Figures 1 and 2
Figures 1 and 2 Statue of Musō Soseki (14th century), Important Cultural Property, Zuisenji Photo courtesy of Kamakura Kokuhoukan Museum – Poem on the Theme of Snow (Sino-Japanese) by Musō Soseki (14th century). Gift of Sylvan Barnet and William Burto, in honor of Maxwell K. Hearn (2011) The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York)

Despite playing a prominent role in the political, religious, and cultural life of the fourteenth century, Musō Soseki 夢窓疎石 (1275-1351) remains largely shrouded in obscurity. An elite monk who was the author of a highly influential Buddhist tract, a skilled poet, a noted calligrapher, and an active garden designer, Musō was also a major contributor to the Gozan 五山 (Five Mountains) system of Zen monasteries that spanned the country.1 Throughout his life, he traversed the bounds of what are modernly—and narrowly—defined as art and religion, politics and literature. He navigated the upper echelons of the court and aristocracy and rubbed elbows with the warrior elite. He engaged in solitary religious devotions in the far-flung provinces and negotiated a maze of social ties strung between two capitals.

In his time and after, Musō was a highly revered Buddhist figure. He was anointed with the title of State Preceptor (kokushi 国師) an unprecedented seven times,2 making him one of the most honored figures in Japanese Buddhist history. He left behind a remarkably large number of students; one medieval hagiography indicates that he had more than twenty dharmaheirs (hassu 法嗣) and over thirteen thousand students, including monks and nuns, lay men and lay women.3 Musō was also an important contributor to medieval culture. He was well known for his widely read sermon in kana, Muchū mondōshū 夢中問答集 (1342), and celebrated for his poetry and efforts at temple and landscape design. His notable detractors included the powerful Tendai monks of Mount Hiei, who petitioned, albeit unsuccessfully, for his exile. Muchū mondōshū, likewise, inspired fierce critique in the form of two written rebuttals from monks associated with the Pure Land and Shingon traditions, both of whom took issue with Musō’s characterization of their schools4 in the highly influential text.5

The world in which Musō lived was one plagued by political instability. In a span of less than ten years, he saw the violent end of the Kamakura bakufu (1185-1333), the establishment of imperial rule under Emperor Godaigo’s 後醍醐天皇 (1288-1339) Kenmu regime (Kenmu shinsei 建武新政, 1333-1336), and the founding of a de facto rival government by the Ashikaga bakufu, ushering in the tumultuous Northern and Southern Courts period (Nanbokuchō jidai 南北朝時代 1336-1392). It was in this splintered political landscape that Musō would come to be patronized by players on all sides, beginning with the Hōjō (the last leaders of the Kamakura bakufu), then Godaigo, and finally the Ashikaga and their Northern Court allies. Through these associations, Musō added to his resume the abbotships of some of the most powerful Zen temples in Kamakura and Kyoto and built a solid foundation for one of the most powerful lines in medieval Japanese Zen.

Despite his clear significance, Musō has not received attention in the modern period even roughly commensurate with the renown he enjoyed in his time and after. Moreover, attitudes towards him in academic and popular discourse have often been mixed or negative, for the reasons I outline below. As a corrective, this book attempts to reconsider this noteworthy figure and his representative works apart from these longstanding biases. Since Musō’s activities cannot be neatly categorized within the realms of religion, literature, art, or politics, this book borrows from the disciplines of religious studies, literary studies, art history, and history to offer views of Musō’s many sides in order to clarify his wide-ranging influence on different areas of medieval culture. In addressing aspects of Zen that have largely been treated separately by previous studies, this book not only offers the fullest picture possible of Musō, it also provides a multidimensional view of metropolitan Zen during a critical period of expansion. In doing so, it sheds new light on how elite Zen culture was formed through a complex interplay of politics, religious pedagogy and praxis, poetry, landscape design, and the concerns of institution building.

Although Musō lingered in collective memory for centuries after his death and has continued to enjoy a certain degree of popular renown, he has received much less scholarly consideration than other figures associated with Japanese Zen. Of the studies that do exist, few are balanced. As Martin Collcutt observes in his pioneering overview of Musō’s life:

“In spite of this prominence, perhaps partly because of it, [Musō] remains something of an enigma. And what people know of him they generally do not like very much. He has earned an unfortunate reputation as a second-rate Zen master, whose enlightenment was questionable and whose Zen was polluted by Tendai and Shingon practices, a monastic administrator and institution builder rather than a truly insightful religious leader…”6

As a consequence of this tarnished reputation, Musō has been largely overlooked in the modern period and has only recently begun to again attract scholarly interest. This increased attention has been made possible by reexaminations of the notion of “pure Zen” that scholars identify as having been constructed and retroactively projected onto the history of Zen during Buddhism’s and Zen’s complex negotiation with modernity. To recap briefly, beginning in the late nineteenth century, modern interpreters of Zen Buddhism for the West sought to present Zen as a “rational,” ahistorical experience, devoid of “superstitious” elements and ritual, that operated extra-institutionally and apart from social forces.7 As an institutional builder and politically active figure who affirmed other styles of Buddhism, Musō won few followers among modern seekers of “pure Zen,” academic or otherwise.8 While a number of important recent studies have shed new light on aspects of pre-modern Zen long dismissed as “impure,” Musō has yet to attract significant scholarly interest, thanks in no small part to his line’s relative lack of influence on the field of modern Zen studies.9

In stark contrast to his image as a subpar Zen master, Musō is nonetheless held in deep reverence as a garden designer, particularly in popular accounts. While some scholars, such as prominent garden designer and historian ­Shigemori Mirei 重森三玲 (1896-1975) and Wybe Kuitert, are skeptical of the extent to which Musō’s gardens can be construed as his original works,10 by and large, Musō is celebrated as a genius landscape artist. He is generally credited with the creation of some of the most well-known and influential gardens in Japan, the philosophical import of which has been examined in numerous studies in Japanese and other languages. This is particularly true for English-language treatments of Musō, where he is often affirmed as “the father of the Zen garden” and celebrated for his achievements as a garden designer.11

While several recent studies, including Collcutt (1993), Tamakake (1998), Nishiyama (2004), Sueki (2008), and Yanagi (2018),12 have begun the work of reassessing aspects of Musō, there is still much to be done. While fully acknowledging that it is not possible to create a complete depiction of the medieval Musō, this study nevertheless attempts to examine key facets of this critical figure to the extent allowed by extant medieval sources. As a poem quoted by Musō in Muchū mondōshū and discussed in Chapter One begins, “Although I paint a picture, it is not complete,” so too this study is limited. Nevertheless, it is my hope that it will help clarify Musō’s place in the religious, cultural, and political landscape of his time and after.

Feedback, advice, and assistance from numerous professors, colleagues, and classmates helped shape the direction of this work from beginning to end. To name just a very few, I would like to thank my graduate adviser, Steven D. Car­ter, as well as Sueki Fumihiko, Komine Kazuaki, Harada Masatoshi, Carl Bielefeldt, Indra Levy, James Reichert, and Micah Auerbach. I would also like to thank the Editorial Board of the Brill Japanese Studies Library, as well as editors Patricia Radder and Peter Buschman. Thanks are also due to David Kelly for providing copyediting services and to Cynthia for indexing. Research for this book, in part, was made possible by a Fulbright IIE Doctoral Dissertation Research Grant and a Freeman Spogli Institute Dissertation Grant in Japanese Studies.


1 In this book, the term “Zen” 禅 will encompass Chan, Sǒn, Thiền, and Zen unless other­wise specified.

2 Musō is known as the Imperial Preceptor to Seven Courts (shichichō teishi 七朝帝師), in reference to the following seven instances in which the title of “State Preceptor” was bestowed upon him (three of them during his life): Musō 夢窓 (by Emperor Godaigo, 1335), Shōgaku 正覚 (by Emperor Kōmyō 光明天皇, 1346), Shinshū 心宗 (by Retired Emperor Kōgon 光厳上皇, 1351), Fusai 普済 (by Emperor Gokōgon 後光厳天皇, 1358), Gen’yū 玄猷 (by Emperor Goen’yū 後円融天皇, 1372), Buttō 仏統 (by Emperor Gohanazono 後花園天皇, 1450), Daien 大円 (by Emperor Gotsuchimikado 後土御門天皇, 1471). See Tamamura Takeji 玉村竹二, Musō Kokushi: Chūsei zenrin shuryū no keifu 夢窓国師:中世禅林主流の系譜 (Kyoto: Heirakuji Shoten, 1958), 90, 352, 357, 359. My translation of kokushi as “state preceptor” follows Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr. See entry for “Musō Soseki” in Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr., eds., The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 556-557.

3 Dongling Yongyu 東陵永與, “Tenryū kaisan tokushi Musō Shōgaku Shinshū Kokushi tōmei narabi ni jō 天龍開山特賜夢窓正覚心宗国師塔銘並序,” in Musō Kokushi goroku 夢窓国師語録, ed. Zen Bunka Kenkyūjo 禅文化研究所 (Kyoto: Daihonzan Tenryūji Sōdō, 1989), 376.

4 In this book, I use the imperfect word “school” as a translation of the term shū or shūha 宗派, while reserving “line” or “lineage” for the terms ha 派 and monpa 門派. I am well aware that many recent studies translate shū as “lineage” in order to avoid the nuances of factionalism or intellectual separatism that “school” often carries. Nevertheless, given that the Zen shū was a broader tradition that consisted of multiple—and often competing—ha or monpa, I nonetheless use “school” in order to differentiate the whole (shū) from its constituent parts (ha or monpa). I must stress that I use this term with caution. As Sueki Fumihiko 末木文美士 notes, the term shū as used in the time of early Zen advocate Yōsai 栄西 (1141-1215) lacked connotations of exclusivity, for the contemporary Buddhist landscape consisted of multiple shū and monks regularly studied various shū. Although the situation had changed somewhat by Musō’s time, thanks to the growth of Zen institutions, shū continued to be multiple and permeable in most contexts. At the same time, as William E. Deal and Brian D. Ruppert note, single institutions were often home to more than one shū. Accordingly, I translate shū as “school” not in allusion to isolated, sectarian entities but in reference to specific religious traditions. Sueki Fumihiko, “Yōsai-shū sōsetsu 『栄西集』総説,” in Yōsai-shū 栄西集, vol. 1 of Chūsei Zenseki sōkan 中世禅籍叢刊, ed. Chūsei Zenseki Sōkan Henshū Iinkai 中世禅籍叢刊編集委員会 (Kyoto: Rinsen Shoten, 2013), 507. On the difficulty of translating shū, see William E. Deal and Brian D. Ruppert, A Cultural History of Japanese Buddhism (West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2015), 10.

5 Harada, Chūsei Nihon no Zenshū, 350-352. The first was by Chōen 澄円 (also known as Chien 智演, 1290-1371), who objected to Musō’s characterization of the path of the nenbutsu in the three-fascicle Muchū shōfūron 夢中松風論. The other rebuttal was Kaishinshō 開心抄, authored by the Shingon monk Gōhō 杲宝 (1306-1362) in 1349. See Chapter One for a discussion of both of these texts.

6 Martin Collcutt, “Musō Soseki,” in The Origins of Japan’s Medieval World, ed. Jeffrey P. Mass (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 262.

7 Robert H. Sharf, “Whose Zen? Zen Nationalism Revisited,” in Rude Awakenings: Zen, the Kyōto School and the Question of Nationalism, ed. James W. Heisig and John C. Maraldo (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2004), 44-49. T. Griffith Foulk, “Ritual in Japanese Zen Buddhism,” in Zen Ritual: Studies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice, ed. Steven Heine and Dale S. Wright (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 23.

8 On Musō’s line as “Japanized,” “a compromise with kenmitsu (exoteric-esoteric)” Buddhism, and a form of “blended Zen” in contrast to “Song-style pure Zen,” see, for example, Imaeda Aishin 今枝愛真, Zenshū no rekishi 禅宗の歴史, 2nd ed. (Tokyo: Shibundō, 1986), 114. See also Tamamura’s biography of Musō, which extensively documents Musō’s influence while also indicating his supposed limitations. These include his supposed “Japanized” style of Zen, his purported laxity in observing Zen norms of transmission, and his alleged overreliance on the scriptures. Tamamura’s study of Musō nevertheless remains the most detailed effort to date and is essential for understanding Musō and the development of his line. Tamamura, Musō Kokushi, 28, 130-131, 157, 183-185. In English, see for example, Sir George Bailey Sansom, History of Japan (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1963), 102; and Akamatsu Toshihide and Philip Yampolsky, “Muromachi Zen and the Gozan System,” in Japan in the Muromachi Age, ed. John Whitney Hall and Toyoda Takeshi (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), 313-324.

9 There are a number of critical studies in English responsible for rewriting longstanding narratives of “pure Zen.” These include: William M. Bodiford, Sōtō Zen in Medieval Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1993); the works of Bernard Faure; Duncan Ryūken Williams, The Other Side of Zen: A Social History of Sōtō Zen Buddhism in Tokugawa Japan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); and Dale S. Wright, “Introduction: Rethinking Ritual Practice in Zen Buddhism,” in Zen Ritual, 3-20; On modern notions of “pure” and “syncretic” Zen (including a discussion of the bias against Musō), see Foulk, 24-40.

10 See for example Shigemori Mirei and Shigemori Kanto 重森完途, Kamakura no niwa 鎌倉の庭, vol. 3, bk. 1 of Nihon teienshi taikei 日本庭園史大系 (Tokyo: Nihon Teienshi Taikei Kankōkai, 1969), 52-53. See also Wybe Kuitert, Themes in the History of Japanese Garden Art (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1998), 72-74.

11 Quote is from Francois Berthier, Reading Zen in the Rocks, trans. and ed. Graham Parkes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 52.

12 On Musō’s political thought, see Tamakake Hiroyuki 玉懸博之, “Musō Soseki to shoki Muromachi seiken 夢窓疎石と初期室町政権,” in Nihon Chūsei shisōshi kenkyū 日本中世思想史研究 (Tokyo: Perikansha, 1998), 228-269. On Musō’s privileging of Zen, see Sueki Fumihiko, Kamakura Bukkyō tenkairon 鎌倉仏教展開論 (Tokyo: Transview, 2008), 253-271. For a literary study of the texts that resulted from Musō’s association with the Ashikaga bakufu, see Nishiyama Mika 西山美香, Buke seiken to Zenshū: Musō Soseki o chūshin ni 武家政権と禅宗: 夢窓疎石を中心に (Tokyo: Kasama Shoin, 2004). For a discussion of the significance of Yongming Yanshou’s 永明延寿 (J. Eimei Enju, 904-975) Zongjinglu 宗鏡録 (J. Sugyōroku) to Musō’s thought and pedagogy, see Yanagi Mikiyasu 柳幹康, “Musō Soseki to Zongjinglu 夢窓疎石と宗鏡録,” Higashi Ajia Bukkyō gakujutsu ronshū: Kan, Chū, Nichi kokusai Bukkyō gakujutsu taikai ronbunshū 6 (2018): 298-302. On Musō’s Sino-Japanese poetry, see Sasaki Yōdō 佐々木容道, Musō Kokushi: sono kanshi to shōgai 夢窓国師:その漢詩と生涯 (Tokyo: Shunjūsha, 2009). For essays on Musō and his waka, garden design, and Sino-Japanese poems, see Kumakura Isao 熊倉功夫 and Takenuki Genshō 竹貫元勝, eds., 夢窓疎石 = Zen Master Musō Soseki Life and Legacy (Tokyo: Shunjūsha, 2012).