The Culture of Zen during the Ashikaga Shogunate

Recall the Two Zen Masters
who bridge from the Kamakura (Minamoto/ Hojo) Period
to the Muromachi (Ashikaga) Period

            National Teacher Daito                     National Teacher Muso Soseki
            (D.T.S. plates 55 & 56)                                     (D.T.S. plate 28)

Neither man had gone to China to seek a teacher. In a sense then, Zen in Japan had come of age.

            Zen Master Daito [his name means Great Lamp] practiced a stern form of Zen. Legend has it that after his enlightenment, he lived for 20 years with beggars under the Fifth Street Bridge in Kyoto, until the retired Emperor Hanazono discovered him. The emperor knew Daito liked melons.

[The emperor gave] melons to the beggars one by one, carefully
scanning each face as he did so. Noticing one with unusually brilliant
eyes, the emperor said, as he offered the melon, "Take this without using your hands." The immediate response was, "Give it to me without using your hands."
Daito went on to found the Zen monastery Daitoku-ji in northern part of Kyoto. [Later Ikkyu would trace his lineage to Daito and on back to Rinzai (Lin Chi).  As an old man, he would agree to rebuild Daitoku-ji.] Here is one of Daito’s poems.

I’ve broken through Cloud Barrier --
the living way is north south east and west.
Evenings I rest, mornings I play,
no other no self.
With each step a pure breeze rises.


        Zen master Muso Soseki was the advisor to shoguns and to Emperors. After serving in Kamakura, he was called to Kyoto where he became abbot of the key Zen monastery of Nanzen-ji -- in southeastern Kyoto. He was the key advisor of the first Ashikaga Shogun (see below). He helped reopen trade between Japan and China. He designed several famous Zen gardens -- at the Zen temples Saiho-ji and Tenryu-ji. He taught an astonishing number of students, wrote poems, and designed gardens. Here are two of his poems:

            Old Creek

Since before anyone remembers
    it has been clear
        shining like silver
though the moonlight penetrates it
    and the wind ruffles it
        no trace of either remains

Today I would not dare
    to expound the secret
        of the stream bed
But I can tell you
    that the blue dragon
        is coiled there.

From the Beginning

From the beginning
    the crooked tree
        was no good for a lordly dwelling
How could anyone
    expect the nobles
        to use it for their gates
Now it’s been trhown out
    onto the shore
        of this harbor village
handy for the fishermen
    to sit on
        while they’re fishing.

                                        poems from Foster and Shoemaker (eds.) The Roaring Stream


The Ashikaga Shogunate -- 1333-1573

        We can think of Ashikaga Shogunate spanning 70 years (c. 1330 -1400)
                                                                                    + 100 years (1400-1500)
                                                                                    +   70 years. (c. 1500-1570)

The best way to grasp the importance of the Ashikaga period and the rise of Zen Culture is to focus on three of the Ashikaga shoguns:

        The first of the line: Ashikaga Takauji whose key advisor was Muso Soseki,
                                                        the Zen teacher, poet and designer of gardens.

        His grandson, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (Golden Pavilion), founder of Japanese
                5  Mountains of Rinzai Zen temples and a central patron of the Noh drama

        His grandson, Ashikaga Yoshimasa (Silver Pavilion) who precipitated
                the Onin  War and retired from it to cultivate the Zen arts.


The first Ashikaga shogun, Ashikaga Takauji
Ruthless war yields to peaceful gardens designed by advisor Muso Soseki.

            In 1333, the general Ashikaga Takauji (1305-58) occupied Kyoto and imprisoned the Emperor. The Emperor fled south and set up a government in exile which came to be known as the Southern Court. However, other members of the imperial family remained in Kyoto, collaborated with Takauji and, in fact, put one of their number on the throne as Emperor of the Northern Court. This emperor appointed Takauji as the first Ashikaga Shogun. The battles between the southern and northern courts continued throughout the century until in 1392 the southern emperor surrendered his claim to the throne.

            Takauji was ruthless in war. His military exploits may have cost some 60, 000 lives and the general ruin of the countryside. Yet for all his bloodletting, he was also a patron of Zen. His closest advisor was the famous Zen prelate Muso Soseki whose influence made Zen the religion of the Ashikaga era. Muso Soseki was one of the creative forces in Zen gardening. He designed the garden at the Zen temple Saiho-ji (c. 1339) under Takauji’s patronage and he designed the garden for the temple, Tenryu-ji (c. 1343). The shogun had this latter temple built as a site for the repose of the soul of the emperor. Recall that Takauji had earlier exiled the emperor and now worried about his ghost. Under Muso’ s guidance, the first Ashikaga shogun also put a Zen temple in each of the 66 provinces. Muso Soseki -- in part to pay for these projects -- helped the shogun set up trade between Japan and China.

Ashikaga YOSHMITSU and the Golden Pavilion

            Takauji’s grandson, Ashikaga YOSHMITSU(1358-1408) became third Ashikaga Shogun at age nine. He had a capable Prime Minister and went on to rule well.

            In 1374, when Yoshimitsu was 17 years old, he met the actor Kannami (1333-1384) -- today famous as the father of Noh drama. The teenage shogun was even more excited by the actor’s handsome 11 year-old son Zeami (1363-1384) who also appeared in the plays. As Thomas Hoover says: "Yoshimitsu became Kannami’s patron, but young Zeami he took to his couch (a common enough occurrence in samurai circles of the age). . . . Supported by Yoshimitsu’s patronage, Zeami became the Shakespeare of the No, writing the finest plays in the repertoire as well as several volumes of essays on aesthetic theories and acting techniques."(p. 149)

            Yoshimitsu formalized the relation of Zen to the state by establishing a hierarchy among Zen temples in Kyoto (the Five Mountains -- gozan -- of Japanese Zen. These were Tenryu-ji, Shokoku-ji (with its famous art school), Kennin-ji, Tofuku-ji, and Manju-ji.)

He took an interest in landscape painting.
He made possible the development of Noh drama.
He encouraged landscape gardens.
He sat zazen and thus set an example for the warrior court.
He was interested in tea and poetry and architecture.
            Near the end of the 1300’s, he retired from the duties of shogun, entered a Zen order and built the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) in 1397 -- a three-storied, pagoda-like building with roofs of gold on shore of a small lake near the mountains of NW Kyoto.


Ashikaga YOSHIMASA , the Onin War and the Silver Pavilion

            The 8th Ashikaga Shogun, Ashikaga YOSHIMASA (1436-1490) -- eager to retire but without a son, persuaded his brother to abandon the priesthood and return to the world. The shogun quickly adopted his brother and named him successor. He also named Hosokawa Katsumoto to be his brother’s counselor. Within a year, Shogun Yoshimasa had a son, reneged on his word to his brother, and called in Katsumoto’s father-in-law, Yamana Sozen (the "Red Monk") to stand up for his newborn son. Thus began the Onin War.

The Onin War (1467-1477) -- an eleven year nightmare of a war
between two powerful families. The war reduced Kyoto to rubble.
Even the old Imperial Palace was looted and burned. Both the
Emperor and the Shogun retreated to villas in the hills surrounding
the city. The Emperor was reduced to near poverty. Here is how the
disastrous set of events unfolded.

                                                                            Katsumoto with 100, 000 troops
                                                                               in the NE corner of Kyoto


    The Red Monk with 90, 000 troops
        in the SW corner of Kyoto.

The war developed a momentum of its own. Even after both generals died, like a monster without a head, the forces fought on. Finally, the "Yamana" (Red Monk) side withdrew and the "Hosokawa" side, too weak to pursue, likewise went home. It was one of the most pointless wars of history.
        After the Onin War, the Shogun Ashikaga YOSHIMASA built the Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku-ji) in NE Kyoto (1483). [Recall that the Golden Pavilion of his grandfather is in NW Kyoto.]

        The Silver Pavilion is a somewhat modest wooden structure with a sand "(flat-top) mountain" and a "sea" of raked sand nearby -- against the mountains of NE Kyoto.

Here he was in his element as a great patron of Zen arts. The sumi painter Sesshu was under his patronage. "Like the slash of the Zen swordsman, the absolute accuracy of the Zen artist’s brushstroke can come only from one whose mind and body are one." (Hoover, 113)

            Ironically, the most famous of the rock gardens Ryoan-ji (the Dragon Temple) -- before it became a temple -- was the home of Hosokawa Katsumoto -- one of the two generals of the Onin War.  He willed the estate to become a Zen monastery after his death.

        The estate --like the Golden Pavilion -- is on the NW side of Kyoto but a bit to the south and further west than the Golden Pavilion. The rock garden appeared c. 1500.

In these turbulent times, the Zen arts flourished. Painting and calligraphy, flower arranging, the tea ceremony and Noh drama.

Think of the two pavilions on either side of Kyoto as framing the 1400’s

The Golden Pavilion     --- and far across town ---     the Silver Pavilion
on the NW side                                                                     on side the NE side


                            Golden Pavilion                                                Silver Pavilion

Ryoanji Temple

                                                       The Old Imperial Palace

They thus frame the life of Zen Master IKKYU --
                            born a little before the Golden Pavilion was built --
                            called to rebuild Daitokuji after Onin wars --
                            died around the time that the Silver Pavilion was built.

Zen Master IKKYU (1394-1481) (see D.T.S. plate 57 for picture)

            Born on New Year’s Day a bit before the Golden Pavilion was built, Ikkyu lived to age the age of 87. He died just two years before the building of the Silver Pavilion.

            Ikkyu was the illegitimate son of the Emperor and one of the beautiful ladies of the court. Clever and mischievous as a boy, he learned the elegant forms of Chinese poetry, art and literature. Isolated, he turned out sad verses about ancient Chinese concubine who had found disfavor at court and suffered exile. He was physically unattractive with a squat rectangular face, unaristocratic pug nose, and doleful eyes. As one author puts it, "His intellectual brilliance had to make up for his common features and rumored heritage." At 13, he moved to Kennin-ji, the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto. Here also he began writing biting criticism of the temple for worldly pursuits, its snobbishness and its emphasis on politics over enlightenment. Finally he found a master, an old monk on the shores of Lake Biwa to the northeast of Kyoto -- the monk Keno. In December of 1414, the twenty-year-old Ikkyu performed the funeral rites for his master and then distraught attempted to drown himself in the lake. A messenger from his mother saved him and urged him to go on living for her sake.

            He did find another true master, a monk named Kaso who headed a branch temple of Daitoku-ji also located on Lake Biwa. This temple was no less run down than Keno’s had been. Ikkyu made and sold dolls in Kyoto to support the temple. In his spare free time he would mingle with the wild, poor fortune-tellers, wine merchants, prostitutes and fishermen from the nearby town. "As a musician and poet, Ikkyu’s first enlightenment not surprisingly came through sound." (Besserman and Steger, Crazy Clouds, p. 68) While listening to a troupe of blind singers perform a ballad of tragic love, he penetrates the koan he has been struggling with. His experience is confirmed and he is given his dharma name IKKYU = One Pause to commemorate the single moment of his breakthrough. In response he wrote:

From the world of passions,
    returning to the world of passions.
There is a moment’s pause --
    if it rains, let it rain,
If the wind blows let it blow.
            Later in summer of 1424 while on a boat on Lake Biwa engaged in meditation, again a sound provoked enlightenment -- the cawing of a crow in early evening. He says that in that great satori the entire universe became the cawing of the crow and even "One Pause" dropped away. Kaso confirmed the enlightenment and wrote a certificate of inka. Ikkyu took the certificate, threw it to the ground and left the room.

            This infuriated one of Kaso’s other disciples Yoso.

            When Kaso grew ill with dysentery, Ikkyu cleaned the excrement with his hands.

            Kaso’s preference for an heir was the "mad" Ikkyu, but when the old master died, it was Yoso -- the "cultivated one" -- who became the abbot of Daitoku-ji.

            Ikkyu adopted a life of wandering that lasted about from the time he was 30 until the time he was 60. He characterized himself in his poems as "Crazy Cloud" a pun on the "cloud" prefix constituting the traditional word for monk, unsui or "cloud-water." He saw himself in the line of Rinzai (Lin Chi) and of Daito, the founder of Daitoku-ji who lived with beggars under the Fifth Street Bridge. Somewhere in his wandering he took a wife and had a son, who eventually became one of Japan’s leading tea masters.

            "Unable to hide from the terrible realities of daily life in Muromachi Japan, he assumed the nonmonastic life of a layman, eating meat and fish, drinking wine, making love to women and celebrating them in his poems." (p. 71). Although Ikkyu "imitated Rinzai physically by growing a beard and long hair while still remaining a monk, Ikkyu departed from Rinzai’s "masculine" Zen style, including women as his students, dharma companions, and social and intellectual equals. His rejection of life in the Zen temples was prompted as much by his hatred from their homosexual abuses as for their religious hypocrisy. Indeed, in a society where the ruling samurai flaunted their misogyny in their preference for young boys, Ikkyu’s "feminist" views alone were enough to label him mad. It was in brothels and geisha houses that he developed his Red Thread Zen, a notion he borrowed from the old Chinese master Kido, and extended to deep and subtle levels of realization in ‘this very body’ as the ‘Lotus of the true law,’ linking human beings to birth and death by the red thread of passion, and its resulting bloody umbilicus. Closely related to tantric Buddhism, which used sexual union as a religious ritual, Ikkyu’s Red Thread form of Zen practice was the most radical non-dualist interpretation of the sexual act proposed by any Zen master before or since." (Besserman and Steger, p. 72). Furthermore, by encouraging worldly forms of Zen he helped influence many lay students who were painters, actors and sculptors of the time. Yet despite his unorthodox ways, by all evidence, he was a strict adherent to Rinzai’s rigorous Zen. His old rival Yaso tried to give him one of Daitoku-ji’s sub-temples. Ikkyu was not ready to settle into "official" temple life where he would be engaged in pleasing patrons.

            After ten days in this temple, my mind is spinning --
                The "red thread" of passion is very strong in my loins.
            If you wish to locate me another day,
                Look in the fish stall, the sake shop or the brothel!

            Once, Ikkyu went to a banquet in his ragged monk’s clothes and was not let in. He went back dressed in finery and was admitted. At this point, he took off all his robes and left saying: "The banquet is for the robes." In his 60’s, he wrote "Skeletons."

            Late in his life, Ikkyu did settle down and teach regularly in a place a friend made available to him that he called "the Thank You Hermitage." Artists of all kinds were drawn to him. He has been called the godfather of the Zen arts. He utilized calligraphy, poetry and painting for transmitting Zen teachings and had a profound influence on Way of Tea and also on Noh drama.

            In 1471, in the midst of the Onin War, Lady Shin (also called Mori), "a blind singer, composer and skilled musician, entered the circle of Zen-inspired musicians, painters, and poets at the Thank You Hermitage of Ikkyu and changed his life. The old Zen master was seventy-seven, his mistress in her late thirties." (p. 77) Finally, the reigning emperor in 1474, commanded Ikkyu to become abbot of Daitoku-ji, Kyoto which was in ruins because of the Onin War. Ikkyu now in his eighties was given the task of rebuilding from scratch. In honor of his Rinzai lineage, he agreed.
                Daito’s descendants have nearly extinguished his light;
                After such a long, cold night, the chill will be hard to thaw even with my
                            love songs.
                For fifty years, a vagabond in a straw raincoat and hat --
                now I’m mortified as a purple-robed abbot.

Somehow, Ikkyu managed the impossible task. By 1481, reconstruction was complete and Ikkyu was dead. -- the two events happened in the same year.

[Poems from Skeletons can be found elsewhere on my Zen enrichment page.]

Here are three poems from The Crazy Cloud Anthology:


            Stilted koans and convoluted answers are all monks have.
            Pandering endlessly to officials and rich patrons.
            Good friends of the Dharma, so proud, let me tell you
            A brothel girl in gold brocade is worth more than any of you.


            Every day, priests minutely examine the Dharma
            And endlessly chant complicated sutras.
            Before doing that, though, they should learn
            How to read the love letters sent by the wind and rain, the snow and moon.


            Every night, Blind Mori accompanies me in song.
            Under the covers, two mandarin ducks whisper to each other.
            We promise to be together forever,
            But right now this old fellow enjoys an eternal spring.

Much in this account of Ikkyu (including the poems) is is taken from Perle Besserman & Manfred Steger, Crazy Clouds: Zen Radicals, Rebels & Reformers    (Boston: Shambhala, 1991).

For other accounts, see John Stevens, Three Zen Masters: Ikkyu, Hakuin and Ryokan (New York: Kodansha International, 1993) and Nelson Foster and Jack Shoemaker (eds.) The Roaring Stream: A New Zen Reader  (Hopewell, N.J.: The Ecco Press, 1996).


POSTLUDE: The last 30 years of the 1500’s saw the period of the three strongmen:

                    the "no-nonsense" Nobunaga who used firearms in a new a deadly
                    fashion and wiped out the monasteries on Mt. Hiei;

                    the peasant’s son, Hideyoshi who loved everything bigger and more
                        showy (yet who also recognized the talent of Tea Master Rikkyu), and

                    the first of the Tokugawa Shoguns -- Ieyasu -- who moved the
                        capital to Edo (now Tokyo) and sealed off Japan from foreign influence
                        an isolation to last over 250 years.


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