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Soto vs Rinzai: Japan's Major Schools of Zen Buddhism

Updated on January 17, 2013

In an earlier discussion that touched upon the origins of Buddhism, we learned that the birthplace of Buddhism is India and that it emerged from ancient yogic practices. We also learned that the original disciples went out of their way to be inclusive. Today we know that their policy of inclusion has been extremely fruitful, since Buddhism has become one of the major religions of the world.

Like all major religions of the world, Buddhism spawned sects. Hundreds of sects and sub-sects developed in India, and, through the centuries, spread through Central Asia to China. The cultural influences of China produced a new school of Buddhism called Ch'an (meditation), better known as Zen in the west. Zen, known for its emphasis on personal experience and its non-reliance on scripture, doctrine or ritual, is passed on from master to disciple through rigorous practice.

Eventually, Zen found its way to Japan.

The goal of Zen is Satori. Satori, meaning personal enlightenment, spiritual awakening or self-realization, is sought primarily through meditation, but other practices are believed to be useful, or even essential, in its pursuit. The emphasis placed on these other practices results in different schools of thought, Soto and Rinzai being the two major schools in Japan.


While the Soto and Rinzai schools of Zen Buddhism are basically in agreement as to the essential quality of enlightenment, they disagree as to the best way to attain it. In particular, Rinzai objects to the emphasis placed on sitting meditation (zazen) by Soto. This is not at all to say that the Rinzai school rejects zazen. On the contrary, they practice meditation religiously, but they believe that Soto over-emphasizes zazen at the expense of other techniques useful to the pursuit.

Soto places a great deal of importance on zazen for the purpose of cultivating a state of mind fertile for the sprouting of satori. Sitting meditation is, in fact, the heart of Soto Zen. Zazen, after all, was the vehicle of Buddha’s enlightenment, and how many bodhisattvas have not practiced meditation religiously? Bodhidharma himself, the ancestral teacher of the all Zen practitioners, meditated for nine years after his enlightenment. If this universally venerated sage, with his perfect wisdom and understanding, found it worthwhile to devote that much of his precious time to zazen, surely it is a worthwhile pursuit. Indeed, at certain times of the year, members the Soto school of Zen Buddhism devote most of their waking hours to zazen in the hope of taking their understanding to a higher level.

Sitting meditation is by no means the only technique employed by Soto devotees in their pursuit of enlightenment, but it is clearly the discipline around which their philosophy is centered. This fact reflects Soto’s emphasis on “quiet illumination.” They are committed to the long-term, scholarly, and contemplative approach to their task.

The Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism believes it has a better approach. They contend that the only thing gained by over-emphasizing meditation is a state of tranquil stupor, and instead pursue a dynamic approach. This approach has included shouting at disciples by a Zen Master loud enough to make the disciples’ ears ring and physically striking them.

Hollering, kicking, and nose-twisting may seem incongruous in a vocation that professes such lofty aspirations, but there is a method to the apparent madness. If we remember that satori is the aim of Zen and that it is beyond words and concepts, it may be easier to understand that a kick in the pants, delivered at just the right, moment might be more likely to jolt a disciple from the obsession with discursive thought than some “pearl of wisdom.” The whole purpose of this seemingly irrational behavior is to nudge the disciple beyond the everyday, rational state of mind into the irrational “eternal now.”

Gradually the practice of yelling and hitting has been replaced by what has become the trademark of the Rinzai approach. The koan is a paradoxical statement or question designed to achieve the same results as the above-mentioned kick in the pants. What is the sound of one had clapping? The rational, discursive mind will grapple with such a question to no avail. The “Zen paradox” can force the disciple to abandon rationality, thus be more able to appreciate the beyond-rational nature of reality.

One Hand Clapping


Because Soto has always favored “quiet illumination” as opposed to Rinzai’s “dynamic illumination,” Soto has emphasized zazen to a much greater degree than Rinzai. Members of the Rinzai school choose to emphasize the koan as a means to their end. Ultimately, however, their shared interests far outweigh their differences: they are Zen Buddhists, and they seek the same truth.


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    • cobras profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      Sorry for the delayed response kaiba. Got caught up in life.

      I first delved into Rinzai Zen with more than a superficial interest during a college philosophy course. With so many disciples, there's bound to be many great resources to turn to. Why not start at or

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Interesting article cobras. Can you recommend some books.blogs or articles about Rinzai Zen?


    • cobras profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      I'm glad you found it useful, and you're right--I'm not pitching anything here. I just find it an interesting topic.


    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Thanks for the hub. It's nice to see an informative article that isn't selling a point of view.


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