- Zen Buddhism
- from perspective of Japanese Soto & Rinzai Zen Schools
This is a brief introduction about Rinzai and Soto Zen Buddhism for anyone who is either trying to make a decision on a spiritual path or would just like information about different forms of Buddhism. We will try to be as accurate and brief as possible. Much that has been written about Zen Buddhism is confusing because it is not based on practice and also the differences in style between and within the Rinzai and Soto schools creates some confusion.
Although Zen Buddhism was defined as a separate school in China, its roots are the Buddhist practice of awakening as developed in India. Zen's main example is the life of Shakyamuni Buddha who looked for understanding and contentment by sitting quietly awake. He practiced this way both before and after his enlightenment. So Zen encourages us to awaken to the reality of life directly by our own efforts in practice without relying upon ritual or intellect exclusively. Yet Zen is definitely not opposed to the scriptures of Buddhism, the sutras. The sutras are much like maps. Zen encourages us to live in the landscape using the maps when they are useful.
Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism. All Buddhism recognizes three styles of practice. The practice of the saint (arahant) emphasizes eliminating defilements to attain purity and freedom from suffering through the Four Noble Truths. The practice of the self-enlightened (pratyeka buddha) emphasizes understanding and seeing how things are, the mutually dependent origination of all things. The practice of the awakening being (bodhisattva) is the path that emphasizes helping others to awaken and to be free of suffering even before attaining awakening for oneself. Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes the third style of practice. So does Zen, but Zen also teaches that behind all three paths is the way of the awakened one, the Buddha.
Traditionally, when the Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma (5th-6th century) came to China he found monks were mostly engaged in intellectual pursuits: philosophy and translating texts. So he pointed directly at the source of Buddhism by sitting zazen for nine years. His followers made sitting meditation the vital point of practice but used texts freely. The word Zen comes from zazen, sitting-meditation as it is usually translated. However 'meditation' usually suggests quietly chilling out. Zazen is much more dynamic and insightful than simply quieting oneself and chilling out. So even the word 'meditation' may cause misunderstanding. Bodhidharma's insistence on practicing rather than thinking about Buddhism is the origin of the Zen school in China. Another famous example of how intellectual study is no substitute for practice is provided by Hui-neng (J. Eno, 638-713) who awakened although he was not educated.
The surviving Zen lineages or teacher-student affiliations all come from two of Hui-neng's spiritual descendants: Nan-yueh (J. Nangaku, 677-744) and Ching-yuan (J. Seigen, 660?-740). But for several generations there were few differences in style. The differences can be traced to two outstanding teachers in the second generation after Hui-neng. One was Shih-t'ou (J. Sekito) whose style was gentle and harmonious emphasizing the skillful use of words. The other was Ma-tsu (J. Baso, 709-788) whose manner was stern and uncompromising, often using shouts and blows. This difference in style was carried through their descendants until the founders of the Rinzai and Soto schools, Lin-chi (J. Rinzai) and Tung-shan (J. Tozan). The names of the two schools comes from the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese names with Rinzai being straightforward and Soto coming from the first syllable of Tozan combined with the first syllable of the place where Hui-neng taught ( Ch. Ts'ao, J. So).
Much has been written concerning the differences between Rinzai and Soto Zen. Although some of this material has been from scholars and Zen teachers, much of this information can be misleading. This is because it has put an emphasis on aspects of kensho (seeing into one's self nature) and zazen in such a way that someone might believe Soto Zen Buddhists reject the concept of enlightenment and that Rinzai Zen Buddhists don't practice zazen in any form. There also seems to be misinformation regarding koan practice or study. Koans are examples drawn from the awakening of past practitioners and often seem to be illogical or intuitive. But they are not puzzles to be solved or intuited. They are expressions of awakening.
Both Rinzai and Soto Zen Buddhists study koans and practice zazen. The differences are of a more subtle nature. To even say Rinzai "stresses" koans over zazen would be inaccurate. It is accurate to say that Soto Zen continues to consider the practice of zazen to be the sole means of realization. But Soto Zen has never discarded the koan. Soto teachers lecture on koans and their students study koans outside the practice of zazen. Soto Zen practices zazen as awakening itself to the already realized koan. In Rinzai Zen practice, a koan is examined while sitting in order to deepen insight.
The characteristics of Soto as a distinct style of Zen go back to Shih-t'ou Hsi-ch'ien (J. Sekito Kisen, 700-790) who led an important practice center in the mountains of Hunan province in China. From this school there developed three different schools of Zen of which Soto is one. His poem "The Harmony of Difference and Sameness" is an important early expression of Zen Buddhism and is chanted in Soto temples to this day. Many students went back and forth between Shih-t'ou and Ma-tsu.
However the 'founder' of the school is Tung-shan Liang-chieh (807-69). He began studying the school of Buddhism that concentrates on rules of conduct but found that he had doubts about the meaning of a passage from the Heart Sutra. He went on pilgrimage and studied with several teachers until he resolved his doubts under a teacher descended from Shih-t'ou. One of his poems "The Song of the Jewel Mirror Awareness" is also still chanted in Soto temples. Another set of poems on the Five Positions of Absolute and Relative is important as a set of koans used in the Rinzai school.
The transmission of Soto Zen to Japan was done by Eihei Dogen Zenji (1200-1253). Early in his studies Dogen came across the teaching that all beings are originally enlightened. For him it was a great problem: "if there is original enlightenment, why practice?" Even after he received permission to teach in the Oryu Rinzai lineage his doubt was not settled. So he undertook the hazardous trip to China to resolve his doubts. There he met T'ien-t'ung Ju-ching the last great Soto teacher in China who emphasized the practice of zazen. In his practice under Ju-ching Dogen's doubts were definitively settled and he returned to Japan to begin teaching. Dogen's teaching is characterized by the identification of practice as enlightenment itself.
With Keizan Zenji (1268-1325) Soto Zen expanded rapidly in Japan and included many aspects of popular Japanese religion including various ritual observances. Keizan founded Sojiji temple which along with Dogen's Eiheiji temple are the two head temples of Soto Zen in Japan.
The Soto Zen School has a North American headquarters at Zenshuji in Los Angeles. Founded in 1922 it is the first Soto Zen temple in the continental United States. It is also the site of the Soto Zen Education center currently headed by Rev. Shohaku Okumura. The early propagation of Soto Zen practice in the United States is mostly associated with Rev. Shunryu Suzuki who founded San Francisco Zen Center. He was aided by Rev. Dainin Katagiri who went on to establish the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center. Rev. Taizan Maezumi founded the Zen Center of Los Angeles. The last three have U.S. born teachers who have succeeded them.
Recommended books about Soto Zen practice include: Opening the Hand of Thought by Kosho Uchiyama, Roshi; Zen Mind Beginner's Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki, Roshi; Return to Silence, by Dainin Katagiri, Roshi. Teachings of Dogen Zenji can be read in The Wholehearted Way, translated by Rev. Shohaku Okumura and Moon in a Dew Drop, Tanahashi et. al. translators. Teachings by Keizan Zenji can be read in Transmission of the Light translated by T. Cleary.
Near Chicago Rev. Tozen Akiyama teaches at Milwaukee Zen Center. The Soto Zen Education Center located at Zenshuji 123 South Hewitt Street, Los Angeles, California, 90012 has information about Soto teachers active in North America.
Isshu Miura says that the difference of the Rinzai Zen school from Soto is that "zazen is, first of all, the preliminary practice by means of which mind and body are forged into a single instrument for realization. Only the student who has achieved some competency in zazen practice is, or should be, permitted to undertake the study of a koan. Proficiency in zazen is the basic ground for koan study. During the practice of zazen the koan is handled. To state that it is used as the subject of meditation is to state the fact incorrectly. The koan is taken over by the prepared instrument, and, when a fusion of instrument and device takes place, the state of consciousness is achieved which it is the intent of the koan to illumine and in this instant the koan is resolved." He also writes: "When the koan is resolved it is realized to be a simple and clear statement made from the state of consciousness which it has helped to awaken."
The founder of Rinzai Zen was Lin-Chi I-hsuan (J. Rinzai Gigen, ?-866/67). Lin-chi was the dharma successor and student of Huang-po (J. Obaku). He had a very dramatic and iconoclastic style which is recorded in The Record of Lin-chi. Among his successors in China two Rinzai subschools developed, the Yang-chi (J. Yogi) and Huang-lung (J. Oryu). Eisai Zenji brought the Oryo lineage of Rinzai Zen to Japan, but it no longer exists independently. Several early Rinzai Yogi teachers contributed to the proliferation of Rinzai Zen in Japan, but it was Hakuin Zenji who reformed and gave Rinzai Zen its impetus in the new land.
Hakuin Zenji (1689-1769) claimed as his teacher, Shoju Rojin. Today Hakuin is considered to be Shoju Rojin's dharma heir, even though Hakuin never received sanction to teach directly from this teacher. Still, Hakuin is the father of all surviving Rinzai lineages. He formulated Japanese Rinzai Koan Practice and revived Rinzai Zen in Japan. In Japan there are two major lines of Rinzai Zen, the Inzan Ien lineage, and the Takujo Kosen lineage.
In America, both the Inzan and Takujo lines are represented by living Japanese teachers. Joshu Roshi Sasaki at Mount Baldy Zen Center comes from the Inzan Ien lineage, and Eido Shimano at the Zen Studies Society comes from the Takujo Kosen lineage. Also, there is a surviving line of Dharma Heirs issuing from Omori Sogen founder of Chozen-ji in Hawaii.
Although hybrids schools like the Harada-Yasutani line of Zen are not part of the Rinzai lineage, these lines comprise the greater part of Western Zen; and, some of these teachers were, in fact, Rinzai Dharma heirs. Teachers, like Roshi Robert Aitken were at one time students of Rinzai Teachers.
Some recommended readings on Rinzai Zen include: A Flower Does Not Talk by Abbot Zenkei Shibayama, Buddha Is the Center of Gravity by Joshu Sasaki, Roshi, Golden Wind by Eido Shimano Roshi, Two Zen Classics by Katsuki Sekida (contains translations of two important koan collections), The Zen Koan by Isshu Miura and Ruth Fuller Sasaki, and Subtle Sound by Maurine Stuart, Roshi.