The earliest information we possess regarding Zen (Ch'an in Chinese) in Japan refers back to when Dosho, an outstanding Japanese monk, came into contact with the tradition of the Indian philosopher Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma was regarded as the first great master of Ch'an, a Chinese Buddhist sect. Legend has it that he once sat staring at a cave wall in China for nine years. His goal in this painful experience was to find enlightenment through meditation. When this form of meditative exercise reached Japan, it became known as Zen. (1)
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Zen was introduced in Japan as early as the seventh century, and was being taught by the eighth and ninth centuries. However, Zen had obstacles to overcome since it was a foreign religion. It did not prosper until the early Kamakura period (1185-1333), when concentration on a single path became important. (3) It was also during this period that Zen found its entree among the Japanese nobility. (1)
There were two main Zen schools that arose during this time period in Japan. Each contributed different ways of how to reach enlightenment. One was Rinzai, and the other was Soto. The followers of Rinzai believed they would find enlightenment through spontaneous flashes. The Soto school attempted to reach enlightenment through lengthy sessions of meditation. The founding of these two differing schools are attributed to two monks who had a vital role in the development of Zen in Japan. (3)
The first of these, Eisai (1141-1215), is said to be the actual founder of Japanese Zen. Eisai traveled to China, where he was trained in the Lin-chi (Rinzai) house. He returned to Japan in 1191 and constructed the first Rinzai sect (in Japan). He managed to win the favor of the Shoguns and forge the alliance with the military class that is still the social foundation of Japanese Zen. (3)
The other founder was Dogan (1200-1253), who established the Ts'ao-tung (Soto) school of Zen in Japan. He taught zazen ("sitting meditation"), wrote, and attracted so many followers that he moved several times to more spacious temples. Dogan eventually moved to east Japan and settled in a nearby temple (Eiheiji) that was built in his honor. To this day, he is still considered a great thinker, an admirable man, and a gifted contemplative, both by Buddhists of all sects and by many non-Buddhists. Dogan is undeniably the most significant person in the history of Japanese Zen. (2)
The methods used by different schools of Zen on how to reach enlightenment vary some, but the fundamental concept remains consistent. Zen does not stress retreat from life, but rather full immersion in it. It rejects the shadow world of concepts and aims to perceive the world directly. (1) There are three primary reasons why Zen came to Japan at that particular time and was successful. First, Zen cultivated a pure aesthetic dimension, and artistic creativity was important in that era. Second, there was an emphasis on the transcendence of all life. And finally, Zen learned to coexist, and even merge some, with Shinto worship and belief. (3)
(1) Statler, Oliver, Great Religions of the World (National Geographic Society, 1971).
(2) Robinson, Richard & Johnson, Willard, The Buddhist Religion, A Historical Introduction: Third Edition (Belmont, CA; Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1982).
(3) Dumoulin, Heinrich S. J., A History of Zen Buddhism (New York; McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1965).