The "Soto Zen" of the PMSO: A New Religion Whose Time Has Passed

Ironically, today in the West, most Soto practitioners, as well as most Soto teachers, seem to unknowingly embrace what they think is the "Soto Tradition" and "Dogen's Way," when, in fact, what they are embracing is a recently reformulated religion....

The "Soto Zen" of the PMSO: A New Religion Whose Time Has Passed

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 might be good to unpack the meaning of this phrase in one place, so that the regular reader might better understand what I mean by it and how it points to something important.

By the way, the first time I used the phrase was in 2015, although it seems like it was a lot earlier! See Ducking the Quacking Koan: Soto Zen, Koan, and Kensho for PMSO's inaugural run!

Above is the Meiji Emperor (1867-1912) who occupied the Japanese throne during the accompanying Meiji period, an era of radical political, economic, social, and religious changes. The Post Meiji Soto Orthodoxy resulted from the Meiji reformulation of Soto Zen. This occurred in the wake of the collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate and the response to the threats of colonization and modernism.

Some of changes had roots going back a century or so and some were by government decree, especially in that the government backed out of doing things like regulating monks. They also passed a regulation that allowed monks to marry - and most of them did so post haste. The Meiji government (largely hostile to Buddhism, while centering a new-found Shinto) also directed Soto and Rinzai, for example, to either have clear differences or to merge.

The threats, and it is important to acknowledge this fully, were serious. During the haibutsu kishaku ("abolish Buddhism, destroy Shakyamuni") campaigns at the beginning of the Meiji period, about 40% of the 100,000 Buddhist temples in Japan were destroyed or "repurposed." Many were burned to the ground. In addition, Buddhists were violently persecuted and many nuns and monks were defrocked. I haven't found statistics for how many people died.

Why such hostility? Buddhism, including Soto and Rinzai Zen, had closely colluded with authoritarian Tokugawa shogunate that had ruled Japan for the preceding 250 years and people were pissed. During the early 1870s, it wasn't clear that any form of Buddhism would survive.

Survival by centering householders

When the Meiji Soto reformers first began collaborating with each other to determine what they could identify as the central practice they offered householders (in order both to shore up their congregations and hopefully convert some of those at the gates who were carrying torches), you might be surprised that "shikantaza" did not come up. And it didn't come up as a practice for householders until much later, possibly with Sawaki Roshi (1880-1965).

In the first such efforts to convey what Soto Zen was about, the venerable monks simply highlighted the goal and avoided specifying any method. Significantly, they identified that goal as awakening (“directly pointing to the mind, seeing into one’s nature and becoming Buddha” they said) and did not hesitate to use the words "kensho" and "satori." These had not yet become taboo in the new Soto School.

At that time, some in Soto Zen were enamored with Western Protestant Christianity and set about to reform Soto Zen in its image, in part by centering householders rather than monastics (as had been the case throughout Soto history in China and Japan). It was also at this time that the Soto school's emphasis on kensho and/or satori were dropped because the consensus was that it required an intensity of training that householders (and arsonists) were not up for. It was only much later that the avoidance of the word "kensho" was blamed on Dogen having an personal issue with the word (which he did).

The next round of efforts to identify a practice for Soto householders acknowledged the success of the Pure Land School, a school of householders, and so made up a nembutsu (mindfulness of buddha) practice, "Namu Shakyamuni Butsu." However, it didn't catch on. So then they tried a nembutsu with some history, "Namu Amida Butsu," but that already was taken by the Pure Land School, so it was also rejected after a short run. So some argued that they should return back to "Namu Shakyamuni Butsu," but again, it didn't catch on.

The fact that some of the leading figures in Soto Zen were flailing about trying to identify a central practice for householders is really telling!

The reformers then shifted the goal of all of Soto Zen (not just householders) from realizing the same mind as Buddha to supporting the Emperor, leading an ethical life, and especially receiving the precepts (jukai) in a prescribed manner. This became a kind of a magical sacrament through which a householder could simply receive the precepts and realize the same mind as Buddha.

The Meiji reformers eventually succeeded in creating a Soto denomination where previously the primary source for religious identification had been temple affiliation - no small thing. They chose to elevate the position of Eihei Dogen from relative obscurity, essentially putting him in the role of Jesus Christ, and to interpret His teaching (despite lots of textual and historical evidence to the contrary) as anti-koan and pro-shikantaza, as well as anti-acquired awakening and pro-original awakening. This was strongly influenced by the Protestant "salvation by grace" approach. They also gutted the purpose and centrality of the teacher-student relationship and the very purpose for wholehearted training (i.e., the Great Vows).

And what holy text did the Soto reformers come up with that could parallel the "Lord's Prayer" in it's simplicity and breadth that would also support their new found religious convictions?

Well, they had to make one up - "Shushogi" ("The Observance of Practice Verification"), which was cut and pasted from Dogen's writings. The authors used Dogen's words, but in some cases created new sentences from phrases pulled from various Dogen fascicles, really putting meaning into old Dogen's mouth - not a practice which would be considered ethical today. In the process, of course, they left out any mention of zazen, awakening, and the teacher-student relationship and instead emphasized four points: 1. Repenting and Eliminating Bad Karma (zange metsuzai); 2. Receiving Precepts and Joining the Ranks (jukai nyūi); 3. Making the Vow to Benefit Beings (hotsugan rishō); 4. Practicing Buddhism and Repaying Blessings (gyōji hōon).

The early drafts maintained the two-paths approach that has long characterized the buddhadharma in Asia - monastic and householder. The final version, though, espoused a new approach for all Soto believers, monastic and householders, that dropped two of the three trainings (samadhi and wisdom). It laid out a new Soto path for both monastics and householders, thus gutting the very heart of the monastic aspiration.

So it isn't a surprise that Soto monasticism is on its deathbed today. See The End of Zen in Japan? for more.

A new religion

Thus, out of the ashes of the "abolish Buddhism, destroy Shakyamuni" campaigns (and colonization), 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, intent on appeasing and attracting Japanese householders who were viewed as not interested in intensive training, as mentioned. As for #4 above, Repaying Blessings, this was interpreted primarily as about repaying blessings to the Emperor and the Japanese State for the opportunity to practice Buddhism.

This new focus, including a high degree of cozying up to the Emperor (something that was explicitly rejected by Dogen), was intentionally designed to further the literal survival of what had been Soto Zen. But the old Soto Zen had to die in order for the New Soto School to be born. By the way, the present Soto Constitution preserves these four principles. It is notable that the key provision of repaying one's debt to the Emperor and the Japanese state, foundational principles of the New Soto religion, is ignored in the West, even by true believers.

Beginning in the 1920's, open verbal conflict broke out between the supporters of the PMSO and those opposed to the changes (especially including the leading monastic teachers like Harada Daiun Roshi), with numerous journal articles flung back and forth. You can read about that here: Soto Dispute about True Faith.

I've been writing about the issues that arise for those of us who aren't living in post-Meiji Japan and yet practice Zen for more than a decade, mostly via the Wild Fox Zen blog. And in so doing, I coined the phrase "Post Meiji Soto Orthodoxy (PMSO)." Fortunately, there are some lineages within Soto Zen that have maintained at least some elements of the pre-Meiji One School Zen approach that focuses on awakening as the sole purpose of Soto Zen and the primary means as sanzen bendo – practicing zazen under the guidance of an authorized master.

And in the West, it could be said that there are many Soto Zen's, and that the influence of the PMSO is strong and quite pervasive, but not a monolithic presence.

I would grant that an anti-awakening stance may have been skillful in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Japan (it's really not my place to judge), but it seems to me to be completely unskillful for practitioners today in our global dharma community. Most importantly, the helpless ones in the future depend on our real practice-verification today so that they might learn about and actualize the great possibilities for awakening, bliss, and great compassion in what will likely be really hard fricking times. By gutting what might give true meaning to their lives, we do them a profound disservice.

Rather than a path of vivid practice verification, the PMSO only offers to meet people's belonging needs, a trivialized and truncated dharma belief system, lots of ceremony, and a little zazen. Ironically, today in the West, most Soto practitioners, as well as most Soto teachers, seem to unknowingly embrace what they think is the "Soto Tradition" and "Dogen's Way," when, in fact, what they are embracing is a recently reformulated religion, born in part from the trauma of the "abolish Buddhism, destroy Shakyamuni" campaigns as well as Western colonialism, and repackaged in a wrapping much like 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 regarded those who held the PSMO views as "worms inside the lion." Both of these great teachers are a continuing source of inspiration for me. To wrap this up, I share a short passage from Yasutani Roshi:

"The Soto School ... does not hesitate to contend these days that kensho is not necessary and that all you have to do is to get involved in your daily activities with the 'Buddha mind.' This is totally off the mark, since you remain unable to find out what 'the Buddha mind' really is without the authentic experience of satori."

For those who would like a deeper dive into this topic, I've attached a scholarly (but readable) article by John S. LoBreglio, "Orthodox, Heterodox, Heretical: Defining Doctrinal Boundaries in Meiji-period Sōtō Zen." This article is one of the sources for the above.