Mysticism, history of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K050-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 24, 2019, from

4. Mysticism in China and Japan

Despite its influence on later Hinduism, Buddhism largely died out within India itself after the revival of Vedantism. Elsewhere in Asia, however, Buddhism continued to spread and evolve as it encountered other traditions.

With its focus on harmonious relations between the ‘superior individual’ and a well-ordered society, early Confucianism appears as a form of ethical humanism, though a mystical element emerges more clearly in the Book of Mencius and in later neo-Confucianism, under Daoist influence (see Chinese philosophy §§4–5). By contrast, the Daodejing (ascribed to Laozi, considered the founder of Daoism) has a more mystical tone. Here the Dao or Way is regarded as both the natural order of the universe, and a life lived in harmony with that order. Laozi advises the sage to act spontaneously and effortlessly, through non-action (wuwei). The Daodejing is relatively silent on mystical disciplines or states of consciousness, which are treated in more detail in the later Book of Zhuangzi (see Daodejing).

Daoism exerted a powerful influence on Chan (Japanese Zen) Buddhism, a school of Mahāyāna Buddhism developed in China and Japan (see Japanese philosophy §5). Here there is a strong emphasis on sudden illumination (satori), often after prolonged sitting meditation (zazen), concentrating under the direction of a master (roshi) on an assigned koan (a paradoxical question or answer designed to stop ordinary conceptual thinking). The two principle surviving Zen schools are Rinzai and Sōtō, brought to Japan by Eisai (1141–1215) and Dōgen respectively. Dōgen and the Sōtōschool emphasize the centrality of the Zen meditation practice itself, not as a means to an end, but as the realization of one’s own already present Buddha-nature. By contrast, roshis of the Rinzai school have traditionally used koans and even startling and eccentric behaviour (slaps, sudden gestures, and so on) to evoke in their pupils a condition of great doubt and mental tension leading to the sudden breakthrough of satori. Revitalized in the eighteenth century by Hakuin (1685–1768), who systematized the use of koans and left detailed descriptions of his own mystical experiences, Rinzai has become the best-known branch of Zen in the West, largely through the efforts of D.T. Suzuki (1870–1966).

Citing this article:
Payne, Steven. Mysticism in China and Japan. Mysticism, history of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K050-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

Related Searches




Related Articles