May 08, 2021

Part III: Mongols, Zen, and the Way of the Warrior

Like a swarm that blotted out the horizon, 900 ships carrying Kublai Khan’s massive Yuan invasion force dropped anchor off Komoda beach on the Japanese isle of Tsushima. Located in the Korean Straight midway between Japan and Korea, Tsushima had been protected by the So clan for generations. Said to have descended from Emperor Antoku, Tsushima’s governor So Sukekuni prepared for the massive Mongol invasion with trepidation. With only 80 samurai and few troops, Sukekuni’s forces were outmanned at least one hundred to one. With no chance of survival, their heroic end at Komoda would become legend.

As the Kamakura period neared the end of its first century, Japan’s first shogun Minimoto Yoritomo’s life had long since passed 75 years prior to the Mongol invasion that began at Tsushima. Although his shogunate bakufu government remained in Kamakura, after his sudden death in 1199 CE Yoritomo’s heir would be marginalized by his mother and her father – both of the Hojo clan - who decided to rule themselves. Just as the Fujiwara had minimized and controlled the Emperor through powerful regents, the Hojo installed shogunal regents known as Shikken to spread the views of the Hojo far beyond Kamakura. As a result, the control of the Emperor by the Fujiwara court was repeated, and the Shogun reduced to a figurehead with Hojo Shikken controlling the real political power throughout Japan.

By the time of the first Mongol invasion in 1274 CE, Hojo Tokimune had become the eighth Shikken to lead Japan as shogunal regent. Groomed from a birth to assume power, Tokimune was immediately confronted upon ascending with Kublai Khan’s not so thinly veiled threat that Japan become a vassal state and send tribute to the Great Kahn or face invasion. Having ignored and defied these threats, Tokimune now heard the first reports of the invasion bearing down on the Japanese mainland and was fearful.

The Japanese were right to be concerned about the Mongol invaders. Used to civil war between Japanese clans that followed the same rules of engagement, the Mongols were a frighteningly different adversary. The invaders did not follow the Japanese rules of warfare and open mocked them when presented with them in battle. The samurai were used to calling out their opponents and facing them in man to man combat, even in the midst of large battles. The Mongols fought as an organized group and ignored the samurai’s calls to individual combat to devastating results for the samurai. Mongol armies also brought with them the noise of war: drums and gongs along with explosive bombs and grenades unseen before in Japan – all of which created such a noise as to terrify the horses of the samurai to the point they were difficult to control.

The Yuan invasion of 1274 CE would overwhelm and slaughter So Sukekuni’s heroic forces at Tsushima. They would move on to do the same to the people of Iki island as they crossed the Korean Straight and landed on the Japanese mainland at Hikata Bay, the naked and bloody bodies of the slaughtered Iki lashed to the prows of their ships. After several days of fierce fighting, the Japanese defenders had been pursued to Mizuki-Shiro (Water Castle), an ancient rarely used earthen fortress built by Emperor Tenchi in 664 CE. But during the retreat, samurai Shoni Kagesuke was able to launch an arrow at his pursuers that would find it’s mark upon one of the three commanding Yuan generals, Liu Fuxiang, mortally wounding him and halting the pursuit.

As night fell, the Mongols would return to their ships for safety as the Japanese defenders at Mizuki-Shiro braced for an attack that would never come. During the night a great storm arose, and the hastily constructed ships of the Mongol invasion force, lashed together to prevent attack at sea, would succumb to the waves taking nearly half of the invasion force with them. The Kamikaze – Divine Wind – had saved Japan.

But Kublai Khan would not be dissuaded, and in 1281 CE launched an even larger Yuan invasion of Japan. Despite many preparations for such an attack, Tokimune was overwhelmed with fear. In the face of the massive Mongol invasion he turned to his advisor Mugaku Sogen for guidance on how to alleviate his cowardliness and that of his men. Sogen recommended Tokimune sit in meditation and look within for the source of his own cowardice.

A Chinese Rinzai Zen master, Sogen had been invited to Japan by Tokumune in 1279 after hearing a legendary story of Sogen overcoming a Yuan warrior, sword in hand ready to kill him. In the story, it was said Sogen composed a four line poem that so awed the warrior that he expressed praise for Sogen and walked away leaving him unharmed. An accomplished painter, calligrapher, and Zen master, Sogen had a reputation for self-discipline and courage that meshed with well the Kamakura Bushi.

Rinzai Zen was not new to the samurai by Sogen’s time, having been originally introduced to Japan by Eisai in 1191 CE along with the reintroduction of tea. Without the influence of Kyoto’s imperial court or its Buddhist sects, Shin Bukkyo or "New Buddhism" flourished in Kamakura, and key among these new forms of Buddhism for the samurai was the Rinzai sect of Zen. Unlike the Buddhism of Kyoto which focused on achieving happiness by trying to escape the cycle of death and rebirth in this world through preparation for the next, Rinzai Zen focused on satori – enlightenment -  through self-discipline and meditation in this world and kensho - revealing the true nature, known as Buddha nature, of everything. Where Buddhism in the old capitol was tied to the state and focused esoterically upon concepts foreign to daily life, Zen was focused upon revealing the Buddha nature of everything though everyday activities as a method of achieving satori.

Rinzai Zen’s discipline and lack of abstraction as well as it being a way of life more than a state of consciousness appealed to the military discipline of the samurai. The inexplicable nature of satori, and the intuitive comprehension of its flash of awareness into the true nature of an experience – a fleeting understanding referred to as kensho - meshed with the life of a warrior where any moment could be their last.

As Zen occupied a new place in samurai culture, the warrior elite began to practice meditation under the guidance of Rinzai Zen masters from China like Sogen. Zen brought to the samurai a way to still their mind, increase their focus, and overcome their fear of death – all powerful attributes that would enhance the abilities of a warrior and provide an advantage in battle. But these Zen masters also brought with them the use of tea and incense, the former as an aid to alertness during meditation, and the latter as a way to touch the spiritual and deepen their meditation practice.

Through Zen’s focus on simplicity and savoring the pure essence of experience, koboku - fragrant woods - assumed a position of importance for the samurai vassals of Tokimune. Seen as having a spiritual connection due to its pure fragrance, Aloeswood was prized as integral to Zen practice of the ruling samurai. Used for its calming and purifying effect, Aloeswood was employed an aid in meditation and purifier of both mind and body for battle, and believed to make  armor scented with Aloeswood both spiritually pure as well as impenetrable.

The practice of purifying body and mind lead to an increased appreciation for fragrant woods among the samurai, with warriors employing both Aloeswood and tea as a method of relaxation when not preparing for battle. Robust trade during this period increased the importation of Aloeswood from many different regions of the South Pacific, further enhancing opportunities for new koboku experiences. With increased availability of Aloeswood and its separation from Buddhist rituals, the warrior elite began to seek out experiences with high quality Aloeswood to feed their ever expanding aromatic palette. Savoring the fine fragrance of rare koboku became a popular pastime among the samurai.

It was at this time that the concept of mon-koh developed. With Zen’s focus on the experience of kensho, flashes of insight into the true Buddha nature of experience, the meditative use of incense was expanded to include all the senses, opening the samurai to even greater and more profound insights through Aloeswood’s unique fragrance. Harkening back to the idea that the words of the Buddha were like incense, and therefor incense was listened to, the meaning of the Chinese character "聞" which translates as to smell was expanded in Japanese to mean to pay attention to with one’s whole being; to listen for the true nature of Aloeswood rather than just smell its fragrance.

Among the ruling samurai, holding formal gatherings where guests would contemplate the different essences of multiple pieces of Aloeswood at a profound level became a refined pastime. To improve their ability to focus and heighten their senses, the samurai would compete in incense games to determine the origin of various Aloeswoods, rank their fragrances, and compare and debate their quality. An outgrowth of these contests was the development of the concept of Kyara where the most rare and exquisite of Aloeswoods were ranked as the highest quality and the most desirable.

Prior to Kublai Khan’s assault, Tokimune had followed the discipline of Ritsu Buddhism, but under Sogen’s guidance converted to Rinzai Zen prior to the invasion. Sitting in meditation as Sogen suggested, Tokimune would most likely have employed the use of Aloeswood for both its fragrance and as purification. Through his meditation, Tokimune would achieve kensho regarding the Mongol invasion: “Finally there is a great happening in my life!” When asked by Sogen how Tokimune would face this, he shouted katsu– victory! To this Sogen replied with satisfaction “It is true the son of a lion roars as a lion!” With this encouragement, Tokimune would face the Mongol invaders with a newfound confidence.

The second Mongol invasion of 1281 CE would meet stiff resistance thanks to Tokimune’s preparations for its arrival. After several weeks of intense fighting, it would end the same way as the first invasion – a fierce storm is said to have drowned 100,000 of Kublai Khan’s forces as the divine wind of the Kamikaze would again save Japan leading to a belief in the invincibility of the island nation that would endure until World War II.

In the aftermath of the second invasion, the promise of divine intervention come true would see Rinzai Zen increase in popularity having displayed its divine backing in saving the country. In 1282 CE Tokimune would build Engaku-ji temple in Kamakura to honor the dead of both Japanese and Mongols during the invasion. He would appoint Sogen as the founding Zen master in charge of the temple. Engaku-ji would go on to be one of the most influential and important Rinzai Zen Buddhist temples in Japan.

Tokimune would increasingly link Zen teachings directly with elements of Shinto and Confucianism to form an unwritten moral code for the bushi that stressed frugality, loyalty, and honor, and that would in time be referred to as Bushido, the Way of the Warrior. Now with official state backing, Rinzai Zen teaching would flourish and enjoy a wave of popularity, exposing new followers to Zen’s influence  - including its use of tea and incense.

Tokimune would not live to see this however, as he would succumb to tuberculosis at the age of 33 in 1284 CE. However, he was so dedicated to Rinzai Zen that he took his vows and became a Buddhist monk on the day he died. After his death, his many loyal samurai vassals would honor him by adopting his Zen faith, spreading Zen and it’s use of tea and incense throughout Japan.

In Part IV of The Origins of Japanese Incense Culture, the fall of the Hojo, the Ashikaga shogunate, and the rise of Higashiyama Culture would forever change Japanese incense culture.


This page is part of Kikoh's Japanese Incense 101 series. This series of posts is intended to help provide greater information and understanding as you progress along this fragrant path. Learn more...