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了然明全 Ryōnen Myōzen (1184–1225), aka 佛樹明全 Butsuju Myōzen


Ryōnen Myōzen (了然明全 1184–1225), aka 佛樹明全 Butsuju Myōzen
Early master of the Ōryō school of Rinzai Zen; dharma successor of Eisai-zenji. Dōgen-zenji's teacher.

In 1223 Dōgen traveled to China with his teacher from Kenninji, Butsuju Myōzen, who was a successor of the Kenninji founder Myōan Eisai (or Yōsai). Eisai, who had also studied in China, was a successor in the Linji (Jpn.: Rinzai) lineage and was later considered the founder of the Japanese Rinzai school (although it is a different branch of the school that survived in Japan). We do not know if Dōgen actually met Eisai, who died in 1215. But certainly Dōgen highly esteemed Myōzen, who died at age forty-one in 1225 while practicing together with Dōgen at the Tiantong monastery in China. It was shortly before Myōzen's death that Dōgen met his Chinese teacher Tiantong Rujing, who was a master in the Caodong (Jpn.: Sōtō) lineage.

The details of Dōgen's early career are uncertain; he is said to have entered the order at the age of thirteen (1213), under the Tendai prelate Kōen 公圓, and to have begun his Zen studies, probably in 1217, with a visit to Kennninji 建仁寺, the new monastery in Heian-kyō founded by the Tendai and Zen monk Eisai (or Yōsai) 榮西 (1141-1215). In 1222, he became a disciple of Eisai's follower Myōzen 明全 (1184-1225), with whom he left for China early the following year. Beginning in the seventh month of 1223, he was based at the Jingde Chansi 景徳禪寺 on Mt. Tiantong 天童山, from which he made visits to other monasteries in the area of present-day Zhejiang province. Following Myōzen's death at Tiantong in 1225, Dōgen became a disciple of the new abbot, Tiantong Rujing 天童如淨 (1163-1228). After receiving a certificate of transmission from Rujing, he returned to Japan in the summer of 1227.

Richard Bryan McDaniel: Zen Masters of Japan. The Second Step East. Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle Publishing, 2013.

The most important of Eisai’s Dharma heirs was Ryonen Myozen. When orphaned at the age of eight, he was placed in a Tendai temple on Mount Hiei where he studied under a monk named Myoyu. When Myozen was sixteen, he took the precepts in the Tendai tradition. He then sought to deepen his understanding of Buddhism by training with Eisai. Eventually he was recognized as Eisai’s successor, and, after that teacher’s death, Myozen continued to promote the Rinzai tradition and began to acquire his own disciples.

In 1223, Myozen planned to travel to China with several of his students. Before they left however, Myozen received word that his Tendai teacher, Myoyu, was dying and had requested his former student come to see him one last time. Uncertain of where his obligation lay, Myozen called his monks together and put the situation to them. Should he proceed to China to deepen his Zen practice, or should he honor the debt he owed his teacher and go to his bedside? The majority of Myozen’s students felt that the master’s obligation to his teacher took priority and urged him to delay his trip to China and go to Myoyu. Only one student dissented, but his argument convinced Myozen to proceed with the trip. Myozen explained that the most effective way to discharge his debt to Myoyu would be to achieve awakening for the benefit of others. He stated that if he acquired:

—even a trace of enlightenment, it will serve to awaken many people, even though it means opposing the deluded wishes of one person. If the virtue gained were exceptional, it would serve to repay the kindness of my teacher.
(Heinrich Dumoulin, Zen Buddhism: A History – Japan (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2005), p. 22.)

Accompanied by the young monk who had encouraged him, Myozen set off for China. Once there the two parted company. Myozen proceeded to Mount Tientung, where Eisai had trained, and there he studied with two Chinese masters for three years. His health was not strong, however, and in May 1225, he died while seated in meditation.

The disciple who had encouraged Myozen to make the journey to China had pursued his own path while in the country, but before he returned to Japan he collected Myozen’s ashes and brought them back with him. That’s disciple’s name was Dogen Kigen, and the other thing he brought to Japan from his visit to China was the Soto Zen tradition.