In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sōtō Zen (Japan)

  • Introduction
  • General Studies
  • Sources in Japanese

Buddhism Sōtō Zen (Japan)
William M. Bodiford
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 June 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0159


More than fourteen thousand Buddhist temples in Japan claim affiliation with the Sōtō school, making it one of Japan’s largest religious denominations. These temples are representative of institutional Buddhism in general. Academic studies of almost any aspect of Buddhism in Japan—history, gender issues, rituals, education, funerals, morality, politics––draw heavily on data culled from the archives of Sōtō institutions. The Sōtō school sponsors several outstanding universities that produce scholars in the full range of academic disciplines. These scholars publish some of Japan’s best research on its society and culture, including all aspects of its religious traditions. Sōtō also constitutes the main branches of Zen in Japan, vastly outnumbering its Rinzai and Ōbaku counterparts. All three Zen denominations (Rinzai, Ōbaku, and Sōtō) identify themselves with Chinese roots, especially the Chan (Zen) patriarchs of the Tang dynasty (618–907) and the monastic institutions of the Song dynasty (960–1279). Sōtō teachers frequently insist that their school alone adheres closest to Song dynasty norms that have long since disappeared in China and in other branches of Japanese Zen. But as is the case with Rinzai and Ōbaku, many Sōtō practices reflect developments from subsequent Chinese dynasties (Yuan, Ming, and Qing). Investigations of Zen denominations in Japan should not uncritically accept their self-professed identification with ancient Chinese precedents but should recognize the ways images of China can assume new roles and serve new functions in a Japanese context. Likewise, sectarian partisans frequently exaggerate the differences between Sōtō, Rinzai, and Ōbaku forms of Zen. Prior to the 20th century, though, their similarities outweighed any differences. Clerics in all three denominations frequently studied at one another’s monasteries. The medieval Gozan (Five Mountain) Zen system included clerics from both Rinzai and Sōtō lineages. And present-day Sōtō and Rinzai both derive from the premodern Rinka (rural) networks of Zen temples. The scholarship highlighted in this bibliography presents a more richly nuanced and complex view of Sōtō Zen than the tired clichés and stereotypes common as recently as the early 1990s. Following General Studies are sections treating the history of Sōtō Zen institutions in Japan and studies of key individuals. They are followed by sections on Zen praxis (doctrine and practice) from a Sōtō perspective and on the texts of Japanese origin with which the modern Sōtō Zen school is identified.

General Studies

Foulk 1988 provides the best brief introduction to Zen as a religion in modern Japan. Dumoulin 1988 remains the only comprehensive overview of the entire range of Sōtō history, teachings, key individuals, and literature. The author synthesizes and summarizes the research trends and findings published by Japanese scholars in the 1960s and 1970s. For more up-to-date approaches, one must rely on later, more narrowly focused works. These works differ from previous scholarship most notably in their critical self-awareness of how scholarly perspectives reflect various ideological agendas, whether imposed by sources, by the topic of study, by its larger cultural context, or by the researchers. Faure 1996 provides the best introduction to the scholarly implications of these issues. Sharf 1995 provides an acute critique of the ways earlier advocates of Zen spirituality couched it in thinly disguised terms of cultural chauvinism, while Heisig and Maraldo 1995 presents a variety of academic responses. The author of Bodiford 2012 uses the example of Dōgen (see Dōgen 道元 [b. 1200–d. 1253]), the most famous and revered representative of Sōtō Zen, to explore how his image evolved in response to institutional vicissitudes. Readers who wish to situate Sōtō Zen in the larger context of Japanese religions should consult the narrative survey Bowring 2008 and the topical guides Swanson and Chilson 2006. All of these works provide detailed bibliographies of additional sources.

  • Bodiford, William M. “Remembering Dōgen: Eiheiji and Dōgen Hagiography.” In Dōgen: Textual and Historical Studies. Edited by Steven Heine, 207–222. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199754465.001.0001

    Examines the creation and transformation of the image of Dōgen as founder of Sōtō Zen in Japan in the context of institutional and religious history. Originally published in 2006.

  • Bowring, Richard. The Religious Traditions of Japan, 500–1600. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    The only up-to-date, comprehensive history of Japanese religions from the 6th century to the end of the medieval period. Second volume is in preparation as of 2012.

  • Dumoulin, Hinrich. Zen Buddhism: A History. Vol. 2, Japan. Translated by James W. Heisig and Paul Knitter. New York: Macmillan, 1988.

    Organized by historical periods from Kamakura (c. late 12th century) to Meiji (late 19th century), within which Dumoulin treats Sōtō and Rinzai as independent schools. This work supersedes Dumoulin’s earlier 1963 one-volume history of Zen, which should be avoided.

  • Faure, Bernard. Chan Insights and Oversights: An Epistemological Critique of the Chan Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

    Essential reading for graduate students and everyone who wishes to examine how we know what we think we know about Zen. Presupposes familiarity with the main themes of Zen studies.

  • Foulk, T. Griffith. “The Zen Institution in Modern Japan.” In Zen: Tradition and Transition. Edited by Kenneth Kraft, 157–177. New York: Grove, 1988.

    An excellent introduction for both newcomers and old hands.

  • Heisig, James W., and John C. Maraldo, eds. Rude Awakenings: Zen, the Kyoto School, and Questions of Nationalism. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1995.

    Scholarly responses to issues raised by the ideological use of Zen ideals to support nationalism and militarism.

  • Sharf, Robert H. “The Zen of Japanese Nationalism.” In Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism. Edited by Donald S. Lopez Jr., 107–160. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

    Exposé of the ideological and nationalistic agendas packaged inside earlier descriptions of Zen spirituality. Originally published in 1993.

  • Swanson, Paul L., and Clark Chilson, eds. The Nanzan Guide to Japanese Religions. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2006.

    Essential orientations to scholarship regarding all aspects of religion in Japan. Addressed to a scholarly audience.

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