Book Review Soto Zen in Medieval Japan - William M. Bodiford
Soto Zen in Medieval Japan (Studies in East Asian Buddhism)by William M. Bodiford
The most extensive and informative English language book on the formation and development of Soto Zen to date.
William Bodiford’s “Soto Zen in Medieval Japan” (Studies in East Asian Buddhism) paints an extraordinarily clear picture of the history of Soto Zen in Japan.
No matter what view you may have of the transmission of Zen (any school, not just Soto) from China to Japan, reading this book is bound to alter that view dramatically! If you believe a more accurate understanding is an improvement, then the your “altered” view will be a grand improvement.
One of the more “unorthodox” discoveries that William Bodiford uncovered in his massive study was the role of Zen Koan literature in the earliest years of Soto Zen. While the role of koans in the Soto sect has often been characterized as minimal, or even non-essential, “Soto Zen in Medieval Japan” affirms that nothing could be further from the truth. While the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, Dogen, has often been portrayed as unconcerned with the Zen Koan literature, Bodiford bluntly reports different, stating:
“…there is no doubt that Dogen himself trained in and taught his students systematic methods of koan investigation. His teachings cannot be comprehended without intimate knowledge of Chinese koan…”
Not only does this remarkable scholar recognize that for Dogen a thorough grasp of the classic Zen koans was considered essential, he raises the purpose of Zen koans to a whole new level. Defined by uncomprehending scholars and pseudo-Zen adherents simply as “devices” or “riddles” aimed at some kind of “experience” brought on by psychological frustration, koans have been widely misunderstood. In his masterful study Bodiford resurrects many of the true, multifaceted and profoundly versatile uses and meanings of these unique literary expressions of enlightened wisdom. For instance, Bodiford states:
“Medieval Soto monks and nuns mastered the depths of Zen enlightenment, the trivial moments of daily life, and the routine activities of monastic training through the language of the Chinese Ch’an patriarchs as recorded in koan texts. This specialized idiom allowed Zen teachers and students to describe different approaches to practice, various states of meditation, and fine distinctions between points of view or levels of understanding. More important, koan study–like ordination rituals and funeral ceremonies–encapsulated Zen transcendence in tangible forms, expressed it in concrete performances, and allowed it to be communicated easily to monks, nuns, and laypersons. For clerics and villagers alike this body of Zen praxis fused together the symbolic transmission of the Buddha’s enlightenment, its embodiment in the words and actions of the Zen master, with the worlds lived and imagined, both inside and outside the monastery. While koan training, ordination rituals, and funeral ceremonies comprise only three of the Zen practices performed by medieval Soto monks, each proved indispensable for the rapid growth of Soto institutions and the religious efficacy of these institutions within rural society.”
Exploring the masterful ingenuity of Soto Zen’s brilliant and charismatic founder (Eihei Dogen) and his relatively few, but dedicated disciples through the early and extremely challenging decades of Japan’s 13th century, Bodiford reveals the unique forces that catapulted Soto Zen into Japan. It is no wonder that Soto Zen Buddhism is easily the most powerful force of Buddhism in Japan to this very day.
Not only is this book easily the most extensive and informative English language book on the formation and development of Soto Zen to date, its illumination of the lives and teachings of Japan’s early Zen master’s (including Eihei Dogen) is astonishingly rich. Moreover, Bodiford’s revelations concerning the early Japanese history of both Rinzai Zen and Darumashu Zen are profoundly intriguing.
William Bodiford’s “Soto Zen in Medieval Japan” destined to stand as essential reading for serious Zen students/practitioners for many decades to come.
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