Soto Zen - An Introduction

Portrait of Eihei Dogen - Unknown Author

Soto Zen is a branch of Buddhism brought to Japan from China by a monk named Eihei Dogen. Dogen travelled to China in 1223, looking for a teacher, a practice, and an answer to a question about Buddhist practice and his life.

It can seem that life poses us a question. Sometimes we can wrap words around that question, sometimes we can't. Often we're not aware of it, but we can still be driven to look for some sort of answer, a resolution to the themes and problems we see in ourselves and other people. Maybe that question arises as a response to some form of suffering that you recognise or face, or maybe it arises from a desire to do the best you can with your life and figure out what that might mean. This idea that life poses us a question about itself, and ourselves, is sometimes described as a personal koan in Soto Zen.

Descriptions of the life of the Buddha tell us that he had such a question. He would have described it as to do with the nature of human suffering and our relationship to it (Dukkha). He had a sense that we don't need it to be like this, and that our involvement in it was a key. He found his answer, through his enlightenment, his awakening, and spent the rest of his life trying to show others how to realise this for themselves.

The Buddha passed on his teaching to his disciples, who passed it on to their disciples, until it eventually reached Eihei Dogen in the 12th Century AD.

Dogen's question was to do with the nature of Buddhist practice. He was taught that we all have innate enlightenment, innate 'Buddha Nature', and that there is nothing else to be gained. So what are we trying to gain through Buddhist practice? If life is never separate from our innate enlightened nature then what is the purpose of Buddhist practice? What is this enlightened nature of being and how is this realised?

Dogen found his answer through Zazen meditation, and taught that instead of meditation being a way to 'gain enlightenment', it can more usefully be described as itself a direct expression of our enlightened nature i.e. being enlightened. Zazen mind is enlightened mind, however dull and ordinary it might seem it is also miraculous, undivided. Sitting Buddha.

In our practice we sit regularly in meditation, Zazen, to become increasingly familiar with that still, grounded mind of meditation, what that feels like. This allows us to ground our lives in that still presence of mind, and in all our actions be more aware, more grounded, living closer to our innate Buddha nature you might say. Although we all have Buddha Nature often our actions come from confusion, selfishness possibly, distress, anxiousness, fear, desire. The more we meditate the more we can let these things come and go, and instead of being driven by them we can ground our actions and our lives in a deeper place, express our innate enlightenment. This liberates us from the uneasiness and emotional discomfort of our lives (Dukkha again).

In Soto Zen the practice of Zazen is central. It is the way we can come to know for ourselves what the Buddha was teaching us, and know why that is so important. It's how we come to realise for ourselves that inner light, innate enlightenment.