Soji-ji temple in Yokohama is one of two head temples of the Soto Zen school. The temple was founded by Keizan Jokin Zenji (a master of Zen) during the Kamakura era (1321), as a Zen practice monastery. Soto Zen proceeded to spread around Japan under the leadership of Gasan Joseki Zenji and Keizan’s disciples who educated at Soji-ji. This exhibition showcases well-selected collections of Soji-ji’s treasures and introduces what Soto Zen is.
Soji-ji was founded in during the Kamakura era (1321) in Noto province, now part of northern Ishikawa prefecture. It began as a training hall for monks’ run by Keizan Jokin Zenji (a master of Zen). Zen proceeded to spread around Japan under the leadership of Gasan Joseki Zenji and Keizan’s disciples who grew up in Soji-ji.
Unfortunately the temple was destroyed by fire in the Meiji era (1898) and was rebuilt in Tsurumi, Yokohama in 1911 in order to bring Soto Zen to the eastern part of Japan.
The Eihei-ji temple in Fukui is another head temple of Soto Zen and its founder Dogen is well known for having brought Soto Zen from China in the 13th century. While Soji-ji is a lesser-known temple it has many treasures which are on display for the first time offering visitrs a unique insight into the practice and history of zen as well as a heretofore unseen look at Soto-zen including some of its most treasured pieces of art and culture.
Usually temples have a statues of Buddha or some other deity in the center of the altar and they follow their own practices of worship. However, Soto Zen is pretty flexible. You may encounter the Oshakasama (Gautama Buddha), the Amida Buddha or even Kannon. The belief here is not focused on a statue but rather on revering the actual teacher (sensei) who created the practices of Buddism and carried on traditions, such as Mahā-ka-śyapa, one of the principal disciples of Gautama Buddha and Keizan Zenji who brought Soto Zen around Japan.
In the first section of the exhibition, you can encounter a variety of Buddha statues from different styles and also portraits of principal disciples of Soto Zen. The very first statue is one that the Soji-ji temple used back in the Kamakura-era known as Kannon “Avalokitesvara”. Before the Soji-ji temple was established in Noto, Ishikawa, it was a Kannon temple and they kept the statue and used it as a principal image instead of building a new one.
As you walk into the exhibition hall, you will see a huge cloth which is 7.3 meters tall and 6.7 meters wide featuring the design of a roaring lion hanging on the wall. This is designated as a cultural asset of national importance and is usually only displayed at the Soji-ji temple once a year. During the first half of the exhibition the original will be on display, a rare treat. During the second half of the exhibition a perfect replica will be displayed instead. Regardless this is the very first time either have been displayed outside the temple.
One of the unique features of this exhibit is that you can have the experience of practicing zazen at the exhibition space. Inside there is a formal sitting area where you are taught the practices and methods of zazen. There is an area outside the formal exhibition space which offers you a more informal place to familiarize yourself with zazen practices as well.
First sit on the round cushion facing to the wall.
Cross your legs and place your right foot on your left thigh and your left foot on your right thigh.
Make sure your knees and buttocks form and equilateral triangle that supports the upper body.
Pull in your chin and extend your neck as though reaching toward the ceiling.
Sit up straight and relax your shoulders.
Hold your hands in zazen style.
Place your left hand, palm-up, on your right palm and the tips of your thumbs are lightly touched each other.
Keep your mouth closed and your eyes half open.
If you think your zazen posture is not nice and straight, then sway the upper half of your body from left to right a few times to be in a straight and proper sitting form.
Now you are ready. Breathe in and out quietly and deeply.
Continue for 10 minutes (Usually zazen practice goes for 40 minutes each time and there are about two or three sessions)
The Second Exhibition Hall
As you walk into the second room, you will see a number of exhibits all of which seem a bit dissimilar. This is because some of these objects were contributed by rich men in the Kanto area when the original Soji-ji temple in Ishikawa burned down and the new Soji-ji temple was rebuilt in Tsurumi in Yokohama. The temple collected treasures from all over Japan and stored them even though some were not actually related to zen, which is why the Soji-ji temple has such a variety of treasures including some historical ones from the original temple from the Kamakura-era. At the end of the exhibition, you can see objects from the Nagoya City Museum’s collection which have never been publicly displayed before.
And don’t forget the souvenir shop! They have all sorts of cool stuff such as beautifully carved wooden statues of Buddha. There are T-shirts with zen kanji and the Soji-ji symbol, loads of boxes of snacks and sweets made by the Soji-ji temple, as well as Buddhist rosaries, zazen cushions, calligraphy brushes and paper and a variety of incense, books and calendars.