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.

Ironically, Williams shows that during this same period when Soto Zen was attracting patrons due to its ability to turn the dead into buddhas, it was also actively popularizing the idea that all women went to the Blood Pool Hell after death. This Buddhist concept proclaimed that because women defiled the earth, deities, and buddhas with their menstrual and childbirth blood, they were universally reborn in a pool of menstrual blood wherein they suffered torments. Conveniently, Soto Zen monks had the answer to this dilemma—they could provide the needed rituals to spring deceased women from their terrible fate.

Another major factor that Williams identifies in the success of Soto Zen was its offering of this-worldly benefits for devotees. These ordinary but crucial ritual activities —praying for rain, propitiating local deities, healing the sick—constituted the primary world of Zen. In fact, the book might have just as easily been titled The Normal Side of Zen, since it is the exotic world of zazen and koans that formed the other remote and rare side of Soto Zen Buddhism.

As Williams points out, these patterns continue to form the predominant modes of Zen practice in Japan today. Meditation is still rare, many people only attend temples for funeral rites, and the best-known Soto Zen temple in Tokyo is dedicated to the worship of a “splinter-removing” Jizo bodhisattva image, which is believed to have healing powers. This unique “social history” of Zen provides a glimpse of how Buddhism operated “on the ground,” so to speak, as early modern Zen was taking shape. Fortunately, while it is academic in nature, The Other Side of Zen is relatively easy to read, and Williams uses many interesting anecdotes and narratives from Zen’s past to tell his story. For readers eager to learn more about the ordinary person’s experience of Buddhism, and especially for those interested in Zen or Japanese history, The Other Side of Zenwill prove highly informative.

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