An illustration of Hōnen preaching

Zen Buddhist monks – The unchanging essential nature

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According to tradition, Chan was introduced around 500 CE by Bodhidharma, an Indian monk teaching dhyāna.

is deeply rooted in the teachings and doctrines of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Mahayana Buddhism teaches śūnyatā, “emptiness”, which is also emphasized by Zen.

But another important doctrine is the buddha-nature, the idea that all human beings have the possibility to awaken.

All living creatures are supposed to have the Buddha-nature, but don’t realize this as long as they are not awakened.

The doctrine of an essential nature can easily lead to the idea that there is an unchanging essential nature or reality behind the changing world of appearances.

The difference and reconciliation of these two doctrines is the central theme of the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra.

Unsui (Zen-) are expected to become familiar with the classics of the Zen canon.

This is the life and achievements of some influential Zen Buddhist monks past and present from all over the world.

Pomnyun Sunim

Ven. is a Korean Buddhist monk and a Seon master renowned as an author, a Dharma teacher, and for his humanitarian work. He is also a social activist, leading various movements, such as ecological awareness campaigns and the promotion of human rights, as well as working toward world peace and the eradication of famine, disease, and illiteracy. In recognition of his efforts and achievements, Pomnyun Sunim was a recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Peace and International Understanding in September 2002.

Thích Nhất Hạnh was a Vietnamese Thiền Buddhist monk, peace activist, prolific author, poet, teacher, and founder of the Plum Village Tradition, historically recognized as the main inspiration for engaged Buddhism.

Known as the “father of mindfulness”, Nhất Hạnh was a major influence on Western practices of Buddhism and mindfulness.

D. T. Suzuki

Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki was a Japanese author of books and essays on Buddhism, Zen (Chan) and Shin that were instrumental in spreading interest in both Zen and Shin to the West. Suzuki was also a prolific translator of Chinese, Japanese, and Sanskrit literature. Suzuki spent several lengthy stretches teaching or lecturing at Western universities, and devoted many years to a professorship at Ōtani University, a Japanese Buddhist school.

Shunryu Suzuki was a Sōtō Zen monk and teacher who helped popularize Zen Buddhism in the United States, and is renowned for founding the first Zen Buddhist monastery outside Asia. Suzuki founded San Francisco Zen Center which, along with its affiliate temples, comprises one of the most influential Zen organizations in the United States. A book of his teachings, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, is one of the most popular books on Zen and Buddhism in the West.


Gikū or Yikong was an early Heian period Buddhist monk from Tang China. He is Japan’s first Buddhist monk who exclusively taught Zen.

Brad Warner

is an American Sōtō Zen monk, author, blogger, documentarian and punk rock bass guitarist.

He began practicing Zen Buddhism under his first teacher, Tim McCarthy.

Warner later studied with Gyomay Kubose.

While in Japan, he met and trained with Gudo Wafu Nishijima, a student of Rempo Niwa Zenji, who ordained him as a priest and named him as his dharma heir in 2000.

Also in 2007, Gudo Wafu Nishijima named Warner the leader of Dogen Sangha International which Nishijima had founded. Warner dissolved the organization in April 2012.

In 2012, Warner moved to California and started Dogen Sangha Los Angeles.

Claude AnShin Thomas

is an American Zen Buddhist monk and Vietnam War veteran. He is an international speaker, teacher and writer, and an advocate of non-violence. Thomas was brought to Buddhism by Vietnamese Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, and was ordained in 1995 by Tetsugen Bernard Glassman of the Zen Peacemaker Order. Thomas teaches Buddhist meditation practice and dharma to the public through social projects, talks, and retreats. Since 1994, Thomas has walked 19,000 miles (31,000 km) on peace pilgrimages throughout Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and the United States. While walking, Thomas carries no money, and begs for food and shelter in the mendicant monk tradition. He is the author of At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace (2004) and founder of the Zaltho Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending violence.

Philip Whalen

Philip Glenn Whalen was an American poet, Zen Buddhist, and a key figure in the San Francisco Renaissance and close to the Beat generation.

Kangan Giin

was a disciple of Dōgen and the founder of the Higo school of Sōtō Zen Buddhism. It has been claimed that his father was Emperor Go-Toba or Emperor Juntoku. He did much evangelization work in Kyūshū, where he founded Daiji-ji (大慈寺) in Kumamoto. Before practicing with Dōgen, Giin started his Buddhist path as a Tendai monk. He later abandoned that school and became a member of Daruma School under Kakuzen Ekan. Along with his fellow students and Gien, Giin became a student of Dōgen when Giin’s teacher Ekan himself became a student of Dōgen. Dōgen died without giving dharma transmission to Giin, but he received it later from Dōgen’s primary disciple, Koun Ejō.

Tettsū Gikai

Tettsū Gikai (徹通義介) is the third spiritual leader of the Sōtō Zen school of Buddhism in Japan. He began his Buddhist life as a student of the Darumashū’s Ekan, but later both became students of Eihei Dōgen’s newly established Sōtō school. Gikai received dharma transmission from Koun Ejō, Dōgen’s successor, and later became the third abbot of the school’s head temple, Eihei-ji. Shortly thereafter, he became embroiled in a leadership crisis known as the sandai sōron. Other monks contended that other students, namely , Gien or Giin, had stronger claims to the abbacy. The controversy remained unresolved at the time of his death. His abbacy was unpopular with some monks because he introduced innovative practices aimed at making Sōtō more palatable with the Japanese laity, which some claimed Dōgen would have frowned upon. However, he also had many followers, and eventually his innovations became the standard form of Sōtō Zen. His leadership marked the first geographical expansion of the Sōtō school when he moved with his followers to Kaga Province. Most notably, his disciple Keizan Jōkin became the second most famous figure in the school’s history after Dōgen by generating mass appeal for Sōtō Zen and ultimately spreading the teachings to all corners of Japan.

Taisen Deshimaru

was a Japanese Sōtō Zen Buddhist teacher, who founded the Association Zen Internationale.

Kodo Sawaki was a prominent Japanese Sōtō Zen teacher of the 20th century. He is considered to be one of the most significant Zen priests of his time for bringing Zen practice into the lives of laypeople and popularizing the ancient tradition of sewing the kesa. Peter Sloterdijk has called him “one of the most striking Zen masters of recent times.”

Yōkō Senne (永興詮慧), more often known simply as Senne (詮慧), was a Japanese Sōtō Zen monk who lived during the Kamakura period and was an important disciple of his sect’s founder, Eihei Dōgen. Initially a monk in the Tendai school, he later joined Dōgen at his first monastery, Kōshōhōrin-ji. He would go on to become Dōgen’s attendant (jisha) there, and he later compiled the first and ninth volumes of Dōgen’s collected works known as Eihei Kōroku. He is one of a small number of students believed to have received dharma transmission from Dōgen, along with Koun Ejō and Sōkai. According to legend, Dōgen even gave Senne the kāṣāya, or dharma robe, of Furong Daokai, a famous 11th century Chinese Zen master, which had in turn been allegedly given to Dōgen by his teacher Tiantong Rujing.

Koun Ejō

Koun Ejō (孤雲懐奘) (1198-1280) was the second patriarch of the Japanese Sōtō school of Zen Buddhism who lived during the Kamakura period. He was initially a disciple of the short-lived Darumashū sect of Japanese Zen founded by , but later studied and received dharma transmission under the Sōtō schools founder Dōgen. Today Ejō is considered Dōgen’s spiritual successor by all existing branches of the Sōtō school. He is remembered today primarily as the author of the Shōbōgenzō Zuimonki, a collection of informal talks by Dōgen which Ejō recorded throughout his discipleship. He is also featured prominently in the Denkōroku, the first major piece of scripture produced in the Sōtō school after Dōgen, with his transmission story serving as the final koan. After Dōgen’s death, Ejō struggled to maintain leadership of the new Eihei-ji monastery, due in part to his lack of training in China that prevented him from completing the temple as a Chinese-style meditation hall, as well as unfamiliarity with Chinese-style monastic practices. He gave dharma transmission to Jakuen, Gikai, Gien and Giin, all of whom were originally students of Dōgen, but his failure to designate a clear heir himself led to a power struggle known as the sandai sōron that temporarily split the community.

Suzuki Shōsan was a Japanese samurai who served under the shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu. Shōsan was born in modern-day Aichi Prefecture of Japan. He participated in the Battle of Sekigahara and the Battle of Osaka before renouncing life as a warrior and becoming a Zen Buddhist monk in 1621.


Shigetsu Sasaki, born Yeita Sasaki, was a Japanese Rinzai monk who founded the Buddhist Society of America in New York City in 1930. Influential in the growth of Zen Buddhism in the United States, Sokei-an was one of the first Japanese masters to live and teach in America. In 1944 he married American Ruth Fuller Everett. He died in May 1945 without leaving behind a Dharma heir. One of his better known students was Alan Watts, who studied under him briefly. Watts was a student of Sokei-an in the late 1930s.

Nyogen Senzaki

was a Rinzai Zen monk who was one of the 20th century’s leading proponents of Zen Buddhism in the United States.

Rylend Grant

is a screenwriter, author, and Ringo Award-winning comic book creator from Detroit, MI. He is an ordained Soto Zen Buddhist monk.


Dainichibō Nōnin (大日房能忍) was a Japanese Buddhist monk who started the first Zen school in Japan.


Jìyuán, better known to Buddhist scholars by his Japanese name Jakuen, was a Chinese Zen Buddhist monk and a disciple of Rujing. Most of his life is known to us only through medieval hagiography, legends, and sectarian works. It is generally agreed, though, that during his time at Tiāntóng Mountain he befriended Dōgen who was also studying under Rujing. After Rujing’s death in 1228, Jakuen immigrated to Japan in order to join his friend’s emerging Sōtō school, but did not receive dharma transmission from Dōgen directly, rather his disciple Koun Ejō.

Thích Nhật Từ

Ven. Thich Nhat Tu or Thích Nhật Từ in Vietnamese is a Vietnamese Buddhist reformer, an author, a poet, a psychological consultant, and an active social activist in Vietnam. He is committed to propagate Buddha’s teachings through education, cultural activities and charitable programs in order to benefit the individuals and the society at large.

Thích Thiên-Ân (釋天恩) was a teacher and Buddhist monk of Vietnamese Thiền (Zen) Buddhism and was active in the United States from 1966 to 1980. He was ordained at Chua Chau Lam in Hue, Vietnam.

Hakuin Ekaku

was one of the most influential figures in Japanese Zen Buddhism. He is regarded as the reviver of the Rinzai school from a moribund period of stagnation, refocusing it on its traditionally rigorous training methods integrating meditation and koan practice.

Tōrei Enji (東嶺円慈) was an eminent Japanese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, author, painter and calligrapher. He was the chief disciple and Dharma heir of famed Japanese Rinzai master Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1786) and was a major figure in the revival of the Rinzai school in eighteenth century Japan. He is also known as the author of an influential text on Zen practice called “The Undying Lamp of Zen”, which is his magnum opus and presents the comprehensive system of Rinzai Zen as it existed at the time of Hakuin.

Gasan Jōseki was a Japanese Soto Zen monk. He was a disciple of Keizan Jokin, and his disciples included Bassui Tokushō, , Tsūgen Jakurei, Mutan Sokan, Daisetsu Sōrei, and Jippō Ryōshū.

Tuệ Trung Thượng Sĩ (1230–1291) was an influential Buddhist lay practitioner and skilled poet of the Thiền (Zen) tradition during the Tran Dynasty in Vietnam. Tue Trung authored treatises on Pure Land and Thien teachings.


or Hui’E was a well-connected 9th century Japanese scholar-monk who made frequent trips to Tang China for pilgrimage and bringing back Buddhist teachings to Japan. Egaku had a huge impact on the religious and cultural history of China and Japan. In Japan, he is famous for bringing the first Rinzai Zen monk Gikū and the works of the Chinese poet Bai Juyi to Japan. In China, he is renowned for his role in establishing a developed pilgrimage site in Putuoshan, one of the four major Buddhist pilgrimage sites in China.

Daichi Sokei

(大智祖継) (1290-1366) was a Japanese Sōtō Zen monk famous for his Buddhist poetry who lived during the late Kamakura period and early Muromachi period. According to Steven Heine, a Buddhist studies professor, “Daichi is unique in being considered one of the great medieval Zen poets during an era when Rinzai monks, who were mainly located in Kyoto or Kamakura, clearly dominated the composition of verse.”

Bassui Tokushō

Bassui Tokushō was a Rinzai Zen Master born in modern-day Kanagawa Prefecture who had trained with Sōtō, Rinzai and Ch’an masters of his time. Bassui was unhappy with the state of Zen practice in Japan during his time, so he set out in life with the mission of revitalizing it. The problems he saw were really two sides of the same coin. That is, he saw both too much attachment by some monks and masters to ritual and dogma as well as too much attachment by some monks and masters to freedom and informality.

Ryōkan Taigu (良寛大愚) (1758–1831) was a quiet and unconventional Sōtō Zen Buddhist monk who lived much of his life as a hermit. Ryōkan is remembered for his poetry and calligraphy, which present the essence of Zen life. He is also known by the name Ryokwan in English.

Taigen Sōshin

Taigen Sōshin was a Sōtō Zen monk. He received dharma transmission from Gasan Jōseki and is considered a patriarch by the Sōtō school.

Vạn Hạnh was a Vietnamese Thiền Buddhist monk. He was well known as the most important teacher, protector, and supporter of Lý Thái Tổ, the first emperor of Lý Dynasty.


Yīduàn (義端) was a 12th-century Chinese monk of the Chan (禪) school of Buddhism.

Baisan Monpon

was a Sōtō Zen monk. He received dharma transmission from Gasan Jōseki and is considered a patriarch by the Sōtō school. He was the author of the Zenkai-ron.

Shozan Jack Haubner

is the pen name of a Zen monk who has written two books and a number of essays for The Sun, Tricycle, Buddhadharma, Lion’s Roar and the New York Times, and the Best Buddhist Writing series. He won the Pushcart Prize in 2012. Haubner’s books, portions of which have been excerpted in essays, present partially fictionalized accounts of life with Kyozan Joshu Sasaki and associated Rinzai-Ji zen centers.

Ryoun Yamada

, aka Yamada Ryoun or Yamada Masamichi, the son of the late Yamada Koun, is the current Zen master of San’un Zendo in Kamakura, Japan and the Abbot of the Sanbo Zen school of Zen Buddhism. Sanbo Zen is a lay organization of Zen, so Yamada also worked at Mitsubishi Bank and Mitsubishi Securities. Currently he heads the Itoki Corporation. As of the late 1990s, Yamada was returning to Japan only a few times each year.

Musō Soseki was a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk and teacher, and a calligraphist, poet and garden designer. The most famous monk of his time, he is also known as Musō Kokushi (夢窓国師), an honorific conferred on him by Emperor Go-Daigo. His mother was the daughter of Hōjō Masamura (1264-1268), seventh Shikken (regent) of the Kamakura shogunate.


Mujū Dōkyō, birth name Ichien Dōkyō, was a Buddhist monk of the Japanese Kamakura period. He is superficially considered a Rinzai monk by some due to his compilation of the Shasekishū and similar books of koans, but there is good evidence that he was also an eager student of the Tendai, Pure Land, and Hosso sects, and he is occasionally placed in the Shingon and Ritsu sects as well.


(1675–1763) was a Japanese Buddhist monk of the Ōbaku school of Zen Buddhism, who became famous for traveling around Kyoto selling tea. The veneration of Baisao during and after his lifetime helped to popularize sencha tea and led to the creation of the sencha tea ceremony.

Kenchū Keimitsu (堅中圭密) was a Japanese Zen Buddhist monk and diplomat in the Muromachi period. He was the chief envoy of a mission sent by the Ashikaga shogunate to the court of the Yongle Emperor in Nanjing. He would return to China at the head of four subsequent missions to the Chinese Imperial court in Beijing.

Keian Genju

was a Japanese Buddhist monk who studied classics under Ishō at Nanzen-ji.

Jochū Tengin was a Sōtō Zen monk. He received dharma transmission from Baisan Monpon and is considered a patriarch by the Sōtō school.

Jakushitsu Genkō

Jakushitsu Genkō was a Japanese Rinzai master, poet, flute player, and first abbot of Eigen-ji. His poetry is considered to be among the finest of Zen poetry. He traveled to China and studied Ch’an with masters of the Linji school from 1320 to 1326, then returned to Japan and lived for many years as a hermit. It was only toward the end of his life that he decided to teach Zen to others.


Ikkyū was an eccentric, iconoclastic Japanese Zen Buddhist monk and poet. He had a great impact on the infusion of Japanese art and literature with Zen attitudes and ideals, as well as on Zen itself, often breaking religious taboos with his stance against celibacy.

Gisan Zenkai

Gisan Zenrai was a Zen Master in 19th century Japan. He taught at Sōgen-ji 曹源寺 in Okayama. The most famous story about him concerns his conversation in 1837 with the disciple cooling his bath: this is given in an abbreviated version in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, and in more expanded version in other sources. The Zen Flesh, Zen Bones version is:”A Zen master name Gisan asked a young student to bring him a pail of water to cool his bath. “The student brought the water and, after cooling the bath, threw on to the ground the little that was left over. “‘You dunce!’ the master scolded him. ‘Why didn’t you give the rest of the water to the plants? What right have you to waste even a drop of water in this temple?’ The young student attained Zen in that instant. He changed his name to Tekisui Giboku (1822—1899), which means a drop of water.”


Ben’en, also known as Shōichi Kokushi, was a Japanese Buddhist monk. He started his Buddhist training as a Tendai monk. While he was studying with Eisai, a vision of Sugawara no Michizane appeared to him in a dream and told him to go to China and study meditation. Following this vision, he met the Rinzai teacher Wuzhun Shifan in China, and studied Mahayana with him. When he returned to Japan, he founded Tōfuku-ji monastery in Kyoto, and practiced Zen as well as other types of Buddhism. His disciples included Mujū.

Emperor Hanazono

was the 95th emperor of Japan, according to the traditional order of succession. His reign spanned the years from 1308 through 1318.

Carlo Zendo Tetsugen Serra

is an Italian missionary Soto Zen master, one of the last successors of Harada Daiun Sogaku . He founded his sangha, of the “Sangha della foresta di Bambü” and the monasteries Ensoji il Cerchio in Milan, and Sanbo-ji Tempio dei Tre Gioielli in Berceto. He also founded the “Scuola Zen di Shiatsu”, that aims to use the art of shiatsu treatments as a zen practice. He is one of the buddhist religious authorities in Europe signator of the interreligious Italian “Manifesto della pace”.

Michael Vetter

was a German composer, novelist, poet, performer, calligrapher, artist, and teacher.

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