Fierce Practice, Courageous Spirit, and Spiritual Cultivation: The Rise of Lay Rinzai Zen in Modern Japan

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In this dissertation, I examine the development of lay Rinzai Zen in modern Japan, a transformation that entailed a large-scale opening of Zen practices to non-clerics and eventually contributed to Zen’s worldwide spread. I detail the historical shift between 1868 and 1945, which saw the emergence of hundreds of lay Zen groups throughout Japan, the proliferation of literature targeting a popular audience, and a new paradigm of practice amidst imperial Japan’s changing zeitgeist. Although Rinzai Zen was only one of thirteen Buddhist schools in Japan at the time, lay Rinzai Zen became disproportionately significant through its dissemination among educated, relatively elite young men, and through the success of its popularizers in associating modern lay Rinzai Zen with “traditional” Buddhism and Japanese culture itself.

In order to investigate this phenomenon, I conducted archival research, focusing on the following genres: contemporaneous periodicals and books aimed at a popular Zen audience, and the publications of lay Zen groups, such as their commemorative histories that included detailed activity logs, personal testimonials, and institutional histories. In my analysis, I integrate the dimensions of intellectual and social history (e.g., situating modern lay Rinzai Zen practitioners in imperial Japan) with religious and doctrinal concerns (e.g., situating modern Rinzai Zen in traditional Zen narratives). Although I consider teachers’ prescriptions for ideal Zen practice, I emphasize the perspective of ordinary practitioners from a variety of practice contexts in order to examine the nature of Rinzai Zen’s popularization in modern Japan: the emergence of lay groups, the religious practices in which practitioners engaged, the ways in which lay practitioners articulated their motivations, and how such motivations reflected the historical context.

My conclusions include the following: First, the scale of the lay Rinzai movement in modern Japan was far larger than research until this point suggests, in terms of numbers of groups and practitioners and the amount of popular literature. Given the diversity among the emerging Rinzai lay groups, I propose a typology to highlight the groups’ qualitative differences, ranging from more “traditional” to more radically divergent from normative Rinzai. Second, I found that even while the lay Zen audience expanded to an unprecedented level in Japan, the average lay Rinzai practitioner was educated and relatively elite; therefore, Rinzai Zen’s popularization did not amount to full democratization. Moreover, students and other youth played a sizable and significant role in modern lay Rinzai. Third, I show that despite divergent ideology and rhetoric among modern lay Rinzai Zen groups and figures, a specific pattern of activities became standard among nearly all such groups. This pattern centered on sitting meditation, kōan practice, encountering the master one-on-one, dharma discourses, and practice intensives, with far less emphasis on aspects that have been historically important in Rinzai monastic training, such as ritual, liturgy, manual labor, and literary study in advanced kōan practice. This new lay Rinzai pattern functioned to increase an emphasis on personal experience and kōan practice. Finally, in contrast to idealized notions about pursuing Zen primarily for the sake of enlightenment, most modern lay Rinzai practitioners examined here pursued Zen for this-worldly benefits, such as improved health, improved swordsmanship abilities, or as a means of strengthening the Japanese nation. Such goals were particularly expressed following 1905, amidst the nationalism and interest in personal cultivation movements that surged after Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War. Moreover, for many practitioners, there was a convergence among lay Rinzai practice, nation-protecting self-cultivation movements, “way of the warrior” rhetoric, and modern Japanese ideals of masculinity: a convergence that likely attracted many practitioners but was inherently at odds with Zen’s rhetoric of equality.






Mendelson, Rebecca (2020). Fierce Practice, Courageous Spirit, and Spiritual Cultivation: The Rise of Lay Rinzai Zen in Modern Japan. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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