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Sōtō Zen or the Sōtō school (曹洞宗 Sōtō-shū) is the largest of the three traditional sects of
The Japanese brand of the sect was imported in the 13th century by
With about 14,000 temples, Sōtō is one of the largest Japanese Buddhist organizations.[a] Sōtō Zen is now also popular in the West, and in 1996 priests of the Sōtō Zen tradition formed the
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,
Perhaps more significantly for the Japanese brand of this sect,
A precursor to the sect is
The Caodong-teachings were brought to Japan in 1227, when
Dōgen did return from China with various
... to create new monastic institutions based on the Chinese model and risk incurring the open hostility and opposition of the established schools.
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.
Dōgen was succeeded around 1236 by his disciple
Ejō, like Dōgen, believed in the primacy of
A large group from the Daruma-school under the leadership of Ekan joined the Dogen-school in 1241, after severe conflicts with the Tendai and Rinzai schools. Among this group were
After the death of Ejō, a controversy called the
[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.
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. Opposition arose again, and Gikai was forced to leave Eihei-ji, and exiled to
The second most important figure in Sōtō,
Keizan enlarged the Shingon-temple Yōkō-ji in Ishikawa prefecture, turning it into a Zen monastery in 1312. Thereafter he inherited the Shingon temple Shogaku-ji in 1322, renaming it
Though today Dōgen is referred as the founder of Sōtō, for a long period Sōtō history recognized several important ancestors, next to Dōgen. In 1877 the heads of the Sōtō community acknowledged Keizan for a brief period as the overall founder of the Sōtō sect.
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.
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.
Sotetsu became head of Yoko-ji in 1325. Initially his influence soon grew. In 1337 Sotetsu was appointed as abbot of Daijo-ji.
Japan closed the gates to the rest of the world. New doctrines and methods were not to be introduced, nor were new temples and schools. The only exception was the
The Sōtō school started to place a growing emphasis on textual authority. In 1615 the
A key factor in this growing emphasis on Dogen was Manzan's appeal to change the rules for
[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. 
Dōgen scholarship came to a central position in the Sōtō sect with the writings of
Another reformation was implemented by
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.
Within the Buddhist establishment the Western world was seen as a threat, but also as a challenge to stand up to. Parties within the Zen establishment sought to modernize Zen in accord with Western insights, while simultaneously maintaining a Japanese identity.
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. Eihei-ji also promoted the study of Dōgen's works, especially the Shōbōgenzō, which changed the view of Dōgen in Sōtō's history. 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.
In a piece of advice to western practitioners, Kojun Kishigami Osho, a dharma heir of
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]