December 8, 2011

The Legend of the Living Bell

Filed under: Uncategorized — jchatoff @ 12:11 am
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Famous Zen painting - 'Six Persimmons' - by Mu Qi at Daitoku-ji

Today is not the anniversary of the founding of Daitoku-ji, one of the primary temples of the Rinzai sect of Japanese Zen (Chan) Buddhism, but it is the traditional date of its reopening after becoming a supplication hall in 1326.

Daitoku-ji began  as a small monastery ca. 1319, but when the emperor decided to use it as an imperial supplication hall, it got to be very important very fast.  Still, its fortunes waxed and waned over the next two centuries – it was not until it found favor with the samurai in the 16th century that it became one of the leading temples in Kyoto, standing on a 56 acre plot with about 20 subtemples around it.

The Rinzai sect of Zen was founded by the monk Myoan Eisai, who had gone to China to study Chan (Zen) and returned to Kyoto with the strict discipline of zazen, the sitting meditation upon which the goal of enlightenment is based.  In fact, Rinzai Zen, with its severe discipline and years of training, was a perfect complement to a samurai culture that held many of the same values.

Two other schools of Zen in Japan still flourish – Soto and Obaku – and  all depend on sutras, koans and sitting meditation, though structure and discipline vary to some degree.

Portrait of Myoan Eisai

But most interesting is an off-shoot of the Rinzai sect which had been around about as long as Eisai himself.  It is called Fuke Zen and its patriarch is known as Puhua in Chinese, and as Fuke-zenji (Master Fuke) in Japanese.

Fuke is essentially enlightenment through music, specifically the music of the shakuhachi, a wooden flute. Along with mastering the flute, Fuke mendicants were encouraged to make pilgrimages, so they are often depicted as wanderers with straw baskets covering their heads as they play the flute.

Their patriarch is known for a kind of Zen of the absurd or outrageous – the kind of monk who, when asked is this meal better than yesterday’s, answers by kicking over the table.

Wandering, flute-playing eccentrics are quite a contrast to  sober dedicated  monks deeply focused on meditation – and there is a very interesting theory that the patriarch Puhua is a myth, that the story of his life, The Legend of the LIving Bell, is a fable and the school of Fuke, along with the character of Puhua,  was actually an invention of Eisai’s.  If so, pure genius.  If not, time to put baskets on our heads and take up the shakuhachi…

One of the gardens at Daitoku-ji


1 Comment »

  1. Love it great blog thank you Jean.


    Comment by avery — December 8, 2011 @ 7:06 am | Reply

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