The Zen Pioneer: Myōan Eisai/Yōsai

Myōan Eisai/Yōsai (明菴栄西) (27 May 1141 – 1 August 1215) was a Japanese Buddhist priest who played a significant role in the development of Zen Buddhism in Japan. He is credited with founding the Rinzai school, the Japanese lineage of the Linji school of Zen Buddhism. Eisai introduced Zen teachings to Japan in 1191 after his journey to China from 1187 to 1191, where he received initiation into the Linji school from the master Hsü an. It is also believed that Eisai popularized green tea in Japan following his trip. He was the founding abbot of Shōfuku-ji, Japan’s first Zen temple, as well as Kennin-ji.

Eisai: A Journey of Zen and Tea

Early Years and Discovery of Zen

Born in Bitchū Province (present-day Okayama, Okayama), Eisai began his spiritual path as a Tendai sect monk. However, disenchanted with the state of Buddhism in his time, he embarked on a transformative journey in 1168 to Mount Tiantai in China, the birthplace of the Tendai sect. It was there that he encountered the profound influence of the Chan school, known as Zen in Japan, within Chinese Buddhism. Though his initial stay in China was brief, lasting only six months, Eisai’s thirst for knowledge led him back in 1187 for an extended period. Under the guidance of Xuan Huaichang, a master of the Linji (Rinzai) lineage, Eisai delved deeper into the teachings at Jingde Si monastery.

Return to Japan: Zen and Green Tea

Armed with newfound wisdom and inspiration, Eisai returned to Japan in 1191, carrying with him Zen scriptures and green tea seeds. He wasted no time in establishing Shōfuku-ji in Kyūshū, a monumental milestone as Japan’s first Zen temple. This marked the beginning of Eisai’s mission to introduce and propagate Zen teachings in his homeland.

A Diplomat for Zen

Eisai embarked on a gradual dissemination of Zen teachings, employing diplomatic strategies to gain recognition from the Tendai school and the Imperial court. Despite facing opposition from traditional Buddhist schools such as Tendai, Shingon, and Pure Land, Eisai’s unwavering dedication led him to leave Kyoto in 1199 and seek refuge in Kamakura. It was there that the shōgun and the rising warrior class welcomed his teachings with open arms. Hōjō Masako, the widow of Yoritomo, granted Eisai permission to construct Jufuku-ji, the first Zen temple in Kamakura. In 1202, with the support of Yoritomo’s son, Minamoto no Yoriie, Eisai established Kennin-ji in Kyoto. These milestones cemented his contribution to the Zen movement.

Legacy and Eclectic Spirit

Eisai’s remarkable journey was marked by his eclecticism. Despite being associated with the Rinzai lineage, he never abandoned his Tendai monk status, continuing to engage in Tendai esoteric practices throughout his life. While he is credited with introducing the Rinzai lineage to Japan, it was his successors who shaped a distinctly Japanese Zen tradition, separate from other Buddhist schools. Notably, Eihei Dōgen, one of Eisai’s prominent disciples, ventured to China and returned to establish the influential Sōtō school of Zen in Japan.

Eisai’s legacy transcends boundaries, embodying the spirit of Zen and the transformative power of tea in Japanese culture.

Eisai: A Pioneer of Japanese Tea Tradition

Introduction and Tea Seeds from China

Eisai’s name is forever linked with the rich tea culture of Japan. During his second visit to China in 1191, he brought back precious green tea seeds and penned the influential book 喫茶養生記 (Kissa Yōjōki), or “Drinking Tea for Health.” According to legend, he carefully planted these seeds in the Ishigamibo garden at Seburiyama in Hizen, marking the birth of Japan’s tea tradition.

Tea as Medicine: Healing the Shōgun

Eisai’s use of tea as a medicinal treatment gained notable attention, especially when he administered it to shōgun Sanetomo. The historical record, Azuma Kagami, recounts the event:

“The shōgun fell mildly ill, and attendants tried various remedies. The illness was not severe but resulted from excessive wine consumption the previous evening. Priest Yojo, who had arrived to perform rituals and learned of the situation, brought a bowl of tea from his temple, proclaiming its healing properties. He also requested that the attendants present the shōgun with a scroll extolling the virtues of tea. The shōgun was delighted by the gift. Priest Yojo mentioned that he had composed the scroll during his meditation breaks.”

Tea in Troubled Times: A Remedy for the Latter Age

Eisai’s emphasis on the medicinal qualities of tea can be traced to the prevalent belief of the time that the world was in mappō, the Latter Age of the Dharma, characterized as an era of decline. Living through tumultuous times marked by conflict in Japan, Eisai saw tea as a remedy for various ailments, offering solace to individuals during these challenging times.

Kissa Yōjōki: Exploring the Harmony of Elements and Flavors

In Kissa Yōjōki, Eisai delves into the alignment of the five elements of Chinese science (earth, fire, water, wood, and metal) with the major organs (liver, lungs, heart, spleen, and kidneys). Each organ, he believed, favored a specific flavor—acidic, pungent, bitter, sweet, or salty. Eisai argued that the typical Japanese diet of the era provided an abundance of all flavors except bitterness, which he identified as a leading cause of heart diseases prevalent among the Japanese population. He emphasized the importance of his green tea in reintroducing the bitter flavor and maintaining a healthy heart.

Eisai’s legacy endures as he played a crucial role in shaping the tea tradition in Japan, promoting its medicinal properties, and providing a cultural anchor during a challenging period in history.

Zen Buddhism for the Protection of the Country: Eisai’s Vision of Unity

During Japan’s Nara and Heian periods, Buddhism played a crucial role in unifying the nation. Amongst the various Buddhist schools, Eisai firmly believed that Zen Buddhism held the key to safeguarding the country. He identified established Buddhist schools as contributors to Japan’s struggles and sought to address this issue.[6]

During that time, three important scriptures—the Lotus Sutra, Golden Light Sutra, and the Humane King Sutra—were instrumental in promoting the idea of a unified Buddhist Japan. Eisai’s renowned work, the Kōzen gokokuron or “The Promotion of Zen for the Protection of the Country,” was heavily influenced by the Ninno kyo, which emphasized the inseparable connection between preserving Buddhism and preserving the nation.[7] Eisai wrote the Kōzen gokokuron with the intention of rectifying existing Buddhist schools by providing them with examples of moral practice. His aim was to convince the military rulers of the Minamoto clan to support Zen Buddhism and establish a Zen-based government. Through his writing, he advocated for the restoration of Zen’s core values and practices.[6]

Eisai’s work hinges on the notion that Buddhism is essential for the functioning of society. However, the Kōzen gokokuron has often been criticized as nationalistic propaganda. Some people overlook its significance when interpreting it solely from a “Pure” Zen perspective, primarily due to the compromises Eisai made while promoting Zen Buddhism in Japan.

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