Rinzai Gigen and Shogun Zen

Rinzai Gigen Linji Zen Buddhist meditation

According to the Zen tradition, awakening can arise from the most shocking and unexpected places: a terrifying shout or a blow to the shoulder. While hard to imagine today, it was sometimes these unconventional methods that Linji Yixuan, known as Rinzai Gigen in Japan, utilized in his teachings.

Rinzai Gigen, an iconoclastic Chinese Zen monk, is the spiritual founder of the Rinzai line of Zen, one of five schools of Chan (Zen) Buddhism that developed in China. However, it was after his teachings were exported to Japan in the 13th century that the school really came to prominence. 

Rinzai Zen is marked by its spontaneity, emphasis on personal experiences, and sudden awakening. This style gained popularity among the samurai class of Japan, where it solidified, earning the Rinzai school a reputation as “Shogun Zen.”

A painting of Zen Master Linji Rinzai Gigen
A painting of Rinzai Gigen

The life of Rinzai Gigen

Rinzai Gigen, also known as Linji Yixuan in Chinese, was a towering figure in the development of Zen Buddhism during the Tang Dynasty in China (~600-900 CE). Although his exact birth date is disputed, his death is recorded as January 10th, 866  CE. Little is known about his early life, but at a relatively young age he entered the monastery of Huangbo Xiyun (Obaku in Japan), where he began his rigorous training.

Under Huangbo’s tutelage, Rinzai engaged in monastic practice, immersing himself in meditation, koan study, and discipline. After years of dedicated monasticism, he attained enlightenment, marking the beginning of his illustrious career as a Zen master. Rinzai’s awakening experience led him to develop his own unique approach to Zen practice, characterized by directness and spontaneity.

Myoshin-Ji Rinzai Zen Temple in Kyoto Japan
Myoshin-Ji, the head Rinzai Zen Temple in Kyoto, Japan

The Rinzai Roku

The Linji Lu or Rinzai Roku is a collection of the teachings of Rinzai Gigen, and a cornerstone of Zen Buddhism. Compiled over centuries, it comprises teachings, dialogues, and anecdotes attributed to Rinzai Gigen. The earliest versions of the Rinzai Roku have been lost to time. The earliest existing version is a reprint from woodblocks in 1120, with a preface written by a Chinese court official.  

Eventually, the work was eventually transmitted to Japan, where it was passed down in Rinzai monasteries. 

Rinzai Gigen’s teachings are characterized by directness, spontaneity, and a focus on “seeing one’s nature” (kenshō). They emphasize the attainment of enlightenment through strict asceticism,  employing shouts (katsu), blows, and enigmatic statements (koans). All of which are used as means to awaken students to their true nature. Below is one of the opening scenes from the Rinzai Roku, that employs these methods in typical fashion:

“The master gave a shout. The monk bowed low. 

‘As an opponent in argument this young reverend is rather good,’ said the master.

A monk asked, ‘Master, of what house is the tune you sing? To whose style of Chan do you succeed?’ 

The master said, ‘When I was staying with Huangbo I questioned him three times and was hit three times.’”

Zen Master Myoan Eisai
Myoan Eisai, the founder of the Rinzai School in Japan

The Rinzai School of Zen

Rinzai Gigen’s influence on Zen Buddhism is most evident in the establishment of the Rinzai school. Today, Rinzai is one of the two main schools of Zen in Japan (the other being Soto). 

The Rinzai school rose to cultural and religious prominence between 1200-1600, becoming commingled with the samurai class. The celebrated master Hakuin was a prominent teacher and artist of  the Rinzai school during the 18th century.

Today there are some 15 subsects of Rinzai Zen that have spread far outside of China and Japan, with temples across the world.

A note on sources: The historical research for this story comes primarily from two sources: “The Record of Linji” by Ruth Fuller Sasaki and “The Zen Teaching of Rinzai” by Irmgard Schloegl. Both are freely available through those links.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *