Sōtō Zen Buddhism

Sōtō Zen is a form of Mahayana Buddhism1 founded in 13th century Japan by Eihei Dōgen (1200-1253).  However, it can be considered as a continuation of the Caodong School of Ch’an2 Buddhism which stems from the teachers Huineng (638-713; also known as Caoxi) and Dongshan Lianjie (807-869).  Dōgen travelled to China in 1223 and received dharma transmission3 from the Caodong teacher Rújìng (1163-1228), returning to Japan to establish his own practice centre. 

Dōgen and Keizan, the founders of Sōtō Zen. I am guessing that smiling for portraits wasn’t big in medieval Japan…

Dōgen established several temple monasteries, the latest of which was Eihei-ji (ji meaning ‘temple’ in Japanese), in Fukui Prefecture, which is currently one of two head temples of Sōtō Zen Buddhism in Japan. The other head temple is Sōjo-ji, which was founded by Keizan Jōkin who is considered to be the second founder of Sōtō Zen (it is traditional to refer to Dōgen as the father of Sōtō Zen and Keizan as its mother because of Keizan’s sustained support for the training of women in Zen).  The Sōtō Zen Buddhist Association collated some excellent study materials on Keizan in 2010 which can be downloaded here.

Dōgen left a number of writings from his twenty-six years as a Zen teacher, the most central of which is considered to be his 95 fascicle Shōbōgenzō, or Treasury of the True Dharma Eye.  During Dōgen’s life, it seemed that he wished to write one hundred fascicles in all but this was prevented by his death in 1253.  There were a number of different forms of Shōbōgenzō during Dōgen’s life, including the twelve, twenty-eight, sixty and seventy-five fascicle editions.  Scholars mostly now consider a combination of the twelve fascicle edition (which appears to me to be a grounding in basic Buddhist ideas for new monks) and seventy-five fascicle edition, to be the closest to Dōgen’s vision for the text.  Dōgen also wrote the Eihei Shingi (Pure Standards for the Zen Community), which were monastic rules largely based on the earlier Chinese Chanyuan Qinggui (The Rules of Purity in the Chan Monastery), and many of his monastic talks and teachings were collected in both the Shobogenzo Zuimonki and Eihei Kōroku (Dōgen’s Extensive Record).  His earliest writing, Fukanzazengi (Universal Recommendations for Zazen), written in 1227 on his return from China, is not considered to be a part of Shōbōgenzō but is often included in translations of it.  Dōgen also left a journal of his time in China, Hōkyō-ki.

Eiheiji temple

Although Dōgen set forth a new vision for Zen Buddhism, his writing definitely built on earlier work, particularly the ideas of Silent Illumination by Hongzhe Shenjue which were of pivotal importance in the Caodong lineage.  Reading Hōkyō-ki, it is also very clear that a number of his teacher Rújìng’s ideas are found throughout Dōgen’s writings. 

Despite Dōgen’s teachings being fundamental in founding the Sōtō school, his writings were largely forgotten for a long period of history until Menzan Zuihō (1683–1769), a Sōtō Zen abbot and scholar in the Tokugawa period.  Menzan set about using Dogen’s work as the basis of a revitalised Soto school.  You can read more about him in David Rigg’s piece for the Japan Review entitled The Life of Menzan Zuihō.

Sōtō Zen spread to the United States of America, and the west more generally, in the 20th Century, through the work of the Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (1904-1971) who founded San Francisco Zen Centre and Dainin Katagiri Roshi (1928-1990), who settled in Minnesota. They followed on from earlier Rinzai teachers such as Soyen Shaku (1860-1919) and Nyogen Senzaki (1876–1958), and the teachings of the scholar D T Suzuki.  Books by writers such as Alan Watts and R H Blyth and the growing interest of Beat writers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder in Zen was met with a great interest in an American audience that was spiritually hungry for teachings from the east both during the Beat Generation and later hippy era.  Sōtō Zen is now found in most developed countries in the world, including the Americas, most of Europe, south America, Russia and some parts of Africa and the Middle East.

For a more academic approach to Sōtō Zen history, I recommend this account by Buddhist scholar T. Griffith Foulk.

1. Mahayana (literally ‘big vehicle’) Buddhism is the form of Buddhism most commonly encountered in China, Tibet, Vietnam, Nepal, Bhutan and Japan and includes all of the Tibetan schools of Buddhism (Geluk, Kagyu, Nyingma and Sakya), Ch’an and Zen Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, Tendai and Shingon.  Mahayana Buddhism contrasts with other Buddhist traditions (often called ‘Hinayana’ or small vehicle, although now this is generally considered pejorative) in its focus on the ideal of the bodhisattva who vows to save all beings, rather than just personal enlightenment.  Theravada (the School of the Elders) is the sole remaining non-Mahayana tradition, and is predominantly found in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

2. Ch’an and Zen are, respectively, the Chinese and Japanese terms for the Sanskrit word dhyāna which translates as meditation or meditative absorption.

3. Dharma transmission (shiho) occurs when a teacher believes that a student is ready to teach in their own right. 

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