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Religion Library: Zen

Early Developments

Written by: Julia Hardy

By the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Chinese Chan teachers were writing and publishing their own commentaries on the sutras. By this time, Pure Land Buddhism, which offered salvation in Amitabha Buddha's Pure Land for all, had become the most popular form of Buddhism, especially among the lay population. Some Chan teachers combined their practices with Pure Land devotional practices in order to capture the interest of the laity.

After the Ming, Buddhism in China was characterized by its syncretism. Differentiations between Buddhists sects became less important, and Buddhist ideas merged with those of Confucianism and Taoism, and also with folk traditions.

As early as the 8th century, Japanese Chan monks returning from China had introduced sitting meditation and some early Chan texts into Japan. For some time, Chan was considered a division of Tendai Buddhism, primarily as a type of training for novice monks. Chan was first established in Japan as a separate sect (Zen) toward the end of the 12th century.

Japanese Buddhist monks, including Eisai, Dogen, and others, continued to travel to China to study Buddhism. They returned with a new Song dynasty Chinese understanding of Chan, emphasizing institutional structures and rules of conduct. They also brought back texts containing biographies of eminent monks along with records of their teachings and commentaries on gongan, or in Japanese, koan. A number of Chinese monks also came to Japan to teach Chan, and some of them founded Zen monasteries in Japan.

A number of major Zen temples were built between 1230 and 1260. These included Tofukuji and Koshoji in Kyoto, Engakuji and Jochiji in Kamakura, and Eiheiji in Echizen province, all of which are still active today. By the beginning of the 14th century, Zen had become the leading religious institution in Japan.

Study Questions:
1.     How were the five houses developed? What was their relationship to one another?
2.     Who was Linji?
3.     What influenced Zen to create its own scripture?
4.     How did Zen spread to Japan?<


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