cuke.com  - Shunryu Suzuki Index  - WHAT'S NEW - table of contents



Suzuki Roshi and the Modern  Soto Denomination

Sati Conference  May 30, 1998

by Prof. Richard Jaffe


It is a pleasure to be here today to speak about Suzuki Roshi and the Soto denomination during the modern era. As many of you know, I am now teaching about East Asian religions at North Carolina State University. My path to becoming a Buddhist scholar passed through Zen Center, where I practiced full- time from 1979 to 1985. My years of practice have undoubtedly shaped my choice of research questions. In fact, the topic of my dissertation, clerical marriage in modern Japanese Buddhism, was catalyzed by a passage in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind that stayed with me for many years. Suzuki Roshi states: "Here in America we cannot define Zen Buddhists the same way we do in Japan. American students are not priests and yet not completely laymen. I understand it this way: that you are not priests is an easy matter, but that you are not exactly laymen is more difficult." [Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, p. 133.]

Although I did not realize it when I first read that passage, Suzuki Roshi was alluding to the self-description given by Shinran, the founder of Shin Buddhism, in the Kyogyoshinsho [The True Teaching, Practice, and Realization]. In the passage Shinran mentions that he, along with other disciples of his teacher, Honen, had been sent into exile and now was "neither monk nor layman." Suzuki Roshi's statement intrigued me, and I became deeply interested in how American Zen students came to practice in such a way. In reflecting on Suzuki Roshi's life and teachings after having spent several years studying the emergence of the openly married clergy among the so-called "monastic denominations" in modern Japan, I see that Suzuki Roshi was not just describing American Buddhism in that passage, but modern Japanese Soto Zen as well. Indeed, it may well be that one reason Suzuki Roshi was comfortable in the United States was precisely because the complexities of a hybrid half- monk, half-lay practice were more openly acknowledged here than in Japan.

Suzuki Roshi, born in 1904, grew up during a watershed period in the history of Japanese Buddhism. Soto Zen and the Japanese clergy as we now know them are in crucial ways the product of the massive social and institutional engineering that occurred after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. It is possible that had those changes not occurred Suzuki Roshi would not have been born; his son, Hoitsu, would not be the abbot of Rinsoin; and we would not refer to him as Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. In addition, the Soto denomination would possibly also have a very different structure than it has today. It might not be composed of two head temples - Eiheiji and Sojiji - with "one essence"; or be headed by a single Chief Abbot (Kancho) drawn alternately from the ranks of the Sojiji and the Eiheiji wings of the denomination.

Beginning in the last decades of the Edo period (1603-1867) and continuing through the Meiji period (1868-1912), state and local authorities, bent on utilizing the resources of the temples and monasteries for their own ends, recarved the landscape in which Buddhism was practiced. Suzuki Roshi belonged to a generation of clerics forced to wrestle with the implications of these massive changes. It seems to me that one reason why he may have been so successful here in the United States, where there were no models for the kind of Zen community that he was trying to build, is that he had come of age in a period when Japanese Buddhism, including Soto Zen, was also being rebuilt. In order to better understand Suzuki Roshi's life and teachings, it is useful to know more about the changes and challenges that Soto clerics of his generation faced.

One of the most profound changes confronted by the Buddhist clergy during the modern period was the loss of status. "Status" has multiple meanings, of course, referring to one's actual state-recognized position in the formal social structure and in the broader sense to the value given to one's position by fellow subjects. In both senses the Buddhist clergy "lost status" during the modern era. In an effort to modernize Japan and keep better control of the populace, the Meiji oligarchs dismantled a centuries-old system of social status in which the Buddhist and Shinto clergy had held a relatively high position. Exempted from certain responsibilities, favored by more lenient treatment for minor legal missteps, entrusted with an almost quasi- governmental position by the Edo authorities, the Buddhist clergy had received many perquisites. Under the new Meiji regime, both the Shinto and Buddhist clergy were thrown back into the restructured social system as ordinary subjects. Their legal privileges were abolished, and the government ceased to enforce adherence to the Buddhist precepts. At the same time, state recognition of Buddhist clerical status was ended, the Buddhist clergy also lost their draft deferment, and, along with all other clerics, were denied the right to run for public office. As a result, ordination was no longer a public act that changed one's position in society. Instead it became a private decision, much like choosing to be a teacher or stone mason; entering the clergy became a job choice and nothing more.

In 1872 the Buddhist clergy were also ordered to take surnames. While perhaps to us today this is no big deal, it is important to remember that for hundreds of years in East Asia people, at least superficially, had abandoned family identity when they entered the clergy. Severing family affiliation by giving up one's surname was a considerable sacrifice, but an essential part of joining the clergy, an act that is called shukke, "leaving home," in Japanese. Some Buddhist clerics clearly found the order to take a conventional surname hard to bear. In order to circumvent the spirit of that law, some Buddhists took the surname Shaku (Shakyamuni), as in Shaku Soen, D. T. Suzuki's teacher, or Fukuda (the Japanese pronunciation of the characters meaning "field of merit"), the name selected by the Jodo monk Gyokai of the Zojoji in Tokyo. Suzuki Roshi's father, Sogaku, who became abbot of the temple Zounin in 1891, would have been among the first generation of clerics to keep their surnames after ordination.

Suzuki Roshi would have been part of the second generation of clerics legally allowed to keep their father's surname after he was ordained in 1917 under Gyokujun So-on. This brings us to another big change that clerics like Suzuki Roshi had to come to grips with - he was the son of a cleric, born in a Soto temple. From the Meiji authorities' perspective, Suzuki Roshi's birth in a Buddhist temple in 1904 was legal because in 1872 they had issued an edict that abolished penalties for clerics who ate meat, married, grew their hair, or wore non-clerical clothing.

But although those violations of clerical standards were tolerated by the state, after 1878 each Buddhist denomination was rendered free to determine standards of deportment for its clergy. By 1885 the Soto leadership had disseminated a strict ban on the lodging of women in temples and had warned its clerics to continue to abide by Soto precepts with regard to eating meat, marrying, and so on. The leaders made clear that they did not want the clergy marrying and tried to stop the spread of that practice among the Soto clergy. The ban on lodging women in temples remained part of Soto sect law until 1906, when it disappeared from the new Soto Constitution. Thus the marriage of Suzuki Roshi's father to the widow Shima Yone at the turn of the century and their cohabitation at the temple Shoganji were violations of Soto regulations. They were not alone in their disregard for the ban. By the end of the Meiji period in 1912 it is estimated that more than half of the Soto clergy were married, much to the dismay of those in charge of the denomination. Included in the ranks of Soto leaders that opposed clerical marriage was Nishiari Bokusan, the teacher of an important influence on Suzuki Roshi, Kishizawa Ian. Nishiari's adamant resistance to clerical marriage, meat eating, abandoning the tonsure, and not wearing clerical garb should give you a sense of how great the shift in world-view was in the transition from Nishiari's generation to Suzuki Roshi's.

Having been born into a temple family at the turn of the century - when it was still a violation of denominational rules and was stigmatized by many parishioners - must not have been easy. Most temple marriages remained unofficial at best, and it is believed that the majority of temple wives were only married into temples because their other marriage prospects were poor. Suzuki Roshi's teacher, Gyokujun So-on, is a good example of how Soto clerics circumvented the disapproval of the leadership and the parishioners. According to David Chadwick's biography of Suzuki Roshi, So-on never married, but for years he lived with a woman at Rinsoin. The relationship was apparently tolerated by the parishioners as long as it remained informal.

Without an official marriage, however, temple wives had no legitimate claim to the temple should their husband die before appointing a successor. Many of these wives and their children stood one cleric away from destitution. In addition, the children of these frequently semi-covert marriages were the subject of derision, something that Suzuki Roshi probably experienced first hand. As late as 1917 the pro-marriage advocate and future abbot of Sojiji, Kuriyama Taion, describing the lot of temple wives and children wrote: "The children born at temples are called Venerable Rahula. The temple wife and mother of the children is called Princess Yashodhara. Or it is common to call her Daikoku (God of the Kitchen) or Bonsai (Buddhist Wife). They endure vehement reproaches that truly are the extremes of insult. Are these not unavoidable phenomena during the transitional period in which the problem  of clerical marriage remains unresolved?" [Kuriyama Taion, Soryo kazoku ron (On Clerical Families) (Tokyo: Oju Gedo, 1917). Rahula was Prince Siddhartha's son, and Princess Yashodhara was Prince Siddhartha's wife.]

The debate over clerical marriage continued well into the 1930s - some Japanese Buddhists complain that the issue of clerical marriage  is still not resolved today - when, on the verge of the Pacific War, the Soto Assembly adopted some limited protections for temple wives and children.

In terms of the Soto organizational structure in general, Suzuki Roshi also would have experienced numerous dramatic changes and witnessed frequent struggles as the denomination tried to adapt to the institutional restructuring of Meiji and the growing imperialism of the Japanese state. At the start of the Meiji period, in an effort to create a more centralized religious bureaucracy, Meiji bureaucrats created the chief abbot (Kancho) system, with each denomination of Buddhism having one chief abbot. As part of the process of centralization, each denomination was forced to compile a description of sectarian organizational procedures and sect regulations for approval by the government. The process of defining these rules for very diverse organizations was a daunting task that sparked much fighting between factions within the different denominations.

The institutional reshuffling resulted in problems for the Soto denomination. When Eiheiji was named the sole head temple of the Soto denomination soon after the restoration, this reignited the old rivalry between the Sojiji and the Eiheiji wings of the denomination. Sojiji partisans bitterly opposed the move. Although a truce was signed in 1872, the in-fighting continued to plague the Soto denomination through the 1890's. At one point, the Sojiji faction threatened to secede completely, but the Meiji government forced the two parties to a joint conference. The result was a final declaration in 1895 that the denomination had two head temples with one essence and two patriarchs, Dogen and Keizan. After resolving the dispute a denominational headquarters, the Shumucho, was established in Tokyo. Although by Suzuki Roshi's lifetime the fight between the two factions had ended, great bitterness persisted on both sides.

Finally, Suzuki Roshi was trained in a Soto denomination whose leaders were increasingly supportive of Japanese imperialism in continental Asia. During the first decade of the twentieth century some Soto leaders became strong proponents of missionary activity in Korea. Takeda Hanshi, the Soto cleric who had become the first inspector general of Soto missionary activity in Korea in 1908, was a strong advocate of Buddhist involvement there. Kitano Genpo, who was abbot of Eiheiji while Suzuki Roshi practiced there, succeeded Takeda as the inspector general of Soto missionary activity in Korea, assuming that position in 1911.

Soto leaders also staunchly repudiated the leftist activity of Soto clerics. The anarchist Soto cleric Uchiyama Gudo stood at the other end of the political spectrum from Takeda Hanshi. In a series of privately published tracts, Uchiyama denounced the emperor system, criticized the draft, and called for the redistribution of wealth to impoverished tenant farmers. In 1909 - Suzuki Roshi would only have been five at the time - Uchiyama was arrested for publishing unauthorized books. The next year, when a plot to murder the emperor was discovered, one of the main conspirators was found to possess some of Uchiyama's writings. Uchiyama was sentenced to die for his alleged involvement in the plot and was executed along with other conspirators in 1911. The Sotoshu expelled Uchiyama from the order in 1910 and called a meeting at which the abbots of both head temples were reprimanded by the government. The report on the meeting issued by the Soto denomination concluded that honoring the emperor and protecting Japan were indispensable aspects of Japanese Buddhism. This attitude remained an important and unquestioned element of the Soto ethos through the war years. [Information on Takeda and Uchiyama is drawn from Ishikawa Rikizan, "The Social Response of Buddhists to the Modernization of Japan: The Contrasting Lives of Two Soto Zen Monks," Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 25, No. 1-2 (forthcoming). For more on Uchiyama see Brian (Daizen) A. Victoria, Zen at War (Weatherhill, New York and Toyko, 1997, pp. 38-48).] No doubt Suzuki Roshi would have had to find some way to accommodate the growing jingoism of the Soto leadership during the first half of the twentieth century.

Time will not allow me to detail other important developments in the Soto world during Suzuki Roshi's Japan years. I think that it is clear from this brief presentation, however, that in a number of ways, Suzuki Roshi was part of a generation of Soto clerics who needed to create new forms for dealing with such things as legal clerical marriage, temple inheritance from father to son, and new institutional structures like the denominational headquarters. Having grown up in the midst of all those changes must have made Suzuki Roshi a little more adept and agile when he came to the United States, where there were even fewer precedents on which to rely.

posted 7-16-13