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What’s the difference between Soto Zen and Rinzai Zen?

If you’re visiting Japan, you’re probably going to visit a lot of temples, and not only might you be surprised to learn there are different sects of Buddhism, but even within Zen, there are distinct traditions. The two largest in Japan are the Soto Zen and Rinzai Zen schools. While these two schools of Zen may appear quite similar on the surface, they actually have distinct differences in their practices and beliefs. You’ll get more from your adventures if you gain a deeper understanding of how these schools are different. It will be even more important if you decide to explore the practices of Zen while you’re visiting. Let’s take a look at some of the nuances between Soto and Rinzai Zen. There will be a quiz later in the post.

Rinzai and Soto both start with Bodhidharma

All Zen traditions place an emphasis on their origin in the practices of the great Bodhidharma. If you see a statue or ink painting of a guy with a beard and a frown around a Zen temple, that’s probably Bodhidharma. He brought Zen practices from India to China around the 5th or 6th century CE. In China, Zen is known as Chan. Japanese Zen is a descendant of Chan but Japanese Zen became popular in English speaking countries first so we refer to it as “Zen”.


Bodhidharma statue, ink painting on cloth over a doorway, and daruma heads, at a zen temple associated with Myoshinji, in Kyoto

You’ll see Daruma figurines all over Japan, often sitting in people’s homes or on a shelf over the counter of a restaurant or shop. They’re red with black painted whiskers around the mouth and black bushy eyebrows and usually only one round black eye painted in. That eye is painted when the owner sets a goal. And then they paint in the second eye when they achieve the goal. Those Daruma figurines are Bodhidharma’s head.

The Rinzai School is descended from Linji

Rinzai is a translation of the Chinese Chan master’s name, Linji (Linji quotes for travel) who lived in the 800s in China.

The Linji (Rinzai) school is known for its emphasis on sudden enlightenment, which is achieved through the use of “hua tou”, which we know in English by the Japanese name: koan. Koans are paradoxical questions that are used to help students move beyond their conceptual thinking to experience awakening.

Myōan Eisai (1141-1215) was a Tendai Buddhism monk who traveled to China to study Linji’s teachings. He brought them back to Japan, where he founded the Kennin-ji temple in Kyoto in 1202.

Soto Zen is descended from Dongshan

Dongshan also lived during the 800s in China and founded the Caodong school of Chan, which places an emphasis on “silent illumination”, which is known as “shikantaza” in Japanese, or “just sitting” meditation. 

The first monk to popularize the Caodong teachings in Japan was Eihei Dogen (1200-1253). Dogen was a Tendai monk who traveled to China to study Chan. After returning to Japan, he eventually set off into the deep mountains and valleys as his teacher, Rujing, had instructed him, away from the capital he saw as corrupting Buddhism. Up in the mountains near present-day Fukui City, he founded Eiheiji in 1244.

The first or left photo is of Nanzenji, in Kyoto, the head temple of its Rinzai lineage. And the second photo, or the one on the right, is of Eiheiji, the spiritual home of Japanese Soto Zen. Both Rinzai and Soto Zen temples look beautiful in the spring (and all of the other seasons).

So what's different between Soto and Rinzai Zen?

Linji once said: “If you just bring to rest the thoughts of the ceaselessly seeking mind, you will not differ from the patriarch-buddha. Turn your own light inward upon yourselves!”

The Rinzai and Soto schools are both practices going to the same place. They’re trying to find the most effective way to help people rest the thoughts of that “ceaselessly seeking mind” so they can see their true Buddha nature underneath all of the extra junk.

Do you want to face the center of the room or the wall? 

One of the most obvious differences you can spot when you’re visiting temples is how zazen is practiced. At a Soto Zen temple, practitioners will face the wall. At a Rinzai Zen temple, practitioners will face the center of the room, or a teacher.

Can you explain the sound of one hand clapping, or do you just want to sit down and shut up? 

A key difference between the two is in the usage of koans and shikantaza. The Rinzai school focuses more (but not exclusively) on using koans, in various forms. 

Koans are about helping you see past your limited/limiting perceptions. So at Rinzai temples, you may see things like the rock garden at Ryoanji (you can’t see all of the rocks in the garden no matter where you stand) or the dragon on the ceiling at Myoshinji (explained below).

There will be regular interviews with your teacher on your explanation of a koan. If you provide a satisfactory explanation, you’ll be given another koan. That can give the impression of having a course to follow.

Soto Zen places more emphasis on shikantaza to get past conceptual thought. You’re not doing stuff in your head, you’re just sitting. The interactions with your teacher focus more on whether you’re just sitting or not. From day one, you’re practicing the practice of just sitting.

But I would also say that learning how to just sit and not do stuff in my head was like answering the koan of having a human body.

A photo of the painted dragon on the ceiling of the Rinzai Zen temple Myoshinji in Kyoto, Japan

Photo from a pamphlet handout of the dragon on the ceiling of the Hodo, at Rinzai temple, Myoshinji.

A photo does not do it justice. It’s massive and truly feels like you’ve got a dragon swirling over you while you meditate below. The painting also uses an optical illusion to make it appear that the dragon faces you, no matter which side of the hall you stand on. I shared about what this teaches us from a mental health perspective in a YouTube video: Is Your Brain Wrong?

You’d be less likely to see something like this at a Soto Zen temple because: Why do you need a painting to teach you that your brain is wrong? So extra…

Is Soto Zen about gradual practice to awaken and Rinzai Zen about sudden awakening? 

I’ve seen people online refer to one being gradual (Soto) and the other being about sudden (Rinzai) but I haven’t seen that in practice. In both cases, whether you’re practicing through koan study or just sitting, you’re really practicing to become aware of the same thing. And that awareness will arrive like a freight train if you lay the tracks. And laying train tracks can seem like a gradual process unless you celebrate laying the tracks as your goal, in which case you’ve already arrived!

At Eiheiji’s main gate, one of the Shintenno (Four Heavenly Kings) stands guard to scare away any interruptions to the monks’ zazen practice.

If you’ve been struggling with your zazen practice, consider it’s because you don’t have four massive angry statues standing guard outside to crush your demons.

Do you want to get hit by a really big stick or a big stick? 

This is a legitimate question and illustrates the subtle differences between the two schools, but also the variability. In the zendo, when practicing zazen, a senior monk will carry a stick. In Soto schools, it’s called kyosaku, and typically smaller than in Rinzai schools, where they call it a keisaku. But they’re both big sticks.

Different traditions within the schools will use it differently. You might hear about some Rinzai temples where it’s used to correct a monk when their hand position (mudra) is incorrect, and in the Soto temple when their back posture is incorrect. But in practice, currently, I find it’s mostly used as requested by the monk (or if you’re practicing as a lay-person at a retreat). You can request it if you’re dozing off or simply as part of your practice. If it’s offered, it’s probably intended as recognition you’re practicing rigorously.

So the differences are more like debating the best weightlifting exercises for building a booming butt in the gym. Somebody will say it’s all about the heavy deadlifts. Somebody else will say it’s all about the heavy squats. Maybe you’ll find a combination of both takes you someplace useful.

Is Soto or Rinzai the stricter type of Zen?

Yes, definitely. 

If anybody tells you that one is more casual than the other, they probably just don’t know much about the one they’re saying is more “casual”. Each one has traditions that might seem more intense if you compare them in isolation.

New monks that show up at Myoshinji, the head temple of its lineage of Rinzai Zen, must wait several days before admittance. They sit and meditate and request admittance and are refused, again and again. It’s a ritual. The temple does give them a room to sleep in.

A similar ritual is performed at Eiheiji, one of Soto Zen’s head temples, but the new monks must only wait a few hours. So that can seem easier if you just compare that. However, each day, Soto Zen monks in training generally sit for zazen longer than monks at a Rinzai monastery. So if we compared time spent sitting zazen, then Soto Zen might look stricter, depending on how you define “strict”.

zen monk practicing shikantaza at a Soto Zen temple

Based on what you’ve learned now, can you guess which school of Zen this illustration is most likely representing? If you guessed Soto Zen, you win a whack on the shoulder with a stick. Congratulations!

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