Zen | History


1. Zen | History

Zen (Chinese: Chan) Buddhism, as we know it today, is the result of a long history, with many changes and contingent factors. Each period had different types of Zen, some of which remained influential, while others vanished.

The history of Chan in China is divided into various periods by different scholars, who generally distinguish a classical phase and a post-classical period.

Some scholars distinguish 3 periods from the 5-13th century:

1. The Legendary period, from Bodhidharma in the late 5th century to the An Lushan Rebellion around 765 CE, in the middle of the Tang Dynasty.

Little written information is left from this period:

It is the time of the Six Patriarchs, including Bodhidharma and Huineng, and the legendary "split" between the Northern and the Southern School of Chan.

2. The Classical period, from the end of the An Lushan Rebellion around 765 CE to the beginning of the Song Dynasty around 950 CE:

This is the time of the great masters of Chan, such as Mazu Daoyi and Linji Yixuan, and the creation of the yü-lü genre, the recordings of the sayings and teachings of these great masters.

3. The Literary period, from around 950 to 1250, that spans the era of the Song Dynasty (960–1279):

In this time the Koan-collections were compiled, collections of sayings and deeds by the famous masters, appended with poetry and commentary. This genre reflects the influence of literature on the development of Chan.

This period idealized the previous period as the "Golden Age" of Chan, producing the literature in which the spontaneity of the celebrated masters was portrayed.

Some however distinguish 4 phases in the history of Chan:

1. Proto-Chan (c. 500–600) (Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589) and Sui Dynasty (589–618 CE)). In this phase, Chan developed in multiple locations in Northern China:

It was based on the practice of Dhyāna and is connected to the figures of Bodhidharma and Huike. Its principal text is the Two Entrances and Four Practices, attributed to Bodhidharma.

2. Early Chan (c. 600–900) (Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE)):

Prime figures were the 5th Patriarch Daman Hongren (601–674), his dharma-heir Yuquan Shenxiu (606?–706), the 6th patriarch Huineng (638–713), protagonist of the quintessential Platform Sūtra, and Shenhui (670–762), whose propaganda elevated Huineng to the status of 6th patriarch.

Prime factions are the Northern School, Southern School and Oxhead School.

3. Middle Chan (c. 750–1000) (from An Lushan Rebellion (755–763) till 5 Dynasties and 10 Kingdoms period (907–960/979)):

In this phase developed the well-known Chan of the iconoclastic Zen-masters:

Prime figures are Mazu Daoyi (709–788), Shitou Xiqian (710–790), Linji Yixuan (died 867), and Xuefeng Yicun (822–908).

Prime factions are the Hongzhou School and the Hubei faction.

An important text is the Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall (952), which gives a great amount of "encounter-stories", and the well-known genealogy of the Chan-school.

4. Song Dynasty Chan (c. 950–1300):

In this phase Chan took its definitive shape including the picture of the "Golden Age" of the Chan of the Tang-Dynasty, and the use of Koans for individual study and meditation.

Prime figures are Dahui Zonggao (1089–1163) who introduced the Hua Tou practice and Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091–1157) who emphasized Shikantaza.

Prime factions are the Linji School and the Caodong School.

The classic Koan-collections, such as the Blue Cliff Record were assembled in this period, which reflect the influence of the literature on the development of Chan.

In this phase Chan is transported to Japan, and exerts a great influence on Korean Seon via Jinul.

2. Origins and Daoist influences (c. 200–500)

When Buddhism came to China from Gandhāra (now Afghanistan) and India, it was initially adapted to the Chinese culture and understanding:

Buddhism was exposed to Confucianist and Daoist influences.

Buddhism was first identified to be "a barbarian variant of Daoism":

Judging from the reception by the Han of the Hīnayāna works and from the early commentaries, it appears that Buddhism was being perceived and digested through the medium of religious Daoism:

Buddha was seen as a foreign immortal who had achieved some form of Daoist non-death. The Buddhists' mindfulness of the breath was regarded as an extension of Daoist breathing exercises.

Daoist terminology was used to express Buddhist doctrines in the oldest translations of Buddhist texts, a practice termed ko-i, "matching the concepts", while the emerging Chinese Buddhism had to compete with Daoism and Confucianism.

The first Buddhist recruits in China were Daoists:

They developed high esteem for the newly introduced Buddhist meditational techniques, and blended them with Daoist meditation.

Representatives of early Chinese Buddhism like Sengzhao and Tao Sheng were deeply influenced by the Daoist keystone works of Laozi and Zhuangzi.

Against this background, especially the Daoist concept of naturalness was inherited by the early Chan disciples:

they equated – to some extent – the ineffable Dao and Buddha-nature, and thus, rather than feeling bound to the abstract "wisdom of the sūtras", emphasized Buddha-nature to be found in daily human life, just like the Dao.

In addition to Daoist ideas, also Neo-Daoist concepts were taken over in Chinese Buddhism:

Concepts such as "T'i -yung" (Essence and Function) and "Li-shih" (Noumenon and Phenomenon) were first taken over by Huayan Buddhism, which consequently influenced Chan deeply.

One point of confusion for Chinese Buddhism was the 2 truths doctrine:

Chinese took this to refer to 2 ontological truths: reality exists on 2 levels, a relative level and an absolute level.

Daoists at first misunderstood Śūnyatā to be akin to the Daoist Non-Being.

In Mādhyamika the 2 truths are 2 epistemological truths: 2 different ways to look at reality.

Based on their understanding of the Mahāyāna Mahā Parinirvāṇa Sūtra the Chinese supposed that the teaching of the Buddha-nature was, as stated by that Sūtra, the final Buddhist teaching, and that there is an essential truth above Śūnyatā and the 2 truths.

3. Proto-Chan

Proto-Chan (c. 500–600) encompasses the Southern and Northern Dynasties period (420-589) and Sui Dynasty (589–618 CE).

In this phase, Chan developed in multiple locations in Northern China.

It was based on the practice of dhyāna and is connected to the figures of Bodhidharma and Huike, though there is little actual historical information about these early figures and most legendary stories about their life come from later, mostly Tang sources.

An important text from this period is the Two Entrances and Four Practices, found in Dunhuang, and attributed to Bodhidharma.

Later sources mention that these figures taught using the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra though there is no direct evidence of this from the earliest sources.

4. Early Chan

Early Chan refers to early Tang Dynasty (618–750) Chan:

The 5th patriarch Daman Hongren (601–674), and his dharma-heir Yuquan Shenxiu (606?–706) were influential in founding the 1st Chan institution in Chinese history, known as the "East Mountain school" (Dongshan Famen).

Hongren taught the practice of "guarding the mind," in which an awareness of True Mind or Buddha-nature within is maintained, exhorting the practitioners to unremittingly apply themselves to the practice of meditation.

Shenxiu was the most influential and charismatic student of Hongren, he was even invited to the Imperial Court by Empress Wu.

Shenxiu also became the target of much criticism by Shenhui (670–762), for his "gradualist" teachings:

Shenhui instead promoted the "sudden" teachings of his teacher Huineng (638–713) as well as what later became a very influential Chan classic called the Platform Sūtra.

Shenhui’s propaganda campaign eventually succeeded in elevating Huineng to the status of 6th Patriarch of Chinese Chan. The sudden vs. gradual debate that developed in this era came to define later forms of Chan Buddhism.

5. Middle Chan

The Middle Chan (c. 750–1000) period runs from the An Lushan Rebellion (755–763) to the 5 Dynasties and 10 Kingdoms period (907–960/979).

This phase saw the development new schools of Chan:

The most important of these schools is the Hongzhou school of Mazu Daoyi (709–788), to which also belong Shitou, Baizhang Huaihai, and Huangbo:

This school is sometimes seen as the archetypal expression of Chan, with its emphasis on the personal expression of insight, and its rejection of positive statements,

as well as the importance it placed on spontaneous and unconventional "questions and answers during an encounter" between master and disciple.

However, modern scholars have seen much of the literature that presents these "iconoclastic" encounters as being later revisions during the Song era,

and instead see the Hongzhou masters as not being very radical, instead promoting pretty conservative ideas, such as keeping precepts, accumulating good karma and practicing meditation.

However, the school did produce innovative teachings and perspectives such as Mazu Daoyi's views that "this mind is Buddha" and that "ordinary mind is the way",

which were also critiqued by later figures, such as the influential Guifeng Zongmi (780–841), for failing to differentiate between Ignorance and Enlightenment.

By the end of the late Tang, the Hongzhou school was gradually superseded by various regional traditions, which became known as the Five Houses of Chan:

Shitou Xiqian (710–790) is regarded as the Patriarch of Caodong (Jp. Soto) school, while Linji Yixuan (died 867) is regarded as the founder of Linji (Jp. Rinzai) school. Both of these traditions were quite influential both in and outside of China.

Another influential Chan master of the late Tang was Xuefeng Yicun.

During the later Tang, the practice of the "encounter dialogue" reached its full maturity:

These formal dialogues between Master and Disciple used absurd, illogical and iconoclastic language as well as non-verbal forms of communication such as the drawing of circles and physical gestures like shouting and hitting.

It was also common to write fictional encounter dialogues and attribute them to previous Chan figures.

An important text from this period is the Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall (952), which gives many "encounter-stories", as well as establishing a genealogy of the Chan School.

The Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution in 845 was devastating for metropolitan Chan, but the Chan school of Mazu survived, and took a leading role in the Chan of the later Tang.

6. Song Dynasty Chan

During Song Dynasty (c. 950–1300), Chan Buddhism took its definitive shape, developed the use of Koans for individual study and meditation and formalized its own idealized history with the legend of the Tang "Golden Age".

During the Song, Chan became the largest sect of Chinese Buddhism and had strong ties to the imperial government, which led to the development of a highly organized system of temple rank and administration.

The dominant form of Song Chan was the Linji School due to support from the scholar-official class and the imperial court:

This school developed the study of Koan ("public case") literature, which depicted stories of master-student encounters that were seen as demonstrations of the Awakened Mind.

During the 12th century, a rivalry emerged between the Linji and the Caodong schools for the support of the scholar-official class.

Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091–1157) of the Caodong School emphasized silent illumination or serene reflection as a means for solitary practice, which could be undertaken by lay-followers.

The Linji school's Dahui Zonggao (1089–1163) meanwhile, introduced k'an-hua ("observing the word-head"), which involved meditation on the crucial phrase or "punch line" of a Koan.

The Song also saw the syncretism of Chan and Pure Land Buddhism by Yongming Yanshou (904–975), which would later become extremely influential.

Yongming also echoed Zongmi's work in indicating that the values of Daoism and Confucianism could also be embraced and integrated into Buddhism. Chan also influenced Neo-Confucianism as well as certain forms of Daoism, such as the Quanzhen School.

The classic Chan Koan collections, such as the Blue Cliff Record and the Gateless Barrier were assembled in this period, which reflect the learned influence of the highly intellectual scholar-official class or "literati" on the development of Chan.

In this phase, Chan is transported to Japan and exerts a great influence on Korean Seon via Jinul.

7. Post-Classical Chan

During the Ming Dynasty, the Chan School was so dominant that all Chinese monks were affiliated with either the Linji School or the Caodong School.

Some scholars see the post-classical phase as being an Age of Syncretism:

The post-classical period saw the increasing popularity of the dual practice of Chan and Pure Land Buddhism (known as Nianfo Chan), as seen in the teachings of Zhongfeng Mingben (1263–1323) and the great reformer Hānshān Deqīng (1546–1623).

This became a widespread phenomenon and in a while much of the distinction between them was lost, with many monasteries teaching both Chan meditation and the Pure Land practice of Nianfo.

The Ming dynasty saw increasing efforts by figures such as Yunqi Zhu Hong (1535–1615) and Daguan Zhenke (1543–1603) to revive and reconcile Chan Buddhism with the practice of scriptural study and writing.

In the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, Chan was "reinvented", by the "revival of beating and shouting practices" by Miyun Yuanwu (1566–1642),

and the publication of the Wudeng yantong ("The strict transmission of the 5 Chan schools") by Feiyin Tongrong’s (1593–1662), a dharma heir of Miyun Yuanwu:

The book placed self-proclaimed Chan monks without proper Dharma transmission in the category of "lineage unknown", thereby excluding several prominent Caodong-monks.

8. Modern era

After further centuries of decline during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), Chan activity was revived again in the 19-20th centuries by a flurry of modernist activity.

This period saw the rise of worldly Chan activism, what is sometimes called Humanistic Buddhism (or more literally "Buddhism for human life"),

- promoted by figures like Jing'an (1851–1912), Yuanying (1878–1953), Taixu (1890–1947), Xuyun (1840–1959) and Yin Shun (1906–2005):

These figures promoted social activism to address issues such as poverty and social injustice, as well as participation in political movements.

They also promoted modern science and scholarship, including the use of the methods of modern critical scholarship to study the history of Chan.

Many Chan teachers today trace their lineage back to Xuyun, including Sheng-yen and Hsuan Hua, who have propagated Chan in the West where it has grown steadily through the 20-21st centuries.

Chan Buddhism was repressed in China during the 1960s in the Cultural Revolution, but in the subsequent reform and opening up period in the 1970s, a revival of Chinese Buddhism has been taking place on the mainland.

Spread outside of China

9. Vietnamese Thien

Chan was introduced to Vietnam during the early Chinese occupation periods (111 BCE to 939 CE) as Thien:

During the Ly (1009–1225) and Tran (1225 to 1400) dynasties, Thien rose to prominence among the elites and the royal court and a new native tradition was founded, the Truc Lam ("Bamboo Grove") school, which also contained Confucian and Daoist influences.

In the 17th century, the Linji School was brought to Vietnam as the Lam Te, which also mixed Chan and Pure land. Lam Te remains the largest monastic order in the country today.

Modern Vietnamese Thien is influenced by Buddhist modernism.

Important figures include Thien master Thich Thanh Tu (1924–), the activist and populariser Thich Nhat Hanh (1926–) and the philosopher Thich Thien-An.

Vietnamese Thien is eclectic and inclusive, bringing in many practices such as breath meditation, Nianfo, mantra, Theravada influences, chanting, Sūtra recitation and engaged Buddhism activism.

10. Korean Seon

Seon was gradually transmitted into Korea during the late Silla period (7-9th centuries) as Korean monks began to travel to China to learn the newly developing Chan tradition of Mazu Daoyi and returned home to establish the Chan School:

They established the initial Seon schools of Korea, which were known as the "9 Mountain Schools" (gusan).

Seon received its most significant impetus and consolidation from the Goryeo monk Jinul (1158–1210), who is considered the most influential figure in the formation of the mature Seon School:

He founded the Jogye Order, which remains the largest Seon tradition in Korea today. Jinul founded the Songgwangsa temple as a new centre of Seon study and practice.

Jinul also wrote extensive works on Seon, developing a comprehensive system of thought and practice. From Dahui Zonggao, Jinul adopted the hwadu method, which remains the main meditation form taught in Seon today.

Buddhism was mostly suppressed during the strictly Confucian Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910), and the number of monasteries and clergy sharply declined.

The period of Japanese occupation also brought numerous modernist ideas and changes to Korean Seon:

Some monks began to adopt the Japanese practice of marrying and having families, while others such as Yongseong, worked to resist the Japanese occupation.

Today, the largest Seon School, the Jogye, enforces celibacy, while the 2nd largest, the Taego Order, allows for married priests.

Important modernist figures that influenced contemporary Seon include Seongcheol and Gyeongheo. Seon has also been transmitted to West, with new traditions such as the Kwan Um School of Zen.

11. Japanese Zen

Zen was not introduced as a separate school until the 12th century, when Myōan Eisai travelled to China and returned to establish a Linji lineage, which eventually perished.

Decades later, Nanpo Shōmyō (1235–1308) also studied Linji teachings in China before founding the Japanese Otokan lineage, the most influential and only surviving lineage of Rinzai in Japan.

In 1215, Dōgen, a younger contemporary of Eisai's, journeyed to China himself, where he became a disciple of the Caodong master Tiantong Rujing:

After his return, Dōgen established the Soto school, the Japanese branch of Caodong.

The 3 traditional schools of Zen in contemporary Japan are the Soto, Rinzai, and Ōbaku. Of these, Soto is the largest, and Ōbaku the smallest, with Rinzai in the middle.

These schools are further divided into sub-schools by head temple, with 2 head temples for Soto (Sōji-ji and Eihei-ji, with Sōji-ji having a much larger network), 14 head temples for Rinzai, and 1 head temple (Manpuku-ji) for Ōbaku, for a total of 17 head temples.

The Rinzai head temples, which are most numerous, have substantial overlap with the traditional 5 Mountain System, and include Myoshin-ji, Nanzen-ji, Tenryū-ji, Daitoku-ji, and Tofuku-ji, among others.

Besides these traditional organizations, there are modern Zen organisations that have especially attracted Western lay followers, namely the Sanbo Kyodan and the FAS Society.

12. Zen in the West

Although it is difficult to trace the precise moment when the West first became aware of Zen as a distinct form of Buddhism,

the visit of Soyen Shaku, a Japanese Zen monk, to Chicago during the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 is often pointed to as an event that enhanced the profile of Zen in the Western world.

It was during the late 1950s and the early 1960s that the number of Westerners other than the descendants of Asian immigrants who were pursuing a serious interest in Zen began to reach a significant level.

Japanese Zen has gained the greatest popularity in the West:

The various books on Zen by Reginald Horace Blyth, Alan Watts, Philip Kapleau and D. T. Suzuki published in 1950-1975, contributed to the growing interest in Zen in the West.