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Religion Library: Zen

Early Developments

Written by: Julia Hardy

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.


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