One of these treasures is Soji-ji Soin, a Zen Buddhist temple born from pursuits of benevolence, raised in juvenile conflict, and now standing with long-time rival Eihei-ji at the center of the largest school of Zen Buddhism in Japan.
In 683 a fifteen-year-old boy named Gyōki traveled from his home in the Kawachi Province (near present-day Osaka) to Nara’s Asuka-dera, one of Japan’s oldest temples, to begin his life as a monk. Twenty years later he returned home to share the teachings of Buddhism while actively practicing what he preached: with the help of an army of volunteers, Gyōki built nearly fifty Buddhist monasteries and nunneries that doubled as hospitals for the poor.
From there Gyōki and his followers began roaming the countryside, bringing Buddhism to people who had only ever known Shinto; building more temples (which also served as community centers); and spearheading public works projects (irrigation systems were his thing).
Sounds like a great guy to have around – unless you are the government and can’t handle monks doing anything outside the walls of their monasteries because hey that is against the law and besides who wants robed men freely walking the city streets being nice to people without authorization?
|'Kyo-zo' - The Sutra Depository|
Gyōki bypassed the government's childishness by going out and raising hell wherever he pleased as an unofficial, private monk. This bent the local officials all out of shape, raising cries of damnation for him not being registered as a Buddhist priest on some list at some sham bureaucratic entity called the Office of Priestly Affairs.
Power to the people, Gyōki beat the beat-down thanks to his popularity among the commoners not to mention his skill in developing public works. (Then, as now, it seems, citizens were only as good as their usefulness to the government.)
In 1321 the shrine was moved a couple of kilometers west, noticeably closer to the beach. The ajari at the time was a priest (and, rumor has it, an avid surfer) named Joken. So excited was he to live closer to the break that when he moved to the shrine's new digs he forgot all about Morooka-dera, leaving it behind for a monk named Keizan Jōkin to deal with. Upon inheriting Morooka-dera, Keizan turned it into a Soto Zen temple, renaming it Shogakuzan Soji-ji.
In 1322 Emperor Go-Daigo, in all his Imperial magnanimity, bestowed upon Soji-ji the honorary title of chokuganjo, meaning a temple built at the request of the emperor – which, according the math, is bullshit.
|The Dento-in, the most sacred building of Soji-ji, preserves the spirit of Keizan.|
The aforementioned Dōgen had traveled to China in search of a better brand of Buddhism, and found it in a man named Rujing. Dōgen returned to Japan around 1227 and tried to assimilate what he learned in China into the current Buddhist teachings. Kyoto, however, was at the time overrun by holy robes entrenched in their Tendai school of Buddhism, and Dōgen was less than welcome to show up and tell everyone to start practicing zazen.
After a time he left, and in 1244 established Eihei-ji temple in the Echizen countryside near present-day Fukui. Eihei-ji would thus become the head temple of the new and growing Soto school of Zen.
|The Butsu-den, where the Buddhist deity Shakamuni-Nyorai is enshrined.|
But not for long. Keizan had already founded another Soto temple, Yoko-ji, and the priests there were basically fighting the priests of Soji-ji for spiritual preeminence. (Fighting may not be the right word. I can’t imagine a bunch of bald men in flowing robes brawling.) (Actually yes I can. It’s kind of funny.)
Over time Soji-ji won out, having grown its influence through the monks’ practice of traveling the countryside and bringing small village temples from (usually) Shingon and Tendai over to the Soto mojo, much like Gyoki did six centuries prior.
Meanwhile Soji-ji was also competing with Eihei-ji, which perhaps rightfully considered itself the true head of Soto Zen since it was established by Dōgen, father of the Soto school. But the monks of Eihei-ji carried out their teaching of and instruction in Buddhism strictly within the confines of their temple. Once again, with Keizan's priests out there pounding the dirt paths of the surrounding countryside, Soji-ji’s mojo spread further across the region.
Dōgen’s death in 1253 led to infighting over who should assume abbotship (i.e. control) of Eihei-ji. The pillow fights went on for two centuries until 1468 (exactly eight hundred years after Gyoki’s birth, and exactly two hundred years after Keizan’s) when the lineage of Keizan’s Soji-ji took over Eihei-ji. This would make Soji-ji the Grand Poobah of the thousands of Soto Zen temples now spread throughout Japan.
By the end of the 16th Century Soji-ji was officially recognized by the Imperial Court as Japan's head Soto Zen Buddhist temple. Yet the slap fights between Soji-ji and Eihei-ji would continue, until the Meiji Restoration (and the end of meaningful imperial influence) brought a sort of truce. It was agreed, at least on paper, that Soto Zen Buddhism would follow the maxims of Dōgen and the inspiration of Keizan, and Soji-ji and Eihei-ji would stand as equals at the head of what had become Japan's largest school of Buddhism.
Soji-ji was completely destroyed by fire in 1898. The temple was rebuilt in 1911 in Tsurumi, Yokohama, to bring more of that Soto mojo to eastern Japan. The Soji-ji here in Noto remains a training ground for Soto monks, and is called Soji-ji Soin, the ‘father’ temple.