Asia Online (TAO)
History of the Soto Zen School
by T. Griffith Foulk
Mr. T. Griffith Foulk, B.A., Williams College. M.A., Ph.D., University of Michigan. Trained in Zen monasteries in Japan; active in Buddhist studies, with research interest in philosophical, literary, social, and historical aspects of East Asian Buddhism, especially the Chan/Zen tradition; author of numerous articles and the forthcoming Chan Myths and Realities in Medieval Chinese Buddhism; member, American Academy of Religion Buddhism Section steering committee, 1987-94; board member, Kuroda Institute for the Study of Buddhism and Human Values; recipient of Fulbright, Eiheiji, and Japan Foundation fellowships and grants from the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Sarah Lawrence College, 1995-
Having been asked to speak on "the history of the Soto school," I find myself faced with two very basic questions. First, what is this thing, the "Soto school," that I am supposed to relate the history of? And second, what mode of historical discourse shall I adopt to speak of it?
Fortunately, these are not questions that I have to resolve entirely on my own. Scholars do not always agree with each other or follow exactly in the footsteps of their predecessors, but they do operate within a community of discourse in which many of the basic parameters and terms of debate have already been fixed. Let me begin, therefore, by briefly reviewing some of the ways that the history of Soto Zen has been written in the past. I will then propose my own working definition of the "Soto school" and explain the type of historical analysis that I shall bring to bear on it in this presentation.
The earliest histories of Soto Zen as such date from the Tokugawa period (1603-1868). They are all collections of biographies of eminent patriarchs belonging to Dogen's line of dharma transmission." Those traditional genealogies promoted consciousness of the Soto lineage (Sotoshu) as a historical entity and strove to legitimate and celebrate it as a vehicle for the preservation and transmission of true Buddhism. They did not, however, treat the Soto lineage as something that evolved over time in response to changing social, economic, and political circumstances. Rather, they depicted the lineage as having a sort of abstract, timeless being -- something like a species that lives on without essential change even as its individual members are born, flourish, and pass away.
Twentieth-century scholarship on the history of Soto Zen has become much more critical in its outlook and quasi-scientific in its methods. Like all modern historiography, however, it is still rooted in various ancient, proto-historical modes of discourse, such as those found in epics, myths of origin, tales of a golden age, dynastic chronologies, and hagiographies.
Some modern histories of the Soto Zen school are basically just chronologies that record the "important" events that occurred within it year by year. Other modern histories treat the Soto school as if it were the hero of an epic. That is to say, they present extended narratives that recount the actions and experiences of the school -- what it did and what happened to it -- over a period of time. Sophisticated versions of that approach detail and seek to explain changes within the subject of the narrative, depicting the Soto school not simply as acting and reacting to events, but also as developing and evolving in a complex historical process.
A theme that recurs in a number of modern histories is the idea that the Zen initially established in Japan by the founder Dogen was a pure form that the Soto school failed to preserve in subsequent generations. According to one version of this story, Dogen's "pure Zen" (junsui zen) was brought by him from Sung China." A somewhat different version has it that the Zen Dogen encountered in China was already compromised by an admixture of Confucian and Taoist elements, rituals that pandered to aristocratic patronage, and a preoccupation with economic and cultural (as opposed to properly spiritual) pursuits. In this view, Dogen rejected the secularized, "syncretic Zen" (kenshu zen) of the Sung: what he actually established in Japan was the style of pure Zen that had originally existed in China during the T'ang dynasty (618-906)!"
Both versions of this modern myth of origins agree, in any case, that Dogen's pure Zen consisted of three main elements: first, the rigorous practice of zazen in a sangha hall (sodo); second, the instructions of a Zen master, either in the context of public sermons and debates (mondo) in a dharma hall (hatto) or individual meetings in an abbots quarters (hojo); and third, productive work, including the duties of monastic officers such as the cook (tenzo) and the communal labor (fushin samu) that involved officers and ordinary monks alike.
Dogen's pure Zen, however, is said to have become diluted in the generations following Keizan Jokin (1264-1325) by extraneous elements of Japanese esoteric Buddhist (mikkyo) ritual, folk religion, and various other concessions to popular demand, such as the performance of funerals and memorial services for lay patrons." Here we find not only the motif of the golden age (the time of Dogen), but the narrative form of the epic tragedy, in which the hero (the Soto school) squanders its precious spiritual heritage in exchange for worldly success.
Despite its fondness for the normative values embodied in these notions of "original", "pure", and (by implication) genuine Zen, modern scholarship is quite sophisticated in its analyses of the social, economic, and political circumstances that surrounded the spread of the Soto school across rural Japan in the medieval period (the 14th through the 16th centuries). A number of excellent studies have detailed the ways in which Soto monks moved into new areas of the country, gained patronage from regionally powerful samurai families, built or converted monasteries, interacted with local populations, and established hierarchical networks of monasteries based on lineage and schemes of "revolving abbacies" (rinju).
The most common mode of historical discourse in Soto Zen circles, however, today as in the past, is still biography. Recent decades have seen a steady stream of books published on Dogen's life and thought. Other major figures in his lineage, such as Keizan, Suzuki Shozan (1579-1655), Manzan Dohaku (1636-1714), and Menzan Zuiho (1683-1769), have also received considerable attention, although more in Japanese language literature than English. Modern writers avoid the more blatantly hagiographical elements that appear in traditional (Tokugawa period and earlier) biographies of Soto patriarchs, but they still hold up the founding fathers, Dogen in particular, as religious exemplars. They also continue to use association with Dogen as a powerful legitimizing device for whatever ideas, values, or practices they wish to promote at present.
Thus far, what I have been talking about is a kind of metahistory of the Soto school -- a history of histories written in the past. Although my remarks have been rather critical, I do not mean to imply that I can somehow present a less biased or more "objective" account than scholars have previously, or that such a history would be desirable even if it were possible. Speaking as an academic who has dedicated his professional life to the study of Zen, and as an occasional practitioner with deep ties to the Soto school in Japan, I must acknowledge that I too use historical arguments as a means of promoting my own particular vision of what Zen has been in the past and what it can and should be in the future. I too believe, as naively as any of my predecessors, that an "accurate" understanding of the history of Zen Buddhism can provide models for our own efforts at living through and carrying on the tradition today. I also flatter myself that the study of history can be a kind of Buddhist practice in and of itself, helping to free us from various self-deluding ideas and unrealistic expectations that we project and cling to in the name of "Zen."
Having briefly reviewed the field and confessed my own agenda as a participant in it, let me share with you my conception of the "Soto school" and its history. I view the school, very simply, as being comprised of all the persons, living and dead, who have regarded themselves (and been recognized by their contemporaries) as spiritual heirs of Dogen. This definition is similar to the one that informs the traditional (Tokugawa period) histories of Soto Zen in that it is based solely on the concept of a lineage (shu) of dharma transmission (denbo). Unlike some modern historians, I make no claims about any set of beliefs or practices that might be presumed to represent the "original," "pure," or "essential" nature of Soto Zen. On the other hand, my approach differs from that of the traditional histories in that I view the Soto school not as a transcendent entity whose shape is determined only by its blood lines (kechimyaku), but as a down-to-earth human institution that has always been developing and changing in response to changing social, economic, and political circumstances. In this respect, my approach is closer to that of the modern historians who have traced the vicissitudes of the Soto school from Dogen's time down to the present.
In short, my definition of the Soto school is one that starts from a simple delineation of its membership, past and present, and leaves the question of its characteristic institutions, practices, and doctrines entirely open to historical investigation. Thus, in my view, any Buddhist monasteries or temples dominated by members of the Soto school may be considered Soto institutions; any doctrines embraced by members of the Soto school may be called Soto teachings; and any practices engaged in by members of the Soto school may be deemed Soto practices. There is no a priori reason why the Soto school should exhibit any uniformity or consistency over time in its social arrangements or religious activities. Historical investigation does reveal certain recurring patterns and traits that can justifiably be held up as "characteristics" of the school (at least during certain periods), but it also shows that there was often a great deal of diversity, disagreement, and competition within it.
Having explained my basic approach to the history of the Soto school as best I can in the limited time available, let me turn now to the specific issue that I would like to address in the remainder of this talk: namely, the place that the Japanese Soto school has held historically within the broader East Asian Buddhist tradition. I am concerned with this issue because, frankly, I think that many people involved with Zen in the West are confused about the relationship between "Zen" and "Buddhism." In general, we are too quick to proclaim the independence and uniqueness of the former and all too ignorant of the ways in which it has been embedded in the latter in East Asian cultures. We imagine that Zen is somehow a complete doctrinal, ethical, and spiritual system, and do not avail ourselves of the broader Buddhist resources -- scriptural, ritual, and institutional -- that Zen monks in Japan have always taken for granted. In fairness, it must be said that this "tunnel vision" that afflicts Western Zen is largely a product of modern Japanese Zen historiography, which (for social and historical reasons of its own) has tended to stress the "independence" and "purity" of the Zen school at certain times, such as the "golden age" of the T'ang dynasty patriarchs and that of the founder Dogen.
In any case, I would like to share with you my understanding of the ways in which the Japanese Soto school has situated itself within the Buddhist tradition at large. I will begin with a brief look at the Sung Chinese precedents that Dogen and other early Soto leaders had to work with. I will then make some general remarks about the character of the Soto school in Japan as it has developed from the thirteenth century down to the present.
Let me start by explaining some things about the organization of the Ch'an (Zen) school in China at the time Dogen visited there, in the thirteenth century.
The main point I would like to stress is that the Ch'an school was a movement that existed within the mainstream Chinese Buddhist monastic institution, which was regulated by the imperial court and was patronized by the politically and economically powerful class known as the literati. All Buddhist monks and nuns in China, whether or not they were followers of the Ch'an school, were ordained according to the same procedures, which were based on the Indian Vinaya and controlled by the state. All properly ordained monks and nuns, whether or not they were followers of the Ch'an school, had a right to live and practice in the large, officially sanctioned public monasteries (jippo setsu). Followers of the Zen school came to dominate those monasteries in the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries, but they never had their own independent monasteries in the sense of institutions that were reserved exclusively for them. "Ch'an monsteries" (zen'en) were simply those public monasteries at which the abbacy (jujishoku) was restricted, by imperial decree, to fully ordained Buddhist monks who were certified as dharma heirs in some branch of the Ch'an lineage.
All public monasteries, whether or not their abbacies were reserved for Ch'an monks, had basically the same buildings, bureaucratic structures, schedules of activities, and basic forms of Buddhist discipline and practice. All public monasteries had buddha halls (butsuden), where various offerings and sutra chanting services were held; dharma halls (hatto), where abbots gave lectures and entertained questions; and sangha halls (sodo), where the main body of monks sat in meditation, ate, and slept at their places on the open platforms. If there was anything that was distinctive about the Ch'an monasteries, it was not the stress on zazen or the occasional ritual in which the entire community was required to perform manual labor together (fushin samu) -- those practices were common to all the public monasteries. No, what distinguished the training in Ch'an monasteries was chiefly the teaching style of the abbots, who based their talks and debates on the koan literature that was the hallmark of the Ch'an tradition.
As the majority faction within the Buddhist order in Sung China, the Ch'an school did try to take credit for many forms of monastic organization and practice that were in fact the common heritage of the Buddhist tradition as a whole: it claimed that the patriarch Baizhang (Hyakujo) had invented them in the ninth century. The school, however, was scarcely distinguished by any unique institutional arrangements or practices. Its identity rested primarily on its lineage claims, which had both a mythical dimension and an aspect of tangible social reality, since monks recognized as heirs to the lineage constituted a privileged elite within the Buddhist order at large. The Ch'an school in China was also distinguished by its discourse record (goroku) koan literature, and the rhetorical and pedagogical styles that the literature conveyed.
Within the world of Sung Chinese Ch'an, consciousness of lineage was strong and competition between lineages for patronage and abbacies was intense. Several branches of the Lin-chi lineage (Rinzaishu) were the dominant factions at the time Dogen visited China, but the Ts'ao-tung lineage (Sotoshu) that had been revived in the mid-twelfth century by Hung-chih Cheng-chueh (1091-1157) and Chen-hsieh Ch'ing-liao (1088-1151) was also still thriving. Those Ts'ao-tung monks were famous for advocating a style of meditation called "silent illumination" (mo-chao ch'an; mokusho zen in Japanese). They were attacked by their contemporary, the Lin-chi monk Ta-hui (1089-1163), who championed the method of meditation called "contemplating phrases" (k'an-hua ch'an; kanna zen in Japanese). There were real differences between those two approaches to zazen practice, but the debate would certainly not have been as heated if the patronage of well-heeled lay Buddhists had not been at stake. Also, because the abbacies of monasteries designated as "Ch'an" were open to monks in any branch of the Ch'an lineage, competition was fierce for those positions.
In Sung China, neither the Ts'ao-tung lineage nor any branch of the Lin-chi lineage ever had the exclusive run of any Ch'an monastery. To illustrate this point, let us consider the case of T'ien-tung monastery. When Dogen first visited the monastery in 1223, the abbot was Wu-chi (d. 1224), a monk in the second generation after Ta-hui in the Yang-ch'i branch of the Lin-chi lineage. When Dogen returned to T'ien-tung monastery again in 1225, Wu-chi had died, and Ju-ching (1163-1228) had been appointed abbot. Ju-ching, of course, was the monk who eventually gave Dogen dharma transmission, and he was an heir to the Ts'ao-tung lineage in the third generation after Chen-hsieh. Many of the subsequent abbots of T'ien-tung monastery, however, were again in some branch of the Lin-chi lineage.
To summarize, the Ch'an school in Sung China was an elitist movement within the Buddhist order that claimed to represent a special mind-to-mind transmission of the Buddha's awakening and succeeded in gaining lay patronage, official recognition, and exclusive access to the abbacies of leading public monasteries. The Ch'an school did not have its own ordinations or monastery arrangements, and most of the rituals and practices that Ch'an monks engaged in were common to all Buddhist monks. The Ch'an school did have a distinctive rhetorical style and body of literature, and it developed a new approach to meditation that involved "contemplating phrases" (kanna) culled from that literature. That practice was unique to Ch'an, but it was mainly promoted by heirs of Ta-hui in the Lin-chi lineage. Hung-chih, Chen-hsieh, and their heirs in the Ts'ao-tung lineage used the same Ch'an rhetoric and koan literature, but they did not teach "contemplating phrases." They took a more traditional approach to the practice of zazen, which prior to Ta-hui had not been directly connected to the study of Ch'an texts.
The Transmission of Zen to Japan
Let me turn now to the transmission of Zen to Japan, and the subsequent establishment of various branches of the Zen school there.
The point I would like to stress is that, from the outset, the Zen movement in Japan had a very different relationship to the Buddhist monastic order as a whole than that enjoyed by the Ch'an movement in China. In the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when the Zen movement began, the leading Buddhist institutions in Japan were various sectarian branches of the Tendai, Shingon, and Nara schools. Unlike the situation in China, there was no single state-controlled Buddhist sangha. The established schools each had their own system of ordaining and training monks, their own networks of temples and patronage, and their own political alliances with the court, landholding aristocrats, and warlords. When Tendai school monks such as Eisai (1141-1215), Enni (1202-1280), and Dogen returned from Sung China, impressed by the modes of Buddhist teaching and practice they had experienced there and eager to replicate them in Japan, they were faced with a difficult choice. Either they could try to carry out their reforms within the framework of the existing Tendai institutions and risk being co-opted, or they could try to find sufficient political and economic backing to create new monastic institutions based on the Chinese model and risk incurring the open hostility and opposition of the established schools.
Dogen, as is well known, chose the latter path. He built one of the first Chinese-style sangha halls (sodo) at Koshoji near the capital, Kyoto. Eventually, however, he chose to move to the remote province of Echizen on the sea of Japan, where he received the support of the local warlord family and began to build the monastery that came to be known as Eiheiji. Other Zen teachers, including Japanese monks who visited China and emigre Chinese monks, were more successful in establishing Chinese-style monasteries in Kyoto and Kamakura, but it took the backing of the ruling warlord clan (the Hojo) and the imperial house. In any case, the Zen teachers who worked to transmit the Buddhism they had learned in China were, in the end, unable to do so within the existing Buddhist establishment: they were forced to establish entirely new monasteries.
In many of the first monasteries established in Kyoto and Kamakura by Zen monks, the Chinese system of restricting the abbacy of a public monastery to monks in the Zen lineage was adopted. As in China, this meant that dharma heirs in any branch of the lineage -- Rinzai or Soto -- could serve as abbot, one after another, and no single lineage could claim the monastery as its own. The majority of the abbots in the metropolitan Zen were, in fact, from one or another of the Rinzai lineages, but a few were in the Soto line descended from Hung-chih. Because Dogen established Eiheiji in remote Echizen Province, his own immediate dharma heirs in the Soto line descended from Chen-hsieh were the only monks around qualified to serve as abbots after his death. Nevertheless, at this early stage in the establishment of Zen monasteries in Japan, there was no consciousness on anyone's part that those institutions belonged to the "Rinzai" or the "Soto" school.
The Chinese-style system of public Ch'an monasteries (jippo setsu) with open abbacies did not last long in the world of medieval Japanese Zen, however. The long history of sectarianism in Japanese Buddhism and the politically divisive patronage that Zen monks received, together with the intense consciousness of lineage that was inherited from China, all combined to promote the change of Zen monasteries into so-called "disciple cloisters" (tsuchien). Those were monasteries in which the abbacy was restricted to dharma heirs of the founder. The successful lineages of Japanese Zen, which included several Rinzai lines and several branches of Dogen's Soto line, eventually established their own networks of head and branch monasteries, the abbacies of which were restricted to their own members. This meant that the basic institutional and administrative units in medieval Japanese Zen were not the Rinzai or Soto "schools," which did not exist as such, but rather a number of Rinzai and Soto branch lineages (ha) that had their headquarters in monasteries such as Nanzenji, Daitokuji, Sojiji, and Eiheiji.
The Chinese-style monasteries that monks such as Enni, Dogen, Shunjo (1166-1220), and Lan-ch'i (1213-1278) established in thirteenth century Japan were modeled after the great public monasteries located near the Southern Sung capital Hang-chou, in Che-chiang Province. Had they been built in China, Enni's Tofukuji, Dogen's Eiheiji, Shunjo's Sennyuji, and Lan-ch'i's Kenchoji would have looked like rather ordinary, mid-sized Buddhist monasteries. Nothing about their layout or appearance would have identified them, ipso facto, as "Ch'an" institutions. In Japan, however, those new monasteries were exotic in appearance, and their bureaucratic structures, ritual calendars, and training routines were quite different than anything previously known in the Tendai or Shingon schools. Although a few of the Chinese-style monasteries built in thirteenth and fourteenth century Japan were not established by Zen monks (Shunjo's Sennyuji is a prime example), most of them were. It was not long, therefore, before that type of monastery and all of the forms of religious practice that took place in it came to be associated in Japan with the Zen school. Indeed, not only those monastic forms, but all of the accoutrements of high literati culture that had been embraced by elites within the Chinese sangha and transmitted to Japan as part of the new continental-style Buddhist culture -- poetry, calligraphy, ink painting, tea-drinking etiquette, rock gardens, etc. -- came to be known in Japan as "Zen" arts.
To summarize, what the so-called transmission of Zen to Japan in the thirteenth century really amounted to was the wholesale transmission from Sung China of the latest in Buddhist monastic institutions, teachings, and practices. The mythology, rhetoric, and social arrangements of the Ch'an lineage were part of that newly imported Chinese Buddhism, of course, and they continued to be important in Japanese Zen. But other salient features of Sung style of monastic discipline, such as group zazen in a sangha hall (sodo) and debates with an abbot in a dharma hall (hatto), also came to be understood in Japan as distinctively Zen practices. Thus, unlike the situation in China, monks in Japan who derived their authority and prestige from association with the Zen lineage had their own, independent and highly distinctive monasteries. The Zen school in Japan, or rather the various Zen schools (plural) that were based on branch lineages, were institutionally separate from the other schools of Japanese Buddhism. Nevertheless, they were heirs not only to the Chinese Ch'an tradition of dharma lineages and koan study, but to the entire Buddhist monastic tradition as it flourished in Sung China.
Dogen himself stressed in the chapter of his Shobogenzo entitled "The Buddha Way" (Butsudo) that what he was transmitting was not just the "Zen lineage" (zenshu) -- a name that he castigated -- but true Buddhism in its entirety. At the same time, he boldly asserted that his own line of dharma transmission, passed down through his teacher Ju-ching, preserved the true Buddhism better than any other line.
The Soto School
Having given this much background to the history of the Soto school in Japan, I would like to use the time that remains to focus on the specific ways in it which has embodied the Buddhist monastic tradition that was brought by Dogen from Sung China.
The first point to stress is that the Soto school in Japan, at least until the last decades of the nineteenth century, was in fact a monastic tradition. Some other elements of medieval Japanese Buddhism, notably the Pure Land and Nichiren movements, gained large followings by advocating relatively simple practices that anyone could understand and adopt. They still had priesthoods, but they ceased to follow rules of monastic discipline such as celibacy and dietary restrictions. The Soto school, in contrast, rigorously upheld the traditional distinction between monkish and lay lifestyles and modes of practice. It adhered to the ancient Buddhist idea that monks and the monasteries they live in should serve as "fields of merit" (fukuden). According to this idea, it is the role of monks to maintain moral purity, to sit in meditation and to study the teachings, dedicating themselves entirely to pursuit of the Way. The role of the laity, basically, is to participate in those efforts vicariously by supporting the monks with donations of food, clothing, and shelter. The monks are likened to a field, and the donations made by the laity are likened to the planting of seeds in that field. If the monks are pure and earnest in their practice, the field is fertile, and lay patrons can reap much merit from their donations. If the monks are lax, then the field of merit is infertile or barren.
In his excellent book entitled Soto Zen in Medieval Japan, William Bodiford shows that the successful spread of the Soto school throughout various areas of rural Japan was based on a number of factors, but a very important one was the stress that Soto monks placed on ritual propriety (igi), monastic decorum (saho), and the rigorous practice of zazen. The local warlords and farmers who patronized Soto monasteries were impressed by those modes of Buddhist practice. Their support was motivated largely by their belief in the merit that would accrue, and their desire to apply that merit to purposes such as the prevention of disasters, the placating and benefiting of ancestral spirits, and the attainment of worldly goals. Soto monks also connected with the laity by performing funerals for them (which, interestingly, involved first ordaining the deceased as monks) and holding mass ordinations in which they gave the bodhisattva precepts. They further ingratiated themselves to local populations by participating in local religious festivals and making prayers for rain, the success of crops, and so on. But all of those modes of relating to lay supporters were grounded in the fundamental idea that the monks, thanks to their meditation practice and other austerities, were a rich source of spiritual merit.
It is true that Soto teachers gained prestige from their membership in the Zen lineage, and that to become a member one had to master the tradition of commenting on koans. Those distinctively Zen aspects of Soto practice, however, were basically in-house, monkish concerns: lay patrons had little or no access to them. The elements of Soto practice that contributed most to the success of the school in medieval Japan were precisely the generic Buddhist monastic practices inherited from Sung China, and ultimately from India. The Soto Zen style of group meditation on long platforms in a sangha hall, where the monks also took meals and slept at night, was the same as that prescribed in Indian Vinaya texts. The etiquette followed in Soto monasteries can also be traced back to the Indian Vinaya. Dogen himself evinced a good working knowledge of a number of "Hinayana" Vinaya texts that were in use in Sung monasteries. For example, he quoted the Four Part Vinaya (Ssu-fen-lu) and related commentaries in his Merit of the Kesa (Kesa kudoku) and Meal Procedures (Fushukuhanpo). He cited the Sutra of Thousand Points of Etiquette (San-ch'ien wei-i ching), another Vinaya text, no less than eighteen times in his works entitled Purification (Senjo), Practice (Gyoji), Face Washing (Senmen), and Rules of Purity for Stewards (Chiji shingi)." In the opening lines of his Rules for the Common Quarters (Shuryo shingi), Dogen recommended studying Vinaya texts and stated that "behavior in the common quarters should be in respectful compliance with the precepts layed down by the buddhas and patriarchs, should follow in accord with the deportment for monks established in both the Hinayana and Mahayana [Vinaya], and should agree entirely with Hyakujo's monastic rules."
The Soto school did deviate in one significant way from the Vinaya tradition as it was preserved in the public monasteries of Sung China, for it did not make use of the ten novice precepts (shami jikkai) to ordain novices or the 250 "complete precepts" (gusokukai) to ordain full-fledged monks and nuns. Instead, it followed the precedent of the Japanese Tendai school in basing even its monkish ordinations on the bodhisattva precepts (bosatsukai). In China, the traditional two-stage Buddhist ordination was practiced in part because it was required by the government, which used it to restrict the size of the sangha. In Japan, there was no single Buddhist sangha controlled by the state, and each demonination was more or less free to decide its own criteria for ordination.
Modern scholars, as I noted earlier, have often contrasted the "pure" Zen of Dogen with the "syncretic" Zen of Keizan and the later Soto school. Dogen's "purity" in Zen is associated with a rejection of ritual and with an emphasis on the exclusive practice of zazen. A passage from Dogen's Bendowa is frequently cited in support of this interpretation:
From the start of your training under a wise master, have no recourse whatsoever to incense offerings and worshipful prostrations (shoko raihai), recitation of the buddhas' names (nenbutsu), repentances (shusan), or sutra reading (kankin): just sit in meditation (taza) and attain the dropping off of mind and body (shinjin datsuraku).
In this passage Dogen gives advice to the beginner, stressing the practice of zazen. Although Dogen clearly extolled zazen (both the seated posture and the samadhi it promotes) as the sine qua non of Buddhism, it would be mistaken to conclude from this that he rejected all other forms of Buddhist practice. The specific rituals that seem to be disavowed in the Bendowa passage are all prescribed for Zen monks, often in great detail, in Dogen's other writings. In Kuyo shobutsu, Dogen recommends the practice of offering incense and making worshipful prostrations before Buddha images and stupas, as prescribed in the sutras and Vinaya texts. In Raihai tokuzui he urges trainees to reverence enlightened teachers and to make offerings and prostrations to them, describing this as a practice which helps pave the way to one's own awakening. In Chiji shingi he stipulates that the vegetable garden manager in a monastery should participate together with the main body of monks in sutra chanting services (fugin), recitation services (nenju) in which buddhas' names are chanted (a form of nenbutsu practice), and other major ceremonies, and that he should burn incense and make prostrations (shoko raihai) and recite the buddhas' names in prayer morning and evening when at work in the garden. The practice of repentences (sange) is encouraged in Dogen's Kesa kudoku, in his Sanji go, and his Keisei sanshiki . Finally, in Kankin, Dogen gives detailed directions for sutra reading services (kankin) in which, as he explains, texts could be read either silently or aloud as a means of producing merit to be dedicated to any number of ends, including the satisfaction of wishes made by lay donors, or prayers on behalf of the emperor. All of these practices -- like the practice of zazen -- were the common heritage of the Buddhist tradition in Sung China, and all were recommended by Dogen to his followers in Japan. If they are to be taken as signs of syncretism or degeneration within the Zen tradition, then Dogen himself must be evaluated as a degenerate syncretist.
Keizan's Zen is characterized by by modern scholars as having been "diluted" by prayer services (kito) and other elements of esoteric Buddhist (mikkyo) ritual presumed to have been introduced to increase the popular appeal of Zen among the laity. But the prayer services, sutra chanting services (fugin), offerings to the Arhats (rakan kuyo) and other rituals cited as evidence of the influence of Japanese esotericism on post-Dogen Soto Zen are all found in Chinese Ch'an monastic codes, and are not unprecedented in Dogen's writings.
The historical record simply does not bear out the notion of a pure Dogen Zen that later became diluted. What it shows, rather, is that down to the Meiji period the Soto school of Zen was a rather conservative form of Buddhism, one that preserved many elements of Indian and Chinese monastic discipline, and one that related to the laity in time-honored ways.