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The “Soto Zen” of the PMSO: a new religion whose time is over

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If you are a regular reader, you know that I use the phrase “Post Meiji Soto Orthodoxy” or even its acronym “PMSO” quite often. So it seems that it would be good to unveil the meaning of this phrase in one place, so that the regular reader can better understand what I mean by this and how it points to something important.

Above is Emperor Meiji (1867-1912) who occupied the Japanese throne during the accompanying Meiji period, an era of radical political, economic, social and religious change. The Job Meiji Soto Orthodoxy results from the Meiji reformulation of Soto Zen. This happened following the collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate and the response to the threats colonization and modernism.

Some of the changes had roots going back about a century and some were by government decree, particularly in that the government backed away from doing things like regulating monks. They also passed a regulation allowing monks to marry – and most of them did so hastily. The Meiji government (largely hostile to Buddhism, while centering a new Shintoism) also ordered Soto and Rinzai, for example, to have clear differences or merge.

The threats, and it is important to fully acknowledge this, were serious. During the haibutsu kishaku (“abolish Buddhism, destroy Shakyamuni”) at the beginning of the Meiji era, approximately 40% of the 100,000 Buddhist temples in Japan were destroyed or “rehabilitated”. Many were reduced to ashes. Additionally, Buddhists were violently persecuted and many nuns and monks were defrocked. I couldn’t find any statistics on the number of deaths.

Why such hostility? Buddhism, including Soto and Rinzai Zen, had been closely complicit with the authoritarian Tokugawa shogunate that had ruled Japan for the previous 250 years and people were pissed. In the early 1870s, it was unclear that any form of Buddhism would survive.

Survival by centering households

When the Meiji Soto reformers began collaborating with each other to determine what they could identify as the central practice they offered to heads of families (to both strengthen their congregations and hopefully convert some of those who carried torches at the gates), you might be surprised that “shikantaza” didn’t appear . And this did not appear as a practice for owners until much later, perhaps with Sawaki Roshi (1880-1965).

In the first such efforts to convey what Soto Zen was, the venerable monks simply emphasized the goal and avoided specifying a method. Significantly, they identified this goal as enlightenment (“pointing directly to the mind, seeing into its nature, and becoming Buddha”, they said) and did not hesitate to use the words “kensho” and “satori”. These were not yet taboo in the new Soto school.

At this time, some Soto Zen members were enamored with Western Protestant Christianity and set about reforming Soto Zen in its image, in part centering households rather than monks (as had been the case throughout the History of Soto in China and Japan). It was also during this time that the Soto school’s emphasis on kensho and/or satori was dropped as the consensus was that it required a training intensity for which householders (and arsonists ) were not ready. It wasn’t until much later that the avoidance of the word “kensho” was blamed on Dogen having a personal problem with the word (which he did).

The next round of efforts to identify a practice for householders Soto recognized the success of the Pure Land School, a school of householders, and so invented a practice of nembutsu (mindfulness of Buddha) , “Namu Shakyamuni Butsu”. However, it didn’t take. So they tried a nembutsu with a certain story, “Namu Amida Butsu”, but that had already been taken by Pure Land School, so it was also rejected after a short time. So some argued that they should go back to “Namu Shakyamuni Butsu”, but again, it didn’t work.

The fact that some of the leading figures of Soto Zen were struggling to try to identify a central practice for heads of households is truly telling!

The reformers then changed the focus of all of Soto Zen (not just households) of realize the same mind as Buddha at supporting the Emperor, leading an ethical life, and above all receiving the precepts (jukai) in a prescribed manner. It became a kind of magical sacrament by which a householder could simply receive the precepts and realize the same mind as Buddha.

The Meiji reformers finally managed to create a Soto denomination where previously the primary source of religious identification was temple affiliation – which is no small feat. They chose to elevate Eihei Dogen’s position from relative obscurity, essentially putting him in the role of Jesus Christ, and to interpret his teaching (despite ample textual and historical evidence to the contrary) as anti-koan and pro-shikantaza, as well as anti-acquired enlightenment and pro-original enlightenment. This was strongly influenced by the Protestant “salvation by grace” approach. They also eviscerated the purpose and centrality of the teacher-student relationship and the very purpose of unqualified training (i.e. High Vows).

And what sacred text did the Soto reformers find that could parallel the “Lord’s Prayer” in its simplicity and breadth that would also support their new religious beliefs?

Well, they had to invent one – “Shushogi” (“The Observance of Verification of Practice”), which was cut and pasted from Dogen’s writings. The authors used Dogen’s words, but in some cases created new sentences from sentences taken from various Dogen fascicles, really giving meaning to the mouth of old Dogen – not a practice that would be considered ethical today. today. In the process, of course, they omitted any mention of zazen, enlightenment, and the teacher-student relationship and instead emphasized four points: 1. Repent and eliminate bad karma (zange metsuzai); 2. Receiving the precepts and joining the ranks (jukai nyūi); 3. Making a vow to benefit sentient beings (hotsugan rishō); 4. Practicing Buddhism and returning blessings (gyōji hōon).

Early drafts maintained the two-track approach that has long characterized Buddhadharma in Asia – monastic and householder. The final version, however, took a new approach for all Soto believers, monastics and heads of households, which dropped two of the three formations (samadhi and wisdom). He forged a new Soto path for monks and householders, thus undermining the very core of monastic aspiration.

A new religion

Thus, from the ashes of the campaigns (and colonization) “abolish Buddhism, destroy Shakyamuni”, a new religion was born with the same name as the old religion, Soto Zen. The above four principles were enshrined in the Soto Zen Constitution, Article V, in an attempt to appease and appeal to Japanese households who were not considered interested in intensive training, as mentioned. As for point 4 above, Reimbursing Blessings, this has been interpreted primarily as regarding the reimbursing of blessings to the Emperor and the Japanese State for the opportunity to practice Buddhism.

This new orientation, including a high degree of rapprochement with the emperor (which was explicitly rejected by Dogen), was intentionally designed to promote the literal survival of what had been Soto Zen. But the old Soto Zen had to die for the new Soto school to come into being. Incidentally, the current de Soto Constitution preserves these four principles. It should be noted that the key provision of repaying one’s debt to the Japanese emperor and state, fundamental tenets of the New Soto religion, is ignored in the West, even by true believers.

From the 1920s, open verbal conflict erupted between PMSO supporters and those opposed to the changes (notably leading monastic teachers like Harada Daiun Roshi), with many journal articles exchanged. You can read about it here: Soto dispute over true faith.

I write about the issues facing those of us who don’t live in post-Meiji Japan and yet have practiced Zen for over a decade, primarily via the Wild Fox Zen blog. And in doing so, I coined the phrase “Post Meiji Soto Orthodoxy (PMSO)”. Fortunately, some lineages within Soto Zen have retained at least some elements of the pre-Meiji One School Zen approach which focuses on enlightenment as the sole goal of Soto Zen and the main means as sanzen bendo – practice zazen under the direction of an authorized master.

And in the West, you could say there is a lot of Soto Zen. I am simply addressing these elements of the new Soto school which I call Post Meiji Soto Orthodoxy.

I admit that an anti-revival stance may have been skillful in late 19th and early 20th century Japan (it’s really not for me to judge), but it seems to me to be completely unskillful for practitioners today in our global Dharma community. . Most importantly, the powerless people of the future depend on our true verification of the practice today so that they can discover and actualize the great possibilities for enlightenment, happiness, and great compassion in what will likely be truly challenging times. . By eviscerating what could give real meaning to their lives, we are doing them a great disservice.

Rather than a path of verification of living practice, the PMSO proposes only meeting people’s needs for belonging, a trivialized and truncated belief system of dharma, lots of ceremonies and a little zazen. Ironically, today in the West most Soto practitioners, as well as most Soto teachers, seem to unknowingly embrace what they believe to be the “Soto tradition” and the “Way of Dogen”, whereas in fact, what they adopt is a recent reformulation. religion, born in part from the trauma of the “abolish Buddhism, destroy Shakyamuni” campaigns as well as Western colonialism, and repackaged in a package similar to what many of them fled: Protestant Christianity.

Two great teachers in our lineage, Harada Daiun Roshi and Yasutani Hakuun Roshi, were strong and outspoken opponents of the PMSO. Harada Roshi considered those who supported the views of the PSMO as “worms inside the lion”. These two great teachers are a continuous source of inspiration for me. To conclude, I share a short passage from Yasutani Roshi:

“The Soto school…doesn’t shy away from arguing these days that kensho is not necessary and all you have to do is engage in your daily activities with ‘Buddha-mind’. It’s totally off the mark, since you remain unable to discover what “the mind of Buddha” really is without the authentic experience of satori.