BG 158: The Zen of Zen History

Episode Description:

James Zito is a Buddhist film-maker, and the director of a newly released documentary on the history of Zen Buddhism, Inquiry Into the Great Matter. James joins us to discuss his new film, focusing primarily on what he learned while making the film. He shares some specifics on the lives of the famous Zen masters, Daito Kokushi and Ikkyu Sojun. While quite different, each masters reflected very important aspects of Zen Buddhism.

We conclude our discussion, exploring the state of Zen in Japan today, which compared to times in the past several hundred years, has declined greatly. Will traditional Japanese Zen be able to exist in a hyper-modern Japan, and as it spreads across the world?

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Vince: Hello, Buddhist Geeks. This is Vince Horn and I’m joined today in the Boulder studio with James Zeno. James is a Buddhist filmmaker who in 2003 released his first film, called Compassion and Wisdom: A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. And then has a new film that’s being released called, Inquiry Into The Great Matter: A History of Zen Buddhism. And you can find out more about the DVD and also about how to order it on So, James thank you so much for taking the time to come down to the studio and speak with me. I really appreciate it.

James: You’re welcome. Glad to do it.

Vince: So, I know your personal background is in the Tibetan tradition. Your personal practice history and background. Is that true?

James: Right. Yeah.

Vince: And the first project, Compassion and Wisdom was really . . . I know it included other things besides the Tibetan tradition. But when I watched it, it really was kind of focus on that. And it made sense given your background and history. But then in this one you’ve gone to a completely to a new tradition. And I was wondering what inspired you to cover the Zen tradition as opposed to continuing in the traditional and lineage that you’re most close to or familiar with.

James: Well, for that Compassion and Wisdom and also for personal reasons I had been going back and forth between here and Nepal quite a lot. Nepal and India. And, as you are aware if you’ve been over to Nepal sometimes you’ll stop at Tokyo on the way. And I took some time to check out, I wanted to stop over for a few days and just check out Japan, and I just bonded to the place right away. And I was very impressed by so many of the things that I saw in Japan. I wanted to learn more about the aesthetics. I was very impressed by the aesthetics of the gardens and the calligraphy and the temples. And I, I wanted to learn more about that. So, I made a resolution to myself that I should, you know, travel to Japan more extensively and I did do that.

I thought that Zen Buddhism like a history of Zen would be a good topic for a television program because there are so many things visually rich possibilities there in all the things that you could document; the temples and the art, and incorporate that with trying to paint a picture of the lives of some of the great exemplars of the Zen tradition that need to put a lot of elements together and hopefully come away with a pretty decent looking television show. So, that’s how I got started on it.

And spending time in Japan I also became interested in the kind of contrast. Japan is a very like a ultra-modern society. They’ve got the most modern country really on earth. I mean everything is so automated, and there’s just so much integration of media and just every kind of thing going on there. And at the same time it’s got this thousand of years old history of Buddhism and their own Shinto beliefs, and all the stuff. So, it’s very interesting to see how these things can coexist. And I was very interested in the kind of contrast between the modern Japan and the ancient traditions of Japan. I really wanted to learn more.

So, anyway I started making this film and I traveled to Japan a number of times. Each time that I went I was more informed than the time before. And I was able to understand more of what I was seeing and, there’s a guy name Roland Barthes. He was like a Semiologist and he wrote a book about Japan called Empire of Signs. There’s so many embedded signs in Japan. There are so many things that are there. And by learning more about Zen, over the course of making the film, I think I was able to see things that I didn’t see the first and second time. I see more, and I was able to bring that into the film as well. So, I hope that I was able to… the film as much a vehicle for my own learning as it is for trying to help other people learn about it. So, it’s like we all kind of do it together.

Vince: Yeah, and one thing I was struck by watching the film as just this amazing historical overview of both Zen Buddhism and then where it came from, the Ch’an tradition . . .

James: Right.

Vince: …beforehand and then, I was really fascinated with some of the things that was mentioned in there. Like that Japan had once been in trade with China and then 200 years basically it stop trading.

James: Right. Exactly.

Vince: And it was so fascinated to hear these different aspects of how the tradition was effected by all these other things, that you normally wouldn’t hear about if you were just a Zen practitioner in the West, for instance.

So that was really cool, and one thing I was also struck by in the film were these famous Zen masters that you spoke about. People like Hakuin and Ikyyu and Ryokan. These amazing Zen masters. And I was wondering which of these people, if you could talk about one or two, really struck you in a way that you were surprised by, through your research for the film?

James: In the film, I examine the lives of a number of the greatest Zen masters, as you say. One of the ones that really struck me, as a long time student and a practitioner of Buddhism myself, was probably the greatest Zen master in Japanese history, known as Daito. Daito Kokushi, also known as Shuho Myocho. And he’s just remarkable on many, many levels. His story is very famous in
Japan, well known by the Japanese. But maybe, I’m sure, not so much here in the West.

Well, Daito was just a naturally great student, very well-educated, and his acumen, his mastery over the corpus of the Zen literature was very much praised by his teachers. He studied under the greatest Zen masters of the time. The master Koho Kenichi and another master, Nampo Jomyo was very, very famous. And he was a model student. He was well on his way to becoming an abbot of a great Zen temple. Everything about his training was of the highest standard. And after a number of years of training he had a very great breakthrough, like an enlightenment experience. And he brought his experience to the teacher. That’s the tradition, you present your understanding to the teacher. And the teacher was very, very impressed with Daito’s experience and he passed him. He passed him on his experience, he said yes. The tradition is to give a sort of certificate of enlightenment. So the teacher gave him such a certificate. But he added on, at the end of it, a very unique kind of instruction. And he said to Daito, “although your experience is perhaps greater than mine, I want you to refine your training by yourself for a period of 20 years. You are not to assume the role of a teacher for a period of 20 years.”

And, of course, you’re bound to follow your teacher’s advice and your teacher’s injunction. So he did continue his training, which is sometimes known as sho tai cho yo in Japanese, a post-enlightenment training, for a period of 20 years. And, basically, living like a beggar in and around Kyoto. A lot of times near the 4th Street bridge, called the Gojo Bridge. Beggars and homeless people used to just live underneath that bridge, or around there. And the many experiences that he had during this period really deepening his understanding of dharma and Zen.

This period really underscores a major theme in Zen and Buddhism in general, which is the importance of putting the teachings into practice in the real world. Not just inside the cloistered confines of a monastery, or a dharma center, or something. The practice of Zen and Buddhism in general is relatively useless just in a vacuum. It has to be practiced and applied in the real world, not only in an artificial environment.

So Daito had many experiences. One of the famous experiences that he had; he was just sitting and meditating and there were these samurai guys, they’d go out and test the sharpness of their swords, just like killing beggars or homeless people. And he had an encounter with these swordsmen in which he was just sitting in meditation, and they came, basically, to kill him. And he was able to turn their minds away from doing that. I mean, they were so impressed by his absolute stability in meditation and complete lack of fear or any kind of apprehension that they became his students, I guess, basically.

His fame started to spread amongst the community of people in the city, and it got to such a point that two of the emperors, one, was the sitting emperor, the other was the emperor that had been emperor for a little while. He was the retired emperor. Both of these sought him out and became his students. So that’s another aspect of the story, which is very famous. The fact that the emperor of Japan, the most prestigious person in the nation, would seek spiritual advice from a beggar in the streets of Kyoto is a remarkable thing. And it has some parallels to the life of a Buddha himself, really.

As an aside, I know that Roshi Bernard Glassman has this kind of a homeless retreat where people go out and they sleep on the streets, they don’t have a place to stay, they just go out on the streets. and I know that’s conscious illusion to the experience of Daito and I think it’s a great and admirable continuation of his legacy.

Another master that I profiled in the film that I found to be personally fascinating is Ikkyu. Ikkyu Sojun, one of the most famous and beloved Zen masters of Japan. He’s kind of iconoclastic, personifies the kind of archetypal iconoclastic nature of a Zen master during things that you never… you don’t expect. Playing a prank on you, or just doing something that you don’t expect. He was famous for his criticism of the Zen institution, which at the time hasdsort of begun a decline into a kind of spiritual materialism period. I mean Zen was patronized by the emperors and the great aristocrats and there was a lot of Zen art that was being produced, kind of a Zen culture as well as the actual nuts and bolts training of Zen and I think Ikkyu was disappointed by how a lot of the members of the Zen institution were just, they were trying to use Zen as a vehicle for becoming famous, or having a very cushy life in the monastery, being well fed. And their training was suffering at that time.

Also he was a great poet, a maverick, a Zen artist, instrumental in the development of a number of elements of Zen that have become fixtures of the modern tradition such as the tea ceremony, elements of the calligraphy, the Daitoku ji tradition of calligraphy, very strongly influenced by Ikkyu, as well as a kind of growing trend, which was to bring Zen out of the monastery to the lay people of Japan. It’s stressing that it didn’t need to be strictly monastic tradition. It could be utilized to great benefit by the lay people, and just ordinary people. He spent a lot of time out in the countryside up in the mountains in retreat. In and out of the monastery, but also just one of the things that he is also famous for is his sexual exploits.

He spent a lot of time in the brothels of Kyoto in Japan, and wrote about his sexual experience very graphically in his poetry. In this he sort of brings to mind the Mahayana ideal of a total immersion in the world, not turning away, not negating your life experience, but bringing everything in life to the path. Sort of like a lotus flower, which is a symbol of purity, growing up from the mud and the filth blossoming into a beautiful pure and clean flower, it’s a kind of a living koan—by flouting the monastic rules, and the hypocrisy of the time, indulging in drink and sex. Kind of a living koan, forcing us to re-examine and decide for ourselves, where we stand on important aspects of Zen and Buddhist doctrine.

Instead of merely accepting these truths as dogma, he echoes the teaching of the Buddha that the doctrine should be not merely accepted on faith alone, but carefully examined and experienced for ourselves, so he’s a fascinating master very well known in Japan, much loved. A lot of stories about him when he was a kid in the monastery. He entered the monastery at the age of five, doing all kinds of pranks and there’s even like a famous cartoon strip of Ikkyu over there in Japan like a kind of Japanese comics. So he is very much loved in the Japanese tradition.

Vince: Cool, thank you for sharing some of your personal reflections on those Zen masters and there are lots of other ones profiled in the film—really fascinating. So the last thing that I wanted to speak with you about, and this was the topic of the last part of your film, which is this transition of Zen to the West and also the state of Zen in Japan. One thing that you mention in the film is that there’s something of a decline happening in the Zen tradition. You had mentioned the kind of uber-modernity in Japan now—an always wired, hypermodern culture that they exist in. And then in your film, you mention there’s as little as a thousand Zen monks living and practicing in monasteries right now in Japan, and that their primary role, in some ways, is as funeral directors. So, I found that really fascinating and I was wondering while you were in Japan, because I know you went there several times for the filming and research, what your personal observations were about the state of Zen in Japan and some things that you noticed both on the positive side and also on the more critical side?

James: Well, I could speak a little bit about my own experience in making the film in Japan. You know, I came upon some obstacles. I had the opportunity to visit a large number of Zen temples and film a lot of the great art treasures contained in those temples, but I must confess that my own ignorance of the Japanese language, and the sometimes frustrating nature of the Japanese bureaucracy prevented me from accessing a lot of the Zen treasures and temples, which are closed to the casual observer. Places that I really wanted to go, I just couldn’t get access to those places. I had to really push myself to get the footage that I needed, and rely on some unconventional ways, and also I just filmed, shoot video at the temple or something. I know if I asked permission, they’re going to say no, so you know, I’d have to say like just do it and if they don’t notice, it’s cool. If they try and stop me, you know, of course I’ll stop. Shoot first, and you know, try not to ask any questions later. [laughter]

That’s one of the things, but I did have good cooperation with some of the great faculty at a place called the Hanazono University, which is basically a Zen university in Kyoto. It’s administered by the Myoshinji Temple. That’s the largest of the great Rinzai temples now operating in Japan, and I was given great access to the temples at Myoshinji and Tofukuji. The guy that I interviewed was a caretaker of a temple in the Tenryuji lineage and I got to go there which, was usually closed off to visitors. So I did get some good access behind the scenes and I was very grateful to those people for helping me because I wouldn’t have been able to get access to those things otherwise.

But returning to what you said, it has been said that the pace of modernity in Japan is sort of rendering Buddhism an endangered species there and I think that’s very regrettable. And I’ve seen articles saying that, in a hundred years, there won’t be any live lineages of Buddhism in Japan. I don’t think that’s true, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but it definitely is a shadow of its former glory. And one of the reasons for that is that, I mean, particularly in a hyper-accelerated society like Japan, the actual course of Zen training is supposed to take, a dozen years, 15 years of totally committed training and most, at the end, what do you emerge with? It’s not something that, you know…

Vince: A certificate.

James: Right, it’s not something that’s going to make you a lot of money or pay your rent. I don’t know, maybe if you are a temple priest, you will be able to have your livelihood from that. But the rigorous training, the rigorous demands of the training, and the time constraints make it difficult for most people to really embrace that. Most people just don’t have the time required, 15 years, to give to Zen training, so that’s one of the reasons why it’s sort of at an ebb point, I guess, in Japan. There’s a great deal of interest in Zen here in the United States. I know that, and many countries around the world and even down in South America, I’ve heard in Africa. Everywhere around the world is interested in Zen, so it’s definitely moving out of Japan into a Western environment.

My wish is that whatever I can do through my own work to help facilitate the ongoing learning process of Western practitioners of Buddhism. I just believe so strongly that a deeper knowledge of Buddhism, the Buddhist tradition, is going to be so beneficial for a wider audience no matter how they come across it, no matter what level of interest they have, it’s going to be of tremendous benefit.


James Zito