Another in a series of posts trying to think through and share some “takeaways” from my recent graduate work and thesis about Soto Zen in the Meiji Period.
There is no particular order to American Zen. Each temple has its own rituals and liturgy; each teacher makes their own rules for students. Even the teachings are more or less up for grabs. It’s unclear what the common thread is, the unifying principle, organization, or teaching that connects all the American Soto Zen temples and centers.
Organizations like the SZBA do good work to try to weave the threads together, bind the thing at least at its institutional surface, but overall it’s more like the wild West than like organized religion. I’ve assumed for a long time that the chaos and independence of temples and centers that we have now marks a kind of unprecedented fragmentation of the tradition.
But I’m coming to think that maybe the unprecedented situation isn’t our American Zen chaos but is instead the orderliness of modern Japanese Zen, its standardization, unification, and centralization. As odd as it is to say so, it may be that the American Zen landscape now is in this respect a little more like pre-modern Japanese Zen than modern Japanese Zen is itself.
So if I’m looking for “takeaways” from my study, one would be this: There was no standardized or institutional “Soto Sect” before the Meiji, and Soto-affiliate temples were much more diverse in practice and doctrine than they have come to be.
Griffith Foulk’s definition of “Sōtōshū” in the fantastic Digital Dictionary of Buddhism is striking:
Prior to the Meiji era (1868–1912), there were a number of competing branches of the Sōtō lineage, all of which derived from the lineage founder Dōgen, but no single institutional entity that went by the name of Sōtō school. The present school came into existence in 1874 as the result of Meiji government policies…
Reading those lines – Soto Zen was born in 1874! – I realized that without giving it much thought, I’ve always just assumed that the Soto Sect is an old institution, and that Soto Zen temples across regions and history have generally observed the same practices and taught the same texts.
But it seems that the truth of it is that before the Meiji period, Soto-affiliated temples were quite a bit more diverse in practice and doctrine than one would imagine given the (numbing?) uniformity of modern official Soto. Regional differences were likely more significant than sectarian ones, and individual temples, too, had their own characteristic forms and observances that shaped their style more than their sectarian affiliation necessarily did. Different teachers also carried out distinct traditions of practice, including the transmission of esoteric kirigami documents and the like, that belonged to single teaching lineages rather than to the Soto Sect in general.
I’m sure a lot of moments could be described as “the moment” this diversity of practice and form was traded for a singular “Soto” identity, but maybe the most striking is an 1889 joint statement from the Eiheiji and Sōjiji abbots. Authorizing the newly compiled “Standard Observances of Soto” (Tōjō gyōji kihan), the abbots in one statement effaced (at least rhetorically) centuries of diversity:
We hereby announce the completion of the compilation of a Meiji edition of the Standard Observances of Soto and distribute it, abolishing the various observances that have previously been ordinarily practiced by the clergy within the sect. These standards must be observed effective the first of the year of 1891.
In short: Here is this new ritual and liturgical manual. If there is anything in it that you haven’t been doing, start doing it. If there is anything you have been doing that isn’t in it, that’s no longer allowed.
To get a sense of what the impact may have been, I’ll take further my already irresponsibly tenuous analogy of the modern U.S. with pre-modern Japan:
What if one day in the not-so-distant future some guidelines were issued by the SZBA to clarify the proper and traditional Soto forms and ceremonies in the spirit of unifying the temples and centers? That might be nice, really. And then what if the SZBA leadership, with the support of the abbots of the major temples and centers in the country, further announced that any other observances were to be stopped immediately at member centers.
Have a Christmas tree at your center at Christmas-time – not allowed. Have a special little text your teacher likes to chant at morning service alongside the Heart Sutra – not allowed.
How effective this 1889 statement really was is not entirely clear – there is plenty of evidence that regional Japanese temples kept their now-prohibited “Christmas trees.” But the growing standardization and centralization of the sect did make a real impact, and in Japan today, despite the different “vibe” you might sense at different Soto temples, the uniformity of observance is striking. There is no doubt that in the centralization and standardization of Soto in the Meiji a certain texture of difference was lost. As temples conformed to the standards of headquarters, they inevitably allowed their own sub-traditions to gradually fade or merge. It’s not that nothing was gained in that unification and standardization (though could someone remind me what that was exactly?). But I’m sensitive to what it was that was lost in it too, and that brings me back to American Zen.
There is a natural and reasonable impulse to standardize the sect, and to some degree that is happening now in American Soto, like in the good work of the SZBA. I value and appreciate that impulse and that project. It has been interesting to look at this historical precedent, though, and to consider the relative value of consistency and standardization on the one hand, and chaotic, unresolved diversity – like that perhaps of contemporary American Soto and pre-Meiji Japanese Soto – on the other.