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The Other Side of Zen: A Social History of Sōtō Zen Buddhism in Tokugawa Japan (review)

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 57, Number 4, October 2007
pp. 599-601 | 10.1353/pew.2007.0056

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Reviewed by
The Other Side of Zen: A Social History of Sōtō Zen Buddhism in Tokugawa Japan. By Duncan Ryūken Williams. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005. Pp. 241. Hardcover $52.50.

Zen Buddhism has fascinated the West for a long time. The Zen boom of the 1960s was a key moment in the dissemination of this Japanese Buddhist school in popular culture. As a rule, books on Zen have focused on remarkable monks and their feats, monasticism, and studies of doctrine. Furthermore, Zen schools have been studied in [End Page 599] isolation, separated from other Japanese Buddhist schools and non-Buddhist religions, as if they were not part of the social and religious life of Japan. However, more recently, some studies have begun to focus on another aspect of Zen—the everyday customs, beliefs, and rituals of ordinary Buddhists and temples. Following in the footsteps of William Bodiford and Bernard Faure, Duncan Williams, in The Other Side of Zen, has written a fascinating account of the extraordinary expansion of the Sōtō Zen sect in Tokugawa Japan by looking at Sōtō Zen involvement in all aspects of the religious economy of the period.

Drawing on new historical sources that have become available in the past twenty-five years (such as temple histories and logbooks, prayer and funerary manuals, sales records of talismans and medicine, death registries, diaries of pilgrims, and letters of villagers, temple priests, and government officials) as well as analyzing legends, miracle tales and ghost stories, and material culture such as tombstones and stone markers, Williams has drawn a comprehensive portrait of "what Sōtō Zen actually was, as lived by ordinary priests and laypeople" (p. 3). He shows that for the great majority of ordinary Sōtō Zen monks and parishioners, the Zen temple was a place for funerary and memorial rituals, festivals, physical healing (with exclusive Sōtō medicine and talismans), and faith healing (through the worship of deities). According to Williams, they never practiced sitting (zazen), never engaged in reciting kōans, or read Dōgen's writings (p. 3). Like Steven Covell in Japanese Temple Buddhism: Worldliness in a Religion of Renunciation (University of Hawai'i Press, 2005), which explores the everyday-life aspects of contemporary temple Buddhism, Williams does not condemn the lack of these monastic practices, which became synonymous with "true" Zen in the West (many Westerners have argued that Zen has degenerated in Japan). On the contrary, he argues that this very engagement with laypeople's religious needs has contributed to the vitality of the Sōtō sect, making it the largest Buddhist sect of the Tokugawa period.

Williams' efforts in decentering the study of Zen by shifting his attention from famous monks and doctrine to ordinary Buddhists and their behavior have a clear origin in the study of social history exemplified by the work of the French Annales School (1928- ). The Annales historians rebelled against traditional historical practice by refusing to think of history as the study of facts, wars, states, and great men. For them, it was the structures of everyday life of a given period that should be investigated, in order to have a more comprehensive understanding of the "mentality" of the period. The key concept of "mentality" refers to the shared beliefs and behaviors that were so familiar that they were rendered invisible. For historians like Jacques le Goff, Philippe Aries, and Fernand Braudel, it was the attitudes and patterns of behavior of ordinary people, and not those of heroes, who could unlock the thoughts and ideas of a specific historical period. When we think of how European history and history as a discipline have benefited from the insights of the Annales School, its deployment by Williams in analyzing Japanese religious history is commendable.

In essence, The Other Side of Zen investigates one main question: how did Sōtō become the largest Buddhist sect in the Tokugawa period, with seventy-five thousand temples? Williams' argument is twofold. First, by attending to the "otherworldly" needs of parishioners through funeral and memorial rites on the one hand [End Page 600] and "this-worldly" needs through prayers and rituals for rain, good harvest...