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Jitsuroku Ni: Ungo-Zenji

Original Story from Tales of the Samurai and Lady Hosokawa

by Asatori Miyamori and Kido Okamoto

Afterword & Commentary by Justin Hagen

It was snowing fast.

Already as far as eye could see the world was covered with a vast silvery sheet. Hill and dale, tree and field, all alike clothed in virgin white.

Caring nothing for the bitter cold, but loving the beautiful, Date Masamune determined to go out to enjoy the scene. Accordingly, accompanied by a few attendants, he wended his way to a pavilion set on a low hill in the castle grounds whence an extensive view, embracing the whole of his little fief of Osaka, could be obtained. In later life Masamune distinguished himself by signal service rendered to the state, eventually becoming one of the greatest daimyos in Japan, under Ieyasu, the first Shogun, but at this time Osaka was his sole estate, and his income did not exceed 100,000 koku of rice a year.

“What an enchanting picture ! What can compare with a snow landscape?” he exclaimed, as he stood enraptured, gazing with delight from the balcony of the snow a pavilion at the pure loveliness of the scene before him. “It is said that foretells fruitful year. When the harvest is abundant great is the rejoicing of the people, and peace and prosperity reign over the land!"

While his lordship thus soliloquized, Heishiro, the sandal-bearer Makabe Heishiro, as he was called from his birthplace, Makabe in Hitachi, a surname being a luxury unknown to the third estate waited without. Having adjusted his master's foot gear there was nothing more to do till he should come out again. But presently Heishiro observed that the snowflakes fell and lay some what thick on his valuable charge. He hastened to brush them off with his sleeve, but more flakes fell, and again the geta (clogs) were covered with icy particles.

“This will never do,” he said to himself. “His lordship's disdains to wear tabi (socks) even in the coldest weather, deeming it a mark of effeminacy; should he place his bare feet on these damp geta he will assuredly catch cold. I must keep them warm and dry for him.”

So the good fellow in the kindness of his simple heart took up the heavy wooden clogs, and putting them in the bosom of his garment next his skin, continued his patient waiting.

“His lordship comes!"

Heishiro had just time to put the geta straight on the large stone step at the entrance before the double doors slid open right and left and Masamune appeared, young, imperious.

He slipped his feet on to the geta. How was this? They felt warm to his touch! How could that be in such freezing weather? There could be but one explanation. That lazy lout of a sandal-bearer had been using them as a seat, sitting on the honorable footwear of his august master! The insufferable insolence of the fellow!

In a passion at the supposed insult he caught the offender by the nape of his neck, and shook him violently, exclaiming between his set teeth, “You scoundrel! How dare you defile my geta by sitting on them! You have grossly insulted behind my back! Villain, take that........."

Catching up one of the clogs which he had kicked off, he struck the poor servitor a heavy blow between the eyes, which caused him to reel stunned and bleeding to the ground. Then hurling the companion geta at his prostrate victim, he strode proudly back to the castle, barefooted, for he was in too great a rage to wait until another pair of geta could be brought.

No one stayed to look after Heishiro. None cared what became of him. For some time he lay as he had fallen, but presently the cold brought him back to consciousness, and he rose slowly and with difficulty to his feet.

He picked up the geta with which he had been struck, and with tears mingling with the blood on his face gazed at it mournfully for a few moments. Then, as the thought of his master's injustice came over him, he gnashed his teeth in impotent rage.

“Haughty brute, that you are, Masamune," he muttered, “you shall pay for this! The bond between us as lord and vassal has snapped for ever, I have been one of the most devoted of your humble servants, but now I will never rest till I have had my revenge on you for this cruel treatment!”

Then Heishiro again put the geta into his bosom, though with how different an intention from before, and descending the hill on the side furthest from the castle, limped painfully away.

From that time forth the man had but one idea: to wreak condign vengeance on the arrogant noble who had so abused his kindness.

But Masamune was a daimyo , though a poor one, while Heishiro was only a serf. Assassination was impossible, Masamune being always well guarded even while he slept, besides possessing considerable bodily strength himself. He must have recourse to other and subtler. He thought long and deeply. There were only two persons of higher rank than the daimyo who could affect his position at will: the Emperor and the Shogun. But how could a man of Heishiro's standing gain the ear of either of these two illustrious personages so as to slander Masamune and influence them against him? The very idea was absurd! True, it was warlike age and promotion speedily followed the achievement of a deed of valor; with a spear in his hand and a good horse under him one might rise to almost any height. But Heishiro was no soldier and his physical strength was small. With a sigh he admitted to himself that the accomplishment of his purpose did not lie that way.

And then a happy thought struck him. He remembered that any one, high or low, great or small, could become a priest and that the prospects held out in that profession were boundless. There was no distinction to which a man of the lowliest parentage and the weakest body might not aspire. A learned priest with a reputation for sanctity might get access to Court and gain the notice of the Emperor himself!

That was it!

Heishiro resolved to turn priest, and with this in view made all haste to Kyoto, where he entered the Temple of Ungo-ji in Higashiyama as an acolyte.

But the career of an acolyte is none of the easiest. Before he can be received into the priesthood he must go through all forms of asceticism, self-denial, and penance. Furthermore, he has to serve his superiors as a drudge, doing the most menial tasks at their command. Heishiro had a very hard time of it. A man of ordinary perseverance might have succumbed and given up. Not So Heishiro. Not for a moment did he dream of abandoning his self- imposed task. He was determined as long as there was life in him to endure every hard ship and humiliation, so that eventually he might attain his end. Still he was but human, and there were times when his weary body almost gave way and his spirit flagged. His racked nerves seemed as if they could bear no more. At such times he would look in a mirror at the reflection of the deep scar on his brow, and draw from its place of concealment the odd garden geta, saying to himself, “ Courage! Remember Masamune! Your work is not done yet.”

Then strength and calmness would return and he once more felt equal to labor and endure.

Little by little Heishiro rose in the favor of his superiors, and his learning showed marked progress. At length, he thought he might get on faster if he went to another monastery, and the Temple of Enryaku-ji on Mt. Hiei being the largest and most renowned of all places of sacred teaching in Japan, he applied there for admission and was readily admitted.

Twenty years later, Joben, for that was the name Heishiro took on entering the priesthood, was known far and near for his erudition and strict application to all observances of a life of the most austere piety. But he was not satisfied. He was still very far from being in a position to attract the notice of the Emperor. Yet higher must he climb. To be world -famous was his aim.

So he made up his mind to go over to China, justly regarded as the fountain-head of all knowledge and wisdom. All she could impart of the Buddhist faith he would acquire. As soon as an opportunity offered Joben sailed from his native shores and found himself among a strange people. Here he remained ten years. During that time he visited many famous temples and gathered wisdom from many sources. At last, the fame of the traveler reached the car of the Chinese Emperor, who was pleased to grant him an audience, and graciously bestowed on him a new sacerdotal name, that of Issan Kasho Daizenji. Thus it came about that Joben left his country acknowledged, indeed to be a wise and holy man, but he came back to be regarded as the foremost divine in Japan.

After his return Issan Kasho Daizenji stayed at Ungo-ji, the temple in Kyoto where he had entered as a novice. He had heard nothing of Masamune for some years and was anxious to learn what had become of him. He was unpleasantly surprised to hear that the object of his hatred had also risen in the world, and that now as lord of the Castle of Sendai he considered one of the most important men of the day. Not only did he hold a high office at Court, but as the head of the North-Eastern daimyos, even the Shogun had to treat him with respect. All this was annoying if nothing worse. The Zenji saw that he would have to bide his time and act warily. A false move now might render futile all his long years of travail.

But after all he did not have to wait very long.

The Emperor was taken ill and his malady was of so serious a nature that the skill of the wisest physicians proved of no avail. The highest officials of the Imperial Household met in solemn conclave to discuss the matter and it was decided that earthly means being vain the only hope lay in an appeal to Heaven.

Who was the priest of character so stainless, of wisdom so profound that he might be entrusted with this high mission? One name rose to all lips: "Issan Kasho Daizenji!"

With all speed, therefore, the holy man summoned to the Palace and ordered to pray his hardest to the Heavenly Powers for the restoration to health of the Imperial patient.

For seven days and seven nights the Zenji isolated himself from all mankind in the Hall of the Blue Dragon. For seven days and seven nights he fasted, and prayed that the precious life might be spared. And his prayers were heard. At the end of that time the Emperor took a turn for the better, and so rapid was his recovery that in a very short time all cause of anxiety about him was over.

His Majesty's gratitude knew no bounds. The Zenji was honored with many marks of the Imperial regard, and as a consequence, all the ministers and courtiers vied with each other in obsequiousness to the favorite of the Emperor. He was appointed Head of the Ungo-ji Temple, and received yet another name, Ungo Daizenji.

“The attainment of my desire is now within reach!” thought the priest exultantly. “It only remains to find a plausible pretext for accusing Masamune of high treason."

But more than thirty years had elapsed since Makabe Heishiro , the lowly sandal-bearer, had vowed vengeance on the daimyo Date Masamune, and not without effect had been his delving into holy scriptures, his long vigils, his life of asceticism and meditation. Heishiro had become Ungo Daizenji, a great priest. His character had undergone a radical change, though he had not suspected it. His mind had been purified and was now incapable of harboring so mean and paltry a feeling as a desire for revenge. Now that the power was in his grasp he no longer cared to exercise it.

“To hate, or to try to injure a fellow creature is below one who has entered the priesthood,” he said to himself. “The winds of passion disturb only those who move about the maze of the secular world. When a man's spiritual eyes are opened, neither east nor west, neither north nor south exists, such things are but illusions. I have nursed a grudge against Lord Date for over thirty years, and with the sole object of revenge before my eyes have raised myself to my present position.

“But if Lord Date had not ill-treated me on a certain occasion, what would my life have been? I should, probably, have remained Heishiro, the sandal-bearer, all my days. But my lord had the unkindness to strike me with a garden geta without troubling himself to find out whether I deserved such chastisement. I was roused to anger and vowed to be revenged. Because of my resolve to punish him I turned priest, studied hard, endured privations, and so, at length, have become one of the most influential priests in the Empire, before whom even princes and nobles bow with reverence. If I look at the matter in its true light it is to Lord Date that I owe everything.

“In olden times Sakya Muni, turning his back upon earthly glory, climbed Mt. Dantoku and there served his officiate. Prince though he was, he performed all menial offices for his master, who if ever the disciple seemed negligent, would beat him with. How mortifying it is, 'thought the Royal neophyte, 'that I, born to a throne, should be treated thus by one so far beneath me in rank.' But Sakya Muni was man of indomitable spirit. The more humiliations he had to suffer the more earnestly did he apply himself to his religious studies, so that, at the early age of thirty he had learnt all his teacher could impart, and himself began to teach, introducing to the world one of the greatest religions it has ever known. It may truthfully be said that Sakya's success largely, if not wholly, due to that stern and relentless master who allowed no shirking of his work. Far be it from me to institute any comparison between my humble self and the holy Founder of Buddhism, but, nevertheless, I cannot deny the fact that the pavilion in the grounds of Osaka Castle was my Mt. Dantoku, and this old garden geta my benefactor's cane. Therefore, it should be gratitude, not revenge, that I have in my heart for Masamune, for it was his unconsidered act that laid the foundation of my prosperity.”

Thus the good priest relinquished his long cherished idea of vengeance, and a better feeling took its place. He now looked upon the blood-stained geta with reverence, offering flowers and burning incense before it, while day and night he prayed fervently for the long life and happiness of his old master, Lord Date Masamune.

And Masamune himself?

As stated above he attained great honors and became a leading man in the councils of his country, But at the age of sixty-three he tired of public life and retired to pass the evening of his days at his Castle of Sendai. Here, to employ his leisure, he set about the restoration of the well-known temple of Zuigan-ji, at Matsushima, in the vicinity of the castle, which during a long period of civil strife had fallen into decay, being in fact a complete ruin. Masamune took it upon him self to restore the building to its former rich splendor, and then when all was done looked about for a priest of deep learning and acknowledged virtue who should be worthy to be placed in charge of it.

At a gathering of his chief retainers he addressed them as follows”

“As you know I have rebuilt and decorated the Zuigan-ji Temple in this vicinity, but it still remains without a Superior. I desire to entrust it to a holy and learned man who will carry on its ancient traditions as a seat of piety. Tell me, who is the greatest priest of the day?”

“Ungo-Zenji, High Priest of the Ungo-ji Temple in Kyoto is undoubtedly the greatest priest of the day," came the unanimous reply.

So Masamune decided to offer the vacant post to the holy Ungo-Daizenji, but as the priest in question was a favorite at Court, and enjoyed the confidence of the Emperor, it was necessary that His Majesty should first be approached before anything was said to the Zenji. Masamune tendered his petition in due form and as a personal favor to himself. The Emperor who retained a warm affection for the retired statesman, readily assented, and thus it came about that Ungo-Zenji was appointed Head of the Zuigan-ji Temple in the beautiful district of Matsushima.

On the seventh day after his installation, Masamune paid a formal call at the Zuigan-ji to welcome the new arrival. He was ushered into the private guest-room of the Zenji which was at the moment unoccupied. On turning to the alcove his attention was at once arrested by the sight of an old garden geta placed on a valuable stand of elaborate and costly workmanship.

“What celebrated personage has used that geta?” said the astonished Masamune to himself. “But surely it is a breach of etiquette to decorate a room with such a lowly article when about to receive a daimyo of my standing! However, the priest has doubtless purpose in allowing so strange an infringement of good manners.”

At that moment the sliding doors opened noiselessly, and a venerable man in full canonical books and bearing a holy brush of long white hair in his hand, came in. His immobile face was that of an ascetic but marred by a disfiguring scar on his forehead between the eyes.

Ungo-Zenji, for he it was, seated himself opposite his guest and putting both hands, palm downwards, on the mats bowed several times in respectful greeting, Masamune returning the courtesy with due ceremony.

When the salutations were over, Masamune could no longer restrain his curiosity.

“Your Reverence," he began, "in compliance with my earnest request you have condescended to come down to this insignificant place to take charge of our temple. I am profoundly impressed by your goodness and know not how to thank you. I am a plain man and unskilled in words. But, your Reverence, there are two things which puzzle me, and though at this our first interview you may deem it a want of good breeding to be so inquisitive, may I ask you to explain the place of honor given to a garden geta, and the scar on your brow that accords so ill with your reputation for saintliness?”

At these words, poured out with the impetuosity he remembered in Masamune as a young man, the priest smiled a little. Then he withdrew to the lower end of the apartment and with tears glistening in his sunken eyes, said:

“How rejoiced I am to see your face again. To gaze upon your unchanged features reminds me of the days of my long past youth."

“What, your words are strange! How can I remind you of your youth, when, to my knowledge, we never met till this day?”

“My lord, have patience, and I will explain all,” replied the Zenji. “In those days I was but a servant a sandal-bearer known as Makabe Heishiro, it is not likely so humble an individual would retain a place in your memory. It was when you were residing at the Castle of Osaka."

He paused, but Masamune, too amazed to utter a word, only looked intently at his former servant as if trying to recall having ever seen him before.

So Ungo-Zenji went on with his story, and in detail told all that had befallen him since that snowy day more than thirty years before.

He did not spare himself, but told how through all those years he had been actuated by a feeling of revenge and revenge only, and how the thought of some day seeing his enemy in the dust had been the spur to goad him on to conquer all difficulties, to surmount every obstacle.

“At length,” concluded the priest, “I came under the notice of the Emperor who so magnified a trifling service that he loaded me with rewards and marks of favor. 'Now is my time!' I thought. But to my own astonishment I found that so vile a passion no longer existed in my nature; the desire for revenge had fled. I began to view the affair in a different light, and to look upon you as my benefactor. But for you I should still be a sandal-bearer; but for you the stores of knowledge at my command would never have come within my reach; but for you the intercourse I have had with the illustrious and sage men of two countries would have been an impossibility. Therefore, my hatred is turned to gratitude, my wish for vengeance to a heartfelt desire for your long life and prosperity. I pray daily that some day I may be enabled in some small measure to requite the inestimable benefits I owe to you. Your lordship now understands why I so treasure an old geta, and how it is I bear this ugly scar on my brow.”

Masamune listened to the narrative with growing wonder and the deepest attention. At its conclusion he rose and taking the Zenji by both hands gently, but forcibly drew him to the upper end of the apartment. When both were again seated he spoke.

“Your Reverence," he said in a voice full of emotion. “What you have just told me quite puts me out of countenance. I can just recall the incident of which you speak and I remember how angry I felt at what in my arrogance I deemed a gross insult. I do not wonder at your desire for revenge, but, that you should renounce the triumph that was yours for the asking, that, indeed, amazes me! Such magnanimity is almost incredible! You prove to me that religion is not the empty abstraction some call it, and I humbly beg your pardon for my past offense, and request you to enroll me as one of your disciples.”

In this way, Masamune who was of a frank and noble disposition repented of the fault committed in his youth, and the sandal-bearer achieved a greater victory than he could have boasted of had he caused his enemy to die a shameful death.

A hearty friendship sprang up between the two generous minded men, and till death parted them many years later they saw much of each other and their affection grew. The priest was always a welcome guest at the Castle, while with earnest piety, Masamune prosecuted his studies in sacred lore under the guidance of Ungo-Zenji.


Statue of Enninii

This version of the story of Ungo-Zenji embodies the embellishing and dramatic nature of the Jitsuroku genre, with a final dramatic meeting between Ungo-Zenji and his long time enemy Date Masamune culminating at the end. Unlike other stories of this genre however, this one had a much more peaceful resolution with a moral message in the end rather than a bloody showdown. Such a peaceful resolution embodies the Buddhist aspect of samurai culture and how often it is the obstacles we face in life that shape who we are. Moreover, while we cannot always change or prevent negative events from happening, we can however change our reaction to them. While this is quite an impactful message, this begs the question of how much truth is there to this story?

Date Masamune (1567-1638) was indeed a daimyo of the Tohoku Region (Northeast Japan) during the Edo period. Masamune was known as the “One Eyed Dragon of Osho” (dokuganryu) due to having lost his right eye. At age 17, Masamune succeeded his father Terumune as head of the Date clan, which would indeed put him at a young age for Ungo-Zenji to have served under him in his youth as the story suggests. During his reign, Masamune aggressively expanded his territory throughout the 1580s. Upon Toyotomi Hideyoshi's inception as the unquestioned ruler of Japan, the Northeastern castle of Odawara was seized in a military campaign, however Masamune delayed in coming to Hideyoshi's aid despite a direct order to all Northeastern daimyo's to assist him. As a result, Masamune was spared his life however the size of his territory was reduced and he was instead given Iwadeyamato to reside over. Masamune would continue to support Hideyoshi in his campaigns in the Imjin Wars of Korea, however upon Hideyoshi's death would go on to support the Tokugawa clan at both the Battle of Sekigahara and the Siege of Hasedo instead of the Toyotomi.

As Tokugawa Ieyasu rose to the level of shogun, Masamune also continued to rise in power and was given the Sendai Domain, which he presided over until his death. Upon receiving lordship over Sendai, Masamune did indeed rebuild the Zuigan-ji Buddhist temple at Matsushima (a series of islands outside of Sendai) where the end of our story of Ungo Zenji takes place.

While there is indeed no question as to the existence and great exploits of Date Masamune, the existence of Ungo-Zenji is a bit more obscure to identify. In regards to the name “Zenji” this is actually a title given to the high ranking masters of Zen Buddhism, primarily referring mainly to only Zen masters Dogen and Keizan, however based both on the history of their lives and them living in the 13th and 14th centuries, it is safe to conclude they are not the same as the Ungo Zenji from this story. It would appear then, that Zenji is used to indicate a title representing that Ungo Zenji was a Zen master, however does not mean that he is Dogen or Keizan. A more appropriate title would be adding the prefix “Dai” to his appointed titled to represent “number one,” which the author does make allusion to upon declaring Ungo was given the name “Daizenji” before the author then shortens it to “Zenji.” Here we can firmly conclude that this was to indicate that Ungo Zenji was meant to represent him as a head priest of the temples he was appointed.

As the temple of Zuigan-ji was located at Matsushima, we can start by looking to a passage in theHagakure, also known as the book of the samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo (1659-1719). In this excerpt, Tsunetomo recounts a story of priest by the name of Ungo of Matsushima and is as follows:

“Once when the priest Ungo of Matsushima was passing through the mountains at night, he was set upon by mountain bandits. Ungo said, "I am a man of this area, not a pilgrim. I have no money at all, but you can have these clothes if you like. Please spare my life." The bandits said, "Well, our efforts have been in vain. We don't need anything like clothes," and passed on. They had gone about two hundred yards when Ungo turned back and called to them, "I have broken the commandment against lying. In my confusion I forgot that I had one piece of silver in my moneybag. I am truly regretful I said that I had nothing at all. I have it here now, so please take it." The mountain bandits were deeply impressed, cut off their hair right there, and became his disciples.”

We can therefore suppose this Ungo of Matsushima is likely in reference to our Ungo Zenji, demonstrating that this person was an actual person of note in Feudal Japan.

The 17th century poet Matsuo Basho brings clarity to the veracity Ungo Zenji's identity in his poetic writing memoir titled Narrow Road to the Deep North.1Within his writing, he discusses his travels to Matsushima saying, “Ojima Island where I landed was in reality a peninsula projecting far out into the sea. This was the place where the priest Ungo had once retired, and the rock on which he used to sit for meditation was still there.” This is Basho's first reference to Ungo being a priest of the temple at Matsushima and brings final clarity by continuing and saying, “I went to the Zuigan-ji temple on the eleventh. This temple was founded by Makabe no Heishiro after he had become a priest and returned from China, and was later enlarged by the Priest Ungo into a massive temple with seven stately halls embellished with gold. The priest I met at the temple was the thirty-second in descent from the founder.” Here the puzzle begins to unwind as Basho has identified two separate historical personages: Makabe no Heishiro as the founder of the Zuigan-ji temple and Priest Ungo as its expander generations later. It is here we see where the author of Ungo Zenji has merged two separate personages into a single character.

Upon cross-referencing historical accounts, it appears that the original Zuigan-ji temple was founded in 828 AD by a Tendai sect Buddhist priest by the name of Ennin, not Heishiro. Records indicate Ennin was from the town of Mibu in present day Tochigi Prefecture. This conflicts with the story of Ungo Zenji stating Heishiro was from Makabe, which was a town located in Ibaraki Prefecture. Ibaraki however borders Tochigi to its southeast making it plausible that the names of the towns were mixed up over the years resulting in two separate conflicting locations for this historical figures birthplace. This mix up theory is further reinforced by the fact that the temple of was Zuigan-ji destroyed multiple times throughout its history, coupled by little records existing in the first place during this time in Japanese history (Late Nara and Early Heian Periods).2 Alternatively, the birthplace of Heishiro could be in reference to Ungo who expanded the temple later in life whom we will discuss later on.

A further commonality between these two personage is that as the story of Ungo Zenji explained was that lower class citizens were not given surnames, which accounts for the single names of Ennin and Heishiro unaccompanied by a surname. Furthermore, as it was common in Japanese culture at the time for names to change throughout one's life. This could have been the case with the names Ennin and Heishiro being names bestowed upon the same figure at various stages of his life. This is reinforced by this story of Ungo Zenji where Heishiro's name was changed multiple times from Heishiro, to Joben, to Issan Kasho Daizenji and then lastly Ungo Zenji.

A memoir of Ennin's exploits was kept by him and is known as the Nitto guhō junreikōki. This document yields a remarkable backstory akin to the one laid out in Ungo Zenji. Ennin is said to have studied at the Enryaku-ji temple at Mt. Hiei in his youth at age 14. This coincides with our Heishiro from the story who is said to have studied at the same temple. Ennin rose to prominence, founding many temples throughout Japan including the Zuigan-ji temple and would go on to travel to China in his later years. Just as the story of our Ungo Zenji reads of Heishiro, Ennin studied Buddhism at multiple Buddhist temples throughout China. The major discrepancy here from our tale to that of the life of Ennin was that the Chinese Emperor Wuzong of the time vehemently persecuted Buddhism and did not welcome Buddhist priests to his court as the story suggested. Therefore we can infer that Ungo saving the Chinese Emperor from sickness was added to our story of Ungo Zenji to embellish Ungo's greatness as is characteristic of jitsuroku stories.

Upon returning to Japan in 847 Ennin spread Pure Land and Tendai Buddhism throughout the country. In 854 he became the head abbot of the Enryaku-ji temple just as our Ungo from Ungo Zenji did as well. Throughout his life and for the rest of his days he dedicated his life to the spread and refinement of Tendai Buddhism.3

Upon his death Ennin was bestowed with the name of Jikaku Daishi, which he is most commonly referred to. Here we can see how the name “Daishi” is a title with the prefix of “dai” indicating a person of high honor. In conjunction to the shortened title of Daishi, Ennin has also been bestowed the titles of “Daihosshi” which means “great priest” as well as “Hoin Daichi” which is the highest title a Buddhist priest can attain. This therefore accounts for him receiving the title “Zenji” in Ungo Zenji alongside the great Zen masters Dogen and Keizan.4

While Ennin was not a Zen priest, the history of the Zuigan-ji temple can shed light onto the bestowing of the title “Daizenji” instead of “Daishi” in the story of Ungo Zenji. Zuigan-ji was originally founded as a Tendai Buddhist Temple, it was changed to a Zen Buddhist temple during the Kamakura Period under the personage of Hojo Tokumune (1251-1284). As such we can see how Zen was now introduced to the founder Ennin's title in our story of Ungo Zenji to change from “Daishi” to “Daizenshi(ji)” when he became Issan Kasho Daizenji and then shortened in the end to Zenji.

At this point it is quite clear that the back story of Heishiro from the first half of the story of Ungo Zenji is indeed taken from the life of Ennin and the two are one and the same. What becomes unclear is the relation of this Heishiro and Date Masamune as Ennin lived over half a millennia before Date Masamune was even born. As such, we must explore the identity that this Heishiro represents in the second half of our story in order to have a complete picture.

According to historical records, in 1604 Date Masamune ordered the rebuilding of the Zuigan-ji Temple which had fallen into disrepair over the centuries. Involved in this task we find one Ungo Kiyo (1583-1659). As the story indicates, the name “Ungo” is referring to the temple of Ungo-ji, which is located in Tsushima, Japan. Therefore, we can perhaps infer that Ungo Kiyo had been a successful high ranking Buddhist monk from the Ungo-ji temple and as such was conscripted by Date Masamune to oversee and head the newly rebuilt Zuigan-ji Temple. This is further effaced by Basho's assertion that Zuigan-ji Temple was, “enlarged by the Priest Ungo into a massive temple with seven stately halls embellished with gold,” the undertaking that was indeed commissioned by Date Masamune.

Additional claims further indicate that Ungo Kiyo became the 153rd head priest of the Zuigan-ji temple. As the Zuigan-ji temple would become the family temple of Date Masamune that is continued to be patronized by the descendants of the Masamune clan to this day, it is to be sure that this Ungo Kiyo and Date Masamune would highly likely to have met and had frequent encounters upon inception as head priest of the temple.5

This Ungo Kiyo also supposedly sought to pacify tensions between Zen sects and Pure Land Buddhist sects by advocating simultaneous practice of both.6 Attempting to unify the two sects to that of the original faith practiced by Ennin could further have entwined the two personages into one. We can therefore conclude that this Ungo Kiyo is one and the same as the Ungo Zenji that is discussed in the second half of our story of Ungo Zenji.

As to the veracity of whether this Ungo Kiyo was a sandal-bearer under Date Masamune years earlier, there is little evidence to support this claim. What we do find however is a supposed account from a recent priest of the Zuigan-ji Temple today by the name of Yoichi Chiba who claims that during the building of the temple, Date Masamune had strict rules, one of which, “One was to never enter the construction site wearing shoes.”7 If such strictness is true, then perhaps an incident involving a worker wearing shoes against the rules resulting in a reprimand could very well have been a possibility during the construction of the temple and this could have been embellished and intertwined into the story of Ungo Zenji we see today.

Whether or not either Ungo Kiyo or Ennin were fueled by revenge in reality becomes an irrelevant point as their actual undertakings in life were quite grand and their entire lives were devoted toward spreading their faith and seeking the betterment of all. What we find in this story are very Buddhist concepts that are merely articulated through the use of literary embellishment. Misfortune can bring misery, however allowing a misfortune to become the focal point of one's life can often bring more misery and one can never fully appreciate the fruits and beauty life has to offer outside of this misery. Moreover, the message of this story indicates that at times, an initial terrible incident may appear devastating at first, however without such incident, future paths would not have opened. This could extend from relationships ending only to find someone else later in life. It could mean losing a job only to find a new field or career elsewhere that is even more rewarding previously. Even on a larger scale, misfortune as devastating as they may be with some worst than others, if our reaction involves self reflection that leads to self-improvement to better not only ourselves, but others, then that can perhaps become the most rewarding experience of all.


Sensei Justin Hagen, has been practicing martial arts since the age of 5 years old and is currently a martial arts instructor as well as an educator for the Pennsylvania public school system. In 2011 he received his Bachelor's degree in history with a minor in philosophy with emphasis on East Asian studies and religion from the University of Rhode Island. Continuing his education, Sensei Hagen also received his Masters degree from DeSales University in Education in 2018 with his final thesis exploring research on the effects martial arts programs have on behavior in the educational setting. Sensei Hagen now seeks to share the knowledge he has accrued through his experiences in life with the world. Currently he teaches Olympic style Tae Kwon Do at BucksMont Tae Kwon Do in Hatfield, PA as well as independently runs a Kyokushin Karate club under the direction of Shihan Roman Herman's KUSA organization. Sensei Hagen also has courses available on Udemy open to the public to take in order to learn more about martial arts philosophy and culture.

In conjunction to martial arts, Sensei Hagen is also a woodburning artist, the subject for his art often inspired by martial arts and Japanese culture.

To browse his catalog of Hannya Mask, Ukiyo-E & Kanji woodburns, please visit:


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2) Baroni, Helen J. Obaku Zen: The Emergence of the Third Sect of Zen in Tokugawa, Japan. 2000.

3) “Ennin.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 20 Feb. 2021,

4) Heine, Steve and ‎Wright, Dale S. Zen Classics: Formative Texts in the History of Zen Buddhism. 2005.

5) Kornicki, P. F. “Manuscript, Not Print: Scribal Culture in the Edo Period.”Journal of Japanese Studies, vol. 32, no. 1, 2006, pp. 23–52. JSTOR

6) Nakata, Hidetoshi. “Zuiganji Temple: Family Temple of Masamune Date in Matsushima.” Nihonmono,

7) Okamoto, Kidō, and Miyamori, Asatarō. Tales of the Samurai and "Lady Hosokawa", a Historical Drama: Stories Illustrating Bushido, the Moral Principles of the Japanese Knighthood. Japan, Kelly & Walsh, limited, 1920.

8) Sansom, George (1958). A History of Japan to 1334. Stanford University Press. p. 138,221. ISBN 0804705232.

9) Shively, Donald H.; McCullough, William H. (1999). Cambridge History of Japan vol. II (p.31f.). Cambridge University Press.

10) Sun Tzu, et al. The Art of War and Other Classics of Eastern Thought. Barnes & Noble, 2013.

11) Tsunetomo, Yamamoto. (2014). Hagakure: the book of the Samurai (W. S. Wilson, Trans.). Boston: Shambhala.

1Basho, Matsuo. “Matsuo Basho's Narrow Road to the Deep North.” Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa, Terebess Asia Online (TAO), Terebess Publishing,

2 Sansom, George (1958). A History of Japan to 1334. Stanford University Press. p.138, 221. ISBN 0804705232.

3 Shively, Donald H.; McCullough, William H. (1999). Cambridge History of Japan vol. II (p.31f.). Cambridge University Press.

4 “Ennin.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 20 Feb. 2021,

5 Heine, Steve and ‎Wright, Dale S.. Zen Classics: Formative Texts in the History of Zen Buddhism. 2005.

6 Baroni, Helen J.. Obaku Zen: The Emergence of the Third Sect of Zen in Tokugawa, Japan. 2000.

7 Nakata, Hidetoshi. “Zuiganji Temple: Family Temple of Masamune Date in Matsushima.” Nihonmono,

ii Uraniwa, Photo of Statue of Ennin, April 2, 2018. Source File:

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