Eisai traveled to Song Dynasty China twice, in 1168 and 1187. During his second sojourn, he studied at the Tiantongsi in Ningbo, one of the so-called "Five Mountains," the top five Chan (i.e. Zen) temples in China.
Upon his return in 1191, he introduced the Rinzai (C: Linji) school of Zen (C: Chan) to Japan, along with powdered tea. The religious practices he introduced included, prominently, the consideration of kôan, riddles meant to help one achieve personal, individual, enlightenment through contemplation of paradoxes and mysteries.
After a time in Kamakura, Eisai moved to Kyoto, where he found his heterodox ideas less welcome. He had been impressed by the level of discipline in Chinese Buddhist temples, and sought to bring that to Japan, to revive the vibrancy and strength of Tendai practice, but was politically opposed by the Tendai establishment on Mt. Hiei. A rival group known as the Darumashû, which advocated that no discipline, and no specific ritual practice at all was necessary, since enlightenment could come from any activity, also posed a problem. The Imperial Court banned the teachings of both Eisai and of the Darumashû in 1194, but Eisai went on to compile, nevertheless, a work "On the Propagation of Zen for the Protection of the State" (Kôzen gokokuron) in 1198. He established the first Zen monastery in Japan, the Shôfuku-ji in Hakata, in 1195.
In the end, Eisai accommodated a number of Tendai and Shingon practices, incorporating them into his practice of Zen, in order to gain greater acceptance.
- Conrad Schirokauer, David Lurie, and Suzanne Gay, A Brief History of Japanese Civilization, Wadsworth Cengage (2013), 81.
- William de Bary, Sources of Japanese Tradition, vol 1, Columbia University Press (2001), 306-313.
- Robert Morrell, "Zeami's Kasuga Ryûjin (Dragon God of Kasuga), or Myôe Shônin," Early Kamakura Buddhism: A Minority Report, Asian Humanities Press (1987), 103.
- Richard von Glahn, "The Ningbo-Hakata Merchant Network and the Reorientation of East Asian Maritime Trade, 1150-1350," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 74:2 (2014), 275.