Sōtō Zen or the Sōtō school (曹洞宗, Sōtō-shū) is the largest of the three traditional sects of Zen in Japanese Buddhism (the others being Rinzai and Ōbaku). It is the Japanese line of the Chinese Cáodòng school, which was founded during the Tang dynasty by Dòngshān Liánjiè. It emphasizes Shikantaza, meditation with no objects, anchors, or content. The meditator strives to be aware of the stream of thoughts, allowing them to arise and pass away without interference.

The Japanese brand of the sect was imported in the 13th century by Dōgen Zenji, who studied Cáodòng Buddhism (Chinese: 曹洞宗; pinyin: Cáodòng Zōng) abroad in China. Dōgen is remembered today as the co-patriarch of Sōtō Zen in Japan along with Keizan Jōkin.[1][2]

With about 14,000 temples, Sōtō is one of the largest Japanese Buddhist organizations.[3][a] Sōtō Zen is now also popular in the West, and in 1996 priests of the Sōtō Zen tradition formed the Soto Zen Buddhist Association based in North America.


Chinese origins

The original Chinese version of Sōtō-shū, i.e. Cáodòng-zōng (曹洞宗) was established by the Tang dynasty monk Dòngshān Liángjiè (洞山良价, Japanese: Tōzan Ryōkai) in the 9th century.

One prevalent view is that the sect's name was originally formed by taking one character each from the names of Dòngshān and his disciple Cáoshān Běnjì (曹山本寂, Japanese: Sōzan Honjaku), and was originally called Dòngcáo-zōng (with the characters in transposed order).[4] However, to paraphrase the Dòngshān yǔlù (《洞山語録》, "Record of the Dialogues of Dòngshān"), the sect's name denotes 'colleagues (曹) of the teachings above the caves (洞)' who together follow the "black wind (teachings of Taoism?)"[citation needed] and admire the masters of various sects.[4][b]

Perhaps more significantly for the Japanese brand of this sect, Dōgen among others advocated the reinterpretation that the "Cao" represents not Caoshan, but rather "Huineng of Caoxi temple" 曹渓慧能 (Sōkei Enō); zh:曹溪慧能). The branch that was founded by Caoshan died off, and Dōgen was a student of the other branch that survived in China.[4]

A precursor to the sect is Shítóu Xīqiān (Ch. 石頭希遷, ca.700 – ca.790),[5] the attributed author of the poem Sandokai, which formed the basis of Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi of Dongshan Liangjie (Jp. Tōzan Ryōkai) and the teaching of the Five Ranks.[6][7]

Kamakura (1185–1333)

Dōgen Zenji, credited as a founder of the Sōtō sect in Japan


The Caodong-teachings were brought to Japan in 1227, when Dōgen returned to Japan after studying Ch'an in China and settled at Kennin-ji in Kyoto. Dōgen had received Dharma transmission from Tiantong Rujing at Qìngdé Temple, where Hongzhi Zhengjue once was abbot. Hongzhi's writings on "silent illumination" had greatly influenced Dōgen's own conception of shikantaza.[8]

Dōgen did return from China with various kōan anthologies and other texts, contributing to the transmission of the koan tradition to Japan.[9] In the first works he wrote he emphasised the practice of zazen, which brought him into trouble at Kennin-ji:

This assertion of the primacy of Zen aroused the anger of the Enryaku-ji monks, who succeeded in driving Dōgen from the Kennin-ji where he had settled after his return to the capital.[10]

In 1243 Dōgen founded Eihei-ji,[11] one of the two head temples of Sōtō-shū today, choosing...

... to create new monastic institutions based on the Chinese model and risk incurring the open hostility and opposition of the established schools.[12]

Daily routine was copied from Chinese practices, which went back to the Indian tradition:

The elements of Sōtō practice that contributed most to the success of the school in medieval Japan were precisely the generic Buddhist monastic practices inherited from Sung China, and ultimately from India. The Sōtō Zen style of group meditation on long platforms in a sangha hall, where the monks also took meals and slept at night, was the same as that prescribed in Indian Vinaya texts. The etiquette followed in Sōtō monasteries can also be traced back to the Indian Vinaya.[12]


Dōgen was succeeded around 1236[13] by his disciple Koun Ejō (1198–1280),[14] who originally was a member of the Daruma school of Nōnin, but joined Dōgen in 1229.[15] Ejō started his Buddhist studies at Mount Hiei, the center of Tendai studies. following his stay there he studied Pure Land Buddhism under Shōkū, whereafter he joined the Daruma school of Nōnin by then led by Kakuan.[16]

Ejō, like Dōgen, believed in the primacy of Zen Buddhism. He resisted efforts from outside to water down the tradition with other beliefs.


A large group from the Daruma-school under the leadership of Ekan joined the Dogen-school in 1241,[15] after severe conflicts with the Tendai and Rinzai schools.[16] Among this group were Gikai, Gien and Giin, who were to become influential members of Dōgen's school.[15]

After the death of Ejō, a controversy called the sandai sōron occurred. In 1267 Ejō retired as Abbot of Eihei-ji, giving way to Gikai, who was already favored by Dogen. Gikai too originally was a member of the Daruma school, but joined Dōgen's school in 1241, together with a group from the Nōnin school led by Ekan. Gikai introduced esoteric elements into the practice:

[W]ith the premature death of Dōgen the group lost its focus and internal conflicts led to a split. Dōgen's followers soon introduced such esoteric elements as prayers and incantations into the teaching.[11]

Opposition arose, and in 1272 Ejō resumed the position of abbot. After his death in 1280, Gikai became abbot again, strengthened by the support of the military for magical practices.[17] Opposition arose again, and Gikai was forced to leave Eihei-ji, and exiled to Kaga Province, Dajō-ji (in Ishikawa Prefecture). He was succeeded by Gien, who was first trained in the Daruma-school of Nōnin. His supporters designated him as the third abbot, rejecting the legitimacy of Gikai.


The second most important figure in Sōtō, Keizan, belonged to this dissident branch.[18] Keizan received ordination from Ejō when he was, twelve years old, shortly before Ejō's death[19] When he was seventeen he went on a pilgrimage for three years throughout Japan. During this period, he studied Rinzai, Shingon and Tendai. After returning to Daijō-ji, Keizan received dharma transmission from Gikai in 1294, and established Joman-ji.[19] In 1303 Gikai appointed Keizan as abbot of Daijō-ji,[20] a position he maintained until 1311.[21]

Keizan enlarged the Shingon-temple Yōkō-ji in Ishikawa prefecture, turning it into a Zen monastery in 1312.[21] Thereafter he inherited the Shingon temple Shogaku-ji in 1322, renaming it Sōji-ji, which was recognized as an official monastery.[22] In 1324 he put Gasan Jōseki in charge of Sojo-ji, and returned to Yōkō-ji.[22] Yōko-ji was Keizan's main temple, but Sōji-ji thrived better, thanks to Gasan Jōseki[23]

Though today Dōgen is referred as the founder of Sōtō, for a long period Sōtō history recognized several important ancestors, next to Dōgen.[24] In 1877 the heads of the Sōtō community acknowledged Keizan for a brief period as the overall founder of the Sōtō sect.[25]

Dogen is known as the "koso", where Keizan is known as the "taiso";

Both terms mean the original patriarch, that is, the founder of Japanese Sōtō Zen tradition.[26]

Sōtō centers

At the end of the Kamakura period, Dōgen's school centered around four centers, namely Eihei-ji, Daijo-ji monastery, and the temples Yoko-ji and Soji-ji. Soji-ji became the most influential center of the Dōgen school.[21]

Muromachi (or Ashikaga) (1336–1573)

During the Muromachi period the Rinzai school was the most successful of the schools, since it was favoured by the shōgun. But Soto too spread out over Japan.

Gasan and Sotetsu

Gasan Jōseki (1275–1365)[27] and Meiho Sotetsu were Keizan's most prominent students.[27]

Gasan too started his Buddhist studies at mount Hiei.[27] He became head of Soji-ji in 1324.[28] Gasan adopted the Five Ranks of Tung-shan as a fit vehicle to explain the Mahayana teachings.[29]

Sotetsu became head of Yoko-ji in 1325. Initially his influence soon grew. In 1337 Sotetsu was appointed as abbot of Daijo-ji.

Azuchi-Momoyama (1573–1600) and Edo (or Tokugawa) (1600–1868)

After a period of war Japan was re-united in the Azuchi–Momoyama period. Neo-Confucianism gained influence at the expense of Buddhism, which came under strict state control. The power of Buddhism decreased during the Tokugawa period. Buddhism had become a strong political and military force in Japan and was seen as a threat by the ruling clan. Measures were taken to control the Buddhist organisations, and to limit their power and influence.[30] The temple hierarchy system was centralized and unified.[30]

Japan closed the gates to the rest of the world.[31] New doctrines and methods were not to be introduced, nor were new temples and schools. The only exception was the Ōbaku lineage, which was introduced in the 17th century during the Edo period by Ingen, a Chinese monk.[32] The presence of these Chinese monks also influenced the existing Zen-schools, spreading new ideas about monastic discipline and the rules for dharma transmission.[33]

The Sōtō school started to place a growing emphasis on textual authority. In 1615 the bakufu declared that "Eheiji's standards (kakun) must be the rule for all Sōtō monks".[34] In time this came to mean all the writings of Dōgen, which thereby became the normative source for the doctrines and organisation of the Sōtō school.[34]

A key factor in this growing emphasis on Dogen was Manzan's appeal to change the rules for dharma transmission, based on arguments derived from the Shōbōgenzō.[34] From its beginnings, Sōtō-shū has laid a strong emphasis on the right lineage and dharma transmission.[32] In time, dharma transmission became synonymous with the transmission of temple ownership.[35] When an abbot changed position, becoming abbot of another temple, he also had to discard his lineage and adopt the lineage of his new temple.[36] This was changed by Manzan Dokahu (1636–1714), a Sōtō reformer, who ...

[P]ropagated the view that Dharma transmission was dependent on personal initiation between a Master and disciple rather than on the disciple's enlightenment. He maintained this view in the face of strong opposition, citing as authority the towering figure of Japanese Zen, Dōgen ... This became and continues to this day to be the official Sōtō Zen view. [37]

Dōgen scholarship came to a central position in the Sōtō sect with the writings of Menzan Zuihō (1683–1769), who wrote over a hundred works, including many commentaries on Dōgen's major texts and analysis of his doctrines. Menzan promoted reforms of monastic regulations and practice, based on his reading of Dōgen.

Another reformation was implemented by Gentō Sokuchū (1729–1807), the 11th abbot of Eihei-ji, who tried to purify the Sōtō school, de-emphasizing the use of kōans.[38] In the Middle Ages kōan study was widely practiced in the Sōtō school.[3] Gentō Sokuchū started the elevation of Dōgen to the status he has nowadays, when he implemented new regulations, based on Dōgen's regulations.[3]

This growing status of Dōgen as textual authority also posed a problem for the Sōtō school:

The Sōtō hierarchy, no doubt afraid of what other radical reformers might find in Dōgen's Shobo Genzo, a work open to a variety of interpretations, immediately took steps to restrict access to this traditional symbol of sectarian authority. Acting at the request of the Sōtō prelates, in 1722 the government prohibited the copying or publication of any part of Shobo Genzo.[34]

Meiji Restoration (1868–1912) and Imperial expansionism

Sōji-ji Temple, Tsurumi-ku, Yokohama

During the Meiji period (1868–1912) Japan abandoned its feudal system and opened up to Western modernism. Shinto became the state religion, and Buddhism was coerced to adapt to the new regime. Rinzai and Sōtō Zen chose to adapt, with embarrassing consequences when Japanese nationalism was endorsed by the Zen institutions. War endeavours against Russia, China and finally during the Pacific War were supported by the Zen establishment.[39][40]

Within the Buddhist establishment the Western world was seen as a threat, but also as a challenge to stand up to.[39][41] Parties within the Zen establishment sought to modernize Zen in accord with Western insights, while simultaneously maintaining a Japanese identity.[42]

During this period a reappraisal of Dōgen started. The memory of Dōgen was used to ensure Eihei-ji's central place in the Sōtō organisation, and "to cement closer ties with lay people". In 1899 the first lay ordination ceremony was organized in Eihei-ji.[3] Eihei-ji also promoted the study of Dōgen's works, especially the Shōbōgenzō, which changed the view of Dōgen in Sōtō's history.[3] An image of Dōgen was created that suited the specific interests of Eihei-ji:

Dōgen's memory has helped keep Eihei-ji financially secure, in good repair, and filled with monks and lay pilgrims who look to Dōgen for religious inspiration ... the Dōgen we remember is a constructed image, an image constructed in large measure to serve the sectarian agendas of Eihei-ji in its rivalry with Sōji-ji. We should remember that the Dōgen of the Shōbōgenzō, the Dōgen who is held up as a profound religious philosopher, is a fairly recent innovation in the history of Dōgen remembrances.[3]

Lay interests

Funerals continue to play an important role as a point of contact between the monks and the laity. Statistics published by the Sōtō school state that 80 percent of Sōtō laymen visit their temple only for reasons having to do with funerals and death, while only 17 percent visit for spiritual reasons and a mere 3 percent visit a Zen priest at a time of personal trouble or crisis.[43]

Monastic training

In a piece of advice to western practitioners, Kojun Kishigami Osho, a dharma heir of Kōdō Sawaki, writes:

Every year, about 150 novices arrive. About 90 percent of them are sons of temple heads, which leaves only 10 percent who chose this path for themselves. For the autumn session, about 250 monks come together. Essentially what they are learning in these temples is the ability to officiate all kinds of ceremonies and rites practiced by the Sōtō School – the methods for fulfilling their role. Apart from this aspect, practicing with the idea of developing one’s own spirituality is not prevalent.[web 1]

According to Kishigami, practice may as well be undertaken elsewhere:

If you want to study Buddhism, I recommend the Japanese universities. If you want to learn the ceremonies practiced by the Sōtō School, you need only head for Eihei-ji or Soji-ji.

But if your goal is to seriously learn the practice of zazen, unfortunately, I have no Japanese temple to recommend to you. Of course, you can go to Antai-ji, if you want; but if you want to deepen your practice of true Zen, you can do it in Europe. If you go to Japan for this, you will be disappointed. Don't expect to find anything wonderful there.[web 1]