Many commentators associate the Japanese emphasis on naturalness and simplicity with Zen Buddhism rather than Shinto. In such books as Zen and Japanese Culture, D. T. Suzuki popularized this view in Japan as well as in the West. Suzuki was correct to point out that many arts associated with Japan have a close association with Zen Buddhism, especially through the tea ceremony and all its accoutrements including ikebana, calligraphy, poetry, gardens, and pottery. Suzuki accurately portrayed Zen’s historical significance in the development and institutionalization of these arts. At times, though, he seemed to imply more—namely, that Zen Buddhism introduced the aesthetic of simplicity and naturalness to Japan. This claim, if he indeed meant to make it, is wrong.
Simplicity and naturalness were part of Japanese culture and represented in Shinto practices centuries before Zen’s emergence in the thirteenth century. The kind of grand simplicity found in many Shinto shrines such as that of the sun kami at Ise is an obvious example. Zen prospered through its connection with the Japanese arts, not so much because it was introducing something totally new to the culture, but because it resonated with something old. The so-called Zen simplicity in many drinking bowls used in the tea ceremony, for example, can also be seen as far back as some of the unglazed pottery of the Yayoi period, a millennium before Japanese Zen developed and tea plants were cultivated in Japan.
One can argue, therefore, that the Zen aesthetic was similarly a return to a simplicity predating the Heian court’s aesthetic of elegance. This aesthetic of courtly elegance predominated among the aristocrats of the Heian period (794–1185) and reflected the high arts from China, including those from esoteric Buddhism, rather than Shinto. The power of the nobles had waned, however, by the time Zen blossomed in Japan. Zen melded the Kamakura period‘s (1185–1333) tendency to go back to the ideals of a simpler, less refined, sometimes even rustic, lifestyle. This aesthetic fit the military mentality of the new political leaders, many of whom had come from the outlands distant from the cultural capital of Kyoto [like Ashikaga]. By this process, Zen values and practices became the center of aesthetic development in the thirteenth through sixteenth centuries [during the Ashikaga shogunate].