Some Questions Answered Regarding Soto Zen in North America

Some Questions Answered Regarding Soto Zen in North America September 17, 2008

I recently received this note and as I worked my way through a response, I felt it could be of interest to a wider readership, so, slightly modified from my original response, here it is…

I’m interested in learning more about Soto school zen. My introduction to Soto was through the someone quirky book, “Hardcore Zen” which I read recently. I did some further reading on Soto, and so far it has rung “true” for me.

I, too, am quite fond of Brad Warner. I think when his in your face style zen at full shout was published, it was a breath of fresh air among the various introductions to Zen. A fresh perspective to a subject that was becoming a bit tired while remaining faithful to the core of the tradition, at least within its Soto style. My small claim to fame here is that at the time I appear to have been the only conventionally credentialed Zen teacher willing to positively endorse the book with a “blurb.” You should be aware, however, that his “only zazen,” “only shikantaza” perspective is a reformist current of Japanese Soto and does not represent what one would find in the mainstream.

There are still a couple of lingering questions I have, and I hope you will be able to confirm or deny what I’ve heard so far.

I’ll do my best.

– It is my understanding that Soto is mostly free of superstitions, mysticism, belief in demons/spirits/etc as real entities…

So far as Japanese Sotoshu is concerned, the school of Zen closely associated with the reform teachings of Eihei Dogen (pictured above), and which is the parent institution of the Soto Zen you will find here in North America (that mainly represented by the Soto Zen Buddhist Association) this is a misunderstanding. A supernatural realm is assumed within all Asian Buddhist cultures. This realm conveys many strata of belief derived from many places, some can be traced all the way to the Indian cultural matrix out of which Buddhism emerged, some are imports from the various cultures through which Buddhism passed on its way to Japan, mostly from China. Some of this supernatural world-view is indigenous to Japan.

However when the first generation of Zen teachers came West, for the most part they appear to have been unconcerned with these things, mainly teaching the meditative discipline at the heart of the tradition. To a smaller group of the more devoted students they also imparted the traditions of monastic training that support this practice. Some rites that were passed on are concerned with these matters, but they’ve tended to be of marginal interest.

Only a handful of these students studied Japanese and of those only a much smaller number actually traveled to the home country where they were confronted with the larger cultural/spiritual milieu. To the best of my knowledge none of them felt a need to import this world-view in any serious way.

So, as far as North American and European convert-Soto Zen is concerned, at least as represented by Soto Zen Buddhist Association teachers, you are generally right. There isn’t a lot, although you can find some interest in the supernatural realm among Western Zen practitioners and teachers. For the most part interest in these matters is for their metaphorical value.

I should add all that I’ve just said about Japanese-derived Soto is true of Rinzai. (Which in North America, is both smaller and at least to this date, has not drawn together in an umbrella organization such as the SZBA)

I am on less clear ground regarding the Zen schools that originated in other cultures and have come West such as Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese. My sense is this is a mixed bag. Much of the Chinese Zen, for in stance, has come within a much clearer cultural context and I suspect in order to seriously practice, at least in some of the schools, one would be expected to embrace at least tacitly the whole package.

I should also add there is a third current in Japanese-derived Zen, the lay reform movement established by Sogaku Harada Roshi in the early part of the last century. It has had considerable influence in Western Zen and on a number of Soto Zen lineages, including my own.

and that the Soto school generally acknowledges that many Buddhist texts were written long after the events in them were claimed to have taken place. In addition, it is my understanding that the Soto school’s general outlook on such issues is “The documents are probably fakes or bologna, but there is truth in their meaning.” Is that pretty much correct?

While there is much scholarship devoted to these issues in Japan, I do not believe normative Japanese Soto Zen embraces this “higher criticism” with quite such abandon as you suggest. Again, however, most North American Zen teachers, both Soto and Rinzai, are deeply impressed by contemporary currents of scholarship.

And I think you accurately characterize what you’ll find with most Western Zen teachers. For the most part contemporary Western Zen teachers do assert it doesn’t matter if the Buddha twirled a flower and Mahahakashyapa smiled, or that Huineng wrote that famous poem upon Hongjen’s wall. Or, that the core teaching encounters recorded in the various lamp anthologies were taken apart and reconstructed by later generations.

The teachings are true or not and the proof of their pudding is found today in our direct encounters with what is.

– I’ve also read that Soto, unlike Rinzai, doesn’t actually believe that you can or will reach perfect enlightenment in your lifetime, and that the best you can do is to “get it mostly right” through zazen, understanding, and mindfulness.

This is wrong both traditionally and today in the West. Zen in all its flavors teaches and always has that enlightenment, awakening is available to you and me right now, at this very moment. In fact we are swimming, drowning in a sea of awakening. To switch metaphors, we only miss this because of how we are entangled in greed, hatred and ignorance. This is a fundamental teaching of the Zen way.

What is true is that Soto tends to downplay those transformative moments called kensho or satori. But there are exceptions in both directions. So, for instance, I practice and teach within a Soto lineage that uses koans (which are closely associated with kensho or satori) and which finds deep value in those moments.

Whatever the emphasis on such moments the project of awakening in this lifetime is the shared project of all Zen schools.

Also as a footnote, the term “mindfulness” is mildly controversial among Zen teachers in the West. Generally mindfulness is understood to be a Theravada practice and is somewhat different than shikantaza, although both share a common ancestor in the Buddha’s original meditative techniques samatha and vipassana. Mindfulness is taught by a number of teachers with Zen credentials, most notably Thich Nhat Hanh. I’ve seen forms of mindfulness taught that I consider authentically Zen, particularly among various teachers of the Ordinary Mind School.

– Is it correct that the Soto school neither thinks of Buddha as a divinity,

The short answer is that Gautama Siddhartha is not considered God. And that Buddhism has not much concerned itself with some metaphysical questions of deep concern to other religious traditions, including whether there is a creator or not. There is a longer answer, as well. The word Buddha is used in numerous contexts, one of which has divine qualities

nor does it believe in literal reincarnation or transmigration?

This is actually a hotly debated issue within convert Buddhism writ large. First, reincarnation is not generally taught within Buddhism, although strands of Tibetan Buddhism sure seem to. The classic doctrine is rebirth, which is the teaching that the sum of our intentions and to some degree our actions in life will determine a new life. While there is no understanding of an abiding self that transfers from one body to another, the identity of these two beings, the former and the later is sufficiently close that people who believe in such do refer to “my” past life.

There are Buddhists, including Zen Buddhists, including Soto and Rinzai Buddhists who believe if one does not accept the doctrine of rebirth as axiomatic one cannot claim to be a Buddhist.

I would say, however, the majority of Zen practitioners and teachers in the West are agnostic on this subject, leaning one way or the other. I, for instance, am agnostic on the subject, but lean toward nonbelief

These are the impressions I’ve gotten from what I have read, and you’d be doing me a great service by helping me clarify my thinking on this.

I hope this has been of some use.

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