What is Soto Zen?
The emphasis of Soto Zen Buddhism is on warm-hearted sitting meditation, or zazen. During zazen, we practice meeting everything that arises with an open mind and a loving heart. Attempting to quiet ourselves in both body and mind, we discover how busy our daily lives are. Once calm, we often more clearly witness the anxiety and anguish born of our persistent efforts to control the flow of existence around us. By remaining upright and still while paying attention to our breath, we allow the anxious buzzing of our routines to settle and we begin to experience ourselves and the world in which we live for the first time.
If our practice can be said to have a purpose, it might be to see things as they are by allowing being to occur naturally with us, rather than actively trying to be someone. In "Actualizing the Fundamental Point", Dogen Zenji, who brought Soto to Japan in the 1200's, wrote "To carry the self forward and illuminate myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and illuminate the self is awakening." For the latter to occur, a deep stillness is required. That is why we sit zazen. Interestingly, as we become more and more familiar with quiet, with things as they are, with the present moment, we come to understand our connection with all being. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, who brought Soto to this country, called this seeing “things-as-it-is”. The experience of things-as-it-is allows our anxious being to settle. As we encounter this interconnectedness, we also begin to feel a deep sense of compassion and a desire to end misery for all people. This sense of freedom gained from the realization of our interconnectedness results in a great desire to bring this understanding to all the beings in our life. Soon those who often have begun practice because they felt that their lives were in some way unsatisfactory become interested in pursuing an ethical life and taking Boddhisattva vows. A Boddhisattva is a being that, having experienced freedom, wishes to actively participate in making it available to all people. In taking up this path of liberation, the Boddhisattva takes the following vows:
Beings are numberless; I vow to save them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
Buddha's Way is unsurpassable; I vow to become it.
While realizing the apparent impossibility of accomplishing these tasks, a practitioner begins to appreciate the opportunity to have such a rich task in which to engage for her or his entire life. So our Soto Zen Buddhist practice is not a quick fix, an isolationist activity, or a nihilistic message; rather, it is finally and forever an engagement of one's whole being in life as it presents itself.