostered; he was also active in the rebuilding of monasteries of the older Buddhist schools. Eisai has been eclipsed in historical reputation by such later Rinzai monks as Daitō, Musō Sōseki, Ikkyū Sōjun, and Hakuin, and by the Sōtō monk Dōgen Kigen. In his day, however, Eisai was an important figure and played a major role in securing at least partial acceptance for Zen in the Japanese religious world. Together with his near contemporaries Honen (11331212) and Shinran (11731263), the founders of popular Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, Eisai can be counted among the figures contributing to the Buddhist reformation of the thirteenth century.

Eisai's full religious name is Myōan Eisai. (The characters are sometimes read Myōan Yōsai.) He was born into the family of priests at the Kibitsu shrine in Bizen, modern Okayama prefecture. Probably through his father's influence, he began to study Buddhist texts while still a child and took the vows of a novice in the Kyoto monastery of Enryakuji at the age of fourteen. Enryakuji was a center not only for the study of the scholastic Tendai (Chin., Tiantai) Buddhism introduced to Japan by the monk Saichō (767822), but also for Esoteric (Taimitsu, in this case) Buddhist practices. The monastery, however, had lost the spiritual vitality evident in Saichō's day. While some Tendai monks still devoted themselves to prayer and study, others made light of their vows, engaged in political intrigue, and saw little amiss in the use of military force to promote monastic interests. In this degenerating spiritual environment some earnest young monks conceived the desire to restore Enryakuji and Tendai Buddhism to their earlier glory; Eisai too became convinced of the urgent need to revitalize Buddhism in Japan. Like many monks in the ancient period, he believed that the sources of this regeneration would be found in China.

In 1168, at the age of twenty-eight, Eisai made the first of two pilgrimages to China. In his travels he became aware of the influence of Chan, but as he was in China for only six months, he did not have time to delve very deeply into its teachings. On his return to Japan Eisai brought with him some sixty volumes of Tendai-related texts, gathered on Mount Tiantai and elsewhere, which he presented to the chief abbot of Enrya kuji. For the next twenty years Eisai divided his time between Kyoto and Bizen. He led an active life, writing commentaries on the sūtra s, lecturing on the Lotus Sūtra (Hōkekyō), conducting Esoteric rituals for rain or relief from sickness, and establishing small communities of disciples. Most of this activity seems to have been devoted not to the propagation of Zen but to the reform of Tendai Buddhism.

In 1187 Eisai again set out for China. His hope was to journey on to India in pilgrimage to the sacred sites associated with the life of the Buddha, but because of disturbances on the borders, his request for a travel permit was rejected by the Chinese authorities. Frustrated, Eisai made his way to Mount Tiantai. There he met the Chan master Xuan Huaichang, under whose guidance he deepened his knowledge of the tradition. Just before returning to Japan in 1191, Eisai committed himself to the bodhisattva precepts and was granted a monk's robe and certificate of enlightenment by Xuan.

After his second visit to China, Eisai began to actively promote Zen. He established small temples on Kyushu and along the coast of the Inland Sea, where he combined the study of Zen with devotion to the Lotus Sūtra. This activity did not go unnoticed in Tendai Buddhist circles. In 1194 monks from Enryakuji, arguing that Eisai was heretically engaged in an attempt to establish a new branch of Buddhism in Japan, persuaded the court to issue an edict proscribing Zen. In an attempt to defend himself and justify his espousal of Zen, Eisai wrote Kōzen gokokuron (Arguments in favor of the promulgation of Zen as a defense of the country). In this long work Eisai offered four major arguments in favor of Zen: that it was the very essence of Buddhism; that it was not a new teaching but had been accepted by Saichō and other patriarchs of Tendai Buddhism; that it was based on the disciplined observance of the Buddhist precepts; and that its sponsorship would certainly lead to the rejuvenation of Buddhism in Japan and to the prosperity and security of the nation.

The defense of Zen offered by Eisai did little to assuage the hostility of the Buddhist establishment in Kyoto. In 1199 Eisai set out for eastern Japan, where he found powerful patrons in the Kamakura warrior regime. Here Eisai was presented with an opportunity to spread Zen in the heartland of warrior power, well away from the interference of Enryakuji. But while he presumably talked privately to his patrons about Zen, the record of his public functions reveals only the conduct of Esoteric rituals and prayer ceremonies in Kamakura.

In 1202 Eisai returned to Kyoto. There, with the shogun Yoriie's backing, he established the monastery of Kenninji, in which Zen was to be practiced in concert with Tendai and Esoteric Buddhism. The writings and activities of the last twenty years of Eisai's life all reflect his conviction of the importance of renewing a broadly based Buddhism deriving its strength from the strict observance of the rules of lay and monastic life. This is the message of his Nippon buppō chūkō ganbun (An appeal for the restoration of Japanese Buddhism), written in 1204. Before his death in 1215, Eisai made one last visit to Kamakura, where he presented to the shogun Minamoto Sanetomo a treatise on the efficacy of tea drinking, the Kissa yōjōki.

Had Japanese knowledge of Chan come to an end with Eisai, it is unlikely that it would ever have taken deep root in Japan. Although Eisai provided a vigorous intellectual defense of Zen, he did not seek to put it on an independent footing. This was to be the task of his successors, monks such as Dōgen, Enni of Tōfukuji, and the Chinese masters who came to Japan beginning in the mid-thirteenth century. Eisai, however, framed the terms of the debate that would continue over the acceptance of Zen, and whetted the curiosity of a small band of followers, some of whom would themselves go to China in search of a deeper understanding of Zen practice.

See Also



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

Dumoulin, Heinrich. A History of Zen Buddhism. Translated by Paul Peachey. New York, 1963.

Furuta Shōkin. Eisai, Nihon no Zen goruku. Tokyo, 1977.

Martin Collcutt (1987)


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The Japanese Buddhist monk Eisai (1141-1215) introduced the Zen Buddhist Rinzai sect to Japan, and under him Zen first became acknowledged as an independent school of Buddhism. He is also responsible for popularizing the cultivation of tea in Japan.

Also known by his honorific title of Zenko kokushi (national teacher), Eisai came from a family of Shinto priests in the district of Okayama. Like many famous priests in his period, he studied at the great Tendai center on Mt. Hiei. In 1168 he made his first trip to China, where he visited Zen centers, especially those flourishing on Mt. T'ien-t'ai. He was much impressed by what he saw and felt with growing conviction that Zen could greatly contribute to a reawakening of Buddhist faith in Japan.

In 1187 he undertook a second trip to the continent for the purpose of tracing the origins of Buddhism to India. The authorities, however, refused him permission to go beyond Chinese borders. He studied on Mt. T'ient'ai until 1191, where he was ordained in the Rinzai (Chinese, Lin-ch'i) sect and returned to Japan. He constructed the first Rinzai temple, the Shofukuji, at Hakata in Kyushu.

Eisai proclaimed the superiority of Zen mediation over other Buddhist disciplines, thus provoking the ire of the Tendai monks who sought to outlaw the new sect. However, Eisai enjoyed the protection of the shogun Minamoto Yoriie, and in 1202 he was given the direction of the Kenninji in Kyoto. Like Saicho, and particularly Nichiren, Eisai associated his type of Buddhism with national welfare and promoted Zen by publishing a tract entitled Kozen Gokoku Ron (The Propagation of Zen for the Protection of the Country).

But Eisai was constantly obliged to face Tendai and Shingon opposition. As a compromise, Eisai conducted the Kenninji not as a purely Zen establishment but also with places for Tendai and Shingon worship. Indeed, he continued to recite Shingon magic formulas. Shortly before his death, Eisai established by government order the third Zen monastery at Kamakura, the Jufukuji, and the close relationship of Zen with the military caste dates from this time.

Introduction of Tea

Although tea had been introduced to Japan about 800 by Buddhist monks who had gone to China, its cultivation and consumption were not widespread before Eisai's time. Eisai, returning from China in 1191, brought tea seeds with him and planted them near Kyoto. In 1214 he composed the Kissa Yojoki (Drink Tea to Improve Health and Prolong Life), in which he set forth the hygienic and curative value of tea. Tea was considered an important adjunct to Zen mediation, for it acted as a mild stimulant against sleepiness.

Further Reading

A discussion of Eisai and excerpts from his writings may be found in Ryusaku Tsunoda and others, eds., Sources of the Japanese Tradition (1958). A good book on the history of Zen is Heinrich Dumoulin, A History of Zen Buddhism (trans. 1963). □


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Eisai or Yōsai (1141–1215). A Tendai monk who established the Rinzai Zen Buddhist school in Japan. He began his career at Mount Hiei, studying Tendai esotericism, but went to China in 1168. He returned to Japan in 1191 and built the first Rinzai Zen temple, Shōfukuji. In spite of the strong opposition from Mount Hiei against the establishment of Zen, he was successful in founding Kenninji (monastery) in Kyōto and Jufukuji in Kamakura. His polemical work, Kōzen gokoku ron (Dissemination of Zen for the Defence of the Nation), argues for the need of an independent Zen school, although he himself taught a synthesis of Tendai, esotericism, and Zen. He is also famous for introducing the cultivation of tea (see CHADŌ) to Japan and writing the first book on the merits of tea drinking, Kissa yōjōki. He instructed Dōgen, and for that reason, although his own lineage died out, he is often regarded as the founding figure of Zen in Japan. He was given the posthumous title of Senkō Kokushi.