Who is Keizan Jokin Zenji?

Keizan Jokin ZenjiThe dedication goes:

In reciting the Identity of Relative and Absolute, we dedicate its merits to:

The Great Master Shakyamuni Buddha
Daikan Eno
Tozan Ryokai
Eihei Dōgen
Keizan Jōkin
All successive ancestors through
Koun Taizan
And to all women lineage holders whose names have been lost or forgotten.

May we appreciate their benevolence and show our gratitude by accomplishing the Buddha Way together.

If I just chant these names without knowing who I’m talking about, the ceremony becomes ossified and meaningless for me – and the form, the ritual, if you will the liturgical aspects of our practice are so important in allowing me to actualise my practice in a communal and active way.

So who was Keizan Jōkin to merit a mention in this august list?  Of course we owe a debt to each of these old Indian, Chinese and Japanese men (and the women who have been edited out), but Keizan’s role in the establishment of Soto Zen in Japan in the thirteenth and fourteenth century stands alongside the greatness of Dōgen Zenji’s remarkable achievements and writings.  The Soto Zen institution in Japan, the Sotoshu, actually have an official slogan to illustrate how important Keizan is: “One school, Two founders.”  Keizan’s role is equal, in the Sotoshu’s eyes at least, to that of Dōgen, but our Western discourses on the history of Zen usually overlook Keizan to a certain extent.

Life of Keizan[i], [ii], [iii]

The hondo at SojijiKeizan (or Taiso Jōsai Daishi as he was otherwise known) was born to a seriously Buddhist mother who was devoted to Kannon Boddhisattva.  The story goes that she dedicated her son to the Buddha before he was even born, and whether this is true or not, we do know that he started to practice Zen at eight years of age, and became a monk at thirteen.

Keizan lived a little after Dōgen – when he received dharma transmission from his master Gikai at the age of 32, he was in the fourth generation of successors to Dōgen.  Keizan was not really in the running to succeed as head of the Soto school, or even (which amounted to the same thing) to be considered for the abbacy of the chief Soto temple Eiheiji which had been founded by Dōgen.  However, there was a falling out at Eiheiji, with four monks claiming to be the true successor.  One of Keizan’s greatest achievement was the establishing of a second ‘main’ temple, Sojiji, which for a long time overshadowed Eiheiji in importance, which changed the dynamics of the young Soto establishment forever.

Keizan’s influence on the Soto sect seems always to be described as a counterpoint to Dōgen:  where Dōgen was strict, Keizan was compassionate, Dōgen’s gaze was internal while Keizan’s focus was external, and so on.  This creative tension rings through the ages, echoing our own practice lives as clearly now as it must have then.  Japanese scholar Prof. Masunaga Reiho wrote:

…Soto Zen was established by the stern, fatherly character of Dōgen, and the compassionate motherly character of Keizan. The Soto Sect was founded by Dōgen, but consolidated by Keizan. The profound philosophy of the Soto Zen Sect was built up by Dōgen, and clearly explained by Keizan. Dōgen educated few disciples, Keizan profited the multitude. In the Soto Sect the two patriarchs are compared to the two wheels of a cart for, if one is lacking, the other will be of no use in fulfilling its purpose.[iv]

Some other fun facts about Keizan that may resonate:  while Dōgen was all about the monks, Keizan was very concerned with laypeople too, giving precepts to over 70 lay people just while abbot of Jomanji, prior to receiving dharma transmission from Gikai.  This focus on lay people is perhaps why the Soto sect was always the largest of the Japanese Zen schools.

Keizan was also something of a champion of women’s rights (in a Japanese medieval sort of a way), actively appointing women as priests and probably paving the way for the establishment of a monastic order for women in Soto Zen.

Last interesting fact: Keizan approved of the use of koans in meditation – though not to the extent of the Rinzai school, more as an aid to concentration when things aren’t going well in your shikantaza!

Prior to his time at Sojiji, Keizan had founded Yokoji temple (hearing some echoes here?!) and established a practice of memorialising Dōgen which helped establish the idea of a Soto lineage.[v] These memorial ceremonies continue to this day each September 29th (called Ryosoki), but now both of the founders are remembered.

Keizan’s writings

Most of us know – at least by fearsome reputation! – of Master Dōgen’s great work, the Shobogenzo, and some of us are fascinated by this incredible text.  Dōgen also left us the Fukanzazengi (Universal Recommendation of Zazen), a text for beginners, and Keizan added to this with his famous Zazen Yōjinki (Points to Watch in Zazen – two translations linked to in notes[vi]). It starts:

Zazen clears up the human-being mind immediately and lets him dwell in his true essence. This is called showing one’s natural face and expressing one’s real self. It is freedom of body and mind and release from sitting and lying down.

So think neither of good nor on evil. Zazen transcends both the unenlightened and the sage, rises above the dualism of delusion and enlightenment, and crosses over the division of beings and Buddha. Through zazen we break free from all things, forsake myriad relations, do nothing, and stop the working of the six sense organs.

While the Zazen Yōjinki is definitely the more accessible text, Keizan’s major work was undoubtedly the Denkoroku (Transmission of the Light). In it, he discusses the realisations of each of the fifty-one ancestors of the Soto lineage in turn, from the historical Buddha to Dōgen’s successor Ejo. Like the classic koan collections, each enlightenment story is accompanied by explanatory notes, a teisho by Keizan and a capping verse. For instance, of Bodhidharma’s awakening, he writes:

If you have any penetration at all into this koan then you will see just how profound it all is and that it gets more and more so. Break up this “mind” and let go of this “body.” Just deeply question into the Way and through the subtle transmission of the Awakened Ones you will directly meet for yourself what the Buddhas have realized. Don’t think that your little understandings and insights are all that there is…

Nothing is located anywhere:
no boundary
and no outside.
Is there even
the slightest thing?

Hmmm some food for thought (or no-thought) there! The Denkoroku is one of the great classics of Zen literature and is probably a must-read at some point for the serious zazenka.


When I first started to read about Keizan for this little project, I thought perhaps I’d find a bit of biography and an anecdote or two about some long-dead Asian monk.  Instead, I’ve found a neat reflection of some of the great dichotomies that I feel as a Zen practitioner in our own modern world.  The tensions between wisdom and compassion, between tradition and innovation, between lay and monastic lives, all have really hit home for me.

It occurs to me to ask why I didn’t know more about this before?  Why do we overlook Keizan the way we do?  What does it say about us as Western practitioners?  Or, as our own Keizan Scott Sensei keeps saying, make it personal:  what does it say about me?

For me, Dōgen more comfortably meets my projections of what a Zen ancestor should be like: his wisdom is layered and inscrutable, his meaning must be worked for, his practice is hard and unrelenting, his journeys far and unforgiving.  Dōgen reminds me of what my fantasies of Zen are, he’s an inspiration and a fascination, but also somehow unobtainable.

Keizan’s concerns are more rooted in the daily life of a community of practitioners that he joined as a junior and grew up through.  Somehow I can imagine Keizan picking his nose – not so his co-founder!  Having done a bit of research, the spirit of Keizan feels more embodied in our own group (that my own teacher shares a name with him would seem far-fetched and overly convenient if this were fiction!), in our trying to establish a way of manifesting a living Zen in our very real world with all of its concerns and distractions.

Closing comment from Keizan himself:

In perfect ease go, stay, sit and lie down. Seeing, hearing, understanding and knowing are all the natural display of the Actual Nature. From first to last, mind is mind, beyond any arguments about knowledge and ignorance. Just do zazen with all of who and what you are. Never stray from it or lose it.[vii]


[i] Wikipedia entry on Keizan Jokin.

[ii] Soto Zen official website.

[iii] Heinrich Dumoulin et al.  (2005).  Zen Buddhism: A History.

[iv] Zen in Daily Life (Zenki.com).

[v] Bodiford (2006).  “Remembering Dogen.”

[vi] http://www.zenki.com/index.php?lang=en&page=Keizan01 and http://www.wwzc.org/translations/zazenYojinki.htm

[vii] Sankon Zazen Setsu (Three Kinds of Zen Practitioners), translated by Yasuda Joshu Dainen Roshi and Anzan Hoshin Roshi.