Born into a World of Turmoil: The Biography and Thought of Chūgan Engetsu

  • Steffen Döll
Part of the Dao Companions to Chinese Philosophy book series (DCCP, volume 8)


The history of Japanese Zen 禪 Buddhism has been the object of research for several decades. HAKUIN Ekaku 白隠慧鶴 (1868–1769), IKKYŪ Sōjun 一休宗純 (1394–1481), and Dōgen 道元 (1200–1253) are names that by now are well known within this history, and indeed, theirs are undoubtedly important biographies. At the same time, however, we may critically remark on a certain scholarly preoccupation with these figures, and this attitude owes much to hagiographies, especially those produced by SUZUKI Daisetsu. In order to attain at least a certain degree of historical accuracy, Dōgen, Ikkyū, and Hakuin must necessarily be interpreted within their respective historical contexts. Hakuin’s intentions, for example, only become fully understandable against the backdrop of Zen’s stale and petrified institutionalism in the Edo period that was called into question by the Ōbaku 黄檗 school of YINYUAN Longqi 隠元隆琦 (1592–1673), who had recently arrived from the Chinese mainland. Ikkyū, on his part, was the harshest critic of what he saw as an overly cultured, elitist, and therefore degraded, form of Zen that was, however, all-pervasive during the Muromachi 室町 era (1336–1573). Finally, when Dōgen came back from China, he claimed to have received the “pure, Song-style Chan” and made all efforts to implant it into Japanese soil. However, if near-contemporary sources such as the Buddhist Scripture of the Genkō Era are consulted, it becomes clear that Dōgen had almost no impact at all on his contemporaries. It is therefore appropriate to point out that while his writings have enjoyed a rediscovery and revival of stunning proportions, they seem to have remained unread and marginal throughout much of the Japanese history of thought. However, it is in that time, during the Kamakura period, that the biography of CHŪGAN Engetsu 中巖圓月 (1300–1375) has its place. His career, as can be seen, is characterized by a prolonged period of studying with various Chan masters on the Chinese mainland and, in consequence, factional open-mindedness. His thought draws on a variety of religious and philosophical systems, such as the Classic of Changes (C. Yijing 易經), Daoism, Confucianism (both classical and “neo”), canonical Buddhism, and Chan Buddhist iconoclastic rhetoric. In Chūgan, the upheavals that delineate Zen’s early phase in Japan from its later “Japanization” are personified.

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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Steffen Döll
    • 1
  1. 1.Universität HamburgHamburgGermany

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