What was the Relationship Between “Warrior Japan” and “Zen Buddhism”

Zen Buddhism was one the most popular schools in Japan among the other directions of Buddhism. The peculiarity of this doctrine is the strengthening of the role of meditation and other ways to achieve the peace of mind. The ideas of the particular teaching were used by shoguns to train Japanese warriors. The rigid self-discipline, constant anger control, and indisputability to the mentor’s authority were the best training factors that created the outlook of the samurai. Also, Zen Buddhism was reflected in cultural traditions, it has had a profound influence on literature and art of Japan, and contributed to the development of the martial arts. Therefore, this paper will discuss the statements and ideas of Zen Buddhism that impacted the life and philosophy of the Japanese warriors.

The first ideas of Zen Buddhism came to Japan from China, and the rapid penetration of the Japanese islands by Zen schools started from the 12th century. The preacher Eisai (1140-1215) brought the teaching of Rinzai to Japan, and the teacher Dogen (1200-1253) – implemented the doctrine of Soto. These were the first, and then the largest schools of Zen in Japan. First of all, the teaching of Zen proclaimed the theory of ‘becoming a Buddha in human’s body’ without any rebirth and during the life of the human. It means that the focus was on meditation practice, although there were many other ways, leading to the awakening of consciousness. The Rinzai sect, known for its monks-soldiers, has developed special methods of awakening the monks’ consciousness. The monks had to respond to questions that did not have a logical answer. It could be the questions such as ‘Where have you been before you was born?’ or spontaneous conversations with the teacher requiring the natural response without thinking. Also, it could be a sharp punch that forced a student to ‘wake up.’ All these methods were aimed at destroying the logic of conditionality of the world, and showing the potential invisibility of possible and the impossible, external and internal.


One of the main reasons of Zen that attracted Samurai was its simplicity. According to Zen Buddhism, ‘true Buddha’ could not be transferred by writing or orally. Any teaching aids or comments could not contribute to the disclosure of the truth, and therefore they are false. The analysis tools such as comparison and poetry could perverse the teachings. The doctrine is beyond the verbal expression, and as soon as it is limited to words, it has already lost all the properties of Zen. Thus, the warriors were not forced to study the religious literature. Nevertheless, despite the denial of the fundamental books, and written instructions and explanations, Zen’s sect used books and Buddhist texts to promote their teachings. Therefore, the samurai had to delve into the Zen philosophy, with the help of a mentor because the person could not capture the essence of Zen alone. Additionally, Zen Buddhism helped the Samurai to generate the self-control, will, and composure the necessary qualities for a professional warrior. The notable achievement of the samurai was considered not to waver (externally and internally) in front of unexpected danger while preserving the clarity of mind and ability to think clearly, giving itself the report about behavior and actions. In practice, the samurai was forced to possess an iron will and power to go straight at the enemy not looking backward. At the same time, Zen Buddhism taught the man to be calm and fearless in all situations. One who confessed Zen Buddhism should not pay attention to the insults, so that was very difficult for representatives of the noble class.

In conjunction with the self-discipline and communication, the unquestioned obedience to the shogun and captain of the guard was the next quality imparted by Zen to the samurai. A lot of stories and tales of feudal Japan tell about the features of the Japanese medieval knights. One of the ancient stories told about a shogun, which, along with the remnants was on the edge of high cliffs, surrounded by the enemies. Unwilling to surrender, he said “Follow me” and rushed into the abyss. All samurai immediately followed the example of their master, without even considering the order of the commander. Such lightness, perfect calmness and mental clarity to parting with life were caused by Zen education system. The human life was considered to be more beautiful if it is shorter, especially if it was lived brightly. The ethics and psychology of Zen strengthened the focus on the heroic death and the spirit of self-sacrifice for the sake of a higher ideal of the warrior, so it made death to be surrounded by a halo of glory. Due to such statement of Zen, many soldiers were dying on the battlefield with a smile and words of Buddhist prayers on their lips. It is also influenced the formation of the ‘etiquette of death’ that every samurai was obligated to know and perform.

The Basics of Zen teachings have been used as the source for the code of ethics of Japanese warriors that was called Bushido. The war for the sake of suzerain interests was considered by samurai as the performing of Zen teachings. Bushido was almost identical to the Zen doctrine of death and life. It was recognized by Japanese warriors as the direct, fearless quest with the return to the eternity in the end. Zen Buddhism had the determinative role in the military and sports training of the samurai. The decisive role in fencing, archery, combat without weapons, navigation, etc. was given to the spiritual state of man. The psychological balance and self-control, developed by Zen were predominant elements of the Japanese warrior’s training. The main method of the training, according to Zen system, was meditation, the contemplation in the sitting position, in a very relaxed pose with legs crossed, without any thoughts. However, despite the coherence of dogma of Zen Buddhism and the samurai ethics, there were contradictions between them. As it is known, Buddhism prohibits any killing. It was considered one of the five great sins. Japanese feudal lords would not and could not change their social nature and therefore had to pay some attention to various types of redemption. The forms of such redemption were the generous donations to temples, monastic vows, and appeal to the clergy to perform the funeral and propitiatory services.

Many books regarding the martial arts contain an unambiguous statement that all Japanese warriors were exclusively Zen Buddhists. In fact, such claim is very far from reality. The ideology of the majority of the samurai was the compilation of at least four teachings, Shintoism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. One could consider that because Zen Buddhism attracted samurai by its simplicity, the particular direction was a highly liberal form of Buddhism, and did not have the strict doctrine and rigid discipline; which only stated ‘If you want to eat - eat, want to sleep - go to sleep.’ In fact, giving the followers the scope for the intuitive spiritual quest, Zen Buddhism is probably the strictest Buddhist sect with sophisticated methods of spiritual practices and austerities. Therefore, its statement made the Japanese warriors loyal and fearless samurai.

To conclude, the first ideas of Zen Buddhism came to Japan from China. The teaching of Zen proclaimed the theory of ‘becoming a Buddha in human body.’ The Rinzai sect, known for its monks-soldiers, has developed special methods of awakening consciousness of monks. One of the main reasons of Zen that attracted samurai was its simplicity and availability. Zen Buddhism helped the samurai to develop the self-control, iron will, and composure. The unquestioned obedience to the shogun and the captain of the guard was the important quality established by Zen. The basics statements of Zen Buddhism have been used as the source for the code of ethics of Japanese warriors that was called Bushido. Despite the significant coherence of Zen Buddhism and the samurai ethics, there were contradictions between them.

Related essays