The Other Side of Zen: A Social History of Soto Zen Buddhism in Tokugawa Japan
Duncan Ryuken Williams
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004
241 pp.; $49.50 (cloth)

Duncan Williams is a Soto Zen priest and one of America’s leading scholarly experts on Zen Buddhism. His new book, The Other Side of Zen, is a highly interesting look at how Soto Zen grew from just a few thousand temples in the early 1500s to more than 17,500 by the early 1700s, the most of any single sect. As he demonstrates, the explosive growth of Soto Zen was not connected to the writings of Dogen, nor to the practice of zazen. Rather, Zen’s success was due to the way in which it provided ritual and magic functions that promised happiness in the afterlife and health and fortune in this life.

As Williams points out, “The vast majority of ordinary Soto Zen monks and laypeople never practiced Zen meditation, never engaged in iconoclastic acts of the Zen masters (as described in hagiographical literature), never solved koans, never raked Zen gardens, never sought mystical meditative states, and never read Dogen’s writings. While some Tokugawa-period monks and some modern scholars may have construed such activities as true Zen, this study asks not what Soto Zen ideally ought to have been, but what Soto Zen actually was, as lived by ordinary priests and laypeople.” Williams’s dedication to uncovering the everyday lived experience of Zen adherents provides an important corrective to early works that have focused on the fascinating, but essentially marginal, world of extraordinary masters of Zen. While his characters may be less inspiring than those rare individuals who have become household names, they are perhaps more approachable with their familiar concerns surrounding security, health, sex, family, power, and all of the “mess,” as Williams puts it.

The Other Side of Zen is groundbreaking in its use of newly available sources from the Tokugawa era, many of which have only recently been unearthed from temple archives or private holdings. This wealth of new sources, linked with the excellent scholarship on Buddhism provided in recent years by such experts as William Bodiford, Bernard Faure, Gregory Schopen, and T. Griffith Foulk, allows Williams to flesh out the rise of Soto Zen in remarkable ways.

As the book demonstrates, Soto Zen’s early success derived in part from its participation in the government’s anti-Christian campaign of the early 1600s. Cooperating with the authorities, Soto Zen priests sought potential temple members among the Japanese Christian population who were forced to convert to Buddhism. Also important were the creation of a rich culture of rituals and objects. One of the most popular aspects of Soto Zen was the bestowal of Zen lineage charts. Provided individually or often in mass ceremonies, these documents purported to trace the Soto lineage back to Shakyamuni Buddha. They were widely seen as serving a talismanic function, protecting the owner from harm and ensuring that he would become a buddha in the afterlife. Another practice pioneered in part by Soto Zen priests during this time period was posthumous ordination. Upon receiving the requisite sum, Soto Zen priests would ordain the corpse of the deceased as a monk, bestow upon him a monastic name, and thereby transform the spirit of the dead person into an enlightened being.

Liberate this article!

This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.