Eisai: the underrated Zen master

Lately, I’ve been taking quite an interest in a Buddhist monk by the name of Eisai (栄西, sounds like “eh-sigh”):1

Eisai, founder of Rinzai Zen

Eisai, as depicted in Wikipedia

Eisai is the founder of the Japanese Rinzai Zen sect, but compared to his protoge, Dogen, or the Chinese master Linji, he often gets little attenion. My interest in Eisai, first arose when I was in Ireland and read Tanabe’s collection of essays on Japanese religion, and later, after doing research on monastic precepts in Japan. The former book showed Eisai’s continued practice of esoteric tantric practices even after he had become a Zen master, and his efforts to restore monastic discipline at Tendai’s Mt. Hiei where he had once been a student. He argued in his famous essay, the Kōzen Gokokuron (興禅護国論) or “Treatise for Promoting Zen for the Protection of the Nation”, he argued that the moral character of the country was reflected in its clergy. In order to preserve the proper character the Vinaya, the ancient Buddhist monastic code eschewed by Tendai’s preference for the Bodhisattva precepts only, was necessary. His ideas were quickly shot down at the time, but later the Kamakura Shogunate proved more amenable. It made me realize that Eisai is a pretty complex figure, even though sources on his life are pretty scant.

This morning, while reading the Buddhist history manga that I’ve been looking at lately, it covered the life of Eisai again, and once again I was impressed with his character. Eisai is a man who stuck to his principles, and wasn’t afraid to take chances for the sake of learning the Dharma. Apparently he made two trips to Song Dynasty China, a difficult trip in those days, and had to return from the first trip after only six months, and little accomplished. Years later, on the second trip he actually tried to go to India (called tenjiku (天竺) at the time) to bring back authentic Buddhism. The border guards in China turned him away because of the Mongol invasions, and little did everyone know that Buddhism had largely collapsed by that time anyway in India due to the ascension of Hinduism, and barbarian invasions from Central Asia. It was on this second trip, that Eisai encountered by chance a Chinese monastery named Mannenji (万年寺) in Japanese (or “10,000 year temple”) and a powerful teacher named Kian Eshō (虚庵懐敞, Xūā Huái-chǎng in modern Mandarin) who taught him the Rinzai path, and granted him the right of Dharma transmission or inka when Eisai was 47 and after four years of intense training.

The grateful Eisai then returned to Japan for good and started his new Rinzai lineage in Japan in a tiny little monastery at first in Kyushu and eventually caught the attention of the new Kamakura Shogunate, who granted him the right to build a big new monastery in Kyoto called Kenninji (建仁寺).

One story in the manga I really liked, probably apocryphal or even made up just for the manga, is a story that at Kenninji, a starving man came one day begging for food. He hadn’t eaten in days and was desperate. In the story, Eisai and the community have no money2, so Eisai gives the man a small box of precious that was supposed to be used to build a new Buddha statue. The grateful man leaves, but Eisai’s disciples are shocked and fear that Eisai will be reborn in hell for his desecration of a Buddhist image. Eisai states that (assuming I read the Japanese correctly) that even if he’s reborn in Hell, then he still intends to help people no matter what.

Eisai was clearly a disciple of the Buddha who was down-to-earth and oriented toward good, earnest practice and compassion toward others. As he is quoted as saying:

“I don’t know anything about Buddhas of the past, present, or future. But I know cats exist, I know that cows exist.”

I don’t think Eisai was being flippant or anti-intellectual, as some Buddhists may believe, but simply that he tried to keep himself grounded as much as possible. If only more people in the world were like that. :)

Anyway, so this was a brief portrait of a Zen master who probably deserves more credit than he gets. Rinzai Zen is popular in the West, and we owe Eisai for his dogged determination and principled character for it.

Finally I’d like to quote part of the opening of Eisai’s Kōzen Gokokuron, as printed in Tanabe’s book:

Great indeed is the Mind! Heaven’s height is immeasurable, but Mind rises above Heaven; the earth’s depth is also unfathomable, but Mind reaches below the earth. The light of the sun and moon cannot be outdistanced, yet Mind passes beyond the light of the sun and moon. The universe is limitless, yet Mind travels beyond the universe. Though referred to as Space, or the Primal Energy that gives rise to myriad existence, it is Mind that encompasses Space and generates Primal Energy. Because of it, the sky shelters from above and the earth supports from below. Because of it, the sun and moon rotate, the four seasons change, and all things are generated. Great indeed is Mind!
…Knowledge of the Mind teaching has been made possible through the combined efforts of several generations of patriarchs in India and the followers of the teaching in China…
…Externally, the Mind teaching conforms to the position taken in Tendai teaching that the Buddha-nature, through the aid of the precepts, is always present. Internally, it joins to this the view of prajñā that awakening is attained through wisdom. This in the final analysis, is the teaching of the Zen school. (trans. Yanagida Seizan)

Namu Amida Butsu

1 Update: A lot of people have been looking for how to pronounce ‘Eisai’ through Google. For the record, in English, it sounds like “ay-sigh”. The Kanji in his name can also be read as Yōsai, and both are considered acceptable.

2 In the traditional Buddhist monastic code, monks should generally never handle money, as they have taken a vow of poverty, as well as renouncing material concerns of course.

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2 Comments on “Eisai: the underrated Zen master”

  1. Kyōshin says:

    Hi Doug, Ejo records Dogen Zenji mentionning the incident your describe (where Eisai gave the copper intended for the halo of a Yakushi Buddha statue to the poor family) in the’Shobogenzo Zuimonki’ 1235-1237 so the story at least dates pretty near to the time.

    Thanks as always for broadening my awareness of Buddhist history.

    Gassho, K

  2. Doug says:

    Wow thanks a lot Kyoushin! I always appreciate independent verification on such things because the Internet has enough poor fact checking as it is! :-)

    Take care!

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