Extract | Zen at Daitokuji by Dr. Jon Covell & Abbot

Book Extracts

A historic debate takes place between the Zen school and one hundred monks representing all the other Buddhist sects from the local area.


Mullen Books

By 1324, Daito’s popularity among court circles had made other Buddhist sects jealous. On January 21 of that year, a religious debate was held at the urging of the Tendai Buddhists from Mount Hiei and the Shingon monks of To-ji on Kyoto’s southern flank. According to the Diary of Hanazono, two priests represented the Zen side, the young Daitō Kokushi of Daitoku-an and the elderly Tsuō Kyoen, chief abbot of Nanzen-ji, and opposing them were about a hundred monks. The Tendai scholars were headed by Genne, supported by Shingon priests from Tō-ji and representatives of the ten larger temples of Nara. The judge of the contest was Emperor Go-Daigo, who had succeeded to the throne after Hanazono in 1318, assisted by the ex-Emperor Hanazono and attended by other members ofthe imperial court. Genne asked Daitō, “What is the essence of Zen that goes beyond words?” Daito’s answer was, “Everyone knows that a meteor rushes across the sky, yet they cannot explain it in words.” Genne fell silent.

Koshō the chief abbot of Onjo-ji, a Tendai temple at Miidera by Lake Biwa, then stepped forward, carrying an octagonal tray of ritual treasures. “What is that?” asked Daitō. Abbot Kosha replied, “This box contains the universe.” In Tendai philosophy all is one and one is all, so the box was all.

Daito took the short stick he used in teaching and with a quick gesture smashed the box. “What happens when the universe is crushed?” Emperor Go-Daigo decided the contest in favor of Zen and presented a wooden palanquin from the imperial storehouse for the two Zen priests to ride back to their temple in. This still hangs from the ceiling rafters of Daitoku-ji’s Headquarters Temple. In the subtemple of Shinju-an there is an original horizontal scroll illustrating this contest and the presentation of the palanquin. After this episode, Genne of Enryaku-ji became a disciple of Daito and with his own money erected a hōjō (abbot’s hall).

(Zen at Daitokuji by Dr. Jon Covell & Abbot Yamada Sōbin, pub. Kodansha International Ltd. 1974)

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