Another Side of Soto Zen Buddhism: Sojiji Temple

One of the nice things about meeting blog readers, especially overseas, is that you get to see and learn so many cool things. I was fortunate once again to meet Tokyo expert and blog reader, “Johnl”, who has his own blog now who took me along for a tour of the main head temple of the Soto Zen sect:1 Sōjiji (總持寺) founded by Keizan. Sojiji was actually surprisingly close to where my in-laws live in Kawasaki City. Sojiji is located in Tsurumi district, but as long as you can get to Kawasaki Station, you can easily get to it one stop later on the Keihin Tohoku line, among other options.

But wait, you say! Soto Zen’s head temple, or daihonzan (大本山) is Eiheiji and the founder is Dogen. Doug, what nonsense are you talking about?

Well, Soto Zen’s lineage from China started with Dogen that’s true, and his monaster Eiheiji is the original, true. But Soto Zen underwent a major revival and flourished under a 4th generation disciple named Keizan who studied under two different teachers and was able to greatly popularize the teachings. As this helpful website shows, Keizan was very open to women followers, devotional practices toward Kannon Bodhisattva, and to people at large, while still retaining the essence of Soto Zen. I mention all this because Western Zen converts tend to deify Dogen a little, but if you study the history, most of what we know as Soto Zen now is due in large part to Keizan’s contributions and its accessibility to Westerners is also due in part to Keizen.

So, for this reason, Keizan and Dogen share equal status, but comprise different roles, and their temples (Eiheiji and Sojiji) likewise have equal status as head temples. To be honest, I tend to get a lot more inspired by Keizan than Dogen, but I guess that’s a matter of personality. :p

But enough of that. Getting to the interesting stuff……….the temple itself!

Sojiji has a great website and a great map, though all of it was in Japanese only. I suspect they get a lot fewer foreign travelers than Eiheiji does (despite being a lot more accessible), so there are not that many English language resources. Here’s the main gate or sanmon (三門) which is number 2 on the map:

Sojiji Sanmon Gate

It’s pretty big, though not quite as large as I remember Chion-in being.

Anyhow, Sojiji is a huge property so we went right to the reception area (number 3 on the map) and there we registered for a tour that runs a few times a day. It was ¥400 per person ($4.50) which was really cheap considering how great the tour was. We had to wait for the 11am tour, so we spent some time in the gift shop next door. I got some gifts and another copy of the Heart Sutra (I like collecting them from various temples).

Our tour guide was a nice older woman in her 60’s. She was relieved that we could speak Japanese, though honestly John’s Japanese is way better than mine. I only understood the tour here and there, but she was wonderfully nice and very easy going. Turns out she was a student at Sojiji’s parochial school and spent many times in her youth in the meditation classes. She mentioned it was cold in the meditation hall, but she said she had enjoyed it.

Also, before we started the tour, we stopped at the bathroom in the reception area, where we saw this excellent statue:

Sojiji Toilet Deity

It took half the night to figure out who this was online, but it turns out to be an esoteric Buddhist figure named Ususama Myō-ō (OnMark Production has more info). Essentially he is, among other things, a guardian figure for restrooms in Japan.2

Anyhow, once the tour was underway, our first stop was at the famous hyakken rōka (百間廊下) which I think means something like “hundred spaces corridor” or something like that. It’s number 21 on the map and runs all the way across Sojiji. It’s quite long:

Also, the floor has two halves: one is raised and cleaned regularly (more on that later), while the other is more on the ground. It’s also broken up at some points so people can pass through, but also leads to other buildings. This is the Karamon gate (number 22 on the map):

Sojiji Karamon Gate

This gate, similar to other “karamon” gates found at other Buddhist temples, is intended for special use for visits by the Imperial family or other noble families (e.g. Fujiwara), or their messengers. A similar gate was at Nishi Honganji.

Also, from the same spot, you can look north to see the Buddha’s Hall as well (number 12 on the map):

Sojiji Butsuden Hall

Here we stopped and bowed to Shakyamuni Buddha, the great sage, who is enshrined there, and moved on. At the end of the hall was an area dedicated for monastic training. Here were several rooms, some of which were not allowed to go into, but we were allowed to visit the meditation hall itself (number 15 on the map). This was actually comprised of two rooms, which rows of meditation cushions like so:

Sojiji Meditation Cushions

or with desks like so (which I think the tour guide said were intended for reading or study):

Sojiji Meditation Cushions 2

As the website’s link shows, this room also had a huge image of Kannon Bodhisattva in the middle with a person on each side holding their hand up to receive water (symbolizing Kannon’s wisdom pouring down). It was really interesting to see and imagine what the training must be like (I’ve never attended any meditation training in my life).

From there we went north along another hall:


Here’s me facing back where we came. On the right is a small staircase which leads to the bell tower (number 14 on the map), which we didn’t see. We did come to the end of this hall which led up to some stairs and a great big hall, the hōkōdō (方光堂, number 13 on the map) which has an altar devoted to Keizan himself. The tour guide stated we were welcome to take photos in most places, though not of monk’s faces. For some reason, old habits from other temples (where photos of the central figure are discouraged), made me hesitate, so I didn’t take a photo. As the website link shows, it’s a very colorful room, and the back walls had rows upon rows of ihai funeral tablets like the ones shown here. I believe the tour guide also mentioned that it’s frequently used for weddings and funerals.

From the other hand of this hall we descended into an underground tunnel:


This was a very interesting place to visit because along the walls were photos of the daily lives of Soto Zen monks, and details explaining various aspects like the sutra changing, begging for alms, bathing routines, etc. Again, I really wanted to take photos, but hesitated out of respect of the temple. Most of the routine was pretty much the same as explained here for a Rinzai Buddhist temple.

Once we finally emerged from the tunnel, we came to a kind of reception area:


Because it’s the 100th year anniversary since Sojiji moved to its present location, there were a lot of signs and historical photographs. We spent a lot of time here and ascended the stairs to the main Founder’s Hall (number 10 on the map) or daisōdō (大祖堂). This seemed like a much bigger version of the Hōkōdō we had just come from, and similarly had a central altar devoted to Keizan, and also many ihai tablets. We paid our respects again and moved to the other end of the hall, where we came to another hallway:

Sojiji floor cleaning

Apparently, the monks who do the daily floor cleanings start here. They get a wet rag, and run along one beam of the floor, pushing their rag in front of them. Another monk would start soon after, and run along the next floor beam, and so on. When they get to another room or something gets in the way, they simply went over it and kept going. You can see something similar on this video (minute 1:47). It seems like that’s really hard for one’s back to constantly do this.

From there we came to a pair of rooms, one on each side of the hallway, which were very pretty:


This was one room:

Sojiji Public Room

In a smaller room in the back was this famous painting of a black and white dragon, which I am sure I’ve seen before, though I can’t find online now. That room also had several portraits of past abbots of Sojiji. The other room looked like so:

Sojiji Bodhidharma 2

In the middle is a painting of Bodhidharma, the semi-legendary Zen figure, though we were told that this painting was unusual because he’s standing rather than sitting in meditation. These rooms, number 7 on the map, are part of the shiuntai (紫雲臺) which is explained as the abbot’s quarters, and used when meeting with lay people, temple supporters, etc.

Further down the hallway, and the last leg of our tour was this view of the garden:

Sojiji Garden

Suffice to say, I was really impressed with my time at Sojiji. It really helped to give me a much fuller picture of Zen, particularly Soto Zen, than what you normally see in Western media. What I saw there was a real community of people, lay and monastic, working together to preserve a venerable tradition without the usual “noise” I see from Western Zen communities. The combination of stories from the tour guide, seeing the young monks bustling about, plus the community as a whole made me appreciate the human side to Soto Zen that gets lost in English language Zen books that tend to mystify things ad nauseum. I don’t doubt that Sojiji as a main temple has plenty of scandals and politics, but that’s part of being human.

Anyway, thanks to “Johnl” for the excellent tour, and the much needed exposure to Zen in a very different context.

P.S. I feel like I should break this post up into two, it’s quite long, but I didn’t want to stop the flow.

P.P.S. John and I also visited Yokohama’s Chinatown later that day but I want to save that as a separate post.

1 Also, in Japanese language, Soto Zen is usually not called “zen”. It’s called sōtōshū (曹洞宗) which means “Soto School/Sect”, similar to how other Buddhist sects are always referred to as sh? (i.e. Jodo Shinshu, Jodo Shu, Nichrenshu, etc). Likewise, Rinzai Zen is called rinzai shū (臨済宗). Just saying.

2 A great article in the Japan Times about the toilets and Japanese culture. The ending proverb is also a good indication of restaurants and their overall hygiene when you think about it.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

7 thoughts on “Another Side of Soto Zen Buddhism: Sojiji Temple”

  1. Hey, that is a great summary of our visit! Actually I didn’t understand 100% of the guide’s Japanese, and it seems you understood some stuff that I *didn’t* understand! The temple is pretty famous among English-speaking Zen enthusiasts, so I suppose they must get some foreign visitors, although when I requested the tour, the monk on duty seemed relieved when I said a Japanese tour would be okay. Anyway, it was great, and I am usually available if anybody wants to go somewhere! I haven’t been to Eiheiji yet…


    1. Really? I got the impression from various media sources (like that linked Youtube video) that Soto Zen, among converts tends to begin and end with Dogen/Eiheiji at least, but honestly I could be wrong. The “equal status” thing maybe sometimes overlooked though since most other sects tend to have a single founder/main temple per branch (Shingon seems to get complicated though).

      But yeah, I think if we were gonna do it, Japanese was the way to go. The tour guide was a wonderful lady, and some things just seemed easier to explain (even to my poor listening skills). 🙂 Glad I wasn’t totally off on the listening part though, I was worried I would be writing nonsense afterwards. 😀


  2. If Sojiji is not well-known among aspiring non-Japanese practitioners, it should be. It seems they have a zazenkai for English speakers once a month. Being close to Yokohama/Tokyo is a plus for me, too! I suppose the drawback is that it doesn’t have the remote mountain atmosphere that seems to be the case at Eiheiji (I haven’t been there yet). Maybe I should go to Sojiji’s English zazenkai sometime, just to see what it is like.


    1. Yeah I think you hit it on the head: Sojiji while more accessible, doesn’t have that atmosphere of a remote mountain temple which attracts some folks. That and Eiheiji is associated with Dogen in particular. Soto’s system of having two head temples and two founders may also confuse some folks.

      Yeah next time I am in Japan I may try out the zazenkai as well. Still haven’t been to one in my life. :-p


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s