Zen in Japan

Buddhism was introduced to Japan around the 6th century. A variety of schools, originating from Korea and China, quickly developed alongside the indigenous Shinto religion (the “way of the gods”).

Dogen ZenjiDogen Zenji

Around the 13the century, Japanese Buddhism began to thrive and was thoroughly revitalized by many exceptional reformers. One of these was Master Dôgen (1200-1253) who introduced the Sôtô (in Chinese, Caodong) branch of Zen (Chan) Buddhism to the country. The Way he received from his master, Nyojo (in Chinese, Rujing), was centred around shikantaza, simply sitting, zazen practiced under the guidance of a master and understood, not as a gradual process of liberation from illusions, but as immediate and universal access to the awakening of the Buddha and patriarchs.

Master Dôgen is considered as one of the profoundest and most original thinkers that Japan has known. His major work, the Shôbôgenzo (The Treasury of the Eye of the True Law), contains ninety-five texts written at various periods in his life and for a wide public. His awakening is equally expressed in the rules he wrote for his monastic community (Eihei Shingi, The Pure Rule of the Temple of Eternal Peace).

One of his major innovations was to propose the same precepts for lay practitioners, monks and nuns and to reduce them to sixteen instead of 350 for nuns, 250 for monks and 48 for the layperson. Besides his teaching work, he founded two temples, one of which, Eihei-ji, the Temple of Eternal Peace, is today one of the two main temples of Sôtô Zen in Japan.

If Master Dôgen is considered as the “father” of the Sôtô School, Master Keizan (1264-1325) is the “mother”.  The Sôtô School unanimously holds Master Keizan as the one who spread Master Dôgen’s teaching in Japan and ensured the continued existence of the school there. His major work, the Denkôroku, Anthology of the Transmission of the Light, set out the genealogy of the masters of Sôtô Zen, putting Master Dôgen as the 51st successor of Shakyamuni Buddha.

Keizan ZenjiKeizan Zenji

In addition, Master Keizan played a major role in the establishment of rites of the school, his work on these issues being profound and numerous. By installing a liturgical calendar, he brought together the “continuous practice” of Master Dôgen and the cyclic movement of the universe (the passing of the days, months and years) in a practical way. Through developing or introducing rites that did not only concern the monastic community, he encouraged ties between Zen monks and the rest of society. In this way, today, it is through funeral ceremonies that the Japanese population’s relationship with Zen is strongest.

Master Keizan founded many temples, including Sôji-ji, which is the second largest Sôtô Zen temple in Japan. He had many disciples, some of whom were outstanding.

With such a strong heritage, the Sôtô School consequently expanded widely, influencing all layers of Japanese society. Today, there are 15,000 temples in Japan with 30,000 monks and nuns, who are allowed to marry and have families. Many of these, after their training, leave the monastery to serve a smaller temple. Some teach Buddhism and zazen practice to lay people.

Laurent Genshin Strim.