Sōtō Zen Ranks


Zen institutions have an elaborate system of ranks and hierarchy, which determine one's position in the institution. Within this system, novices train to become a Zen priest, or a trainer of new novices.

From its beginnings, Sōtō Zen has placed a strong emphasis on lineage and dharma transmission. In time, dharma transmission became synonymous with the transmission of temple ownership. This was changed by Manzan Dokahu (1636–1714), a Sōtō reformer, who argued that Dharma transmission was dependent on personal initiation between a Master and disciple rather than on the disciple's enlightenment.

Sōtō-Zen has two ranking systems, hokai (four dharma ranks) and sokai (eight priest ranks).


The dharma ranks point to the stages in the training to become a Oshō, priest  To become a dai-Oshō, priest of a Zen-temple, one has to follow the training in an officially recognized training centre, sōdō-ango, literally "monks hall".


Becoming a Sōtō-Zen priest starts with shukke tokudo. In this ceremony, the novice receives his outfit ("inner and outer robes, belts, o-kesa, rakusu, kechimyaku (transmission chart) and eating bowls" and takes the precepts. One is then an Unsui, a training monk. This gives the rank of joza, except for children under ten years old, who are called sami.


The next step,after one has been a monk for at least three years, is risshin and hossen-shiki (Dharma combat ceremony), while acting as a shuso, head monk, during a retreat. Hosseshiki is a ceremony in which questions and answers are exchanged. After this ceremony, one is promoted to the rank of zagen.


The third step is shihō, or denpo, dharma transmission. Dharma transmission is the recognition of the transmission that took place long before the ceremony itself. In fact, it has nothing to do at all with the paper, with philosophy or with mystical experience. The 24 hours of the daily life shared by teacher and student are the content of the transmission, and nothing else.


To become a oshō, teacher, two more steps are to be taken, ten-e and zuise. Ten-e means means "to turn the robe". Unsui (training monks) are allowed to wear only black robes and black o-kesa. Ten-e is the point in the carrier of a Sōtō monk when you are finally allowed to wear a yellow-brown robe.


Zuise is also called ichiya-no-jūshoku. In this ceremony, one is "abbott for one night". The ceremony originates in the medieval organisation of the Sōtō-shū, when rotation of abbotship was the norm. Dharma transmission at a branch temple obliged one to serve at least one term as abbot at the main temple. Abbotship gave severe duties, and financial burdens, for which reason many tried to avoid the responsibility of abbotship. After zuise one becomes an Oshō.


After having become oshō one may become a dai-oshō, resident priest in a Zen-temple. It takes further training in a sōdō-ango, an officially recognized Sōtō-shū training centre. A prerequisite to become dai-oshō is to do ango, "to stay in peace" or "safe shelter". Ango is a period of 90 or 100 days of intensive practice. There is no fixed stage on the training-path when ango has to be done, but ordination as a monk is necessary, and it has to been done in a sōdō-ango. The aspirant dai-oshō has to spend at least six months there, but one or two years is the usual span of time.


To supervise the training of monks, further qualification is necessary. The relatively low status of dharma transmission means that in and of itself it does not qualify one to accept students or to train disciples. According to the regulations, Zen students should be supervised only by a teacher who has attained supervisory certification (i.e. sanzen dōjō shike status), that is, someone who in the popular literature might be called a Zen master.

To attain supervisory certification requires not just high ecclesiastical grades and dharma seniority but also at least three years' experience as an assistent supervisor at a specially designated training hall (tokubetsu sōdō), during which time one undergoes an apprenticeship.

There are two grades for training supervisor, namely shike and jun shike. Appointment as shike is done by cooptation:

There are about 50 or so of these in Soto (the Rinzai roshis can also be addressed as "shike"). Even if your teacher is a shike, he can not appoint you as a shike. There is instead a kind of committee, called the "shike-kai", consisting of all Japanese Soto shike. The shike-kai can appoint anyone as a shike whom they consider their equal, i.e. who has done genuine training and study, cultivated himself and reached whatever understanding that might be considered enlightened enough to match the enlightenment of the other shike.


Promotion in priest-rank depends on school education and amount of time spend in monastery training. There are eight ranks:

  1. santō-kyōshi (instructor 3rd rank)
  2. nitō-kyōshi (instructor 2nd rank)
  3. ittō-kyōshi (instructor 1st rank)
  4. sei-kyōshi (instructor proper)
  5. gon-daikyōshi (adjunct senior instructor)
  6. daikyōshi (senior instructor)
  7. gon-daikyōjō (adjunct prefect)
  8. daikyōjō (prefect)