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Religion Library: Zen

Schisms and Sects

Written by: Julia Hardy

The two largest divisions of Zen in Japan are Rinzai and Soto. They are based on differences that were well-established, although not institutionally separated, in China. Rinzai (Chinese, Linji) claimed as its founder the Chinese monk Mazu, and Soto (Chinese, Caodong) claimed Shitou. Rinzai came to be known as the "sudden" school, and Soto, the "gradual" school, in reference to their approaches to attaining enlightenment.

The distinction between these approaches became marked, not at the time of Mazu and Shitou, but with Hongzhi (1091-1157) and Dahui in the late 12th century. Hongzhi taught that enlightenment came, not from a verbal answer to the "problem" of the gongan (koan), but from a state of quiet stillness and contemplation. Dahui felt that, although enlightenment could occur in this way, the method could also lead to stagnation. Thus, he created a method called contemplating the "critical phrase" (huatou) of a gongan. According to textual accounts, Dahui honed this technique while teaching a nun named Miaodao. Giving her a phrase to contemplate, he refused all rational explanations and solutions, forcing her toward a flash of insight.

Both Japanese and western accounts have largely neglected the founder of the first organized Zen sect in Japan, which was called the Daruma school. This school was popular in the 12th century, and was considered a rival by the other schools. It was notable for rejecting all the precepts and practices of Buddhism. The founder, Nonin (d. 1196?), was proclaimed an illegitimate representative of Zen as he had never gone to China to study. Even after he sent two of his senior students to China, one of whom obtained a dharma robe and certification of succession from a Chinese master, critics remained. Conflicts between the Daruma school and other groups continued, and eventually Nonin's contribution was erased from the annals of Zen.

In 1194, the establishment of independent Zen monasteries was banned, partly due to Nonin's activities, and partly due to those of Eisai. Eisai (1141-1215) was a Tendai monk who, while known as the founder of Rinzai Buddhism in Japan, continued to consider himself a member of the Tendai sect. Born into a family of priests, he took the vows of a novice at Enryakuji Tendai monastery in Kyoto when he was 14. When he was 28, seeing a need for reform of the Tendai tradition due partly to monastic involvement in political and military ventures, he traveled to China and returned with a number of Tendai texts. On a second trip to China, almost two decades later, he met and studied with a Chan master, and received dharma transmission from him in 1191.


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