SOYO ZEN IN MEDIEVAL JAPAN
William M. Bodiford
Kuroda Institute University of Hawaii Press: Honolulu, 1993. 345 pp., $35.00 (cloth).
Yaigen Daniel Leighton
THIS NEW addition to the fine series of scholarly works on East Asian Buddhism published by the Kuroda Institute (affiliated with the Zen Center of Los Angeles) deserves special attention from Western practitioners. In his quite readable albeit detailed and academic treatment, Bodiford skillfully provides a wealth of information heretofore unavailable in English showing the texture of Soto Zen's development into a widespread religious institution, currently the largest in Japan. He succeeds in making a good case for the medieval Soto tradition as a legitimate expression of genuine Zen teaching, responsively addressing the spiritual needs of the populace. Bodiford thereby challenges a number oflimiting, common conceptions, e.g., that the later Soto tradition compromised the "pure" original practice and vision of its brilliant founder Dogen (1200-1253) in order to accommodate diluted "popular" Japanese religion. The major role in Soto Zen of koan study and of Mahayana ritual activity are also elaborated. The implications of Bodiford's reading of japanese Zen history are instructive for American Buddhists seeking to maintain the heart of foreign spiritual traditions while allowing them to adapt and permeate in a new, vastly different culture.
Bodiford traces the formative importance to Soto Zen of the native Japanese mountain ascetic tradition with its shamanistic base and strong sense of sacred landscape and connection to the earth. Along with meditation (usually using visualizations), this tradition featured veneration of numerous local protective spirits and "magical" practices such as rainmaking. Soto Zen was also greatly influenced by the Vajrayana practices of the previously dominant schools of Japanese Buddhism, Shingon and Tendai. This native spiritual context gave Soto Zen a mystical flavor that Western practitioners more commonly associate with Tibetan Buddhism than with Zen, as many of us were first attracted to Zen by dramatic satori stories or by the therapeutic value of zazen, unaware of this "religious" facet. Bodiford shows how the Japanese influences complemented and integrated with the more usually cited inspiration of the classic Chinese Chan tradition, which most Zen scholarship idealizes.
Rather than simply dismissing as degenerate the practice of a Japanese Zen teacher praying for rain by means of performing a traditional Zen transmission ceremony to present a native kami [deity] with a Zen lineage chart, one might more profitably investigate both Zen and Japanese religion by asking, How are traditional Zen (or Buddhist) symbols used or not used in this ceremony?
Bodiford offers evidence that such medieval Soto practices as pacifying demons or ghosts or converting local spirits were often done with clear Zen understanding. For example, a document giving initiation into a particular tradition's koan understanding stated that the protective nature deities that were given the precepts in ceremonies were actually not external to the practitioner, but are none other than the original mind realized during meditation. Koan language was used to redefine such ceremonies to show that what is truly protective is the implementation of precepts through zazen.
The Soto mystical orientation was particularly vivid in Keizan (1264-1325), three generations after Dogen, who is revered as the second founder of Soto Zen, and from whom most of contemporary Soto Zen descends. In addition to intense zazen practice, Keizan relied on geomancy, astrology, and dream visions. Bodiford describes Keizan's writings as expressive of
an extremely rich, religious worldview in which the abstract truths of Buddhist doctrine are realized and verified through concrete physical manifestations that can be experienced directly in daily life. For Keizan, Zen experience entailed living in a physical landscape made sacred by the presence of supernatural Buddhist divinities and native Japanese spirits. Keizan's records illustrate the paradigm shift by which Buddhist meditation subsumed earlier shamanistic views of the spirit world.
Although Keizan is often credited with introducing supernatural elements into Soto Zen, Bodiford clarifies this as simply the prevalent religious context. Along with his emphasis on zazen and the Chinese Chan tradition, Dogen too stressed devotional energy in accord with this mystical outlook. Now famous for his profound philosophical teachings, in his own time Dogen was equally known for impressive rituals he conducted at Eiheiji, the monastery he founded. Lay participants testified that multicolored clouds and celestial gongs and fragrances manifested. During a ceremony for worshiping the sixteen arhats, these legendary figures magically appeared while heavenly flowers rained down.
Along with such esoteric rituals, the medieval Soto monks in the centuries after Dogen definitely maintained strong zazen practice. Rinzai monks who wished to practice meditation often went to study with Soto teachers. More detail about their meditation would have been interesting, but Bodiford focuses on their use of meditative awareness and compassion in accord with the bodhisattva model. The new Zen movement enlisted monks from the common classes, rather than the aristocracy who had controlled the older sects. As they moved into rural areas, Soto monks engaged in public works such as road and bridge building as well as performing rituals, but their success in addressing the religious needs of the populace was based largely on the prestige and integrity of their meditation and strict training.
Extensive koan study was also of central importance in medieval Soto monasteries. Unlike Japanese Rinzai Zen, in which koans were used to create a "mass of doubt" and to induce enlightenment experiences, koan training provided Soto priests with an evocative language for clarifying and accessing Buddhist enlightenment and expressing it in the ritual activities they shared with the laity. Different Soto lineages were often defined by the varying koan curriculums they transmitted. This medieval Soto koan practice is not, as is sometimes claimed, a deviation from Dogen's teaching, as Dogen himself devotes much of his writings to commentary on the classic koans.
Bodiford elaborates the complex and often problematic role of lineages and transmission in Soto history. The lineages following Keizan were able to become dominant, with a sturdy institutional foundation, due to a system of rotating abbotships at their headquarters temple, Sojiji, a monastery Keizan had established. Aspects of this cooperative network of affiliated subtemples, which cemented the relationship between the evolving branches, may perhaps be a relevant, positive model for proliferating Western Zen communities. However, the shadowy role of feudal loyalties, spiritual politics, and institutional aggrandizement underlying this history is also apparent.
Westerners have already witnessed problems among successors of our own recently established Zen Centers. Keizan's teacher Gikai, a student of Dogen who later succeeded to Dogen's primary successor Ejo, left Eiheiji under unclear circumstances. This is commonly referred to as the "third generation dispute," and is now often interpreted as a disagreement between Gikai, who supposedly wanted to popularize Soto by adding syncretic practices, and other disciples who wanted to adhere strictly to Dogen's "pure" teaching. Bodiford strongly challenges this interpretation of the events. There is no valid historical evidence for an acrimonious dispute, and in any event, all of Dogen's various successors were dedicated to following his practice while also engaging in ritual activity adapted to lay patrons. Perhaps all such problems, then and now, boil down to personalities and growing pains, rather than the doctrinal disputes imagined by historians.
One third of the book provides extensive discussion of Dogen's major disciples along with Ejo and Gikai, revealing the rich diversity of early Soto Zen communities. Giin founded a separate lineage in southern Japan, which remained active until the eighteenth century; the lineage of Jakuen, a Chinese disciple who followed Dogen back to Japan, dominated Eiheiji into the seventeenth century. Another leading disciple, Senne, is notable for his detailed commentaries, which have been crucial to modern understanding of Dogen's writings and their intricate, playful use of language.
Bodiford gives detailed discussions of the interesting functions of Soto ritual. Precept ordination ceremonies for laypeople as well as monks were an initiatory link back to the Buddha through the lineage, and also helped disseminate ethical teachings and fundamental Zen perspectives. Soto Zen priests were responsible for spreading Buddhist funeral rites throughout Japan, addressing "the great matter of life and death" with insight and compassion while securing a cooperative relationship between the clergy and its lay supporters.
Bodiford's clear presentation of the complexity of medieval Soto Zen's development allows us a much fuller understanding of this tradition, and a deeper appreciation for the resources still available in modern Japanese Zen. A broader perspective on the range of these previous adaptations may help Americans gradually find appropriate expressions for imported Buddhist traditions in our own changing culture.
Taigen Daniel Leighton, a Zen priest at Green Gulch Farm in California, is cotranslator of Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi.