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Religion Library: Zen


Written by: Julia Hardy

Zen is the Japanese name for Chan, a school of Buddhism that was transmitted from China to Japan in the 12th and 13th centuries C.E., and became very popular in Japan. The name Zen is more familiar to many readers because the tradition was first introduced to the West by Japanese monks.

Historians have worked to establish the historical facts about how Chan began, but much of it cannot be known with certainty. Its beginnings have been told in legends, stories, and scriptures for centuries. These stories established the authenticity of the tradition, and as is often the case with religious traditions, the legends are more meaningful to many followers than the factual discoveries of historians. Legends also serve to shape and define a tradition as it evolves.

According to Chan's own stories of its beginnings, there is an unbroken succession of Chan patriarchs beginning, in some accounts, with the Buddha's own disciple, Mahakasyapa. The succession is, however, more typically traced back to the legendary figure Bodhidharma and continues to the present day. (Zu, the Chinese word translated into English as "patriarch," means an ancestor; a grandfather; a founder or originator.) According to historians, a Buddhist teacher named Shenhui (684-758) launched the idea of this unbroken lineage and designated his teacher Huineng as the sixth patriarch. Shenhui made this claim in making an appeal for imperial patronage for his school as opposed to that of his rival, Shenxiu.

Few facts are known about the first of the six patriarchs, Bodhidharma, but numerous legends surround him. The second patriarch of Chan was Huike (487-593), a historical figure of some importance. He was an ascetic who lived in the forests, following the tradition established by the Buddha. When urban monks were driven out of the cities by an anti-Buddhist movement, some of them turned to him as a teacher. His movement called for a return to fundamentals, such as asceticism and meditation. Legend has it that Huike proved his eagerness for Bodhidharma's teachings by cutting off his own arm.

The third patriarch, Sengsan (d. 606), is virtually unknown except as a student of Huike. A famous Chan text, Verses on the Faith Mind, is (probably erroneously) attributed to him. The fourth patriarch, Daoxin (580-651), rejected Huike's extreme asceticism and reconnected his followers with the everyday world. He was a meditation instructor who gathered a large following; he had a wealthy patron and resided at a monastic complex on East Mountain in Hubei province. His student, Hongren (601-674), also a meditation teacher, was the fifth patriarch, and his apparent successor was Shenxiu (c. 606-706).

Shenxiu was invited to teach in Luoyang by the Empress Wu, the only legitimate female emperor in China's history, whose authority was supported by the claim that she was an incarnation of the bodhisattva Maitreya, as well as a cakravartin-raja. Shenxiu taught that the essence of Buddhism was twofold—contemplation of mind (meditation) and the bodhisattva ideal to help others—and that Buddhists should constantly be engaged in both practices at once. He was a popular teacher whose many students continued to instruct members of the royal court after his death.


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