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Japanese Soto Zen Monastery as a Worldly Institution

Author: Merve Susuz Aygül

Source: Global Perspectives on Japan (GPJ), No.6 (2023), pp.38-69
Publisher: Forum Tauri Press
Keywords: Buddhist monastery, Zen Buddhism, Sōtō School, Sōtō monks, worldly interests


The Buddhist monastery is idealized as an institution free from worldly pursuits. The monks who enter the monastery need to leave their worldly interests and desires and adopt an entirely new way of life. However, in reality, in addition to its religious function the Buddhist monastery has been an institution with economic, political, and social aspects throughout its history, and has also existed as one of the centers where artistic activities are concentrated. The monks, who were supposed to leave their worldly interests and desires outside the monastery gate, have not cut off their relations with the worldly life, on the contrary, they returned to the world they left with transformed forms of relationships. One of the most obvious examples of this transformative effect of worldly pursuits on the monastic institution and the monk profile is the Japanese Sōtō Zen school. This article discusses the claim that the monastery and monks are not free from worldly interests, in the example of the Sōtō Zen school, based on Keizan Shingi, the text of monastic rules written by Keizan (1268-1325), the second important name of the school after Dōgen (1200-1253). The Sōtō school, which was founded by Dōgen on an ascetic monastic understanding, began to transform into a kind of folk religion that responded to the wishes and needs of the people within the framework of Keizan’s policy of spreading the school to the people. This transformation has led to a radical change in the monastery and the monk profile by bringing worldly pursuits inside the monastery walls. Idealized as an institution free from worldly interests, the monastery had a great economic existence, and political, social, and artistic activities were included in the ritual routine of the monastery. On the other hand, the monks who had to abandon their worldly pursuits returned to worldly life in different ways as political actors, a kind of spiritual members of their families, and artists.