Soto Zen and the Meaning of Practice and Verification

Recently while reading about Soto Zen in Japanese, I came across a text I had never even heard of called the Meaning of Practice and Verification or shushōgi (修証義). This is not a text written by the founder of Soto Zen, Dogen,1 but was composed much later in 1890 by a couple of lay followers who wanted to distill the deep, but also voluminous Shobogenzo into something that was more accessible to lay followers. Although not without some controversy at the time, the Shushogi was adopted by Soto Zen and now frequently appears in Soto Zen liturgy.

I found a few translations available in English on the Internets, but this site had multiple, different translations for the same text.

A few verses I wanted to call out. Translations were done by Translated Masunaga Reihō (1902-1981) in The Sōtō Approach to Zen, Layman Buddhist Society Press (Zaike bukkyo kyokai), Tokyo, 1958, pp. 171-182.:

1. To arrive at a thorough understanding of
birth and death — this is the crucial problem for
all Buddhists. If the Buddha dwells in birth and
death, birth and death disappear. Understand only
that birth-death is nothing to avoid as birth-death,
birth and death disappear. Understand
only that birth-death is itself nirvana; there is
nothing to avoid as birth-death and nothing to
seek as nirvana. You then slough off the chains
that bind you to birth-death. This — the supreme
problem in Buddhism — must be thoroughly penetrated.

and:

8. So let us repent before the Buddhas with
all our heart. Repentance before the Buddhas
saves us and purifies us; it also helps the growth
in us of pure, unimpeded conviction and earnest
effort. Pure conviction, once aroused, not only
changes us but others, and its benefits extend to
all sentient beings and inanimate things.

and:

18. Awakening the wisdom mind means vowing
to save all beings before we ourselves have
crossed to the other shore. Everyone — whether
layman, priest, deva, or man — whether enjoying
pleasure or suffering pain — should quickly awaken
this vow.

19. Though humble in appearance, anyone
who has awakened this vow is already the teacher
of mankind. Even a girl of seven may be the
teacher of the four classes of Buddhists and the
compassionate mother of all beings. This emphasis
on the equality of the sexes represents one
of the finest teachings of Buddhism.

Anyhow, something to share. Enjoy!

1 I say this somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but I have noticed a tendency among Western Zen Buddhists that Soto Zen begins and ends with Dogen. Dogen is venerated in Western Zen in a way you don’t see as much in Japanese Zen, while downplaying the rich tradition that has developed since then. Keizan alone, as the “second founder”, deserves a lot more attention.

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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.

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