Japanese Zen Buddhist Poet of Rinzai School: Sesson Yūbai (1290-1346) and China

Japanese Zen Buddhist Poet of Rinzai School: Sesson Yūbai (1290-1346) and China

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times


Sesson Yūbai (1290-1346) became a notable literati Zen Buddhist monk of the Rinzai School during his lifetime. In this period of Japanese history the flows of Kamakura, Kyoto, and Nara, maintained a rich cultural theme. Therefore, Sesson Yūbai fused the richness of indigenous culture alongside gaining from the power of the Middle Kingdom (China).

This esteemed Zen Buddhist monk was admired for his poetry and calligraphy. Similarly, the knowledge he obtained by residing in China for more than twenty years created a fascinating cultural angle. Of course, this wasn’t rare because the Middle Kingdom enriched Japan greatly.

The émigré Chinese monk Yishan Yining (Issan Ichinei 1247-1317) bestowed great wisdom and knowledge upon Sesson Yūbai during his informative years. Not surprisingly, Chinese poetry became second nature for Sesson Yūbai and the same applies to being humble.


Sesson Yūbai wrote:

My thatched hut is woven with disordered layers of clouds.
Already my footprints are washed away with the red dust.
If you ask, this monk has few plans for his life:
Before my window, flowing waters; facing my pillow, books

His time in China witnessed years of knowledge, contemplation, and another side of the dark forces of this world. This mixture of events ironically enabled Sesson Yūbai to enrich his Zen Buddhism based on suffering persecution. After all, books and obtaining wisdom in temples, open skies, exquisite gardens, and being surrounded by Buddhist scholars is one thing. However, when facing death and being imprisoned for three years in China during a period of persecution against Zen Buddhists, then Sesson Yūbai felt his soul being touched by a world of darkness in Chang’an.


Sesson Yūbai in true form based on Zen Buddhism, wrote:

I do not like praises and honors

Nor did I fear disdain

I just stayed away.

My mind, clear water,

My body bound and tied

For three years in Chang’an.

I sing what I feel in songs

In straight words, undecorated.

This article is based on providing a brief glimpse into the world of Sesson Yūbai and how the Middle Kingdom and the richness of Chinese culture enriched Japan during this period in history.


Modern Tokyo News is part of the Modern Tokyo Times group

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