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.


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.


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.


Toyokawa Inari: Zen and Shinto

Another trip we made during my recent visit to Japan was to see an unusual template named Toyokawa Inari, in the Akasaka district of Tokyo. This temple is a prime example of when Buddhism and Shinto religions blend. The blending of the two religions was more common in the early days of Japanese history, but during the early modern Meiji Period (1868-1912), the religions were forcibly separated by law.

Nevertheless, you can see that blending very much at Toyokawa Inari.


When I first got there, I honestly thought it was a Shinto shrine, but I asked one of the nuns that worked there, and she clarified it was actually a Soto Zen temple. It is technically a branch temple of the main Toyokawa Inari temple in Aichi Prefecture, which was supposedly founded by one Kangan Giin. The plaque says it all:


The temple itself isn’t terribly, but it is very dense with shrines and altars, many of them devoted to the Shino deity Inari. While Inari is a Shinto kami for agriculture, business, prosperity and so on, it was also adopted into Buddhism a long time ago as a kind of guardian spirit. This became known as a dakiniten (荼枳尼天) which comes from Indian-Buddhist dakini.


Inari’s primary symbol is the fox, which serves as a messenger for Inari. There were many such shrines in and around the premises:


You also saw the Seven Luck Gods too, such as this shrine to Benzaiten:1Untitled

We even found a small shrine to an obscure, esoteric Buddhist deity named Aizen Myō-ō hidden behind another shrine:


However, that’s not to say there weren’t Buddhist elements either. The temple was roughly divided into two areas: the mainly Shinto one, and the mainly Buddhist one. At this building, you could walk in any time, and we saw the priests there chanting the Heart Sutra.

Also, there was a devotional statue to Kannon Bodhisattva too.

Finally, we wandered just outside the temple and enjoyed some inari sushi (the kind with fried tofu).

Finally, I took a chance and did an omikuji fortune here, but to my surprise I got kyō (凶) or bad luck:


Per tradition, you can tie such fortunes onto a certain, designated wire fence so you can “leave behind” your bad luck at the temple. So, I did. It is already a yakudoshi year for me, and I didn’t need more bad luck. 😉

It was a pretty interesting trip and one of the more memorable Buddhist temples I’ve seen in Japan. The blending of so many different religious aspects into one temple may not appeal to everyone, but I like the idea of “something for everyone”. 🙂

P.S. This year I am full-on honyaku (本厄) which means I am in the middle of the most inauspicious time for a person in their life.

1 Again, you might be tempted to think that this is a Shinto thing, or local superstition, but if you visit Sojiji, one of head temples of Soto Zen Buddhism you will find a big altar to Daikokuten, one of the Seven Luck Gods, as well. Some Buddhists think this might be beneath them, but I do like this sense of community outreach. It also helps the coffers a bit too. 😉

The Six Gates of Buddhist Meditation

Recently, I picked up a copy of The Six Dharma Gates to the Sublime, which was written by the famous Chinese Buddhist master Zhi-yi (智顗, 538–597) and translated by Bhikshu Dharmamitra.  Zhi-yi is something of a super star in Chinese Buddhism, and Buddhism across East Asia,¹ but his writings and teachings aren’t well understood in the West, so I wanted to learn more about him.  Much of what we see in East Asian Buddhism, how it’s organized, and certain fundamental teachings, are due to his research and writings.

According to Bhikshu Dharmamitra, the Six Dharma Gates to the Sublime (六妙法門) is the third of four in a series of Buddhism meditation manuals written by Zhi-yi.  Zhi-yi was a proponent of the classic Buddhist meditation called “calming and insight meditation”, or śamatha-vipaśyanā dhyāna in Sanskrit (शमथविपश्यना झान).  Note that this is actually two forms of Buddhism meditation, shamatha (calming) and vipashyana (insight), combined like two halves of the same coin. In Japanese Tendai Buddhism this is called shikan (止観) meditation.

Anyhow, Zhi-yi describes six progressive states of meditation:

  1. Counting
  2. Following
  3. Stabilization
  4. Contemplation
  5. Turning [back]
  6. Purification

Inevitably, if one practices Calming and Insight meditation, you start with counting the breaths first.  Then, as Zhi-yi explains:

When one becomes aware that the breath has become insubstantial and faint, the mind becomes gradually more subtle along with it.  One subsequently becomes concerned that counting has become a coarse activity.  One’s state of mind is such that one does not with to engage in counting.  At just such a time, the practitioner should let loose of the counting and then proceed to cultivate “following”. (pg 37)

In other words, you transition in order from the first gate to the last.  The reality is is that without prior experience and practice, you may have trouble getting your mind to calm down at the first gate, and this is OK.  It simply takes patience and repetition.

In any case, the book is mostly an exploration of these six “gates” from different angles, including how to use them to counteract negative states of mind that may arise during meditation.  It’s a very deep, technical look at how the mind progresses through these states, and the various ways they may manifest.  While the book may be a bit dry at times, it is also probably one of the best, most scientific approaches I’ve read so far to meditative experience in Buddhism.

¹ If you’re curious, his name is pronounced Chigi in Japanese, Chi-eui (지의) in Korean and Trí Nghĩ in Vietnamese.

Dogen Says Think Before You Speak

Hey guys, I mentioned in a recent video a quote from Dogen, the 13th-century Zen master who founded Soto Zen.  I wanted to post the quote here:

Students, when you want to say something, think about it three times before you say it. Speak only if your words will benefit yourselves and others. Do not speak if it brings no benefit.

This quote actually comes from section 6 of a Soto Zen text called the Shōbōgenzō Zuimonki which is a collection of informal Dharma talks by Dogen, as ascribed by his student Koun Ejō.

I got curious about what the original quote was in Japanese,1 and spent a lot of time poking around the Intertubes to find it. There really wasn’t anything in English, and it was surprisingly hard to find in Japanese, not without a lot of trial and error anyway. But eventually I found a couplelinks among others. As far as I can tell, the actual quote is:


A very rough translation might be:2The teacher [Dogen] said that the mind that “thinks three minds before speaking”, as a rule will consider something three times, and if it’s not something that ought not be said, and not something that ought not be done, then one should say it.


Anyhow, the real take-away (assuming this translation is even remotely close), is:3三覆して後に云へ
mitabikaesou shite ato ni ie

In other words: consider three times before speaking.

Have fun, and watch your tongue! 😉

P.S.  Older post using the same quotation.

P.P.S. The main English-language Soto Zen homepage in Japan has a nice translation of the Shobogenzo Zuimonki.

1 I don’t trust Buddhist translations in English, especially ones that don’t properly cite their source. Zen quotes are particularly notorious about this. In fact there’s a whole blog about bad translations and questionable citations. 🙂

2 Seriously, this is a pretty rough translation. If anyone can read medieval Japanese, please feel free to critique the above.

3 The word mitabikaesou (三覆) seems to be particularly tricky. The first chinese character is “three” (三) which is pretty obvious. But the second one, 覆, is less obvious. In other modern Japanese, it is used in words like kutsugaeru (覆る) meaning to be overruled or reversed, or more commonly as ōu (覆う) meaning to hide or conceal. You can probably guess how the usage in Dogen’s time (13th century) probably evolved into what it is now.

What Mindfulness Is Not

Popular books on meditation, though, offer a lot of other definitions for mindfulness, a lot of other duties it’s supposed to fulfill—so many that the poor word gets totally stretched out of shape. In some cases, it even gets defined as Awakening, as in the phrase, “A moment of mindfulness is a moment of Awakening”—something the Buddha would never say, because mindfulness is conditioned and nirvana is not.

These are not just minor matters for nitpicking scholars to argue over. If you don’t see the differences among the qualities you’re bringing to your meditation, they glom together, making it hard for real insight to arise. If you decide that one of the factors on the path to Awakening is Awakening itself, it’s like reaching the middle of a road and then falling asleep right there. You never get to the end of the road, and in the meantime you’re bound to get run over by aging, illness, and death. So you need to get your directions straight, and that requires, among other things, knowing precisely what mindfulness is and what it’s not.

I’ve heard mindfulness defined as “affectionate attention” or “compassionate attention,” but affection and compassion aren’t the same as mindfulness. They’re separate things. If you bring them to your meditation, be clear about the fact that they’re acting in addition to mindfulness, because skill in meditation requires seeing when qualities like compassion are helpful and when they’re not. As the Buddha says, there are times when affection is a cause for suffering, so you have to watch out.

Sometimes mindfulness is defined as appreciating the moment for all the little pleasures it can offer: the taste of a raisin, the feel of a cup of tea in your hands. In the Buddha’s vocabulary, this appreciation is called contentment. Contentment is useful when you’re experiencing physical hardship, but it’s not always useful in the area of the mind. In fact the Buddha once said that the secret to his Awakening was that he didn’t allow himself to rest content with whatever attainment he had reached. He kept reaching for something higher until there was nowhere higher to reach. So contentment has to know its time and place. Mindfulness, if it’s not glommed together with contentment, can help keep that fact in mind.

Some teachers define mindfulness as “non-reactivity” or “radical acceptance.” If you look for these words in the Buddha’s vocabulary, the closest you’ll find are equanimity and patience. Equanimity means learning to put aside your preferences so that you can watch what’s actually there. Patience is the ability not to get worked up over the things you don’t like, to stick with difficult situations even when they don’t resolve as quickly as you want them to. But in establishing mindfulness you stay with unpleasant things not just to accept them but to watch and understand them. Once you’ve clearly seen that a particular quality like aversion or lust is harmful for the mind, you can’t stay patient or equanimous about it. You have to make whatever effort is needed to get rid of it and to nourish skillful qualities in its place by bringing in other factors of the path: right resolve and right effort.

Dogen and No-Self

Many Zen Buddhists, or just Buddhists in general, know Dogen’s famous quote about “studying the self”. It’s a popular reminder of what Buddhism is all about. I’ve seen various translations in various books, but I have yet to see an example of a bilingual translation until now:

I always like to see translations like this, because I’ve learned to distrust English translations of Buddhist texts that don’t include any references to the original language.  There are a lot of bad Buddhist quotes and translations floating around, and even something simple as the Buddhist “nembutsu” or reciting the Buddha’s name, gets mistranslated a lot. More on that in an old post.

Anyhow, I digress.  Looking at Dogen’s original writing, a few things I noticed as a language nerd:

  • Since this was written in 13th century, not the 21st century, it uses more archaic Japanese.
  • Similarly, the spellings are different: instead of saying toiu, it is spelled toifu, though it was probably pronounced the same.
  • Not surprisingly, Dogen uses some obscure Zen-Buddhist terms that even the Japanese language site above has to provide footnotes for, such as Goseki (悟迹) which means the period after Enlightenment.

Anyhow, regardless of the language, this quotation is still one of the best in Buddhism in my opinion.  Even Buddhists have to pause and remember to take stock about why they’re practicing Buddhism.  Contemporary history is rife with examples of Buddhist teachers who went off the rails, and of course this can happen to anyone, so it’s good to remember why we practice Buddhism.  Dogen’s words are a good reminder for us all.

Tired of Sitting? Try Walking Meditation

Hello everyone,

My efforts at meditation have begun as far back as my teenage years, when the only thing I knew about Buddhism was Shunryu Suzuki’s book “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”. I’ve never been a particularly good meditator, nor a particularly dedicated one, but I have been able to keep up the practice off and on over the years.

These days, I am lucky to work at a place that has a “quiet room” of sorts, where I can often sit and meditate for 10-15 minutes a day, and usually 2-3 times a week.

But I was also recently inspired to take up walking meditation too after watching this helpful video by Bhikkhu Yuttadhammo:1

Walking meditation something is something I’ve only seen in Zen, where it’s called kinhin (経行), but this practice is actually more universal in Buddhism, and just like sitting meditation, has various ways of doing it. The particular form isn’t so important, so long as you find something you can stick to.

I’ve always had a little trouble with seated meditation, because of occasional problems with my legs, or just general restlessness, so I tried walking meditation as shown in the video above and it was very nice. My home happens to have a central hallway downstairs that runs all the way from one end of the house to the other, so it works very well for walking meditation, especially at night when the kids are asleep.2

Anyhow, try out the video above, and if you’re already meditating, try branching out into walking meditation too. You’re not forced to choose one or the other. In fact, it’s perfectly normal to blend the two in your practice.

Enjoy and peace!

1 I can’t remember when or how, but I remember conversing a little online with Bhikkhu Yuttadhammo a long, long time ago. Anyhow, good to see he’s well and making videos. 🙂

2 so long as I don’t step on kid’s toys. Legos really hurt!