Soto Zen's History

Master Dogen first brought Soto Zen Buddhism to Japan. The school in China had made little showing in its early years of development. However, its popularity had greatly increased by the middle of the Sung Dynasty. The central tenets of Chinese Soto were that all beings are born with Buddha nature and are consequently and essentially enlightened, that one can enjoy fully the bliss of Buddha nature through the practice of Zazen, that practice and enlightenment are the same, and that this practice must be internalized and carried to everyday life. At the age of twenty-four, Dogen traveled to China and visited all of the prestigious monasteries, finally becoming a student of Ju-ching (J. Nyojo). It was there that Dogen freed himself from the illusion of ego and realized liberation. He remained in training in China for two more years before returning to his home country.

Immediately after returning to Japan at the age of 28, Dogen Zenji authored the Fukanzazengi (Universal Recommendation of Zazen) to proclaim the authentically transmitted Buddha-Dharma. At that time there was pressure from the sides of traditional Buddhism in Japan, especially from the monks on Mt. Hiei. Dogen Zenji felt it to be an urgent task to raise up true seekers of the way in order to proclaim the truly transmitted teachings. He continued to teach both Sangha and laity alike for ten years in Japan before beginning the construction of the great Eihei-ji temple in 1243, which still stands in the present day Fukui Prefecture as one of the two most important Soto temples. He went on to write what is considered his masterpiece, the Shobogenzo, a 95 chapter work that reveals the broad range of his thought and faith. True to his pledge that the awakening of one or even half a person would be enough, Dogen Zenji dedicated the rest of his life to raising up true followers of the Buddha Way.

This mind of Dogen Zenji was then passed on to his successors: Koun Ejo Zenji, the second patriarch of Daihonzan Eiheji, and Tettsu Gikai Zenji who founded Daijoji Temple in Kaga. In turn, Tettsu's disciple Keizan Zenji then inherited that Dharma. Keizan Zenji is designated "Taiso," or great ancestor, because his practice was central to the spread of Soto throughout Japan. At the age of six, he had decided to become a priest and went on to become a disciple of Tettsu Zenji at age eight, where he remained for six years. For the following eight years Keizan Zenji studied with multiple teachers before finally returning to Tettsu Zenji in 1289, at age twenty-two. For six more years he practiced sincerely and read widely in the Buddhist canon, finally gaining enlightenment at age twenty-seven by practicing the koan, "Your ordinary heart: that's the way."Keizan went on to found many temples, the most famous of which is Sojo-ji - the other of the two largest and most prestigious Soto temples. Among Keizan Zenji's disciples was Meiho Sotesu Zenji who later inherited Yokoji Temple, and Gasan Joseki Zenji who inherited Daihonzan Sojiji. These masters also produced many outstanding students who spread the teachings of the Soto Zen Buddhist School around Japan.

Although the Rinzai Zen Buddhist School, which also inherited one stream of Chinese Zen Buddhism, had the support and belief of powerful persons at that time, including the bakufu and the nobility, the Soto Zen Buddhist School counted adherents among wealthy families in the localities as well as the general masses so that it could popularize its teachings mainly to the countryside.

During the end of the Kamakura Period to the Muromachi Period, the Rinzai Zen Buddhist School established five temples in Kyoto and Kamakura which had the highest temple status, thus inaugurating the system of the “Five Mountains-Ten Temples” (Gozan-Jissetsu). This greatly encouraged the development of culture influenced by the Zen mind, especially in the literary movement known as Gozan-Bungaku (Literature of the Five Mountains). In contrast, the Soto Zen Buddhist School avoided such connections with central power, preferring to melt among the masses and respond to the simpler needs of commoners while continuing a slow but steady course of teaching activities. Nevertheless, in the flow of history the Soto Zen Buddhist School also experienced periods of confusion and change.

The establishment of the jidan seido (temple lay parishioner's system) bythe shogunate in the Tokugawa Period led to organization and control of the temples. Meanwhile many outstanding students teaching in the Soto Zen School made their appearance. They included Gesshu Soko, Manzan Dohaku and Menzan Zuiho. These persons were instrumental in correcting vices in Dharma transmission while emphasizing the need to return to Dogen Zenji's original mindfulness of Authentic Transmission Face-to-Face (menju-shiho). This was part of movements to revive the original mindfulness of Soto Zen Buddhism. It also led to copious research on classics of the Soto Zen School, beginning with Dogen Zenji's magnum opus Shobogenzo (The Eye Treasury of the True Dharma), not to mention corrections and editing.

With the Meiji Restoration, the new government moved to locate the traditional Shinto religion in the center, separating Shinto and Buddhism while attempting to stamp out Buddhism. The government went so far as to proclaim the need to “throw out Buddha and overthrow Shakyamuni” (haibutsu-kishaku). This proved to be a major blow to the Buddhist world. But the various schools of Buddhist were able to override those troubles. The Soto Zen Buddhist School saw the appearance of Ouchi Seiran Koji, who edited the original version of the Shushogi (Meaning of Practice and Enlightenment). Following this, Azegami Baisen Zenji of Daihonzan Sojiji Temple and Takiya Takushu Zenji of Daihonzan Eiheiji Temple made revisions and promulgated this text as the standard for popularization of the teaching of the Soto Zen Buddhist School. The Shushogi has played a major role in popularization of the teaching among lay people. Soto Zen Buddhism has developed into a major religious movement, which includes about 15,000 temples and some nine million adherents throughout Japan, America, Europe, and the world.


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