Soto and Rinzai Zen Part 1

A Brief Explanation of Rinzai and Soto Zen Part 1


“Why sometimes Zen Practitioners can be assholes”**.

I think some explanation of the history and practice of these two often confused and intertwined traditions in needed. Especially here in the West where the Zen we are exposed to tends to be a combination of both these traditions rather than the original tradition as originally developed. This is likely to be quite a rambling account spanning a few blog entries so bear with me. Also part of this is typed while either holding Eliza or punctuated by occasional dances with her in the kitchen.

I think, to start with, a story helps to explain some of the concept of Rinzai Zen:

“during a public reading at St. Louis University by Lucien Stryk from his translation of After Images: Zen Poems of Shinkichi Takahashi, a young woman from the audience began deliberately tearing a copy of the book (purchased before the reading) into tiny pieces and letting them fall to the floor. Some in the audience began to complain because they could not hear the talk but the young lady continued her shredding of the book and politely replied “I know”.

Someone in the audience (sarcastically, I think) commented that the lady was probably trying to communicate something in a Zen fashion and Stryk answered that he got the message and continued reading. The book continued to be shredded and as the lady finished the last page, another lady from the audience gathered the pieces and delivered them to the podium. Dropping them at the reader’s feet, the woman gasshoed and with Stryk responding in turn and saying “gassho” as he bowed.

The ladies left the auditorium; the talk continued somewhat uncomfortably with Stryk commenting that he was no Zen master but at the same time wouldn’t pass judgment on the actions of the ladies.”

Well, the ladies were fellow lectures and also followers of Rinzai Zen. The said that the actions were not deliberate and instead arose from the moment and in essence they were giving the lecturer a chance at enlightenment (which of course he didn’t get which is fine b/c I don’t get it either).

The ladies weren’t followers of Rinzai and even if they were I believe that they were primarily assholes. This is a big issue with the western perception of Rinzai Zen: That Zen must be obscure, random, mystical and unexplainable to be Zen. This is bullshit…pure bullshit.

The image of Zen as being this mystic and sublime entity is mainly due to the 1960’s. The counter culture at the time was quick to grab whatever they could that fit in with their anti-establishment, anti-government and anti-intellectualist worldview. I have no problem with this worldview, BTW. It is fine with me. However, most of the Buddhist literature at the time being spread was from Rinzai masters such as D.T. Suzuki and his students or contemporaries such as Philip Kapleau and being hugely misinterpreted. Three main things were pulled from these works:

  1. That Zen is steeped in mysticism and contradiction. This came mainly from the collections of koans that are so important to the Rinzai tradition. These supposedly unanswerable riddles are actually very answerable and each does have a correct response or interpretation. It is the concentrating on these koans that lead to an understanding or breakthrough.
  2. That Zen is spontaneous and immediate. Never mind that fact that Zen monasteries are usually rigorous and the training of the monks very regimented.
  3. That Zen is Japanese. Its not and honestly I don’t know if people really say this or not but it wanders in front of my path occasionally. I prefer to think of Zen as Zen and still in the process of transforming and evolving as it did when it moved from the Indian subcontinent as dhyana (steeped in the yogic tradition of the area) through to China (supposedly via the Boddhidarma as Ch’an) and then through to Vietnam (Thien), Korea (Seon) and Japan (Zen). Korea has a very deep and prominent tradition even over here in the West and the Kwan Um School of Zen has always been a great resource.

More space will be devoted next time on the actual differences between the Rinzai and Soto traditions.

And true to the Zen tradition I will leave with a haiku:

On how to sing
The frog school and the skylark school
Are arguing



Upon reread it may sound that I have a distaste for the 1960s Hippie Movement and/or Rinzai Zen. I have a dislike for neither of these. I do however dislike filthy beatniks.
**I think the faulty perception of Zen that it must be abrupt and random leads to some acts that can be construed as assholish as described in the story above. For example if my teacher, in order to provide some abrupt enlightenment, decided to throw a floor tile at my head I would classify him as an asshole. Now if a complete stranger did this to me for the same reason then it would come to fisticuffs. These examples seem so ridiculous but traditional Rinzai methods do utilize “striking, kicking and shouting” to bring forth enlightenment. But more about this later…