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The evolution of scholar-monks

The evolution of scholar-monks

The activity of Gozan monks was not limited to temple settings. Thanks to the support of the Ashikaga shogunate, they also served as experts of Chinese-style learning and advisers to warriors and military leaders in non-religious contexts.

Not only did monks write the travel documents that merchants traveling to Yuan (1271 – 1368) and Ming (1271 – 1368) China on the trade ships known as “Tenryūji ships” and “Kangōsen” (official-seal ships) took with them, but they often personally took part in these missions as ambassadors. Throughout the Muromachi period (1392-1573), Zen monks were highly sought after as masters of the art of writing.

At the same time, by the end of the first half of the Muromachi period (1336-1573) there was a decline in Gozan publishing. This was partly due to the dwindling contribution of foreign printers and partly to the influx of books from China through increased trade during the Yuan and the Ming. The main reason, however, was that once the scope of Gozan scholarship was established, the market in those areas quickly reached the point of saturation.

The activity of the Five Mountains was also affected by the outbreak of the Ōnin wars (1467-1477) which, from Kyoto, eventually spread to the whole of Japan. The most noticeable effect was the decline of Ashikaga power, which meant a sudden loss of political influence and financial support for the temples. The place of the Ashikaga was taken by local military leaders who sought to strengthen their control over their domains and to develop them economically, while families who ruled over domains with thriving port cities, such as the Hosokawa and the Ōuchi, used the profits from trade to develop their domains and secure the status of sengoku daimyo (daimyo of the Warring States period). In order to strengthen their ties with these local daimyo families, the monks of the Gozan temples relocated to the provinces. At the same time, their activities were growing increasingly secularized; with their Buddhist practice now little more than a ritual façade and their focus shifting from religious texts to tutoring and Chinese studies in general, it became increasingly difficult to tell them apart from lay writers and scholars.

© Keio University
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