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About Obaku Zen

The union of self-power and other-power runs throughout the practice of Zen in China and Vietnam, and while the two main Japanese Zen sects, Rinzai and Soto, tend to emphasize self-power exclusively, there is a third sect called Obaku Zen, which takes the fusion of the two powers as its basic method of cultivation. In Japan the most 'Chinese' form of Zen is Obaku, but the better-known traditions are Rinzai and Soto, both founded by Tendai-trained monks. The founder of the Obaku School of Zen Buddhism in Japan, Zen Master Ingen, came to Nagasaki from China in 1654 (Jo'o 3). At the time, the Rinzai and Soto Schools of Zen, which had once flourished in Japan, were in decline, and many felt a need for their revival. In Fujian Province in China, the temple Wanfusi (J: Manpukuji) on Mount Obaku was a center for the practice of Rinzai Zen, and was led by the Zen Master Ingen, whose influence and fame in the world of Zen were known even in Japan. Zen priests in Japan wished for Ingen to come to Japan, and with the help of Chinese parishioners of the three Todera in Nagasaki they journeyed to China three times to request that he come to Japan. Although Ingen had already reached the venerable age of 63, he agreed to embark on the perilous voyage. Southern China was in turmoil at this time, as the last loyalists to the fallen Ming Dynasty sought refuge in the Fujian region. Tei Seiko, who was famous for having attempted to save the Ming Dynasty, arranged to have a ship built for Ingen at Amoi (Xiamen). Ingen and more than twenty disciples arrived at Nagasaki on July 5, 1654, and on the following day was greeted at Kofukuji by the third abbot of Kofukuji, Zen Master Itsunen other Chinese monks, the Nagasaki magistrate, and throngs of Kofukuji parishioners. On July 18 Ingen delivered a lecture. It is recorded that over a thousand priests and lay people were in attendance, including the Nagasaki magistrate. The next year Ingen attended Sofukuji, where he lived and lectured for two months. The Zen Master's reputation continued to climb, and several hundred arrived in Nagasaki from various regions to hear his clear and virtuous words. To accomodate all new followers of Ingen, Kofukuji expanded to include buildings outside its main precincts. Later, with donations from throughout Japan, the Sanmon Gate was built, upon which was placed a plaque inscribed by Ingen with the characters "Tomeizan" ("Mountain of Eastern Light"), which became the "mountain name" of the Kofukuji. The plaque still hangs on the Sanmon today. The meaning of the name is, "the way of the ancestors is dark and long, but light will always appear from the East". One year after coming to Nagasaki, Zen Master Ingen was invited by the Zen Master Ryukei of Myoshinji to visit Edo. Shogun Tokugawa Ietsuna, a devout Buddhist, requested that Ingen remain in Japan, and in 1661 (Kanbun 1), the Zen Master established the monastery Manpukuji in Uji, south of Kyoto. The location of the temple was named for Ingen's home in China, Mount Obaku, thus giving the official name of "Chief Monastery of the Obaku School, Manpukuji" to the temple. People of all classes and ages attended the opening of the monastery, and it was there that Master Ingen's life ended at the age of 81. Ingen was respected by members of the Imperial Court, shogunal government, and other aristocracts, and on the day before his death, the retired emperor GoMizuno'o bestowed upon Ingen the title,"Daiko Fusho Kokushi", "Teacher of the Nation of Great Light that Always Shines." From ancient times the Japanese held Chinese culture in high esteem, but during the era of the "Closed Country"(sakoku), direct contact was forbidden. The great Zen Master Ingen came to Japan from Ming China in the midst of this closed cultural atmosphere. The influence and effect the introduction of the fresh Ming high culture through the Obaku School had on the Imperial Court, shogunate, military aristocracy, and Buddhist clergy is immeasurable. Zen Master Ingen was granted "Teacher of the Nation" status on the 50th, 100th, and 150th anniversaries of his death,and although his name now belongs to the past, even as recently as 1972 (Showa 47), the Showa Emperor bestowed the title, "Kako Daishi", "Great Teacher, the Light of China", on Master Ingen.The second abbot of Kofukuji, Mokusu Nyojo, who came to Japan in 1632 (Kan'ei 9), directed the construction of the Main Hall, Sanmon Gate, and other buildings in the main precinct. To provide better access to the temple for the faithful, in 1634 Mokusu ordered an arch-shaped stone bridge to be built across the Nakashima River, which lay across the main approach to the temple. To commemorate Nyojo's involvement with the bridge's construction, a statue of him has recently been placed at the foot of the bridge. Although the bridge has been damaged by floods and required periodic repaires, it remains the oldest Ming Chinese-style stone bridge in Japan, influencing stone bridge construction in all other parts of Japan. During high tides the bridge 's arches are reflected in the water below, forming a pair of circles--hence the name "spectacles bridge." It is a Nationally Designated Important Cultural Property.Having arrived in Japan in 1645 (Shoho 1), the third abbot of Kofukuji, Zen Master Yiran (J: Itsunen) was originally invited by Master Ingen. Yiran excelled in painting, particulaly Buddhist subjects, but also human figures, and was followed by Watanabe Shuseki and Kawanura Jyakushi, themselves both accomplished painters. Yiran and his pupils were the founders of early modern Chinese-style painting, sometimes called "kara-e" but more accurately known as the "Nagasaki School" of painting. Yiran also excelled at calligraphy, inlay design, and carving seals. The art of seal carving was popular in China during the end of the Ming Dynasty, and the impressive seals used by early Obaku School priests enliven their calligraphy. These seals opened the eyes of Japanese to the beauty and pleasures of the art of seal carving.

Book on Obaku Zen