Samurai Zen

The Role of Zen in Japan's Samurai Culture

samurai-on-horseback.jpg
Samurai on horseback, wearing armor and horned helmet, carrying bow and arrows. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

One of the things "everybody knows" about Japanese history is that the famous samurai warriors were "into" Zen. But is that true, or false?

It's true, up to a point. But it's also true that the Zen-samurai connection has been hyped and romanticized out of proportion to what it actually was, especially by authors of popular books about Zen.

Historical Background

Samurai history can be traced back to the 7th century.

By the 10th century, the samurai had grown very powerful and effectively controlled most of Japan. The Kumakura Period (1185–1333) saw failed Mongol invasions, political upheavals, and civil war, all of which kept the samurai busy.

Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the 6th century by a delegation from Korea. Over the centuries several schools of Mahayana Buddhism were imported from mainland Asia, mostly from China. Zen Buddhism — called Chan in China — was among the last of these, reaching Japan initially at the end of the 12th century, in 1191. This first school of Buddhism in Japan was Rinzai. Another school, Soto, was established a few years later, in 1227.

Late in the 13th century, samurai began to practice Zen meditation with Rinzai masters. The intensive concentration of Rinzai-style meditation can be an aid in enhancing martial arts skills and reducing fear of death on a battlefield.

The patronage of samurai brought many perks to Rinzai, so many masters were happy to cater to it.

Some samurai intensely engaged in Rinzai Zen practice, and a few became masters. However, it appears the majority of Zen-practicing samurai sought the mental discipline to be better warriors but were not so keen on the Buddhism part of Zen.

Not all Rinzai masters sought the patronage of samurai. The O-to-kan lineage -- named after its three founding teachers, Nampo Jomyo (or Daio Kokushi, 1235-1308), Shuho Myocho (or Daito Kokushi, 1282-1338), and Kanzan Egen (or Kanzen Kokushi, 1277-1360) -- maintained distance from Kyoto and other urban centers and did not seek the favor of the samurai or nobility. This is the only surviving Rinzai lineage in Japan today.

Both Soto and Rinzai Zen grew in prominence and influence during the Muromachi Period (1336–1573), when Zen made a huge impact on many aspects of Japanese art and culture.

The warlord Oda Nobunaga overthrew the government of Japan in 1573, which began what’s called the Momoyama Period (1573-1603). Oda Nobunaga and his successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, attacked and destroyed one Buddhist monastery after another until institutional Buddhism in Japan was under the warlords’ control. The influence of Buddhism declined during the Edo Period (1603–1867), and Buddhism was replaced by Shinto as the national religion of Japan late in the 19th century. About that same time, the Meiji Emperor abolished the samurai class, which by then consisted mostly of bureaucrats, not warriors.

The Samurai-Zen Connection in Literature

In 1913 a Japanese Soto Zen priest and university professor who was lecturing at Harvard wrote and published Religion of the Samurai: A Study of Zen Philosophy and Discipline in China and Japan.

Among other inaccurate claims, the author, Nukariya Kaiten (1867-1934) wrote that “As regards Japan, it [Zen] was first introduced into the island as the faith first for the Samurai or the military class, and molded the characters of many distinguished soldiers whose lives adorn the pages of her history.” As I've already explained this is not what happened. But a great many popular books about Zen that came along later uncritically repeated what Nukariya Kaiten had said.

The professor must have known that what he wrote was not accurate. Most likely he was reflecting the growing military fervor of his generation that eventually would lead to the War in the Pacific in the 20th century.

Yes, Zen influenced the samurai, as it did most of Japanese culture and society for a time. And yes, there is a connection between Zen and Japanese martial arts. Zen originated in China’s Shaolin monastery, so Zen and martial arts have long been associated.  There is also a connection between Zen and Japanese flower arranging, calligraphy, poetry (notably haiku), bamboo flute playing and the tea ceremony.

But calling Zen "the religion of the samurai" is going overboard. Many of the great Rinzai masters, including Hakuin, had no notable association with samurai, and there is little connection between the samurai and Soto. And while many samurai did practice Zen meditation for a time, most weren't all that religious about it.