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Sōtō ( jap. 曹洞宗 , Sōtō shū ) is a direction of Chan - and Zen - Buddhist . With around 14,700 temples and 8 million followers, the Sōtō School is, next to the Rinzai-shū and Ōbaku-shū, the largest of the three main Japanese schools of Zen and one of the largest communities of Buddhism in Japan .


The Sōtō School sees its two founding fathers in the Chinese Chan patriarch Tōzan Ryōkai (Chinese: Dongshan Liangjie ) and his pupil Sōsan Honjaku (Chinese: Caoshan Benji), from whose name the name of the school is derived (Chinese: Caodong) .

Eihei-ji temple

The Japanese Zen master Dōgen Kigen (1200-1253) transferred the tradition of the Sōtō school from the Chinese Empire to Japan and founded the first main temple of the Sōtō school on the island with the construction of the Eihei-ji in 1243. The second main temple Sōji-ji was opened in 1321 by Keizan Jōkin (1268-1325).

Dōgen was actually a Tendai monk. At the age of 13 he entered the order on Mount Hiei as a novice and later studied from 1217 (two years after Eisai's death) under Eisai's Dharma successor Myōzen . Together with this Dōgen traveled to China and learned under Rujing (Japanese Tendo Nyojo) (1163-1228). It was later written that he had gained both unusually deep insight and enlightenment there. Little is known about his activities after his return to Japan in 1227, but a few years later he took over a temple remote from the capital (which he later called Kōshō-ji ) and set up a meditation hall there based on the latest song- time Chinese model that he brought more and more visitors and students. In his writings from this time on, the peculiarities of his practice and teaching, such as Shikantaza , Hishiryō , Shinjin datsuraku, become apparent . He also equated the practice of zazen with Buddhahood. Dōgen referred to in his writings only Myōzen (who died in China) and Rujing as his "senshi" (former teacher).

In 1244 Dōgen left the Kōshō-ji and moved to the remote Echizen at the invitation of a local warrior nobility family . The monastery that he took over and expanded there he called Eihei-ji . In addition to the hall for zazen, Dōgen also took over other components of the monastery structure and the monastic organization from Song China. Following the Chinese model, he ordered rites for supernatural beings in the monastery.

The fact that the establishment of new Buddhist schools and groups could quickly be viewed as heretics by established circles shows the fate of the Daruma-shū founded by Nōnin (not dated). Their monastery was destroyed by sōhei (monk warriors). Some of the dispersed Daruma monks later joined dōgen and thus stood in two Dharma lines of tradition. Keizan Jōkin , who later founded the most important head temple Sōji-ji , also learned from some of these direct students of Dōgens . Keizan very often included his lay supporters (local nobles and broader strata of the people) in his considerations and practices by following the strict doctrines of dōgen (although we hardly know anything about its relationship to the laity, except that dōgen also supposedly performed supernatural miracles ) toned down and integrated various other religious areas. This includes the bringing about of this worldly benefits (genze riyaku), burials, elements of the respective local religions (e.g. the mountain deity Haku-san) and the mikkyō , i.e. the Shingon and the Tendai , which were common in Japan and recognized at that time -School, as well as the less officially recognized, but widespread groups of mountain ascetics (Yamabushi → Shugendō ).

Sōtō spread very widely in the following centuries, often by occupying vacant temples and shrines, exorcising local kami , spirits and other beings or converting them to the Dharma . With the exception of a few elite monks and monasteries, the practices soon hardly differed from those of other Buddhist schools. Various supernatural beings were worshiped by the population in the monasteries, the monks performed various rituals (zazen, recitations, mikkyō practices, etc.) in order to transfer genze riyaku , worldly benefits, to the laity and the monastic world. Burials were also the main task of the monasteries. The lay supporters of the Sōtō were mostly the local warrior nobility in more remote areas, but also the local population. Accordingly, the monasteries are permeated by local influences.

The position of the Dharma lineage was probably the most important factor in the identity of the Sōtō school. Important, from today's point of view, central texts (including Kōan and Dōgens work), like other status objects (robes, shari relics of deceased masters, many statues) were increasingly kept secret and only passed on directly. The school’s own publications state that there are training centers for zazen in only about 30 of around 15,000 monasteries. During the entire history of Japan, zazen was also seen as a powerful ritual for the accumulation of spiritual forces: The three bitt temples, where the Japanese ask for this worldly benefits, are among the few training centers for zazen.


The main teaching of the Sōtō School is the teaching of the immanent Buddha nature of all beings and the identity of practice and enlightenment. In contrast to the other Buddhist schools of Mahayana , greater emphasis is placed on meditative practice in all schools of Zen Buddhism - in the Sōtō school especially on the practice of zazen ( Shikantaza : "just sitting").


Monk of the Sōtō School


The focus of the practice of Sōtō-Zen is Shikantaza or Zazen , the simple sitting: One sits on a cushion ( Zafu ) mostly in the lotus position ( kekka fuza ), in which the legs are crossed so that the feet are on the thighs. The Zafu ensures that an upright position is maintained. The pelvis is tilted a little forward so that the spine is straight. The head is held so that the chin is pulled up. This will stretch the cervical spine. The knees resting on the floor form a stable position with the buttocks raised by the Zafu. If necessary, you can also sit in the half lotus position ( hanka fuza ), with only one foot resting on the thigh of the other leg. Or you sit in the heel seat ( seiza ) without a zafu. In the mudra of meditation, the hands are above the lap at about the level of the navel. The tips of the thumbs touch each other lightly and the thumbs form a straight line. This enables the control of attention during zazen: if the thumbs are tilted forwards or downwards, one is sleepy ( Konchin ), if the thumbs become tense over time and point upwards, one is tense ( kenhen ). Both are characteristics of lack of concentration. During the whole zazen one tries to always return to the posture and thereby bring the mind back and not indulge in any thoughts. Continuous practice of observation and concentration opens up awareness . The Hishiryo -Think ( "thinking for the reason of not thinking") may appear. Zazen is practiced for different lengths of time, usually in two periods of around 30–50 minutes.


Another point of practice in Sōtō-Zen is the Kinhin , walking meditation: One takes one step per breath. When inhaled one walks resolutely forward. A step is only about half a foot wide. As you exhale, you put all of your weight on your front foot. The soles of both feet remain on the ground. The front foot forms a line with the spine and head. One stretches the top of the head against the sky and the front foot against the earth. The arms are held in front of the body so that the left hand forms a fist, which is enclosed by the right hand. The hands are held against each other at the level of the lower sternum with the elbows pointing to the side. The focus of Kinhin is the exhalation, you exhale slowly and calmly. The inhalation then takes place automatically, accompanied by the next step. Kinhin is usually done for about five minutes and takes place between two zazens.

Other aspects

  • Kyosaku are occasionally used during zazen . A kyosaku, translated as staff of awakening , is a wooden staff with a flattened front. The leader of zazen or an assistant uses this stick to restore or facilitate concentration in the practitioner with short, powerful blows on the shoulders (the muscle cords on the right and left of the spine, not on the shoulder blade bones themselves). This is by no means a punishment, because kyosaku is only given if the practitioner asks for it by remaining in gasshō posture. The blows to the shoulders wake you up, increase your concentration. One fixes the points on the shoulders in the mind.
  • Kusen are the teachings that the Master or Godo gives during zazen to guide the mind.
  • A gasshō is done before almost every action in zazen. The palms of your hands are placed together and you bow briefly. This practice also makes one aware of all actions. You may feel itchy during zazen. If you do a gasshō before scratching yourself, then you visualize what you are doing and do not act reflexively.


Among the Buddhist texts that are recited and studied in Soto Zen, the Heart Sutra deserves special mention. In addition, sutras (Japanese kyo), dharanis (darani), tracts (ron), ekos (eko mon) and verses (ge, mon) are used in ceremonies, e.g. B.

A ceremony is presided over by the doshi, who carries a kotsu , a kind of wooden scepter . Sampai , a triple prostration, and sutra recitation will be practiced during the ceremony . The Doshi is accompanied by the Jisha , who serves an Inkin , a small hand bell that is struck with a brass rod . The Jikko assists in carrying the incense stick . The Fukudo suggests the Mokugyo (Japanese "wooden fish") and thus sets the pace for the sutra recitation. A keisu , a larger bell, is also struck at certain points during the ceremony.


Since the 60s of the twentieth century, a number of Japanese teachers have spread the teachings of the Sōtō school in western countries through their missionary work . The most famous were: Suzuki Shunryū (1905–1971, USA), Taizan Maezumi (1931–1995, USA) and Taisen Deshimaru (1914–1982, France).

In recent years, the Soto-shū has also given non-Japanese monks and nuns practicing abroad a “teaching permit for the western way” ( Dendokyoshi ). This training is combined with several months of study in Japan, traditional practice in a sodo, all aspects of Zen practice in Japan and ceremonies in which the Dendokyoshi symbolically become abbots of Sōji-ji and Eihei-ji for one day each . In addition, the Dendokyoshi from America and Europe are regularly invited to Tokubetsu Sesshins , where aspects of the Sōtō-Zen practice are studied.

With this training, the Sōtō-shū takes into account the fact that Zen practice is necessarily organized differently in the West than in Japan, where "being a Zen monk" is a main occupation (including with a family), whereas in Europe monks and nuns work in the in most cases have to coordinate a normal job, social life, family and Zen practice and have gained decades of experience in Zen practice outside of Japan.

For Germany / Europe, the Sōtō School names Fumon Shōju Nakagawa (Daihizan Fumonji Zen ‐ Zentrum Eisenbuch) as the official foreign representative ( kaikyoshi ) and as confirmed teachers ( kokusai fukyōshi ) L. Tenryu Tenbreul , Seiho Woller, Shenkei Andre, Myōsen Cimiotti, Coppens (NL) and Kairyu Quitschau.


  • Shōbōgenzō, The Treasury of True Dharma, Complete Edition. Angkor Verlag, Frankfurt 2008, ISBN 978-3-936018-58-5 (first complete edition outside of Japan with all 95 chapters in one volume, bound)
  • Master Dogen: Shobogenzo. The treasure trove of the true Dharma eye. 4 volumes. Kristkeitz, Heidelberg-Leimen 2001, ISBN 3-921508-90-8 , -91-6, -92-4 and -93-2
  • Keizan Zenji: Denkô-roku. The transmission of the light. Complete edition . Angkor Verlag, Frankfurt 2008, ISBN 978-3-936018-08-0 .
  • Dainin Katagiri: Return to Silence. ISBN 3-85936-022-1 .
  • Taisen Deshimaru (Ed.): Hannya-shingyô. The sûtra of the highest wisdom. Kristkeitz, Leimen 1988, ISBN 3-921508-20-7 .
  • Taisen Deshimaru: The Teachings of the Master Dōgen. The treasure of Sōtō-Zen. from the French by Regina Krause; Diederichs Yellow Series 90, Eugen Diederichs Verlag, Munich 1991 ISBN 3-424-01024-3 .
  • Sekkei Harada: Zen - awakening to the true self. ISBN 3-932337-08-5 .
  • Shunryu Suzuki: Zen Mind - Beginner Mind. 11th edition Theseus, Berlin 2002, ISBN 3-89620-131-X .
  • Fumon S. Nakagawa: Zen - because we are human. Theseus, 2003, ISBN 3-89620-116-6 .
  • Abbot Muho: Zazen or the way to happiness . Rowohlt 2007, ISBN 3-499-62203-3 .
  • Kodo Sawaki: Zen is the greatest lie of all time . Angkor 2005, ISBN 3-936018-30-8 .

Web links

Commons : Sōtō School  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Organization and temples outside of Japan (English) [1] at web.archive.org