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Time in Medieval Japan

Experience, reflection, and organization of time in medieval Zen monasteries

Monastic Time2

© Alexandra Ciorciaro 2019

Prof. Dr. Raji C. Steineck

This research project investigates how time was conceived and lived among cloistered communities of medieval Japan. Specifically, it explores the interplay between concepts of time and practices of temporal regulation in the Zen monasteries affiliated with Dōgen (1200-1253). Like Buddhist monasteries in general, these monasteries copied and collected canonical literature. They also added to the canon by producing records of the master’s sayings and other doctrinal writings. Leading monks engaged in the writing of commentaries, and devised schedules for ritual activities. Furthermore, monasteries were built to physically embody religious ideals and to house sacred icons that were a focus of popular veneration. They received donations and endowments to construct and maintain these monuments and to secure the life of their community and engaged in various economic activities. Thus, they formed an essential part of medieval Japanese society.

Dōgen was a prominent reclusive monk and a founding figure in Japanese Zen Buddhism. He has been singled out as a thinker on time mostly because of his doctrinal text Uji (rendered for example as “Being-time”), but this text has rarely been studied in the context of his other time-related writings and the temporal regime he installed in his monastery. However, his works contain detailed instructions concerning the timing of everyday activities and ritual, including interactions between clerics and the lay community. His rules for the monastic community also mention a water clock (clepsydra) to be maintained at his monastery, attesting to the importance of time measurement in this context. This is further supported by the monastic rules of one of his later successors, Keizan (1265-1325) that are organised by the hours of the day.

A comprehensive analysis of the available material will shed new light on the practical meaning of Dōgen’s doctrines for the culture surrounding his monastic community. Specifically, I explore the relation between symbolic expression, rules and everyday life in an institution struggling to establish its place in medieval society. We hope that this research will help us to better understand the interaction between ideas about time and the practical issues of timing in everyday life.

Weiterführende Informationen

Latest conference:

TIMEJ Online Conference 2021 

August 18–20th 2021

International Society for the Study of Time


Yamaguchi University Research Institute for the Study of Time


Read more about our joint coference of 2018 here.

Time in Medieval Japan

Prof. Dr. Raji C. Steineck


Time in Medieval Japan (TIMEJ) is a research project of the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies of the University of Zurich.

It is funded by the  European Research Council (ERC) with an Advanced Grant under the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 741166)

Read about the outline of the project on the official CORDIS Webpage

Read more about the TIMEJ-Artwork