Sōtō Zen in Medieval Japan

Sōtō Zen in Medieval Japan

Sōtō Zen in Medieval Japan

Sōtō Zen in Medieval Japan

Excerpt

The Sōtō school is the largest Buddhist organization in modern Japan. It ranks with the various Pure Land schools as one of the most successful of the new Buddhist denominations that emerged during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods (roughly thirteenth-sixteenth centuries). During this medieval period Sōtō monks developed new forms of monastic organization, new methods of Zen instruction, and new applications for Zen rituals within lay life—many of which lie outside our received image of Zen. These developments played a profound role in medieval rural society and helped shape present-day Buddhist customs for a vast number of Japanese. Yet in spite of its significance for enriching our understanding of Japanese religion, medieval Sōtō has remained largely unknown, even among specialists. Most Western descriptions of Japanese Zen either ignore Sōtō completely or equate Sōtō exclusively with the teachings of Dōgen (the school's nominal founder), even though modern Sōtō practices continue many medieval-period elements unknown to Dōgen or even foreign to his teachings. In focusing on these later developments, this book attempts to illuminate how Sōtō Zen (and rural Zen in general) functioned as a religion within the context of medieval Japanese society.

In the course of this study I became convinced that it is crucial to approach the study of Japanese Zen in the same way that one studies any other aspect of Japanese religion. On the surface this proposition probably seems obvious enough. Traditional Zen scholarship, however, has emphasized ideals over actual practices and Chinese antecedents over Japanese conventions. Most discussions of Japanese Zen proceed from the assumption that it can be explained best as a continuation of Chinese traditions, totally severed from the religious and cultural context of Japan. Such discussions follow the lead of early Japanese Zen leaders, who strongly emphasized their connections to China. Yet our awareness . . .

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