Walking is mentioned in the Pali Canon as one of the four postures of the Buddha and his disciples. As a practice, it was done outside with the focus on correct walking demeanor rather than a particular form. However, there is no description of kinhin as we know it in standard texts, certainly not for the slow style we use today.
A monk named Menzan Zuiho (1683-1769) pieced instructions together out of bits of writings attributed to Dogen and then tried to show a connection with two well known sutras as well as other texts in order to legitimize it. Menzan was a reformer who wanted to root out practices and doctrines that had crept into Soto Zen but that he saw as not being Dogen’s teaching
The Soto reform movement started in 1700, before Menzan became involved. There had been a government ruling in 1615 directing that Soto had to follow the "house rules" of Eiheiji because it was the head temple. There were similar guidelines for other Buddhist sects. But Eiheiji didn’t have a written set of house rules, so now the reformers argued that that the entirety of Dogen’s writings, newly available after having been neglected and unread for centuries, should be taken as the house rules. They went over all the writings, looking for examples of how current practices had deviated from these rules, but this examination was not welcomed by everyone. Those actually practicing at Eiheiji held that their way was right because they were directly descended from Dogen and were the protectors of his temple and practice.
Thus began a rivalry between texts and practice – which was authentic? The government supported the texts as authoritative, over heavy opposition from many leaders of the Soto school. With this precedent in place, any time there was a disagreement about how something should be done both sides turned to Dogen’s texts for support for their arguments, which made texts the ultimate source. Authority no longer came from face-to-face transmission of practice from teacher to student but from interpretations of texts.
Menzan became a leading figure in the reform movement, particularly related to monastic practice. He wanted to take everything back to the old true Chinese way that Dogen learned when he went to China and practiced with Tendo Nyojo. One thing that particularly annoyed Menzan was the practice of walking while reciting Buddha’s name, not a legitimate Soto practice in his mind because it had been adopted from the practices of the Obaku Zen sect. The problem was that there isn’t much in Dogen’s writings about kinhin, so the house rules don’t help with that. Menzan had to start looking elsewhere for clues about how Soto Zen walking practice should be done.
Next: Creating Kinhin: building a new old practice