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Religion Library: Zen


Written by: Julia Hardy

Shenxiu's students produced several compilations of his teachings. One of these includes the earliest known example of the Chan lineage of succession. It was at about the same time that Shenhui began to assert that that each patriarch could have only one legitimate successor, and that his teacher, Huineng (638-713), was the true sixth patriarch and only legitimate successor to Hongren. Shenhui was not a meditation teacher, but he was a gifted storyteller and also a proponent of the idea of sudden enlightenment—achieved not over long periods of practice but in an instant.

Shenhui's claims on behalf of Huineng led to a conflict among the Chan schools. Those supporting Shenxiu came to be known as the Northern Schools, and those supporting Shenhui, the Southern Schools. The debate about legitimacy was resolved when another Southern School group, the Oxhead school, dropped its own lineage claims and accepted Shenhui's claim on behalf of Huineng, including the claim to the exclusivity of succession.

Also supporting Shenxiu's claims was the Platform Sutra, which first appeared around 789 and is believed by some to have been written by someone in the Oxhead school. The sutra recounted the legend of Huineng's secret appointment as Hongren's successor. Ironically, in the sutra's account Huineng named all of his disciples as his successors, effectively ending the notion of the one true successor. Another element of Shenhui's argument did persist, that the dharma is something that can only be transmitted directly from enlightened teacher to student, and "dharma transmission" became an essential concept in Chan Buddhism.

Huineng's status as sixth patriarch was strengthened with the appearance of the Platform Sutra. It was also around this time that the tradition, which had gone by several different names, acquired the name of Chan. Chan is the Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit word dhyana, which means concentrated meditation. The name was well-suited, given Chan's emphasis on the practice of meditation.

One innovation of the growing Chan tradition was that gradually lay followers were encouraged to learn and practice meditation. At one monastery, for instance, large groups would gather for intensive training over a two-week period, at the end of which they would receive certificates of enlightenment and dharma names. Ordinary people who were not monks were believed capable of grasping Chan teachings if given the opportunity, just like the legendary illiterate sixth patriarch Huineng.

Study Questions:
1.     How is Zen's beginning explained?
2.     What is the role of patriarchy in Zen?
3.     Who was Shanxiu? How was he in conflict with Shenui?
4.     Why was Chan accessible to ordinary people?


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