Kenninji Temple: The Roots of Zen in Japan

Kenninji Temple, the Roots of Zen in Japan, Oxherd Playing a Flute by Nagasawa Tosetsu, Edo period, 18th century, Kyushoin, Kyoto

RATHER-LESS VISTED by foreign tourists than other major sites, Kenninji Temple is well-known for being the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto, even though it has been much re-built from time to time throughout its history. The temple was founded in 1202 by Priest Myoan k osai who is famous not only for having brought the practice of Rinzai Zen to Japan, but also for introducing the custom of drinking green tea and the cultivation of tea plants.

Zen and Tea

Both Zen and tea became deeply ingrained throughout the country and inform much of what we perceive in almost all aspects of Japanese culture today. Next year marks the 800th memorial of the death of Yosai (circa 1141-1215) and this Spring the Tokyo National Museum is holding a special exhibition to show treasures of Kenninji and its associated temples, in commemoration of his achievements.

Rinzai Zen

One of three main schools of Zen practice in Japan (along with the Soto and Obaku sects), Rinzai Zen is known for its tough, and sometimes violent encouragement for those seeking enlightenment. Whereas all three sects practise meditation extensively, Rinzai practitioners espouse the idea that something extra โ€“ a well-timed kick, or a sharp whack with a bamboo stick for example โ€“ can jolt the mind from a meditative daydream to sudden enlightenment.

Koan Riddles

The sect is also well-known for its koan riddles โ€“ eg  โ€˜what is the sound of one hand clapping?โ€™ that while impossible to solve rationally, are calculated to force the mind into a change of gear necessary to reach something of a higher, more intuitive level. To an already enlightened master, the answers given to these koan by a struggling Zen practitioner will reveal how far advanced he is on his chosen path.

With freezing monasteries, strict discipline and hard work, the rigours of Rinzai Zen appealed to the Japanese samurai warriors who shared similar ideals, and its practice quickly spread throughout the military รฉlite. Emphasising intuition and insight over rational thought, Rinzai Zen had a powerful influence on swordsmanship in which there was no time to think and instant action determined life or death.

From these joint disciplines of Zen and the already well-established martial arts of Japan, the concept of mushin (no-mind) evolved as an ideal where the warrior discards all fear, thought, or analysis of his situation when facing an opponent and acts purely on his gut feeling and intuition. Until firearms became the weapons of choice there was no-one more deadly than a master Japanese swordsman.

Yosai Paintings

Yosai began his religious training at an early age as a junior monk studying the well-established Tendai Buddhism at the sectโ€™s main temple on Mount Hie, between Kyoto and Lake Biwa. Tendai was based on the Chinese Tiantai teaching with its emphasis on the classical Lotus Sutra, but in Japan the faith evolved to become quite catholic, so to speak, including influences of Zen and various branches of esoteric Buddhism, flavoured with the animist spirituality of native Shinto and its countless deities both good and bad.

While enjoying Imperial patronage, Tendai became the established form of Buddhism in Japan and in turn spawned new religious leaders and thinkers who formed their own sects, most of which are extant today.

Yosai Visited China

On two occasions, Yosai visited China as a member of religious exchanges common at the time. On his first visit, in 1168, he studied Tantai Buddhism and its meditative practices for a few months before returning to Mount Hie. Two decades later, in 1187, he returned to China and tried unsuccessfully to journey on to India where he had planned a pilgrimage to study Buddhism at its source.

His goal was thwarted by political problems, but nevertheless he made his way to Mount Tianta, where he spent some three years studying Rinzai Zen, before returning to Japan in 1191. Along with other members of religious exchange programmes โ€“ and just as tourists do today โ€“ Yosai brought back karamono Chinese souvenirs that are now treasured possessions of the temple.

Shofuku Temple in Kyushu

At first Yosai steered clear of Kyoto in order to avoid challenging the established clerical heirarchy, and founded instead the Shofuku Temple in Kyushu from where he attracted a following for the new way of Rinzai Zen. He was in time challenged by officials of the Tendai and Shingon Buddhist sects who sensed unwelcome change and was called to Kyoto to answer for himself.

Having his beliefs summarised in his seminal work, the Kozen Gokuro,  which explained the merits of Rinzai Zen for the country as a whole, he was well-prepared with a convincing argument. His presentation caught the attention of the ruling military shogunate which then built the Jufukuji Temple in Kamakura โ€“ then the capital city โ€“ for Yosai to administer as Abbot. After three years he moved back to Kyoto to take over the new Kinninji Temple and stayed there until his death, teaching Rinzai Zen meditation practice together with the rituals of Tendai and Shingon Buddhism.

Three Million Rinzai Zen Followers in Japan

It is estimated that today there are more than three million Rinzai followers in Japan supported by more than six thousand temples. Probably few achieve enlightenment in their present lifetime but the benefits of meditation are now well-known and almost all temples offer programmes for the layman follower. Zen has also spread around the world, firstly as a fashionable beatnik fad shortly after the war, but more recently as a serious practice now that medical research has proven the merits of meditation and the use of intuition as an adjunct or replacement of orthodox therapy. Zen meditation can be practised without need of creed nor declaration of belief and many of its followers in the West are ordained in various branches of Christianity.

The Gods of Wind and Thunder by Tawaraya Sotatsu

The great temples of Japan have long been patrons of the arts and repositories of ancient treasures and Kenninji is no exception. Perhaps the most celebrated of the Kenninji collection is the famous pair of two-panel screens depicting the Gods of Wind and Thunder by Tawaraya Sotatsu (?-1643?), one of the early members of the Rimpa school of decorative painting who was highly influential in the artistic renaissance of early 17th-century Kyoto.

The paintings on gold leaf express the splendid exuberance of Momoyama and early-Edo culture and show the two deities, one on each screen, facing each other in dramatic pose across an empty space. The two gods are shown as grotesque demon-like beings with ferocious expressions and gold eyes, more of the native Shinto pantheon, but showing ancient antecedents derived from India.

The thunder god on the left-hand screen is surrounded by a ring of drums โ€“ a design that dates back to images of the Indian Gupta-period over 2,000 years earlier. Both emerge from a dark haze of ink smudges that suggest their stormy realm, and contrast with the clean lines of the figure portraits. Despite the deities having a long history in mainland Asia, no-one before Sotatsu had conceived their depiction in this dramatic yet decorative manner. The screens made a great impression on all who viewed them and were imitated by later Rimpa artists such as Ogata Korin (1658-1716) and Sakai Hoitsu (1761-1828).

Set of Scroll Paintings at Kenninji Temple

Just as dramatic is a set of scroll paintings remounted from sliding fusuma doors originally in the Kenninji Abbotโ€™s quarters, (now replaced by replicas), that show dragons in clouds painted by Kaiho Yusho (1533-1615) โ€“ one of the leading masters of Momoyama painting along with Hasegawa Tohaku and the two Kano school artists, Eitoku and Sanraku. Yusho was spared the fate of the rest of his samurai family members who were killed in battle, by having been placed at an early age in Tลfuku-ji Temple in Kyoto.

As a boy he served as a temple page to the higher-ranking clerics and later became a lay priest, turning to art only when in his forties. Even though a late-bloomer, his talent surfaced quickly under the instruction of Kano school artists โ€“ probably Eitoku or Motonobu โ€“ and soon found employment decorating the sumptuous Jurakudai palace/fortress being built in Kyoto for the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

Painted in various intensities of ink, the two ferocious dragons loom out of swirling clouds, manifesting their immense power and spring-like coiled energy. The paintings demonstrate the Japanese genius of cropping images for maximum effect within the frames of the sliding doors, suggestive of film-directors squaring off scenes with the thumbs and forefingers of both hands to judge a good shot. In Japan, this cropping can often reduce the picture to just one branch of a tree for example โ€“ or parts of a dragon as in these paintings โ€“ but almost unheard-of in Western painting until the modern period.

Kenninji Temple in the Edo Period

Kenninji Temple kept up with the artistic changes of the Edo period and two examples of work by the major Edo eccentrics, Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800) and the shorter-lived Nagasawa Rosetsu (1754-1799) are on show. The hanging scroll by Jakuchu is one of his masterpieces showing a rooster in a snowy landscape with flowering prunus and camellia, finely painted in ink and colours on silk. As with all of Jakuchuโ€™s works the painting reveals his unique, cleverly thought-out sense of design in which all components tease and delight the eye.

Against a gloomy wintry sky and snow-covered foliage, the only strong colours to be seen are the roosterโ€™s yellow feet and his vivid comb echoes the red camellias above. (By the way, this is the same painting illustrated on the cover of the catalogue of the superb Jakuchu exhibition held at the New York Asia Society galleries in 1989.)

Nasagawa Rosetsu Painting of a Boy Playing a Flute

A painting of a boy playing a flute while seated on a water-buffalo by Nagasawa Rosetsu demonstrates the incredibly controlled brushwork of this now-fashionable Edo eccentric as well as his cartoon-like humorous way of expressing the subject. Yet it also illustrates the very deep Zen hurdle of taming the mind. In sitting meditation, the practitioner is exhorted to empty the mind and think of nothing, yet most will find this impossible at first.

This uncontrollable mischievous nature is know as monkey-mind and is analogised by a small boy taming a powerful but otherwise benign ox; at first a huge struggle as the buffalo pursues its own agenda, but finally in submission with the victorious child mounted on its back. Various images of this taming process are often seen in Zen painting such as this. To know more about the work of Nasagawa Rosetsu, read the article on his famous tiger paintings and the roots of Zen painting  here.

Other Treasures of Kenninji Temple

Other treasures abound in what is a major exhibition and it is worth checking to see which objects will be on display at any time during the show, as some will be rotated for conservation reasons. Zen permeates all levels of Japanese culture โ€“ painting, ceramics, the No drama, haiku poetry, swordsmanship and other martial arts, even the presentation of this countryโ€™s unique cuisine โ€“ and cannot be ignored by anyone trying to appreciate it. This exhibition helps to introduce how Zen came to Japan where it is still preserved today, even if largely ignored in the only other two countries where it previously flourished: China and Korea. The accompanying catalogue is a mine of information and full of sumptuous photographs.


The 800th Memorial of Yosai: Roots of Zen: Yosai and the Treasures of Kenninji Temple, until 18 May 18 at Tokyo National Museum, Heisei-kan Special Exhibition Galleries, Ueno Park, Tokyo,