What is it about?

Zen temples in Japan today are typically split between prayer temples and training centers. Zen training is typically thought to involve either meditation or kōan training, or both. Yet Edo period accounts suggest that the study of Buddhist and Chinese literary culture may have been equally if not more important topics for rigorous study. This paper first investigates the case of a network of eminent 17th-18th century scholar-monks from all three modern traditions of Japanese Zen—Sōtō, Rinzai, and Ōbaku—who praised the commentary Kakumon Kantetsu (d. 1730) wrote to every single piece of poetry or prose in Juefan Huihong’s (1071-1128) collected works, Chan of Words and Letters from Stone Gate Monastery (Ch. Shimen wenzichan; Jp. Sekimon mojizen). Next, it explores what wooden engravings of references to the Chinese Scripture of the Way and Its Virtue (Daode jing) and rock reliefs in Hangzhou at Daiōji, the temple where Kantetsu was the thirteenth abbot and where he welcomed the Chinese émigré Buddhist monk Xinyue Xingchou (Shin’etsu Kōchū 1639-1696), might tell us about how Zen was cultivated in practice. Finally, this paper asks how Kantetsu’s promotion of Huihong’s “scholastic” or “lettered” Chan or Zen might lead us rethink the role of Song dynasty (960-1279) literary arts within the rich historical context of Zen Buddhism in Edo Japan.

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Why is it important?

This paper shows that the culture and arts of the literary elite in Song China continued to play an especially significant role in Zen Buddhism in Japan as late as the 17th-18 centuries. Perhaps Zen Buddhism is not as much about meditation or kōan introspection as it is about the cultivation and promotion of the literary arts.


I hope this article will cause people to think more broadly about the history of Chinese and Japanese Zen Buddhism, particularly when we place the teachings within the context of rich material culture.

George Keyworth
University of Saskatchewan

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This page is a summary of: ‘Study Effortless-Action’, Journal of Religion in Japan, January 2017, Brill, DOI: 10.1163/22118349-00602003.
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