Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Who is Keizan Zenji?

The Sotoshu - the institution of Soto Zen based in Japan - observe September 29th as Ryosoki, or Two Ancestors / Founders Memorial Day. To mark this, I am re-posting something that's fallen off the old StoneWater Zen site blog (but was fortunately preserved on the Zen Forum International boards).

Who is Keizan Zenji?

Each week, after chanting together the Identity of Relative and Absolute, we dedicate the merits of that chanting to our dharma ancestors. I'm not comfortable with just chanting the names mindlessly, so I thought I'd do some reading around and find out a little more... and then inflict it on you! I wanted to start with Keizan Jokin (1268-1325), because of all the figures we recall during the service, he seems to have been most unduly overlooked.

The dedication goes:
In reciting the Identity of Relative and Absolute, we dedicate its merits to:
The Great Master Shakyamuni Buddha
Daikan Eno
Tozan Ryokai
Eihei Dogen
Keizan Jokin
All successive ancestors through
Koun Taizan
And to all women lineage holders whose names have been lost or forgotten.
May we appreciate their benevolence and show our gratitude by accomplishing the Buddha Way together.
If I just chant these names without knowing who I'm talking about, the ceremony becomes ossified and meaningless for me -- and the form, the ritual, if you will the liturgical aspects of our practice are so important in allowing me to actualise my practice in a communal and active way.

So who was Keizan Jokin to merit a mention in this august list? Of course we owe a debt to each of these old Indian, Chinese and Japanese men (and the women who have been edited out), but Keizan's role in the establishment of Soto Zen in Japan in the thirteenth and fourteenth century stands alongside the greatness of Dogen Zenji's remarkable achievements and writings. The Soto Zen institution in Japan, the Sotoshu, actually have an official slogan to illustrate how important Keizan is: "One school, Two founders." Keizan's role is equal, in the Sotoshu's eyes at least, to that of Dogen, but our Western discourses on the history of Zen usually overlook Keizan to a certain extent.

Keizan Zenji (left), Dogen Zenji (right)

Life of Keizan (Refs 1,2,3)

Keizan (or Taiso Josai Daishi as he was otherwise known) was born to a seriously Buddhist mother who was devoted to Kannon Boddhisattva. The story goes that she dedicated her son to the Buddha before he was even born, and whether this is true or not, we do know that he started to practice Zen at eight years of age, and became a monk at thirteen.

Keizan lived a little after Dogen -- when he received dharma transmission from his master Gikai at the age of 32, he was in the fourth generation of successors to Dogen. Keizan was not really in the running to succeed as head of the Soto school, or even (which amounted to the same thing) to be considered for the abbacy of the chief Soto temple Eiheiji which had been founded by Dogen. However, there was a falling out at Eiheiji, with four monks claiming to be the true successor. One of Keizan's greatest achievement was the establishing of a second "main" temple, Sojiji, which for a long time overshadowed Eiheiji in importance, which changed the dynamics of the young Soto establishment forever.

Keizan's influence on the Soto sect seems always to be described as a counterpoint to Dogen: where Dogen was strict, Keizan was compassionate, Dogen's gaze was internal while Keizan's focus was external, and so on. This creative tension rings through the ages, echoing our own practice lives as clearly now as it must have then. Japanese scholar Prof. Masunaga Reiho wrote:
...Soto Zen was established by the stern, fatherly character of Dogen, and the compassionate motherly character of Keizan. The Soto Sect was founded by Dogen, but consolidated by Keizan. The profound philosophy of the Soto Zen Sect was built up by Dogen, and clearly explained by Keizan. Dogen educated few disciples, Keizan profited the multitude. In the Soto Sect the two patriarchs are compared to the two wheels of a cart for, if one is lacking, the other will be of no use in fulfilling its purpose. (Ref 4)
Some other fun facts about Keizan that may resonate: while Dogen was all about the monks, Keizan was very concerned with laypeople too, giving precepts to over 70 lay people just while abbot of Jomanji, prior to receiving dharma transmission from Gikai. This focus on lay people is perhaps why the Soto sect was always the largest of the Japanese Zen schools.

Keizan was also something of a champion of women's rights (in a Japanese medieval sort of a way), actively appointing women as priests and probably paving the way for the establishment of a monastic order for women in Soto Zen.

Last interesting fact: Keizan approved of the use of koans in meditation -- though not to the extent of the Rinzai school, more as an aid to concentration when things aren't going well in your shikantaza!

Prior to his time at Sojiji, Keizan had founded Yokoji temple (hearing some echoes here?!) and established a practice of memorialising Dogen which helped establish the idea of a Soto lineage (ref 5). These memorial ceremonies continue to this day each September 29th (called Ryosoki), but now both of the founders are remembered.

Keizan's writings

Most of us know -- at least by fearsome reputation! -- of Master Dogen's great work, the Shobogenzo, and some of us are fascinated by this incredible text. Dogen also left us the Fukanzazengi (Universal Recommendation of Zazen), a text for beginners, and Keizan added to this with his famous Zazen Yojinki (Points to Watch in Zazen -- two translations linked to in Ref 6). It starts:
Zazen clears up the human-being mind immediately and lets him dwell in his true essence. This is called showing one's natural face and expressing one's real self. It is freedom of body and mind and release from sitting and lying down.
So think neither of good nor on evil. Zazen transcends both the unenlightened and the sage, rises above the dualism of delusion and enlightenment, and crosses over the division of beings and Buddha. Through zazen we break free from all things, forsake myriad relations, do nothing, and stop the working of the six sense organs.
While the Zazen Yojinki is definitely the more accessible text, Keizan's major work was undoubtedly the Denkoroku (Transmission of the Light). In it, he discusses the realisations of each of the fifty-one ancestors of the Soto lineage in turn, from the historical Buddha to Dogen's successor Ejo. Like the classic koan collections, each enlightenment story is accompanied by explanatory notes, a teisho by Keizan and a capping verse. For instance, of Bodhidharma's awakening, he writes:
If you have any penetration at all into this koan then you will see just how profound it all is and that it gets more and more so. Break up this "mind" and let go of this "body." Just deeply question into the Way and through the subtle transmission of the Awakened Ones you will directly meet for yourself what the Buddhas have realized. Don't think that your little understandings and insights are all that there is...
Nothing is located anywhere:
no boundary
and no outside.
Is there even
the slightest thing?
Hmmm some food for thought (or no-thought) there! The Denkoroku is one of the great classics of Zen literature and is probably a must-read at some point for the serious zazenka.


When I first started to read about Keizan for this little project, I thought perhaps I'd find a bit of biography and an anecdote or two about some long-dead Asian monk. Instead, I've found a neat reflection of some of the great dichotomies that I feel as a Zen practitioner in our own modern world. The tensions between wisdom and compassion, between tradition and innovation, between lay and monastic lives, all have really hit home for me.

It occurs to me to ask why I didn't know more about this before? Why do we overlook Keizan the way we do? What does it say about us as Western practitioners? Or, as our own Keizan Scott Sensei keeps saying, make it personal: what does it say about me?

For me, Dogen more comfortably meets my projections of what a Zen ancestor should be like: his wisdom is layered and inscrutable, his meaning must be worked for, his practice is hard and unrelenting, his journeys far and unforgiving. Dōgen reminds me of what my fantasies of Zen are, he's an inspiration and a fascination, but also somehow unobtainable.

Keizan's concerns are more rooted in the daily life of a community of practitioners that he joined as a junior and grew up through. Somehow I can imagine Keizan picking his nose -- not so his co-founder! Having done a bit of research, the spirit of Keizan feels more embodied in our own group (that my own teacher shares a name with him would seem far-fetched and overly convenient if this were fiction!), in our trying to establish a way of manifesting a living Zen in our very real world with all of its concerns and distractions.

Closing comment from Keizan himself:

In perfect ease go, stay, sit and lie down. Seeing, hearing, understanding and knowing are all the natural display of the Actual Nature. From first to last, mind is mind, beyond any arguments about knowledge and ignorance. Just do zazen with all of who and what you are. Never stray from it or lose it. (Ref 7)


  1. Wikipedia entry on Keizan Jokin -
  2. Soto Zen official website -
  3. Heinrich Dumoulin et al. (2005). Zen Buddhism: A History. -
  4. Zen in Daily Life ( -
  5. Bodiford (2006). "Remembering Dogen." -
  6. and
  7. Sankon Zazen Setsu (Three Kinds of Zen Practitioners), translated by Yasuda Joshu Dainen Roshi and Anzan Hoshin Roshi. -

Thursday, 1 September 2016

September Saturday cancelled

The usual "2nd Saturday of the month" event is cancelled this month as I'll be away for the whole weekend. Will try to be extra awesome in October to make up for it!

Wednesday, 3 August 2016


No texture in the carpet
No pain in the knees
No flickering candlelight
No scent of sandalwood

Empty cushion

Monday, 1 August 2016

Instructions for Shikantaza

It's hard to give concise, clear instructions for shikantaza. Part of this is because I think we all have to find our own way into shikantaza; to become familiar enough with our own internal worlds that we can arrive at our own understanding of what is meant by hishiryo (non-thinking, as opposed to not thinking).

Koun Franz
Dogen's instructions are found in the text called Fukanzazengi, which translates as something like, "A universal recommendation for the practice of zazen", and it's where the reference to hishiryo comes from. You can find a good translation at the Sotoshu's own website (the Sotoshu is the Soto Zen institution in Japan), another with commentary is at

I've always liked the relative straightforwardness and this text, but the question of "What do you do with your mind during shikantaza" is no more clearly answered here than anywhere. This was all brought to mind today when I came across a set of instructions for shikantaza from Zen teacher Koun Franz which really struck me. They've got some of the straightforwardness of the Fukanzazengi, but also a poetry of the Absolute to them as well that I think highlights the futility of a paint-by-numbers approach to shikantaza.

It starts:
Choose this place.

Whenever you can, sit with others. When you can’t, sit with others. Let others sit with you.

Wear the kashaya [kesa / rakusu]. Just as Buddhas sit in zazen while zazen is the activity of Buddhas, Buddhas wear the kashaya -- the kashaya manifests the shape of a Buddha. Even if there is no robe, just wear it.

Do not put yourself into sitting -- come empty handed. Do not make zazen -- let sitting reveal itself. Do not use zazen for this or that -- sitting is neither means nor end.
...and it finishes:
Zazen is not non-doing; it is not non-thinking. Zazen is a deep, dreamless sleep on fire. It is clutching a boulder to your belly at the bottom of the cool ocean. Roots penetrate and plunge downward into the rough textures of the earth. A cloud dissolves into open sky.
Stirring stuff! Perhaps not ideal instruction for beginners, but for those who've had a sniff of the Way, who are struggling to pin down what this shikantaza thing is, a wonderful flavour of the mundane and the sublime which together make up both shikantaza and every moment.

You can find the whole text at

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Friends along the Way

Last week, I received a wonderful email from Clive Lindley-Jones, who attended the one-day retreat last month. In it, he referred to some of the qualities of the StoneWater sangha that I have long treasured - warmth, openness and kindness.

Keizan Sensei insists on the basic goodness of human beings, and it's been wonderful over the years to see this basic goodness manifesting in the StoneWater group. I always worried slightly that perhaps it was a fluke - that just by chance the few Zen groups I've had any prolonged contact with have all been welcoming and warm: most especially StoneWater, where the sense of sangha, community, friendship is palpable. And as a consequence, I worried too that in starting the Northampton group, my own shortcomings might end up meaning that the group ends up lacking those things.

How self-centered of me! I've been so grateful to the Northampton group for continuing the fluke, for manifesting that basic goodness here, too.

Clive attached an article to his email from Lion's Roar. It's a piece called, "Friends along the Way" by Zoketsu Norman Fischer (a wonderful teacher whose talks and writings are always well worth taking time over), and I want to beg your indulgence and reproduce the opening paragraphs of that article here.

The Quakers with whom I have contact about renting space etc often end their emails, "In Friendship" - and that's how I offer this to you!

Friends along the Way
Zoketsu Norman Fischer
Lion's Roar - May 2016

Once the Buddha's disciple Ananda asked him about friendship. Ananda knew that having good and encouraging friends was very important for the path. He even wondered whether having good friends was half the path.

"No, Ananda," the Buddha told him, "having good friends is the whole of the Holy Life."
The Meghiya Sutta is my favourite Pali text about friendship. It tells the story of the eager young monk Meghiya, who wanted to practice meditation alone in an especially peaceful and beautiful mango grove. But Meghiya's meditation was anything but peaceful and beautiful. To his shock, he found his mind a snarl of malicious, lustful and confused thoughts – probably because his practice was too self-involved. When Meghiya rushed back to report his confusing experience, Buddha was not surprised. He took the opportunity t give Meghiya what his must have hoped was a relevant teaching.

"Five things induce release of hear and lasting peace," the Buddha told him. "First, a lovely intimacy with good friends. Second, virtuous conduct. Third, frequent conversation that inspires and encourages practice. Fourth, diligence, energy and enthusiasm for the good. And fifth, insight into impermanence."

Then, for Meghiya's further benefit, and to cement the point, the Buddha goes through the list again, this time preceding each of the other items with the first: "When there is a lovely intimacy between friends, then this is virtuous conduct," et cetera. In other words, friendship is the most important element in the spiritual path. Everything flows naturally from it.

I appreciate the truth and beauty of this teaching more and more as the years go by. To be able to practice with good friends for five, ten, twenty, thirty of forty years is a special joy.  So much comes of it. As you ripen and age, you appreciate the nobility and uniqueness of each friend, the twists and turns of each life, and the gift each day has given you. After a while you begin attending the funerals of your dearest friends, and each loss seems to increase the gravity and preciousness of your own life and makes the remaining friendship even more important.

When long friendships with good people along the path of spiritual practice is a central feature of your life, it is almost impossible – just as the Buddha says – for spiritual qualities conducive to awakening not to ripen. For those on the bodhisattva path, loving and appreciating your friends, even when they are difficult, as they sometimes are, is the path's fullness and completion. Friendship ripens and deepens our capacity for compassion.

Friday, 22 July 2016 group now closed

So that was an interesting experiment - we ran the group for just over a year, and had quite a few people come through the door... but hardly anyone came for more than one visit, and in the end it was just costing too much money with seemingly little effect.

For anyone who did use the group to keep up-to-date with the Zen group, my apologies... I'll be maintaining this website of course, and I hope you'll find everything you need here.

I'm always curious about how best to promote the Zen group... how do you let people know it's there, that it's an option, and about what Zen is... but not come across as some sort of zealot or missionary?! My next plan is to try a Facebook group - the national StoneWater sangha has a Facebook presence at, which has a few hundred 'followers'. For those of you who might be interested in the ongoing saga of promoting a Zen group in a town that doesn't seem too interested in Zen, I'll keep you updated :-)

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Day of Zen - report back

Well, all done now - seems to have been a great success. Not that we had hordes of people attending (perhaps more notice from me might have helped!), but those who came were sincere and committed and we had a wonderful day of practice together.

Thanks to you all - with special thanks to those who brought food for our lunch, or helped out beforehand with planning (especially Simon).

In the end we had to clear out of the venue in a bit of a rush, so I didn't manage to take a photo of the venue or of us... so here's a silly drawing of the space we sat in, in front of the hall's stage curtains!