A Brief Introduction to the Soto School of Zen – Patheos

Posted: October 27, 2019 at 8:43 pm

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As were working on our Empty Moon website we quickly saw a need for a brief overview of the Soto school. The Wikipedia article on Soto is a flawed document, but nonetheless contains much useful information. We used it as a template, cutting anything that felt extraneous to that brief overview, while interpolating critical information that was missing. The text remains a bit rough, but seemed workable enough to share here. The text at the Empty Moonwebsite will continue to be massaged for a while yet.

While not directly relevant to an introduction to Soto, this article also includes a few words about Empty Moon. Feel free to read or skip, as you find appropriate.

May this document be of assistance to anyone hoping to know more about this spiritual tradition both ancient and modern, holding profound insights and presenting disciplines that reveal the true nature of our hearts.



St Zenor theSt school(St-sh)is the largest of the three traditional schools ofZeninJapanese Buddhism(the others beingRinzaiandbaku). It is the Japanese line of the ChineseCodng school, which was founded during theTang dynastybyDngshn Linji. It emphasizes the practice ofShikantaza.

The Japanese school was imported in the 13th century byDgen Zenji, who studiedCodng Buddhism(Chinese:;pinyin:Codng Zng) abroad in China. Dgen is remembered today as the co-patriarch of St Zen in Japan along withKeizan Jkin.

With about 14,000 temples, St is one of the largest Japanese Buddhist organizations.St Zen is now also popular in the West.

The Caodong-teachings were brought to Japan in 1227, whenDgenreturned to Japan after studyingChaninChinaand settled atKennin-jiinKyoto. Dgen had receivedDharma transmissionfromTiantong Rujingat Qngd Temple, whereHongzhi Zhengjueonce was abbot. Hongzhis writings on silent illumination had greatly influenced Dgens own conception ofshikantaza.

Dgen also returned from China with variouskananthologies and other texts, contributing to the transmission of the koan tradition to Japan.

In 1243 Dgen foundedEihei-ji,one of the two head temples of St-sh today, choosing to create new monastic institutions based on the Chinese model and risk incurring the open hostility and opposition of the established schools.

Dgen was succeeded around 1236by his discipleKoun Ej(11981280)..

The second most important figure in St isKeizan.Keizan received ordination from Ej when he was, twelve years old, shortly before Ejs death.When he was seventeen he went on a pilgrimage for three years throughout Japan. During this period, he studiedRinzai,ShingonandTendai.After returning to Daij-ji,

Keizan received dharma transmission from Gikai in 1294, and established Joman-ji.In 1303 Gikai appointed Keizan as abbot of Daij-ji,a position he maintained until 1311. Under Keizan Soto Zen began to become popular.

In time the St school started to place a growing emphasis on textual authority. In 1615 thebakufudeclared that Eheijis standards (kakun) must be the rule for all St monks.This came to mean all the writings of Dgenbecame the normative source for the doctrines and organisation of the St school.Dgen scholarship came to a central position in the St sect with the writings ofMenzan Zuih(16831769), who wrote over a hundred works, including many commentaries on Dgens major texts and analysis of his doctrines. Menzan promoted reforms of monastic regulations and practice, based on his reading of Dgen.

Gent Sokuch(17291807), the 11th abbot ofEihei-ji, tried to purify the St school byfunctionally suppressing koan introspection as a Soto discipline. Prior to this kan study was widely practiced in the St school.

During theMeiji period(18681912) Japan abandoned its feudal system and opened up to Western modernism. One of the significant characteristics of the Meiji reforms was the disestablishment of Buddhism. Its original intent was in fact the eradication of this ultimately foreign religion. In practice it led to some creative reforms. Specifically the Zen establishment sought to modernize Zen in accord with Western insights, while simultaneously maintaining a Japanese identity.

Among these reforms the legalization of clerical marriage is among the most distinctive. It brought together two streams unique to Japanese Buddhism. The first was the substitution of Bodhisattva vows for the Vinaya system used throughout most of the Buddhist world. The other was the temple system where after a period of training single monks would become incumbents of the thousands of temples throughout the Japanese islands.

Records show these monks frequently having female companions. In the Meiji these two things, the ordinals had no specific language requiring celibacy, and on the ground a majority, likely a large majority were living in informal marriages, came to a head. That within five years of lifting of criminal sanction for marriage. fully eighty percent of Soto clergy were married shows this was a long over due reform.

That the terminology for these clerics remained monastic and that prominent clerics rarely appeared (or appearto this day) in public with their spouses andchildrenhas further complicated matters. Despite this there has been a trend toward seeing married clerics more as priests or ministers. This married clergy model has now been introduced to the West, where people are less comfortable with the dont ask, dont tell style of the Japanese culture, and now struggle to find appropriate accommodations for clerical marriage as a part of Zen in the West.

Going hand in hand with this non-monastic clerical leadership was the emergence of a philosophical perspective calledNew Buddhism (shin bukkyo). This perspective, insignificantpart the product of Western encounter, was broadly modernist, holding up the values of lay life, with impulsessupportiveofdemocratic, rationalist, and social engagement. It can be argued everyone who brought Soto Zen to the West was influenced by this New Buddhist perspective, at least in some degree. And practically, it brought a form of Soto Zen that could be recognized in many ways by Westerners.


In 1922 the Reverend Hosen Isobe established the first Soto temple on the mainland of the United States, in Los Angeles. Its intent was to serve the Japanese and Japanese American community. Shortly before the Second World War the Reverend Soyu Matsuokaarrivedfrom Japan and began to work with European and African American converts.

But it was withShunry Suzukithat Soto Zen began asignificant mission to the American heart.Suzuki studied atKomazawa University, the St Zen university in Tokyo.

In 1959 Suzuki arrived inCaliforniaas minister ofSoko-ji, at that time the sole St temple inSan Francisco.Suzukis teaching of Shikantaza and Zen practice andopens to converts, led to the formation of the San Francisco Zen Center, one of the largest and most successful Zen organizations in the West.

Suzukis assistantDainin Katagiriwas invited to come toMinneapolis,Minnesota, where he moved in 1972 after Suzukis death. Katagiri and his students built four St Zen centers withinMinneapolisSaint Paul. Another of Suzukis assistants, Kobun Chino Otogawa also become influential in establishing Soto in the West.

It was here in the West that Soto also began to reclaim koan introspection.The lineage, started with Daiun Sogaku Harada, who also has a line that passes more continuously within the Soto school,and through him toHakuun Yasutani, includesTaizan Maezumi, who gave dharma transmission to various American students, among themTetsugen Bernard Glassman,Charlotte Joko BeckandJohn Daido Loori.

The lay organizationSanbo Kyodan, and through thatlineage in an independent organization,Robert Aitken, who had several important dharma successors, including John Tarrant. cemented the place of a Soto reformed koan curriculum in Western Zen practice.

TheAntaiji-based lineage ofKd Sawakiwith its emphasis on shikantaza overall other practices, is also widespread. Sawakis student and successor as abbotKsh Uchiyamawas the teacher ofShhaku Okumurawho established theSanshin Zen CommunityinBloomington, Indiana, and his studentGud Wafu NishijimawasBrad Warners teacher.

Houn Jiyu-Kennett(1924-1996) was the first western female Soto Zen priest.She converted to Buddhism in the early 1950s, and studied inSojiji, Japan, from 1962 to 1963.Formally, Keido Chisan Koho Zenji was her teacher, but practically, one of Koho Zenjis senior officers, Suigan Yogoroshi, was her main instructor.[47]She becameOsh, i.e. priest or teacher, in 1963. In 1969 she returned to the west, foundingShasta Abbeyin 1970.

In 1996 the majority of North American St priestsjoined together to form theSoto Zen Buddhist Association. While institutionally independent of the Japanese Stsh, the St Zen Buddhist Association works closely with it.EMPTY MOON

Our founding teacher and priest is James Myoun Ford. He was originally ordained a priest by Jiyu Kennett, andreceived dharma transmission from her in 1971. He also completed the formal Soto reformed koan curriculum developed by Daiun Sogaku Harada andreceivedInkashomei from Dr John Tarrant.

A long time member of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association, Ford Roshi participated in the first Dharma heritage ceremony in 2004. It was meant to be arecognition ofseniority in Western Soto Zen roughly equivalent to the Japanese zuise ceremony. In 2012 he wasDoshi or chief celebrant at the fifth Dharma heritage ceremony. Ford later served on its board for a three year term.

The Empty Moon is dedicated to theproject of awakening. It seeks to preserve the traditions of Soto Zen cautiously adapted to the needs ofour time and place, while also transmitting the reformed koancurriculum, It alsostands for a radical equality between priest and lay practitioners, the total equality of genders, and the development of a rigorous but pragmatic formation process for priest practitioners.


For a brief summation of the core teachings of the Soto school, we recommend the Shushogi, the Meaning of Practice & Verification, compiled out of Eihei Dogens teachings by a team of scholars led by Ouchi Seiran.

For descriptions of Zen meditation we recommend this brief overview, as well as Eihei Dogens Fukanzazengi, Keizan Jokins Zazen Yojinki, and this introduction to koan introspection within the Soto reformed style.

For further reading about the Empty Moon project, here are some links:

Awakening and ZenMy Three Years on the Soto Zen Buddhist Association BoardZen Practice for Everyone

Continue reading here:
A Brief Introduction to the Soto School of Zen - Patheos

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October 27th, 2019 at 8:43 pm

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