Literature of the Five Mountains

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Calligraphy of Five Mountains Patriarch Muso Soseki

The literature of the Five Mountains (Japanese: 五山文学, gozan bungaku) is the literature produced by the principal Zen (禅) monastic centers of the Rinzai sect in Kyoto and Kamakura, Japan.[citation needed] The term also refers to five Zen centers in China in Hangzhou and Ningpo that inspired zen in Japan, while the term "mountain" refers to Buddhist monastery.[citation needed]

Five Mountains literature or gozan bungaku (五山文學) is used collectively to refer to the poetry and prose in Chinese produced by Japanese monks during the 14th and 15th centuries.[citation needed] Included are works by Chinese monks residing in Japan.[citation needed] The period witnessed a widespread importation of cultural influences from Song and Yuan period China that in many ways transformed Japan.[citation needed]


The literature of the Five Mountains highly prized a sense of humor and sympathy with life’s ordinariness.[citation needed] A Five Mountains poet might write about anything, in contrast to the proscribed themes of the aristocratic court poets.[citation needed] Kokan Shiren (d. 1346) for example would write about a mosquito.[citation needed]

Snouts sharp as drill bits!

Buzz like thunder as they circle the room.
They sneak through the folds of my robe,

But they could bloody the back of an ox made of iron!

The image in the final line of Mosquitoes reminds the reader of one of the custom in Zen establishments of slapping on the head with a stick those practitioners of meditation who have momentarily dozed off.[citation needed] In contrast, a courtier might write about the cicada and celebrate seasonal associations connected to them.[citation needed] To write about the mosquito would violate the courtier’s strict sense of literary decorum.[citation needed]

In a poem entitled "Sailing in the Moonlight", Kokan focuses on the incongruous humor of life.[citation needed]

We monks boat in moonlight, circle through the reeds.

The boatman shouts the tide recedes; we must return.
The village folk mistake us for a fishing boat

And scramble to the beach to buy our catch.

Five Mountains literature was not entirely concerned with the rustic cloistered world. Often the principal historical events of the day found their way into the works of the monks.[citation needed] Zen clerics themselves often served as advisers to the leading political figures.[citation needed] In a poem, "Written Suddenly While Feeling Remorse Over the Passage of Time" Chugan Engetsu (d. 1375) relates his feelings about the fall of the Kamakura shogunate a year earlier.[citation needed]

A year ago today the Kamakura fell.

In the monasteries now, nothing of the old mood remains.
The peddler girl understands nothing of a monk's remorse-

Shouting through the streets, selling firewood, selling vegetables.


  • Bruce E. Carpenter, 'Priest-Poets of the Five Mountains in Medieval Japan', in Tezukayama Daigaku ronshū, no. 16, 1977, Nara, Japan, pp. 1–11. ISSN 0385-7743.
  • Martin Collcutt, Five Mountains: The Zen Monastic Institution in Medieval Japan, 1981.
  • Marian Ury, Poems of the Five Mountains: An Introduction to the Literature of the Zen Monasteries, Michigan Monograph Series in Japanese Studies, No 10, 1992.