Adventures at Sojiji, the other Soto Zen Temple

Since our trip to Japan is cancelled this year due to the pandemic, I have been posting old images of past temples I visited. Last time I posted about Zojoji temple and Tokyo Tower, this time I wanted to share some of photos of Sōjiji Temple (總持寺, homepage here) which happens to be fairly close to my wife’s hometown. Sojiji Temple is one of two head temples in the Soto Zen tradition, the other being the famous Eiheiji Temple where Dogen the founder established his community. Sojiji Temple existed since the 8th century though it belonged to a different sect, then eventually it changed hands in the 14th century. There, under the leadership of Keizan, the temple switched to Soto Zen, and over generations grew in increasing prominence as the main Zen temple in eastern Japan (Eiheiji is further west).

If Eiheiji is the spiritual heart of Soto Zen, Sojiji is the administrative heart. Much of what we see today with how Soto Zen looks and “feels” is due to Sojiji.

As a temple Sojiji is pretty large. It is located in the Tsurumi1 district of Yokohama comprises a large complex. My first visit there was in 2012, and I had a great time. The front gate is a lengthy ascent:

If you turn to the right, you’ll find the main office, which does offer English tours sometimes (check schedule for details), and the rest of the monastery. Way in the back is the main worship hall or butsuden.

In my visit to Sojiji, we were able to get a tour which was very helpful in seeing the lesser known aspects of Sojiji. One of the more noteworthy sites is a kind of outdoor hallway connecting the east and west parts of the temple complex called the hyakken rōka (百間廊下):

I believe this translates to something like the “hundred-span hallway” or something. Monks clean this floor daily from one end to the other.

If you go on the tour, you might also get to see the monks’ hall (sōdō, 僧堂) where they practice meditation:

This wooden plank is used as a kind of “bell” to keep monks at Sojiji Temple on schedule while meditation. As you can see, it’s been well-worn.

One place on the tour that I didn’t get a photograph of (I can’t recall why, but maybe a fear of disrespecting the temple) was the memorial hall, where many daily services are held. You can see a video made in 1989 of service here done in the morning:2

It is a lovely hall and well worth seeing. Another, which I haven’t been able to visit is the main altar building, the butsuden.

From the tour, we also learned that Sojiji also has a room for entertaining guests, which includes an amazing portrait of the legendary monk Bodhidharma who reputedly brought Zen to China from India.

Close up:

Nearby are gardens, too:

Sojiji had other interesting things too. For example, the main guest bathroom near the office had a great statue of an esoteric Buddhist deity:

If memory serves, this deity was associated with driving away impurities, but I can’t recall much.

Sojiji is not quite what I expected from a Soto Zen temple. It has a long monastic Zen tradition, a colorful history starting with Keizan and beyond, yet at the same time it was surprisingly open and friendly. The Soto Zen sutra book that I have was purchased here at the gift shop, along with some nice English language books. It still remains one of my favorite temples to go in Japan.

If you’re in Japan and interested in Zen Buddhism, don’t hesitate to check out this temple due to its accessibility and its amazing traditions.

1 If you plan to visit, look for Tsurumi train station, the closest. It is just a couple blocks away. From the larger Kawasaki station, it’s just a single stop away on certain train lines.

2 The part where monks fan through what looks like a stack of papers is a practice adapted from the parent Tendai sect, where monks would simulate reading through very long Buddhist sutras (in this case, the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra I think) as a way of accumulating positive merit, and share the teachings with others. Actually trying to recite the whole sutra, given its length, is no small undertaking.

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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