Posted inDogen, Gateless Gate, Koans, Mu, Other Teachings

Sanbo (Three Treasures) Zen: Part 1 of 3

March 28, 2015



Joan Rieck Roshi presented this piece at an international conference held at Tiantong Monastery in China in the Fall of 2014 – the very temple where Dogen had his great enlightenment experience of “body and mind falling away.”

Sanbō Zen is an independent lay line of Zen Buddhism that blends elements of both the Caodong (Soto) and Linji (Rinzai) traditions in its teaching and practice. Its purpose is stated on its website (sanbō by the second abbot Yamada Kō’un Roshi (1907-1989) as follows:

The fundamental position of Sanbō Zen is to stand at the origin point of Buddhism through the Dharma gate of Dōgen Zenji.

Yamada explains that “the origin point of Buddhism” means Shakyamuni Buddha and his great enlightenment experience, and then continues:

. . . The purpose of our practice is to follow in the footsteps of Shakyamuni through correct zazen practice and to realize our true nature which is infinite and absolute; furthermore we aim to eradicate our attachment to enlightenment as such and keep making endless efforts to let our true self manifest itself in our personality and daily life.This is what is meant bythe Dharma gate of Dōgen Zenji.”

Through this actual practice we can attain true and ultimate peace of mind and come to foster spontaneously a deep Bodhisattva wish to share this joy with all other beings while constantly engaged in the great activities of purifying this world and the entire universe. In the Way of Zen, handed down through the Buddhas and Zen ancestors in the past, the way to actualize this great aim is traditionally established in a concrete and distinct mannerthat is zazen. It is the ultimate aim of Sanbō Zen to contribute to steadily realizing true and everlasting peace among all people through this actual practice of zazen.

Sanbō Zen considers itself to be connected to Dōgen Zenji directly, rather than through the mediation of the Sōtō (Caodong) school in Japan. To understand how this came about, we first have to look at Dōgen’s own practice, training and teaching, and second, know something about Sanbō Zen’s founders.

Dōgen Zenji is famous for his promotion of the practice of shikantaza or “just-sitting,” and for his assertion that “practice is enlightenment; enlightenment is practice.” Yet this popular statement from Dōgen Zenji’s teachings may obscure another side to his own training and practice, which also surfaces extensively in his writings—namely that he was deeply schooled in “kanna Zen” or koan Zen, more commonly associated with the Rinzai (Linji) house of Zen.

Dōgen Zenji’s own study of Buddhism began on Mount Hi’ei in Japan, where he trained with Tendai masters as a boy. He then took up the practice of Rinzai Zen at Tenninji in Kyoto under Eisai Zenji (1141-1215), who had studied in China. Eisai died a year after Dōgen met him, and Dōgen continued his training for several more years with a successor of Eisai, Myōzen (1184-1225), before traveling with him to China in 1223.  Dōgen visited various temples on pilgrimage in China, and it was on his second visit to Tiantong Temple in 1225 that he finally met Tiantong Rujing Zenji (1163-1228) and, while training under him, experienced his great enlightenment of “body and mind falling away.”

When Dōgen returned to Japan in 1227, he stayed once again at the Rinzai monastery Tenninji but left after three years, disappointed with the way training there had deteriorated in Myōzen’s absence. For the next three years, Dōgen lived alone in a suburb of Kyoto and continued writing his first teachings on Zen practice that he had already begun at Tenninji. Then, in 1233, he established his own training hall, Kōshō Temple, near Uji, Kyoto. Here he resided for ten years and took up the guidance of monks and lay people in earnest. Considering the early years of his training, it may be no surprise that Dōgen’s writings are filled with references to koans, or that he himself compiled a book of 300 traditional koans.

Although Dōgen is known as the founder of Sōtō Zen in Japan, it may be said that he also represents a confluence of the Rinzai and Sōtō approaches to Zen training. Yet even this may be misleading, since as Dōgen himself says, although there are five “houses of Zen” each one of them carries the complete “heart-seal of the mind of Buddha.” The division of Zen into separate houses took place as differences in views and emphasis developed among Zen teachers and their followers but, in a sense, there is only one Dharma, and all the houses express and maintain it.

Indeed, the mutual influence of Sōtō and Rinzai teaching on followers from both traditions is found repeatedly through Zen history. Shinji Kakushin (1207-1298), also known as National Teacher Hōtō, the Japanese successor of Rinzai Master Wumen Huikai (Mumon Ekai), first received the Bodhisattva Precepts from Dōgen Zenji, a Sōtō master. Although Kakushin did not train under Dōgen, the fact that he received the Bodhisattva Precepts from him evinces a special link between them. Kakushin later traveled to China and eventually received Dharma transmission as a Rinzai master in 1252.  Later, Keizan Zenji (1267-1325), who was to become a co-founder of Japanese Sōtō Zen, studied with Kakushin. When Keizan founded Yokoji Monastery in 1312, a successor of Kakushin in turn received the Bodhisattva Precepts from Keizan, who was now a Sōtō Master. Later when Keizan resigned as head of Daijoji Monastery, he asked another successor of Kakushin, Kyōō Unryō, to take over for him as third abbot. These encounters indicate a deep mutual respect and trust between the traditions of Sōtō and Rinzai Zen at the time.(1) When we come to the 20th century and Sanbō Zen, we again see this kind of mutual respect in action. It could be said that Sanbō Zen exists as an embodiment of the inseparability of these two different methods and “houses” of Zen, just as Dōgen himself did.

Author: Joan Rieck (with some help from Sato Migaku and Henry Shukman)

Click here to read Sanbo Zen Part 2 of 3.


(1)  Maezumi Taizan, in Yamada Koun, Gateless Gate, Forward, 1979

Image Credit: Holy Swan, by Hartwig HKD, CC BY-ND 2.0.
Featured Image Credit: Ordinary Mindness is the Way, by Hartwig HKD, CC BY-ND 2.0.

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