Skip to main content

Buddhism: Zen: Regions

Last Updated: Sep 2, 2020 10:47 AM

On this page you can find the best resources for exploring scholarly perspectives on the thought and practice of Zen Buddhism in the various regions where it has undergone the most significant development: China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and the West. Each book listed below is linked to WorldCat, where you can discover library holdings for that item in your region. Resources within the gallery box are arranged from the newest to the oldest publications, left to right. The area below the gallery highlights a few recent or especially notable works selected from the gallery above.

Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains by Huang Guangwang

Above: The first half of the ink painting Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains (1350) by the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368 CE) painter Huang Gongwang (1269-1354).
 
Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Huang Gongwang. Image license: Public domain.
 

Chinese Ch'an

This work breaks new ground in the study of clergy-court relations during the tumultuous period that spanned the collapse of the Tang dynasty (618–907) and the consolidation of the Northern Song (960–1127). This era, known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms, has typically been characterized as a time of debilitating violence and instability, but it also brought increased economic prosperity, regional development, and political autonomy to southern territories. The book describes how the formation of new states in southeastern China elevated local Buddhist traditions and moved Chan (Zen) monks from the margins to the center of Chinese society. Drawing on biographies, inscriptions, private histories, and government records, it argues that the shift in imperial patronage from a diverse array of Buddhist clerics to members of specific Chan lineages was driven by political, social, and geographical reorientations set in motion by the collapse of the Tang dynasty and the consolidation of regional powers during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms. As monastic communities representing diverse arrays of thought, practice, and pedagogy allied with rival political factions, the outcome of power struggles determined which clerical networks assumed positions of power and which doctrines were enshrined as orthodoxy. Rather than view the ascent of Chan monks and their traditions as instances of intellectual hegemony, this book focuses on the larger sociopolitical processes that lifted members of Chan lineages onto the imperial stage. Against the historical backdrop of the tenth century, this work explores the nature and function of Chan lineage systems, the relationships between monastic and lay families, and the place of patronage in establishing identity and authority in monastic movements.

van Schaik Tibetan Zen cover artTibetan Zen: Discovering a Lost Tradition by Sam van Schaik. Boston: Snow Lion Publications, 2015.

Banned in Tibet, forgotten in China, the Tibetan tradition of Zen was almost completely lost to us. According to Tibetan histories, Zen teachers were invited to Tibet from China in the 8th century, at the height of the Tibetan Empire. When doctrinal disagreements developed between Indian and Chinese Buddhists at the Tibetan court, the Tibetan emperor called for a formal debate. When the debate resulted in a decisive win by the Indian side, the Zen teachers were sent back to China, and Zen was gradually forgotten in Tibet. This picture changed at the beginning of the 20th century with the discovery in Dunhuang (in Chinese Central Asia) of a sealed cave full of manuscripts in various languages dating from the first millennium CE. The Tibetan manuscripts, dating from the 9th and 10th centuries, are the earliest surviving examples of Tibetan Buddhism. Among them are around 40 manuscripts containing original Tibetan Zen teachings. This book translates the key texts of Tibetan Zen preserved in Dunhuang.

Leaving for Rising Sun cover artLeaving for the Rising Sun: Chinese Zen Master Yinyuan and the Authenticity Crisis in Early Modern East Asia by Jiang Wu. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

In 1654 Zen Master Yinyuan traveled from China to Japan. Seven years later his monastery, Manpukuji, was built and he had founded a new tradition, called Obaku. In this sequel to his 2008 book, Enlightenment in Dispute, Jiang Wu tells the story of the tremendous obstacles faced by Yinyuan, drawing parallels between his experiences and the broader political and cultural context in which he lived. Yinyuan claimed to have inherited the "Authentic Transmission of the Linji Sect." After arriving in Japan, he was able to persuade the Shogun to build a new Ming-style monastery for the establishment of his Obaku school. His arrival in Japan coincided with a series of historical developments, including the Ming-Qing transition, the consolidation of early Tokugawa power, the growth of Nagasaki trade, and rising Japanese interests in Chinese learning and artistic pursuits. While Yinyuan's travel is known in scholarly circles, the significance of his journey within East Asian history has not been fully explored. Leaving for the Rising Sun provides a unique opportunity to reexamine the crisis in the continent and responses from other parts of East Asia. Using Yinyuan's story as a bridge between China and Japan, Wu demonstrates that the monk's significance is far greater than the temporary success of a religious sect. Rather, Yinyuan imported to Japan a new discourse of authenticity that gave rise to indigenous movements that challenged, and led to the eventual breakup of, a China-centered world order.

Ferguson Heritage cover artZen's Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings by Andy Ferguson. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2011.

This book traces twenty-five generations of enlightened Buddhist teachers, supplementing their core teachings with history, biography, and poetry. The result is an intimate and profound human portrait of the enlightened Zen ancients, and an unprecedented look into the depths of the rich cultural heritage. In this new edition with even more valuable material, Ferguson surveys generations of Zen masters, moving chronologically through successive generations of ancestral teachers, supplementing their core teachings with history, biography, and starkly beautiful poetry. In addition to giving the reader the engaging sense of the "family history" of Zen, this uniquely valuable book paints a clear picture of the tradition's evolution as a religious, literary, and historical force.

Daoyuan, Records of the Transmission of the Lamp, ed. Yang Yang Yi, trans. Randolph S. Whitfield: An early history of Ch'an

Hasegawa Tohaku - Pine Trees, right hand panel

Above: The right-hand panel of Pine Trees by Hasegawa Tōhaku (Japanese, 1539–1610).
 
Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Emuseum. Image license: Public domain.
 

Japanese Zen

This work offers a comprehensive, nuanced, and chronological account of the evolution of Buddhist religion in Japan from the sixth century to the present day. The work: traces each period of Japanese history to reveal the complex and often controversial histories of Japanese Buddhists and their unfolding narratives; examines relevant social, political, and transcultural contexts, and places an emphasis on Japanese Buddhist discourses and material culture; addresses the increasing competition between Buddhist, Shinto, and Neo-Confucian world-views through to the mid-nineteenth century; is informed by the most recent research, including the latest Japanese and Western scholarship; and illustrates the richness and complexity of Japanese Buddhism as a lived religion, offering readers a glimpse into the development of this complex and often misunderstood tradition.

Mann When Buddhists Attack cover artWhen Buddhists Attack: The Curious Relationship Between Zen and the Martial Arts by Jeffrey K. Mann. Tokyo: Tuttle, 2012.

Film, television and popular fiction have long exploited the image of the serene Buddhist monk who is master of the deadly craft of hand-to-hand combat. While these media overly romanticize the relationship between a philosophy of non-violence and the art of fighting, this work shows this link to be nevertheless real, even natural. Exploring the origins of Buddhism and the ethos of the Japanese samurai, university professor and martial arts practitioner Jeffrey Mann traces the close connection between the Buddhist way of compassion and the way of the warrior. This zen book serves as a basic introduction to the history, philosophy, and current practice of Zen as it relates to the Japanese martial arts. It examines the elements of Zen that have found a place in budo—the martial way—such as zazen, mushin, zanshin and fudoshin, then goes on to discuss the ethics and practice of budo as a modern sport. Offering insights into how qualities integral to the true martial artist are interwoven with this ancient religious philosophy, this book will help practitioners reconnect to an authentic spiritual discipline.

Yamada Shots cover artShots in the Dark: Zen, Japan, and the West by Shoji Yamada. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011.

In the years after World War II, Westerners and Japanese alike elevated Zen to the quintessence of spirituality in Japan. Pursuing the sources of Zen as a Japanese ideal, Shoji Yamada uncovers the surprising role of two cultural touchstones: Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery and the Ryoanji dry-landscape rock garden. Yamada shows how both became facile conduits for exporting and importing Japanese culture. First published in German in 1948 and translated into Japanese in 1956, Herrigel’s book popularized ideas of Zen both in the West and in Japan. Yamada traces the prewar history of Japanese archery, reveals how Herrigel mistakenly came to understand it as a traditional practice, and explains why the Japanese themselves embraced his interpretation as spiritual discipline. Turning to Ryoanji, Yamada argues that this epitome of Zen in fact bears little relation to Buddhism and is best understood in relation to Chinese myth. For much of its modern history, Ryoanji was a weedy, neglected plot; only after its allegorical role in a 1949 Ozu film was it popularly linked to Zen. Westerners have had a part in redefining Ryoanji, but as in the case of archery, Yamada’s interest is primarily in how the Japanese themselves have invested this cultural site with new value through a spurious association with Zen.

Baroni Iron Eyes cover artIron Eyes: The Life and Teachings of the Obaku Zen Master Tetsugen Doko by Helen J. Baroni. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2006.

This work focuses on the Japanese Zen master Tetsugen Doko (1630–1682), the best-known exponent of Ōbaku in Japan and the West. Ōbaku Zen arose during the seventeenth century and became the third major Zen sect in Japan. Ōbaku monks encouraged the laity to deepen their knowledge of and commitment to Buddhism. Tetsugen is credited with producing the first complete wood block edition of the Chinese Buddhist scriptures in Japan. Legend has it that Tetsugen had to raise the money for the project three times: twice his great compassion led him to give away the money he had raised to the starving victims of natural disasters. This Zen story is well-known in Japan and has gained popularity among contemporary Buddhists in the West. The first part of this book offers an introduction and a series of analytical chapters describing Tetsugen’s life, work, and teachings, as well as the legends related to him. The second part comprises annotated translations of his major teaching texts, important letters and other historical documents, a selection of his poetry, and several traditional biographies.

Korean Seon and Vietnamese Thien

Though a minority religion in Vietnam, Christianity has been a significant presence in the country since its arrival in the sixteenth-century. Anh Q. Tran offers the first English translation of the recently discovered 1752 manuscript Tam Giáo Chu Vong (The Errors of the Three Religions). Structured as a dialogue between a Christian priest and a Confucian scholar, this anonymously authored manuscript paints a rich picture of the three traditional Vietnamese religions: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism. The work explains and evaluates several religious beliefs, customs, and rituals of eighteenth-century Vietnam, many of which are still in practice today. In addition, it contains a trove of information on the challenges and struggles that Vietnamese Christian converts had to face in following the new faith. Besides its great historical value for studies in Vietnamese religion, language, and culture, Tran's book raises complex issues concerning the encounter between Christianity and other religions: Christian missions, religious pluralism, and interreligious dialogue.

Taesa Handbook cover artA Handbook of Korean Zen Practice: A Mirror on the Son School of Buddhism by Sosan Taesa, translated by John Jorgensen. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2015.

Sŏn (Japanese Zen) has been the dominant form of Buddhism in Korea from medieval times to the present. The work translated in the present volume, the Sŏn'ga kwigam was the most popular guide for Sŏn practice and life ever published in Korea and helped restore Buddhism to popularity after its lowest point in Korean history. It was compiled before 1569 by Sŏsan Hyujŏng (1520–1604), later famed as the leader of a monk army that helped defend Korea against a massive Japanese invasion in 1592. In addition to succinct quotations from sutras, the text also contained quotations from selected Chinese and Korean works together with Hyujŏng's explanations. Because of its brevity and organization, the work proved popular and was reprinted many times in Korea and Japan before 1909. The present volume also contains a brief history of hwadu practice and theory, a life of Hyujŏng, and a summary of the text, plus a detailed, annotated translation.

Bopjong Sound cover artThe Sound of Water, the Sound of Wind: and Other Early Works by a Mountain Monk by Bopjong, translated by Brian Barry. Fremont, CA: Jain Publishing, 2010.

"The lotus blossoms in July, so the other day I took a trip something of an annual pilgrimage of sorts to a provincial park famous for its sea of pink lotuses. I go there every summer and just saunter around the huge pond for half a day or so and then return. The rainy season had already begun and when I arrived it was drizzling and the park was deserted. With umbrella in hand, I stood on the footbridge in the center of the pond, inhaling the mystical fragrance and watching the raindrops fall on the large green lotus pads. As it began to rain harder, it was interesting to observe that what seemed like large raindrops falling in front of my eyes looked more like tiny grains of millet once they landed on the pads. Then I noticed something else. The raindrops would collect into little transparent crystal pools on the pads. As more raindrops fell, the pools became larger and heavier, and the pads began to roll the pools around on their surfaces. When these little crystal pools grew to a certain size and weight, the pads unhesitatingly dropped them down onto the other pads below. Those pads in turn rolled the pools around until they were too big and heavy, whence they just rolled them off and down into the pond. I watched this process rather indifferently until I realized what was going on, and then I marveled at the wisdom to be found in the lotus pond. The pads held what they could until it became too much for them, and then they freed themselves of their burdens. If they didn't and, out of greed, tried to hold as many raindrops as possible, then either the pads would tear or their stems would break from the weight." -- Zen Master Bopjong, Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall

Shrobe Don't-Know cover artDon't-Know Mind: The Spirit of Korean Zen by Richard Shrobe. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2004.

"Don't-know mind" is our enlightened mind before ideas, opinions, or concepts arise to create suffering. Practicing with don't-know mind has long been a central concern of Korean Zen. Here, an American Zen master in the Korean lineage brings the teaching to life by using stories about the Chinese and Korean Zen masters as jumping-off points for his own teaching. This book is a clear, direct, and heartfelt presentation of Zen teaching applicable to anyone, both for formal practice and for all the rest of life.

Portrait of Emperor Hanazono

Above: Goshin Fujiwara's portrait of the Emperor Hanazono, who sponsored the construction of the Myōshin-ji temple complex in Kyoto, after he took the tonsure.
 
Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Goshin Fujiwara. Image license: Public domain.
 

Zen in the West

Ruth Fuller Sasaki and Sokei-an Shigetsu Sasaki: two pioneers of Zen in the West. Ruth was an American with a privileged life, even during the height of the Great Depression, before she went to Japan and met D. T. Suzuki. Sokei-an was one of the first Zen priests to come to America; he brought the gift of the Dharma to the United States, but in 1942 was put in an internment camp. One made his way to the West and the other would find her way to the East, but together they created the First Zen Institute of America and helped birth a new generation of Zen practitioners: among them, Alan Watts, Gary Snyder, and Burton Watson. They were married less than a year before Sokei-an died, but Ruth would go on to helm trailblazing translations in his honor and to become the first foreigner to be the priest of a Rinzai Zen temple in Japan. With lyrical prose, authors Steven Schwartz and Janica Anderson bring Ruth and Sokei-an to life.

Steger Besserman Grassroots cover artGrassroots Zen: Community and Practice in the Twenty-First Century by Manfred Steger & Perle Besserman. Rhinebeck, NY: Monkfish Book Publishing, 2017.

This book envisions a socially engaged Buddhism where zazen is integrated each day with work, family, and social obligations. Though both authors have practiced traditional Zen for decades, here they eschew the militaristic, patriarchal tendencies of Zen in favor of "an egalitarian community of socially mobile members who place less emphasis upon transmission and hierarchy than on individual responsibility." Married university professors and authors Manfred Steger, author of Gandhi's Dilemma: Nonviolent Principles and Nationalist Power, and Perle Besserman (aka Perle Epstein), author of The Shambhala Guide to Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism, studied first under the cultural weight of Japanese Zen, then with the light-footed lay master Robert Aitken. Founders of the Princeton Area Zen Group in NJ, they have been teaching their democratic, grassroots-style of Zen for over twenty-five years.

Lopez Revivalist cover artBuddhist Revivalist Movements: Comparing Zen Buddhism and the Thai Forest Movement by Alan Robert Lopez. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

This text provides a comparative investigation of the affinities and differences of two of the most dynamic currents in World Buddhism: Zen Buddhism and the Thai Forest Movement. Defying differences in denomination, culture, and historical epochs, these schools revived an unfettered quest for enlightenment and proceeded to independently forge like practices and doctrines. The author examines the teaching gambits and tactics, the methods of practice, the place and story line of teacher biography, and the nature and role of the awakening experience, revealing similar forms deriving from an uncompromising pursuit of awaking, the insistence on self-cultivation, and the preeminent role of the charismatic master. Offering a pertinent review of their encounters with modernism, the book provides a new coherence to these seemingly disparate movements, opening up new avenues for scholars and possibilities for practitioners.

Larson Heart Beats cover artWhere the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists by Kay Larson. New York: Penguin Press, 2013.

A “heroic” biography of John Cage and his “awakening through Zen Buddhism” — “a kind of love story” about a brilliant American pioneer of the creative arts who transformed himself and his culture (The New York Times). Composer John Cage sought the silence of a mind at peace with itself—and found it in Zen Buddhism, a spiritual path that changed both his music and his view of the universe. “Remarkably researched, exquisitely written,” this book weaves together “a great many threads of cultural history” (Maria Popova, Brain Pickings) to illuminate Cage’s struggle to accept himself and his relationship with choreographer Merce Cunningham. Freed to be his own man, Cage originated exciting experiments that set him at the epicenter of a new avant-garde forming in the 1950s. Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, Allan Kaprow, and Morton Feldman were among those influenced by his ‘teaching’ and ‘preaching.’ This book shows the blossoming of Zen in the very heart of American culture.

Twilight Zen at the stone garden

Above: Three men practice zazen (sitting meditation) in the stone garden at Hakone Gardens in Saratoga, California.