Japanese Cultural ZenSoto

Dogenism and the Soto-shu

When you first go to a Zen center, here in the west, the first thing they teach you is the ‘Zazen’ meditation. The word Zazen is Japanese for Sitting Meditation

This is simply to sit on a black round cushion in the ‘Zendo’, a place where they meditate, and you are instructed to face a wall and keep your eyes open. They will also show you a bunch of Japanese etiquette for entering, sitting, getting up, and leaving the zendo too.

They tell you to try and not move, to just sit in a cross-legged position for a period to time (typically from 20 minutes to 40 minutes) – much like a Buddha statue, and most of these Zendo’s have a Buddha Statue looking much like how you are to sit.

That is about as much instruction you will ever get at a Zen center.

They will tell you that Zazen is a holy practice, and that is their practice and that zazen is ‘Zen’, and that all the answers you have will be found in Zazen.

If you stick around long enough, you will hear the senior teachers speak about Zazen, perhaps some lore or some stories they have. You will hear many people who will testify that Zazen helped them – ‘it saved them’ from whatever imagined issues they had. You will hear words like ‘Kencho’ (Japanese word for Mind Awakening) or even the fabled ‘Enlightenment’ being brandished around like a carrot on a stick to the seekers.

Many people pay a lot of money to sit on those black cushions in that Zendo. They pay to talk to the senior teachers, they pay to study at the Zen Center, they pay to socialize there and they pay to pray there too. Many have paid year after year – it becomes an investment to them, and they don’t take kindly to any criticism, doubts, or anyone pointing out the realities of what they are engaging in, that being a cult.

Now, if you actually read any of the Zen books beyond their beloved cult leader Dogen, you see that their fanaticism about Zazen is misplaced, and is actually Not-Zen at all. Sitting meditation, also known as shikantaza in Chinese Ch’an, a school of serenity and contemplation, is only just one of four positions a monk may take: Standing, Sitting, Walking, Laying Down. Furthermore, the Serenity Schools come in two flavors: Soto and Rinzai, also known as the Schools of the North and South. The Soto branch (northern school) sees enlightenment as a gradual life-long process, whereas Rinzai sees enlightenment as a student and immediate (Southern School).

Western Zen centers like to beard themselves with the term of Soto, as to give itself legitimacy to the Chinese schools of serenity, however, they have nothing at all in common with actual Soto. If you ask them about when enlightenment can happen, they will say: It can happen in an instant or gradually over time. Furthermore, Soto does not teach Sitting meditation as ‘being buddha’ as ‘Enlightenment’ as their Japanese cult founder Dogen has taught.

You see, when you read Dogen’s writings – it becomes clear that Dogen actually believes that Sitting Meditation, the posture of a Buddha Statue IS BEING BUDDHA, and is ENLIGHTENMENT. Soto never taught this, the famous Caodong school in China never taught this, Rujing never taught this. This is why so many are skeptical of Dogen’s claims of having gone to China and bringing back this New Religion to Japan from the Caodong school and his claims of being a Lineage holder of Rujing.

Yet, Dogen’s Japan was a tumulus land rife with rival warlords, political intrigue, and shifting alliances. Dogen himself was noble-born, he had a position in society and friends in the Imperial courts. Bringing a New Religion that was deemed ‘Authentic’, because he bought a forged or stolen Ordination document from China, and forging a simple Spiritual method that the Shogunites would accept – that of Holy Power from the simple process of ‘Sitting like a Buddha statue’, where the Shogun saw it as strengthening their hara (place of spiritual energy in their body) so they can defeat their rivals.

Now, here is the kick in the head…

After Dogen’s death, his temple Eihei-ji survived. His successors later made reforms to the Zen church to move away from the Cult-like myopic view Dogen had about Zazen, to include more local customs, Tendai rituals, and incorporate some of the actual Chinese Soto style beliefs. During the Meiji Restoration in Japan, a time when the Shogun was disbanded, the Soto-shu as they called what was left of Dogen’s church made further reforms by becoming more secular in its views. The writings of Dogen were only for the senior priests, not accessible to the public!

Come WW2, the Shoto-Shu once again became an Ultra-nationalistic center that rallied those who were once Shogun or remembered them as children, to the call of glory. The Shoto-shu itself gave honor to the Japanese fighters who fought to the last man, who ran their airplanes into the enemy ships, who never surrendered and would kill themselves before falling to enemy hands.

It is my belief that there were elements in the Shoto-shu that wanted to revive the Shogunite, to revive the Cult of Dogen because that would place them back in the Imperial court, back in power, to regain what was lost in the Meiji Restoration.

They lost, that is history. During the American occupation of Japan, the Shoto-shu was mostly dismantled, though many of its supporters fled Japan to the West (such as Deshimaru) to avoid scorn and potential imprisonment for their involvement in what the Allies deemed as war crimes.

Everything I am writing here is from 35 years of study of Japanese Zen, of Dogen, Chinese Ch’an, and Buddhist metaphysics and philosophy. The western Zen center people don’t know this, they don’t want to know! They will simply say that I am a Hateful person who speaks badly about Zen, and declare me to be a heretic, a scorned ex-member, jealous, deluded, or what I like the most – ‘misinformed and wrong’.

Yet, in my studies of cults, the things they say about their detractors, their critics, is what all cults say! They hang themselves on their very own words. They paint GUILTY OF BEING A CULT by their own actions – where those who disagree with the cult leaders are ousted, ex-communicated, denounced, and ridiculed.


Non-aligned Zen Teacher currently living in Las Vegas, Nevada USA Youtube Channel Website