The Rinzai school is known for its emphasis on sudden enlightenment and the use of methods such as the koan to achieve this end. Rinzai is the Japanese branch of the Chinese Linji school, which was founded during the Tang Dynasty by Linji Yixuan. It was brought to Japan by Myōan Eisai in 1191.
Unlike the larger Sōtō school of Zen, Rinzai is not a single organized body. Rather, it is divided into fifteen sects, referred to by the name of their head temples. The largest and most influential of these is the Myoshin-ji branch, whose head temple was founded in 1342 by Kanzan-Egen Zenji (1277 — 1360). Other major branches include Nanzen-ji, Tenryu-ji, Daitoku-ji, and Tofuku-ji.
Rinzai encourages an active pursuit of enlightenment, through the intellectual shock of the Koans, or the strenuous efforts and high-discipline of martial arts. It can be contrasted to Sōtō Zen, which insists on «just-sitting» (Zazen) as the method of choice to reveal the innate Buddha nature in everyone.
Rinzai was adopted by the samurai caste, whereas Sōtō had a more popular following, as described in the Japanese saying «Rinzai for the Shōgun, Sōtō for the peasants» (JPN: «臨済将軍、曹洞土民» Rinzai Shōgun, Sōtō Domin).
The Rinzai school has historically been closely linked to various martial arts traditions in Japan.
In pre-modern Japan, Rinzai was widely popular among the warrior aristocracy and samurai, in distinction from Sōtō Zen which was more associated with artists and poets. This is due to Rinzai zen’s reputation for removing all fear of death via direct experiential transformation of consciousness. For a Samurai, fear of death was naturally a great obstacle, so Rinzai Zen practice was a practical necessity. Rinzai also has relatively greater emphasis on koan literature and intellectual knowledge than does Sōtō, this appealed to the educated and literate upper classes. However, one of the most intellectual and literate of pre-modern zen masters was the Soto Zen master Eihei Dogen.
Because the medieval aristocracy was also a warrior class, it became natural for them to apply Rinzai teachings to matters of combat. Some have argued that the Samurai influence co-opted the essential Buddhist origins of Rinzai Zen.
After having faced the opposition of traditional schools of Buddhism in Kyoto, Eisai personally introduced Rinzai Zen to the samurai warrior caste of the Shogun court in Kamakura around 1199.
The predilection of the samurai for Rinzai Zen continued into the Tokugawa period (1600-1867), when it was the regular training regimen of the warrior caste, leading to the development of Bushidō.
Koan practice—concentrating on koans during meditation and other activities—is particularly important among practictioners of the Rinzai sect of Zen.
Koans are said to reflect the enlightened or awakened state of historical sages and legendary figures who uttered them, and sometimes said to confound the habit of discursive thought or shock the mind into awareness.
The Rinzai school is also particularly associated with the Japanese tea ceremony. Eisai is said to have introduced tea from China to Japan, together with the method of mixing powdered green tea in hot water. Ikkyu in the 15th century developed the tea ceremony in ways that made it prominent in Japanese culture.
Tea, a light stimulant, originally had a spiritual purpose in maintaining meditational wakefulness in Zen monks. One legend attributes the origin of tea in China to Bodhidharma, a 6th century Indian Buddhist missionary, and the first Zen patriarch, who, according to legend, cut off his eyelids to keep awake during meditation. Tea plants supposedly grew where his eyelids fell.
During 18th century, the Rinzai school had undergone a period of decline and stagnation. At this time, a teacher named Hakuin Ekaku became prominent, and his vigorous methods spearheaded a long-lasting revival of Rinzai. Today, Hakuin is perhaps the most revered Rinzai ancestor.
The Japanese Obaku Zen sect is also descended from the Chinese Linji school. However, Obaku was brought to Japan several centuries later, in the 17th century, and shows significant influences from the Pure Land school, which are largely absent in Rinzai.
«Mahayana Buddhism» Paul Williams, Routledge, ISBN 0415025370
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