Zen Patriarchs – Keizan

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Keizan is seen as one of the two founders of Soto Zen in Japan. He lived two generations after Great Master Dogen and is widely regarded as the one who consolidated the position of Soto Zen in Japan after its precarious beginning. In particular, many of the forms of ceremonial we still use today in Zen temples are said to originate from Keizan. While Dogen Zenji, as the founder of Japanese Soto Zen, is known as the Highest Patriarch (Koso), Keizan is often referred to as Great Patriarch (Taiso).

Keizan left a short autobiography in Tōkokuki (his collected works) which gives a reliable account of the main outline of his life. He was the first Japanese Zen monk to describe his own life. In his autobiography, Keizan accounts that he was born in Fukui Prefecture, in 1268, and he spent the first eight years growing up under the care of his grandmother, who was one of Great Master Dogen’s first supporters on his return from China. When he was very young, his mother had become the Abbess of a Soto Zen convent Jōju-ji, and was also a teacher.

Keizan praised his mother very highly and even said that his mother’s wishes and her constant prayers to Kannon had enabled him to become a monk, receive the Dharma transmission and become one of the Soto Zen Ancestors. 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 five years later.

He left home to become a trainee monk at Eiheiji (the temple founded by Dogen) when he was only eight, became a novitiate under the tutelage of Gikai, and formally “received the tonsure” (became a monk) at the age of 13 from Koun Ejō, the dharma heir of Dogen, the second head priest of the Eihei Temple (in modern Fukui prefecture), the headquarters of the Zen sect.

After the death of Koun Ejō, Keizan studied under Tetsu Gikai of the Daijō Temple. He received “the ritual of ordination” (the Bodhisattva Precepts) at the age of twenty-nine and began to ordain monks himself and finally received the law of Buddha from Tetsu Gikai at the age of thirty-two. After studying under Kohō Kakumyō, at the age of thirty-five, he returned to the Daijō Temple and he took on his first post as Abbot of Daijōji. There he propagated the teachings of the Soto sect for 10 years.

In 1321, at the request of Joken-risshi, he became Chief Abbot of Shogakuji; he renamed this temple Shogaku-zan Sojiji. Sojiji, which was made an Imperial Prayer Temple under Emperor Go-Daigo, became one of the two head temples of the Soto Zen school of Japan, ranking as equal with Eiheiji. Although Keizan was highly qualified to become Abbot of Eiheiji, the temple founded by Dogen, it seems he was never offered the position. Historians have guessed that this was because the aristocratic patron of Eiheiji, Hatano, did not favor Keizan.

Keizan died at Yōkō-ji on the 29th day of the 9th month of 1325, at the age of 58 years. Meiho Sotetsu (1277-1350) became Abbot of Yōkō-ji and Gasan Abbot of Sōji-ji. Both lines of the Dharma Transmission remain important in Japanese Soto Zen.

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. While Dogen was interested exclusively in the monastic practice, 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. Keizan and his disciples are credited with beginning the spread of Soto Zen throughout Japan, towards a more popular religion that appealed to all levels of Japanese society.

Keizan was also actively appointing women as priests, paving the way for the establishment of a monastic order for women in Soto Zen.

Also, Keizan approved the use of koans in meditation — though not to the extent of the Rinzai school, more as an aid to concentration.

Keizan’s writings

Keizan was the author of a number of works including the “Zazen Yōjinki” and, most famously, the Denkōroku (literally “Transmission of the Light”), which is a series of fifty-one sermons which details linearly the Soto Zen lineage from Shakyamuni Buddha through the Indian Patriarchs, from Bodhidharma and the Chinese Patriarchs, and finally the Japanese patriarchs Dogen and his immediate successor to Eihei-ji, Ejō. Like the classic koan collections, each enlightenment story is accompanied by explanatory notes, a teisho by Keizan and a capping verse.

Keizan’s role is equal to that of Dogen. The Soto Zen institution in Japan, the Sotoshu, actually have an official slogan to illustrate how important Keizan is: “One school, Two founders.” The main icon of the Soto Zen school shows Shakyamuni Buddha at the top, in the center, with Dogen Zenji on his right hand and Keizan Zenji on his left, both being slightly below him. Dogen is regarded as the father of Soto Zen and Keizan as its mother.

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.   


Nothing is located anywhere:

no boundary

and no outside.

Is there even

the slightest thing?



Photo credit: wikipedia



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