RELIGION LIBRARY

Zen

History

Early Developments

After a brief but violent purge of Buddhism in China, beginning in 845, several lineages of Chan flourished due to their location in the provinces, away from the attention of the secular authorities. These came to be known as the Five Houses, but there were no significant sectarian boundaries between them, and students moved freely between monasteries and teachers. Three of these houses would trace their lineage to Mazu Daoyi (709-788) and one to Shitou Xiqian (710-790). Later, Mazu and Shitou would come to be regarded as founders of two main divisions of Chan, Linji and Caodong (in Japanese, Rinzai and Soto).

The Linji school of Chan was named after the great teacher Linji (d. 867). Linji criticized attachment to spiritual attainment as being no different from attachment to material things. If one should strive for anything, he said, it should be to be an ordinary person, as indicated by one of his famous sayings, "If you meet the Buddha, kill him!" He was master of a variety of teaching techniques including his famous shout, which he used in a variety of situations. This was imitated often but, he complained, was rarely understood or used correctly. A collection of his sayings has become a Chan classic, and many of these are repeated by Chan teachers and in Chan anthologies.

Chan survived the political instabilities of the first half of the 10th century, as the Tang dynasty came to an end and various factions vied for power. By the time of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), it had become the most dominant school of Buddhism in China. By the end of the Northern Song, three-fourths of all Buddhist teachers in China were Chan masters, and representatives of Chan led 90 percent of the largest monastic institutions of all affiliations. These Chan abbots directed meditation practice and also raised funds for their monasteries.

One such teacher, Dahui Zonggao (1089-1163), was head of a number of the largest monasteries in China, one after another, and taught hundreds, even thousands, of students at a time. Dahui is known as the first to use a teaching technique that involved contemplating the "critical phrase" (huatou) of a gongan (Japanese, koan). According to textual accounts, Dahui honed this technique while teaching a nun called Miaodao. Giving her a phrase to contemplate, he refused all rational explanations and solutions, finally forcing her toward a flash of insight.

As Chan teaching became more and more popular, records of the teachers' sayings and discourses were published to meet the demand for more texts. Anthologies of the favorite examples of gongan, along with commentaries, were published. Poems, essays, histories, compilations of monastic regulations, and "transmission of the lamp" records were also distributed in large numbers. Due to the declining number of new texts from India, the centuries-old tradition of translating Indian Buddhist scriptures into Chinese came to an end, and Chan became the leading source of new Buddhist scriptures.

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?<

Back to Religion Library