Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

Why was the monk Eisai an important figure?

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. Tian Tai. He was much impressed by what he saw and felt with growing conviction that Zen could contribute greatly 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. Tian Tai until 1191, where he was ordained in the Rinzai (Chinese, Lin Chi) 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).


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