Sōtō is practiced both in Japan and in the West, and stresses shikantaza meditation as a means of completely eliminating the mind and body as a conscious entity; with enlightenment realized at the arrival of what can be considered "pure existence".
The characteristics of Sōtō as a distinct style of Zen go back to Shih-t'ou Hsi-ch'ien (J. Sekito Kisen, 700–790) who led an important practice center in the mountains of Hunan province in China. From this school there developed three different schools of Zen of which Soto is one, being founded by Tung-shan Liang-chieh (J. Tozan Ryokai, 807–869) in China. Its transmission to Japan was done by Dogen Kigen (1200–1253). As in the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, a senior monk will be appointed to be a lineage bearer in a Dharma Transmission ceremony. This monk will have previously been acknowledged to have some degree of enlightenment or satori by an acknowledged Zen master, as well as having lived and served for some decades in a Zen monastery and mastered the forms of practice of their particular lineage tradition in order to carry them forward into the future. The lineage documents (shisho) typically trace the chain of transmission back to Gautama Buddha, the original historical Buddha and founder of Buddhism.
In the medieval period, the Soto sect gained popularity in the Japanese countryside among laypeople of all classes. This rise in popularity can be partly attributed to their inclusive funeral practices, which allowed Zen funerals to be given to lay believers. The Soto school developed the tradition of posthumous lay ordination, which allowed deceased lay believers to be initiated into the Soto monastic order, thus giving them access to Zen monastic funeral rites. This practice of posthumous ordination was one of the first few elements of Soto Zen that was standardized by the early Tokugawa period. Since the development and justification of a posthumous ordination within the Zen tradition, death rituals, especially ones for laypeople, have marked the central practice at Soto Zen parish temples. By the medieval period, only a small percentage of Soto Zen funeral sermons recorded were delivered for members of the monastic order.
The progressive changes in Soto Zen funeral rites were not enacted by its founder, Zen Master Dogen, but came about years later when Zen master Keizan Jokin the fourth Japanese Soto patriarch and founder of Sojiji temple, encouraged Zen monks to go out into the countryside and perform funeral services for the laity. Although Dogen was the first to implement many aspects of Chinese Ch’an monastic codes in Japan, his gogoku doesn’t contain any funeral sermons. At the time that Keizan was patriarch, however, different schools of Zen were in competition for followers and they were conscious of the necessity of making practical rituals such as funerals available to the laity. The opening of Zen funeral rites to the laity was significant in understanding the spread and appeal of Soto Zen. As a result of this more inclusive attitude towards funerals, many new temples were built in rural areas, and the Soto order was able to gradually expand throughout Japan.
Funerals continue to play an important role as a point of contact between the monks and the laity. Statistics published by the Soto school state that 80 percent of Soto laymen visit their temple only for reasons having to do with funerals and death, while only 17 percent visit for spiritual reasons and a mere 3 percent visit a Zen priest at a time of personal trouble or crisis.
The larger majority of North American Sōtō priests, although including Japanese nationals, mainly those of American and specifically European descent, joined together in 1996 to form the Soto Zen Buddhist Association. While institutionally independent of the Japanese Sōtōshū, the Sōtō Zen Buddhist Association works closely with what most members see as their parent organization. With about one hundred fully transmitted priests, the Soto Zen Buddhist Association now represents nearly all Japanese-derived Sōtō Zen lineages in North America.
Shih-t'ou Hsi-ch'ien's (Shitou Xiqien, Sekito Kisen, 700-790) poem "The Harmony of Difference and Sameness" is an important early expression of Zen Buddhism and is chanted in Sōtō temples to this day. One of the poems of Tung-shan Liang-chieh, the founder of Sōtō, "The Song of the Jewel Mirror Awareness" is also chanted in Soto temples. Another set of his poems on the Five Positions (Five Ranks) of Absolute and Relative is important as a set of koans in the Rinzai school. Other texts typically chanted in Sōtō Zen temples include the Heart Sutra (Hannyashingyō), and Dogen's Fukanzazengi (Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen). Dogen's teaching is characterized by the identification of practice as enlightenment itself. This is to be found in the Shōbōgenzō.