Buddhism, Zen and Sōtō Zen – Our Lineage
Buddhism was founded in India sometime around the 5th century BCE (before the common era) by Siddhartha Gautama (Shakyamuni) later known as The Buddha (the enlightened one). Among the Buddha’s teachings are the ideas of non-self, that suffering/dis-satisfaction exists, has a cause and can be ended. It is said that the Zen school began when the Buddha was giving a public talk, and instead of talking, simply held up a flower and turned it in his hand. Alone among his disciples, the Venerable Mahakashyapa smiled, showing the Buddha that he had understood “the subtle dharma gate that does not rest on words or letters”.
Skipping forward 1000 years (5th – 6th century CE) and the semi-legendary Indian monk Bodhidharma is credited for bringing the Zen(Chan) school of Buddhism to China. In China, Sōtō Zen (Caodong Chan) took form, in part through influence from masters such as 9th century CE teacher Tozan Ryokai (Dòngshān Liángjiè).
In the 13th Century, the Japanese monk Eihei Dogen travelled to China to study Chan and found a monastery (Keitoku-ji) under the Caodong tadition. Caodong is the Chinese word which is pronounced “Sōtō” in Japanese. Dogen Zenji studied under the master Tendo Nyojo (Tiāntóng Rújìng). What we call Sōtō Zen is that school of Zen Buddhism brought by Dogen Zenji from China upon his return to Japan. He established Eihei-ji, a monastery near Fukui, in Western Japan, which is one of the two main temples of Sōtō Zen today.
The school was firmly established by Zen Master Keizan Jōkin in the late 13th and early 14th century who founded Soji-ji temple. Soji-ji is considered the other main temple of Sōtō Zen, and Keizan Jōkin Zenji, the 2nd official founder.
Sōtō Zen practice and teachings arrived in Europe by various routes over the years. But our particular family stems from the teachings and efforts of Taisen Deshimaru Roshi. Master Deshimaru arrived in Europe in the late 1960’s with the intent of fulfilling the wishes of his most influential teacher, Kodo Sawaki Roshi, to spread Zen teachings to Europe.
Dharma Transmission from Sawaki Roshi to Deshimaru Roshi was not properly documented and recorded so, in 1970, Deshimaru received dharma transmission from Yamada Reirin Zenji, and thereafter became the official Kaikyosokan of Europe. 1970 is also the year he founded the Association Zen International, to whom we are affiliated.
During his life, Deshimaru Roshi dedicated his efforts to spreading Zen teachings and encouraging the practice of zazen. He opened La Gendronnière Zen Temple in the Loire Valley of France, and his many students set up hundreds of practice locations across Europe. Deshimaru Roshi himself died (from fast moving pancreatic cancer) before giving Dharma Transmission to any of his close, senior, disciples. In order to continue the tradition of practice started by Deshimaru Roshi, these senior disciples themselves travelled to Japan, practised with and received Dharma Transmission from other masters,many of whom were friends of Master Deshimaru, including the then Zenji of Eiheiji.
Here is a lovely film showing some of the history of our sangha in Europe:
In The UK and London:
Two of Master Deshimaru’s disciples (students / followers) were Jean Baby and Nancy Amphoux, who were authorised by him to teach. They ran a Zen Dojo (dojo: lit. ‘place of the way’ – a place for practice) in Strasbourg before moving to the United Kingdom.
In 1986 they started a Zen Dojo in Bristol, another in Manchester, and then in 1989 they founded the North London Zen Group at the Highbury Roundhouse community centre. Our group remained there until it moved to a dedicated space in 2012 on Caledonian Road.
The South London group, at London Bridge was formed in 1993 closing in 2018 due to loss of venue, West London saw a group from 1994 through to 2005 and there was a group on Warren Street for 5 years from 2010. In 2012 our SE (Brockley) Group was started, and in 2017, our Old Street Group was Started. In 2020, during the pandemic, the Old Street Group merged with the North London Dojo.
From the sitting groups that they started, the International Zen Association United Kingdom (IZAUK), to whom we are affiliated, was started and continues to this day to thrive in the United Kingdom.
All London Zen Groups/Dojos have one of Deshimaru Roshi’s senior disciples as their spiritual advisor/teacher of reference. For the North London Zen Group (Caledonian Road) it is Mokuho Guy Mercier who received transmission from Sojun Matsuno Roshi.