When reading Zen Master Dogen's Shobogenzo it attracted my attention that one of the fascicle postscripts said "Presented to the assembly at the hour of the Rat (midnight)". Given that this was happening during Dogen's time in the 13th century, this late dharma talk would have necessitated the burning of lamp oil and the whole monastic assembly being awake to hear the dharma being expounded.

I have also heard from other sangha members that some Zen monasteries have a dinner in the early evening (16-17) which would contrast with the Theravada and Tibetan approaches of not having any meals after noon.

Are those aspects of the time schedule considered traditional in Zen monastic life? Is there more material on the subject of the practical everyday aspects of Zen monastic conduct that I could read?

Both Soto and Rinzai historical as well as contemporary accounts welcome.

2 Answers 2


Zen is definitely its own animal. Why the practices, monastic laws, daily schedules vary so vastly from even other East Asian instantiations of Buddhism could be a subject of a book of its own. You could pull another book just out of the differences between Chinese Chan and Japanese Zen. But to respond to some of your examples...

On the subject of late dharma talks... My guess is that Master Dogen's dharma talk was given during a sesshin or period of intensive meditation practice. During these retreats, which consist of about a week of 12+ hour a day sitting, one common practice is the all night vigil/sitting. Generally what happens is that the abbot will give a dharma talk and retire to bed while the rest of the sangha sits in meditation until they drop off asleep (there's more to this absolutely beautiful practice, but this will do for now). This happens at the end of the day (around 10:30PM in our sangha, but it just as well could be midnight). And trust me, no lamp oil was being burned. (Most Zen monasteries aren't even heated!) Dharma talks aren't prepared. They are almost always extemporaneous. Dogen wouldn't have been reading anything. That talk would mostly likely have been recorded after the fact.

Regarding the late day meal... This is what is called "medicine"...which the Buddha said could be taken at any time. That's probably a bending of the rules. Ok, that's definitely a bending of the rules. But keep in mind that Zen monks work. Most of their sustenance comes from monastery farms. They also do all the upkeep to their temples, cook, wash the floors, patch roofs, etc. Generally speaking, they simply require more calories than a mendicant who doesn't do those things.

Don't try to understand Zen in terms of Theravadan Buddhism. There's a lot that they have in common, but the two traditions are separated by a vast tract of land and at least 1300 years. There's bound to be irreconcilable differences.


Late night Dhamma talks happened at the time of the Buddha. At night, after giving his own Dhamma talk, the Buddha once asked Ven. Sariputta to give an additional Dhamma talk, which itself was rather long.

DN33:1.4.5: “The night is getting late, Vāseṭṭhas.
DN33:1.4.6: Please go at your convenience.”
DN33:1.4.7: “Yes, sir,” replied the Mallas. They got up from their seat, bowed, and respectfully circled the Buddha, keeping him on their right, before leaving.
DN33:1.5.1: Soon after they left, the Buddha looked around the Saṅgha of mendicants, who were so very silent. He addressed Venerable Sāriputta,
DN33:1.5.2: “Sāriputta, the Saṅgha of mendicants is rid of dullness and drowsiness.
DN33:1.5.3: Give them some Dhamma talk as you feel inspired.

Regarding meals, the Buddha said:

AN8.45:7.1: You shouldn’t kill living creatures, or steal,
AN8.45:7.2: or lie, or drink alcohol.
AN8.45:7.3: Be celibate, refraining from sex,
AN8.45:7.4: and don’t eat at night, the wrong time.

As Buddhism passed through China and onward to Japan, it was forced to adapt to existing communities, sometimes by imperial edict. In particular, during the Meiji era, edict #132 allowed monks to be married. As you can see, this single issue alone provides a key point of departure from original teachings of the Buddha.

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    I would qualify that by saying that not all (or even a notable percentage) of Japanese monks actually got married. Many remained celibate. It did create a class of quasi-monastic priests, however, who had families and represented a pretty interesting introduction to the sangha. That being said, there was also the loosening of restrictions on alcohol which, well, let's just say my roshi loved his sake a bit too much. ;-)
    – asd123
    Nov 10, 2021 at 23:46

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