The Shushōgi: the forgotten Zen text

A photo of my sutra book from Sōjijj temple, featuring the first fasicle of the Shushogi

Lately, I have been inspired to study certain aspects of the Soto school of Zen. In particular, I was reading in Japanese a nice explanation of the Shushōgi (修証義, “Meaning of Practice and Verification”). The Shushōgi is a primer on Zen written for lay followers in 1890 by one Ouchi Seiran as part of a committee to bring Soto Zen teachings to a wider audience subject to Christian proselytizing at the time. The Shushogi is a popular text for Zen followers in Japan, and appears prominently in Japanese sutra chanting books, yet it has never really caught on in the Western Zen community.1

The Shushogi is a relatively short text that attempts to distill the teachings of Soto Zen’s founder, Dōgen (1200 – 1253) into something that is accessible for lay audiences. This is significant if you have ever tried to read Dogen’s writings, which are profound, but also, in true Zen fashion, very cryptic.

Full translations of the Shushogi can be found here, here and here. A Japanese-romaji version for chanting can be found here.

The text has five sections:

  1. A description of the nature of reality: impermanent and fleeting.
  2. The importance of reflection and repentance (Japanese: sangé 懺悔).
  3. Taking the precepts, and maintaining wholesome conduct.
  4. The Aspiration for Enlightenment and Helping Others
  5. Practice and Gratitude

Western Zen audience may be shocked to see that very little of Shushogi mentions meditation or Buddhist practice at all. Also, one Zen priest humorously points out in a great article that the Shushogi was the result of some pretty creative editing, to say nothing about its content. How can this be treated as an authentic Zen text?

Having looked at it from a couple angles, not to mention my non-Zen background in Buddhism, I think the Shushogi is an underrated text.

First, one of the things often overlooked in Western Buddhism is the Mahayana-Buddhist foundation that most schools are built upon. Here, I am not talking about Zen in particular, but most of the Buddhist people encounter here: Pure Land, Zen, Tibetan, Nichiren, etc. Each of these has a common foundation in Mahayana Buddhism, and Mahayana Buddhism does bring with it certain teachings that quietly permeate various schools: reflect and repentance, aspiration for Enlightenment, the desire to rescue all beings, etc. In cultures where Buddhism has existed for a long, long time, these are kind of a given, so the Shushogi would fit in perfectly fine among Buddhist followers there. Western Buddhism, being relatively new and still developing, still suffers from a relatively incomplete picture of the whole Mahayana tradition and thus does not see the forest for the trees.2 Schools like Zen, Pure Land and Nichiren all have their respective traditions, founders and practices, but do so within the background of the larger tradition.

Second, I think the writers of the Shushogi were trying to cast as wide a net as possible, so they downplayed aspects of Zen that are intimidating to some (myself included), while promoting basic Buddhist practices that are accessible to all. If people do awaken the aspiration for Enlightenment, even briefly, or try to uphold the Ten Good Deeds (which is a very fundamental teaching in early Buddhism, btw) , this puts them on a much more solid footing along the Buddhist path than they were before, and will probably lead them onward to more and more advanced teachings and practices, including zazen meditation (implied in the 5th section), anyway. It demands little, but inspires people to start somewhere in their Buddhist path. Basically it says “get off the dang couch!”

For people who are already “into Zen”, all this may seem unnecessary because the motivation and intention are already there, but for the rest of us, it is kind of a breath of fresh air compared to oppressive atmosphere Zen centers can sometimes have.3

Speaking as someone who is a working parent and lousy meditation-practitioner, the Shushogi is a gentle and welcoming approach to Zen that is at one familiar, and at the same time inspiring. If you’ve been turned off by Zen or meditation in the past, take a step back and read the Shushogi. It’s an odd-duck in the tradition of Zen, yet at the same time, I can see why Zen followers in Japan have so often embraced it.

1 Indeed, in the official English-language Japanese Soto Zen home page for liturgy, it appears near the bottom under “Other Texts”. Yet, in the Japanese-language official liturgy books, it’s given a more prominent place.

2 This also tends to lead to what one researcher described as “Protestant Buddhism”.

3 To say nothing of the one-upmanship that sometimes goes on. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some positive experiences at Zen centers in the West, but I often see the same over-eager characters over and over trying to somehow prove themselves. It tends to make Zen communities uptight, and intimidating, compared to other Buddhist communities I’ve been a part of, especially Asian-American Buddhist communities where the atmosphere is usually pretty laid back.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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