Soto Zen

School of Silent Illumination

Eiheiji Memorial Hall
A monk inside Shidoden Memorial Hall at Eiheiji, main temple of Soto Zen Buddhism, Fukui, Japan. © Photo Japan / Getty Images

Definition:

Soto Zen is one of the two principal schools of Zen in Japan. Soto is distinguished from Rinzai Zen, the other school, primarily by the zazen practice of shikantaza rather than formal koan contemplation.

Today, Japanese Soto Shu, or the Soto school, has about 15,000 temples and some eight million adherents throughout Japan. The two main temples are Eiheiji, which is in Fukui Prefecture on the west coast of main island Honshu; and Sojiji, in Yokohama.

Soto Shu also has formally established temples in at least 15 countries beside Japan -- Australia, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Singapore, Sri Lanka, the United States, and eight European countries. 

For most of its history, Soto Zen has primarily been a monastic school, although there have been many lay practitioners also. In recent years, especially in the West, Soto has adjusted to being more accessible to laypeople.

Origin of Soto Zen

The school of Zen called Soto in Japan was founded in China by Chan masters Dongshan Liangjie (Tung-shan Liang-chieh, 807-869) and his student Caoshan Benji (Ts'ao-shan Pen-chi, 840-901). Their names in Japan are Tozan Ryokai and Sozan Honjaku, respectively. The school was named Caodong (Soto in Japanese) after the names of its founders.

Read More: The Caodong School of China. For a general introduction to Zen Buddhism,  see Zen 101: An Introduction to Zen Buddhism.

Soto Zen was brought to Japan by Eihei Dogen (1200-1253), also called Dogen Kigen or Dogen Zenji. Dogen, a Tendai monk, went to China in 1223 to study with Caodong master Tiantong Rujing (T'ien-t'ung Ju-ching, 1162-1228). Under this teacher, Dogen realized enlightenment and became the first Japanese lineage holder of the Caodong tradition.

Dogen returned to Japan in 1227 to establish Soto Zen in Japan, where it has flourished to this day. Dogen's influence is still felt in Soto Zen, and his body of writing, in particular Shobogenzo, is considered one of the great works of Japanese religious literature.

Read More: Soto Zen Buddhism in Japan

Shikantaza

Soto's central practice, shikantaza, "just sitting," is unusual for Buddhism because it does not require focusing on an object. Instead, the practitioner sits with clear attention on his or her present experience.

Without judging or grasping at meaning, and dropping away ideas of personal gain, the person sitting shikantaza simply observes thoughts, emotions and sensations as they come and go. It is described as the subtle activity of allowing things to be what they are.

The Chinese master Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091-1157), called this meditation form "silent illumination." It is important, he wrote, to find a balance between serenity and intuitive insight, or illumination. Hongzhi wrote, "If illumination neglects serenity, aggressiveness appears ... if serenity neglects illumination, murkiness leads to wasted dharma."

To learn more about shikantaza, I recommend The Art of Just Sitting: Essential Writings on the Zen Practice of Shikantaza, edited by John Daido Loori (Wisdom Publications, 2002).

Even better, find a Soto teacher and sitting group and learn shikantaza directly from practitioners.