Shakyamuni Buddha is sometimes called “Shakuson,” which is an abbreviation of “Shakyamuni” (Sage of the Shakya tribe) and “Seson” (World-honored One).
The Buddha was born a prince in the Shakya tribe about 2,500 years ago in a town called Lumbini which is located in present-day Nepal. His family name was Gautama, his given name was Siddhartha. As a prince, he was blessed with a life of riches. However, he was deeply troubled by the problems of his life and left home at the age of twenty-nine to become a monk. After six years of ascetic practice, he realized the Way at the age of thirty-five in Bodhgaya. At that time, he became the “Buddha” (Awakened One). From that time on, he expounded various teachings exemplified by the law of causality, the impermanence of all things, all things are without self, the peace and tranquility of nirvana, and all existence is suffering.
After his realization until his death in Kushinagara, the Buddha continued his travels to preach the Buddhadharma while also fostering his disciples. The main image of the Soto Zen School is Shakyamuni Buddha. It is because Shakyamuni Buddha realized the Way and taught those teachings, which were then accurately transmitted through the successive generations by his disciples, that today we are also able to encounter the Buddhadharma.
We are able to embody the compassion, wisdom and joy of the Buddha in our body and mind by worshipping Shakyamuni Buddha as our principal image along with the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha), as well as by living with right effort based on his teachings.
Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen School as well as of Daihonzan Eiheiji, was born on January 26, 1200 CE. This was during the Kamakura Period of Japanese history, the year following the death of Minamoto Yoritomo. It is said that his father was Koga Michichika, a government minister, and that his mother was Ishi, the daughter of Fujiwara Motofusa. Presumably, young Dogen Zenji lived in comfort. However, at the age of thirteen, he climbed Mt. Hiei, and the next year he shaved his head and became a monk. It is said that he became a monk because he felt the impermanence of the world on his mother’s death when he was eight years old.
However, Mt. Hiei at that time, as reflected in the eyes of Dogen Zenji, had become decadent because of connections with people in power. Among the priests there was much worldly greed for fame and wealth.
Disappointed, Dogen Zenji left Mt. Hiei walking in search of the true Dharma (the true Buddhist teaching). He visited temples in many different districts, considerably confused and agitated. In Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Dogen Zenji is quoted as saying, “I was unable to meet a true teacher or any good friends of the Way and consequently confused and evil thoughts arose. However, when I learned of eminent monks of the past, I realized that the thoughts I had been thinking were despised and hated by such people. So, I changed my way of thinking, realizing that I should think of my eminent predecessors, the great priests of China and India, rather than the monks in Japan.”
True to his words, he traveled by boat to China at the age of 24 in search of the true way of Buddha. Nevertheless, there were no teachers in China who were able to fulfill the pure ideals of Dogen Zenji. Just as he was about to return to Japan, however, he met Nyojo Zenji on Mt. Tendo where there was true practice focused on zazen.
“I sat zazen day and night. When it was extremely hot or cold, many of the monks stopped sitting for a while because they were afraid of getting sick. At the time, I thought to myself, ‘I’m not sick and if I don’t practice, then it would be useless for me to have come all the way to China. Dying from illness because of practice would be in accord with my original wish’ and so, I continued to sit” (Shobogenzo Zuimonki). It was to this extent that Dogen Zenji devoted himself to zazen. Many Japanese monks who went to study and practice in China brought back a mound of Buddhist sutras as souvenirs when they returned to Japan, but Dogen Zenji came back empty handed. The only thing that Dogen Zenji brought back with him was having made the teaching of only/just single-minded sitting his own (shikan-taza).
In order to encourage as many people as possible to practice zazen, Dogen Zenji wrote “A Universal Recommendation of Zazen” (Fukan Zazengi) in which he carefully explained the significance of zazen and how to practice it.
He also wrote “An Account of Discerning the Way” (Bendowa), a question-and-answer format in which he taught that the practice of zazen is the true Way of Buddha. In his representative work The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye (Shobogenzo), material that stretches for more than ninety chapters, Dogen Zenji thoroughly conveyed the mind of spiritual awakening.
In 1243, at the invitation of his supporter Hatano Yoshishige, Dogen Zenji left Kyoto and moved to the mountains of Echizen.
It has been said that this move was because of pressure from priests at Mt. Hiei, but it is also true that he left Kyoto because of Nyojo Zenji’s advice to “live in the deep mountains and secluded valleys, protecting the teaching of Buddha and ancestors.”
In 1244, the monastery that had been funded by Hatano Yoshishige was completed. At first named Daibutsuji, the name was later changed to Eiheiji. This is the present-day Daihonzan Eiheiji.
It was here that Dogen Zenji continued to practice strictly while fostering his disciples. In 1253, he fell sick and died at the age of 53.
Following Dogen Zenji, the Dharma lamp was transmitted to Ejo Zenji, then to Gikai Zenji, and then to Keizan Zenji, who was the fourth ancestor in the Japanese Soto Zen lineage.
Keizan Zenji was born in 1264 in Echizen Province, which is present-day Fukui Prefecture. His mother, Ekan Daishi, was a devoted believer in Kannon Bosatsu (Avalokiteshvara), the bodhisattva of compassion. It is said that she was on her way to worship at a building dedicated to Kannon when she gave birth. For that reason, the name that Keizan Zenji was given at birth was Gyosho.
At the age of eight, he shaved his head and entered Eiheiji where he began his practice under the third abbot, Gikai Zenji. At the age of thirteen, he again went to live at Eiheiji and was officially ordained as a monk under Ejo Zenji. Following the death of Ejo Zenji, he practiced under Jakuen Zenji at Hokyoji, located in present-day Fukui. Spotting Keizan Zenji’s potential ability to lead the monks, Jakuen Zenji selected him to be ino, the monk in charge of the other monks’ practice.
In contrast to Dogen Zenji, who deeply explored the internal self, Keizan Zenji stood out with his ability to look outwards and boldly spread the teaching. For the Soto Zen School, the teachings of these two founders are closely connected with each other. In spreading the Way of Buddha widely, one of them was internal in his approach while the other was external.
After more years of practice in Kyoto and Yura, Keizan Zenji became resident priest of Jomanji in Awa, which is present-day Tokushima Prefecture. He was twenty-seven years old. During the next four years, he gave the Buddhist precepts to more than seventy lay people. From this we can understand Keizan Zenji’s vow to free all sentient beings through teaching and transmitting the Way.
He also came forth emphasizing the equality of men and women. He actively promoted his women disciples to become resident priests. At a time when women were unjustly marginalized, this was truly groundbreaking. This is thought to be the origin of the organization of Soto Zen School nuns and it was for this reason many women took refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
Keizan Zenji finally moved back to Daijoji, in present-day Kanazawa City, where he became the second abbot, following Gikai Zenji. It was here that he gave teisho on Transmission of Light (Denkoroku). This book explains the circumstances by which the Dharma was transmitted from Shakyamuni Buddha through the twenty eight ancestors in India, the twenty three patriarchs in China, through Dogen Zenji and Keizan Zenji in Japan until Keizan’s teacher, Tettsu Gikai.
In 1321 at the age of fifty-eight, a temple called Morookaji in Noto, which is present-day Ishikawa Prefecture, was donated to Keizan Zenji and he renamed it Sojiji. This was the origin of Sojiji in Yokohama, which is, along with Eiheiji, the other Head Temple (Daihonzan) of the Soto Zen School.
Keizan Zenji did not, by any means, make light of the worldly interests of ordinary people and along with the practice of zazen used prayer, ritual, and memorial services to teach. This was attractive to many people and gave them a sense of peace. For this reason, the Soto Zen School quickly expanded.
Even in the Soto Zen School today, while all temples have zazen groups to serve the earnest requests of believers, they also do their best to fulfill the requests that many people have for benefiting in the everyday world, which include memorial services and funerals.
Keizan Zenji died in 1325 at the age of sixty-five. In succeeding years, his disciples did a good job in taking over for him at Sojiji on the Noto Peninsula. However, that temple was lost to fire in 1898. This provided the opportunity in 1907 to move Sojiji to its present location. The former temple was rebuilt as Sojiji Soin and continues today with many supporters and believers.