For other uses, see Zen (disambiguation).
Bodhidharma and Dazu Huike, the first two Zen patriarchs
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese
Simplified Chinese
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese Thiền
Korean name
Japanese name
Sanskrit name
Sanskrit dhyāna

Zen (Chinese: ; pinyin: Chán) is a school of Mahayana Buddhism[note 1] that originated in China during the Tang dynasty as Chan Buddhism. It was strongly influenced by Taoism and developed as a distinguished school of Chinese Buddhism. From China, Chan Buddhism spread south to Vietnam, northeast to Korea and east to Japan, where it became known as Japanese Zen.[2]

Zen emphasizes rigorous self-control, meditation-practice, insight into Buddha-nature, and the personal expression of this insight in daily life, especially for the benefit of others.[3][4] As such, it de-emphasizes mere knowledge of sutras and doctrine[5][6] and favors direct understanding through zazen and interaction with an accomplished teacher.[7]

The teachings of Zen include various sources of Mahayana thought, especially Yogachara, the Tathāgatagarbha sūtras and the Huayan school, with their emphasis on Buddha-nature, totality, and the Bodhisattva-ideal.[8][9] The Prajñāpāramitā literature[10] and, to a lesser extent, Madhyamaka have also been influential in the shaping of the "paradoxical language" of the Zen-tradition.


The word Zen is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of the Middle Chinese word 禪 (dʑjen) (pinyin: Chán), which in turn is derived from the Sanskrit word dhyāna (ध्यान ),[1] which can be approximately translated as "absorption" or "meditative state".[11]

Zen practice

Central to Zen is the practice of dhyana or meditation.

Observing the breath

Venerable Hsuan Hua meditating in the Lotus Position. Hong Kong, 1953.

During sitting meditation, practitioners usually assume a position such as the lotus position, half-lotus, Burmese, or seiza postures, using the dhyāna mudrā. To regulate the mind, awareness is directed towards counting or watching the breath or by bringing that awareness to the energy center below the navel (see also ānāpānasati).[web 1] Often, a square or round cushion placed on a padded mat is used to sit on; in some other cases, a chair may be used. This practice may simply be called sitting dhyāna, which is zuòchán (坐禅) in Chinese, and zazen (坐禅) in Japanese.

Observing the mind

In the Sōtō school of Zen, meditation with no objects, anchors, or content, is the primary form of practice. The meditator strives to be aware of the stream of thoughts, allowing them to arise and pass away without interference. Considerable textual, philosophical, and phenomenological justification of this practice can be found throughout Dōgen's Shōbōgenzō, as for example in the "Principles of Zazen"[web 2] and the "Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen".[web 3] In the Japanese language, this practice is called Shikantaza.

Intensive group meditation

Intensive group meditation may be practiced occasionally in some temples. In the Japanese language, this practice is called Sesshin. While the daily routine may require monks to meditate for several hours each day, during the intensive period they devote themselves almost exclusively to the practice of sitting meditation. The numerous 30–50 minute long meditation periods are interwoven with rest breaks, meals, and short periods of work that are performed with the same mindfulness; nightly sleep is kept to seven hours or less. In modern Buddhist practice in Japan, Taiwan, and the West, lay students often attend these intensive practice sessions, which are typically 1, 3, 5, or 7 days in length. These are held at many Zen centers, especially in commemoration of the Buddha's attainment of Anuttarā Samyaksaṃbodhi. One distinctive aspect of Zen meditation in groups is the use of a kyosaku, a flat, wooden slat used to strike meditators with the intention of keeping them focused and awake.

Insight – Kōan practice

Main article: Kōan
Chinese character for "nothing" (Hanyu Pinyin: ; Japanese pronunciation: mu; Korean pronunciation: mu). It figures in the famous Zhaozhou's dog kōan

At the beginning of the Sòng dynasty, practice with the kōan method became popular, whereas others practiced "silent illumination."[12] This became the source of some differences in practice between the Línjì and Cáodòng schools.

A kōan, literally "public case", is a story or dialogue, describing an interaction between a Zen master and a student. These anecdotes give a demonstration of the master's insight. Koans emphasize the non-conceptional insight that the Buddhist teachings are pointing to. Koans can be used to provoke the "great doubt", and test a student's progress in Zen practice.

Kōan-inquiry may be practiced during zazen (sitting meditation), kinhin (walking meditation), and throughout all the activities of daily life. Kōan practice is particularly emphasized by the Japanese Rinzai school, but it also occurs in other schools or branches of Zen depending on the teaching line.[13]

The Zen student's mastery of a given kōan is presented to the teacher in a private interview (referred to in Japanese as dokusan (独参), daisan (代参), or sanzen (参禅)). While there is no unique answer to a kōan, practitioners are expected to demonstrate their understanding of the kōan and of Zen through their responses. The teacher may approve or disapprove of the answer and guide the student in the right direction. The interaction with a Zen-teacher is central in Zen, but makes Zen-practice, at least in the west, also vulnerable to misunderstanding and exploitation.[14]

Zen chanting and liturgy

See also: Buddhist chant

A practice in many Zen monasteries and centers is a daily liturgy service. Practitioners chant major sutras such as the Heart Sutra, chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra (often called the "Avalokiteśvara Sutra"), Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi, the Nīlakaṇṭha Dhāraṇī, and other minor mantras.

The butsudan is the altar in a monastery where offerings are made to the images of the Buddha or bodhisattvas. The same term is also used in Japanese homes for the altar where one prays to and communicates with deceased family members. As such, reciting liturgy in Zen can be seen as a means to connect with the Bodhisattvas of the past. Liturgy is often used during funerals, memorials, and other special events as means to invoke the aid of supernatural powers.

Chanting usually centers on major bodhisattvas like Avalokiteśvara (see Guanyin) and Manjushri. According to Mahayana Buddhism, bodhisattvas are beings who have taken vows to remain in saṃsāra to help all beings achieve liberation from it. Since the Zen practitioner's aim is to walk the bodhisattva path, chanting can be used as a means to connect with these beings and realize this ideal within oneself.

Lay services

Though in western Zen the emphasis is on zen-meditation, and the application of Zen-teachings in daily life, Japanese Zen also serves a function in public religion. Funerals play an important role as a point of contact between the monks and the laity. Statistics published by the Sōtō school state that 80 percent of Sōtō laymen visit their temple only for reasons having to do with funerals and death. Seventeen percent visit for spiritual reasons and 3 percent visit a Zen priest at a time of personal trouble or crisis.[15]

Zen teachings

Though Zen-narrative states that it is a "special transmission outside scriptures" which "did not stand upon words",[16] Zen does have a rich doctrinal background, which is firmly grounded in the Buddhist tradition.[17] It was thoroughly influenced by the Chinese understanding of Yogacara and the Buddha-nature doctrine,[18][19] Zen integrates both Yogacara and Madhyamaka,[20] and the influence of Madhyamaka can be discerned in the stress on non-conceptual insight and the paradoxical language of the koans.[18][web 4][21][note 2] Most essential are "the most fundamental teaching that we are already originally enlightened",[22] and the Bodhisattva ideal, which supplements insight with Karuṇā, compassion with all sentient beings.[23]

To point out 'essential Zen-teachings' is almost impossible, given the variety of schools, the extended history of 1500 years, and the emphasis on suchness, reality just-as-it-is, which has to be expressed in daily life, not in words. But common to most schools and teachings is this emphasis on suchness and Buddha-nature, the Bodhisattva-ideal, and the priority of zazen.

Zen teachings can be likened to "the finger pointing at the moon".[24] Zen teachings point to the moon, awakening, "a realization of the unimpeded interpenetration of the dharmadhatu".[25] But the Zen-tradition also warns against taking its teachings, the pointing finger, to be this insight itself.[26][web 5][web 6][27]

The various traditions lay various emphases in their teachings and practices:

There are two different ways of understanding and actually practicing Zen. These two different ways are termed in Chinese pen chueh and shih-chueh respectively. The term pen chueh refers to the belief that one’s mind is from the beginning of time fully enlightened, while shih-chueh refers to the belief that at some point in time we pass from imprisonment in ignorance and delusion to a true vision of Zen realization: “Our enlightenment is timeless, yet our realization of it occurs in time.” According to this belief experiencing a moment of awakening in this life is of central importance.[28]


Main article: Rinzai school

The Rinzai school is the Japanese lineage of the Chinese Linji school, which was founded during the Tang dynasty by Linji Yixuan.The Rinzai school emphasizes kensho, insight into one's true nature.[29] This is followed by so-called post-satori practice, further practice to attain Buddhahood.[30][31][32]

Other Zen-teachers have also expressed sudden insight followed by gradual cultivation. Jinul, a 12th-century Korean Seon master, followed Zongmi, and also emphasized that insight into our true nature is sudden, but is to be followed by practice to ripen the insight and attain full buddhahood. This is also the standpoint of the contemporary Sanbo Kyodan, according to whom kenshō is at the start of the path to full enlightenment.[33]

To attain this primary insight and to deepen it, zazen and kōan-study is deemed essential. This trajectory of initial insight followed by a gradual deepening and ripening is expressed by Linji in his Three Mysterious Gates and Hakuin Ekaku's Four Ways of Knowing.[23] Another example of depiction of stages on the path are the Ten Bulls, which detail the steps on the path.


Main article: Sōtō

Sōtō is the Japanese line of the Chinese Caodong school, which was founded during the Tang Dynasty by Dongshan Liangjie. The Sōtō-school has de-emphasized kōans since Gentō Sokuchū (circa 1800), and instead emphasized shikantaza.[34] Dogen, the founder of Soto in Japan, emphasised that practice and awakening cannot be separated. By practicing shikantaza, attainment and Buddhahood are already being expressed.[35] For Dogen, zazen, or shikantaza, is the essence of Buddhist practice.[36] Gradual cultivation was also recognized by Dongshan Liangjie.[web 7]

Sanbo Kyodan

The Sanbo Kyodan combines Soto and Rinzai teachings.[33][37] It is a Japanese lay organization, which is highly influential in the West through the work of Hakuun Yasutani, Philip Kapleau, Yamada Koun, and Taizan Maezumi. Yasutani mentions three goals of Zen: development of concentration (joriki), awakening (kensho-godo), and realization of Zen in daily life (mujodo no taigen).[33] Kensho is stressed,[37] but also post-satori practice.[38][note 3]

Zen scripture

Main article: Zen and Sutras

The role of scripture in Zen

Contrary to the popular image, literature does play a role in the Zen-training. Zen is deeply rooted in the teachings and doctrines of Mahāyāna Buddhism.[39] Unsui, Zen-monks, "are expected to become familiar with the classics of the Zen canon".[40] A review of the early historical documents and literature of early Zen masters clearly reveals that they were well versed in numerous Mahāyāna Buddhist sūtras,[5][note 4][note 5][5][note 6] including Madhyamaka.[18]

Nevertheless, Zen is often pictured as anti-intellectual.[39] This picture of Zen emerged during the Song Dynasty (960–1297), when Chán became the dominant form of Buddhism in China, and gained great popularity among the educated and literary classes of Chinese society. The use of koans, which are highly stylized literary texts, reflects this popularity among the higher classes.[43] The famous saying "do not establish words and letters", attributed in this period to Bodhidharma,[44]

...was taken not as a denial of the recorded words of the Buddha or the doctrinal elaborations by learned monks, but as a warning to those who had become confused about the relationship between Buddhist teaching as a guide to the truth and mistook it for the truth itself.[45]

What the Zen tradition emphasizes is that the enlightenment of the Buddha came not through conceptualization, but rather through direct insight.[46] But direct insight has to be supported by study and understanding (hori[47]) of the Buddhist teachings and texts.[48][note 7] Intellectual understanding without practice is called yako-zen, "wild fox Zen", but "one who has only experience without intellectual understanding is a zen temma, 'Zen devil'".[50]

Grounding Chán in scripture

The early Buddhist schools in China were each based on a specific sutra. At the beginning of the Tang Dynasty, by the time of the Fifth Patriarch Hongren (601–674), the Zen school became established as a separate school of Buddhism.[51] It had to develop a doctrinal tradition of its own to ascertain its position,[43] and to ground its teachings in a specific sutra. Various sutras were used for this, even before the time of Hongren: the Śrīmālādevī Sūtra (Huike),[52] Awakening of Faith (Daoxin),[52] the Lankavatara Sutra (East Mountain School),[52][5] the Diamond Sutra[53] (Shenhui),[52] the Platform Sutra.[5][53] None of these sutras was decisive though, since the school drew inspiration from a variety of sources.[54] Subsequently, the Zen tradition produced a rich corpus of written literature which has become a part of its practice and teaching. Other influential sutras are the Vimalakirti Sutra,[55][56][57] Avatamsaka Sutra,[58] the Shurangama Sutra,[59] and the Mahaparinirvana Sutra.[60]

Zen literature

See also: Zen literature

The Zen-tradition developed a rich textual tradition, based on the interpretation of the Buddhist teachings and the recorded sayings of Zen-masters. Important texts are the Platform Sutra (8th century), attributed to Huineng ;[43] the Chán transmission records, teng-lu,[61] such as The Records of the Transmission of the Lamp (Ching-te ch'uan-teng lu), compiled by Tao-yün and published in 1004;[62] the "yü-lü" genre[63] consisting of the recorded sayings of the masters, and the encounter dialogues; the koan-collections, such as the "Gateless Gate" and the "Blue Cliff Record". 'and Dogen's Shobogenzo.

Zen organization and institutions

Religion is not only an individual matter, but "also a collective endeavour".[64] Though individual experience[65] and the iconoclastic picture of Zen[66] are emphasised in the Western world, the Zen-tradition is maintained and transferred by a high degree of institutionalisation and hierarchy.[67][68] In Japan, modernity has led to criticism of the formal system and the commencement of lay-oriented Zen-schools such as the Sanbo Kyodan[37] and the Ningen Zen Kyodan.[web 8] How to organize the continuity of the Zen-tradition in the West, constraining charismatic authority and the derailment it may bring on the one hand,[69][70][14] and maintaining the legitimacy and authority by limiting the number of authorized teachers on the other hand,[64] is a challenge for the developing Zen-communities in the West.

Zen narratives

Main article: Zen Narratives

The Chán of the Tang Dynasty, especially that of Mazu and Linji with its emphasis on "shock techniques", in retrospect was seen as a golden age of Chán.[43] This picture has gained great popularity in the West in the 20th century, especially due to the influence of D.T. Suzuki,[71] and further popularized by Hakuun Yasutani and the Sanbo Kyodan.[65] This picture has been challenged, and complemented, since the 1970s by modern scientific research on Zen.[72][73][43][74][75][76]

Modern scientific research on the history of Zen discerns three main narratives concerning Zen, its history and its teachings: Traditional Zen Narrative (TZN),[77][web 9] Buddhist Modernism (BM),[71] Historical and Cultural Criticism (HCC).[77] An external narrative is Nondualism, which claims Zen to be a token of a universal nondualist essence of religions.[78][79]

History of Zen

Chinese Chán

Main article: Chinese Chán


The history of Chán in China can be divided in several periods. Zen 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.[43][80]

Ferguson distinguishes three periods from the 5th century into the 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.[81] It is the time of the Six Patriarchs, including Bodhidharma and Huineng, and the legendary "split" between the Northern and the Southern School of Chán.[43]
  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.[81] This is the time of the great masters of Chán, 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,[81] which spans the era of the Song Dynasty (960–1279). In this time the gongan-collections were compiled, collections of sayings and deeds by the famous masters, appended with poetry and commentary. This genre reflects the influence of literati on the development of Chán. This period idealized the previous period as the "golden age" of Chán, producing the literature in which the spontaneity of the celebrated masters was portrayed.

Although McRae has reservations about the division of Chán-history in phases or periods,[82] he nevertheless distinguishes four phases in the history of Chán:[83]

  1. Proto-Chán (c. 500–600) (Southern and Northern Dynasties (420 to 589) and Sui Dynasty (589–618 CE)). In this phase, Chán developed in multiple locations in northern China. It was based on the practice of dhyana, and is connected to the figures of Bodhidharma and Huike. Its principal text is the Two Entrances and Four Practices, attributed to Bodhidharma.[84]
  2. Early Chán (c. 600–900) (Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE)). In this phase Chán took its first clear contours. Prime figures are the fifth patriarch Daman Hongren (601–674), his dharma-heir Yuquan Shenxiu (606?–706), the sixth patriarch Huineng (638–713), antagonist of the quintessential Platform Sutra, and Shenhui (670–762), whose propaganda elevated Huineng to the status of sixth patriarch. Prime factions are the Northern School, Southern School and Oxhead School.[85]
  3. Middle Chán (c. 750–1000) (from An Lushan Rebellion (755–763) till Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (907–960/979)). In this phase developed the well-known Chán 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[note 8] 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 Chán-school.[88]
  4. Song Dynasty Chán (c. 950–1300). In this phase Chán took its definitive shape, including the picture of the "golden age" of the Chán 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,[89] which reflect the influence of the "literati" on the development of Chán.[90][44] In this phase Chán is transported to Japan, and exerts a great influence on Korean Seon via Jinul.

Neither Ferguson nor McRae give a periodisation for Chinese Chán following the Song-dynasty, though McRae mentions

[5.] "at least a postclassical phase or perhaps multiple phases".[91][note 9]

Origins and Taoist influences (c. 200–500)

The practice of Buddhist meditation was practiced in China centuries before the rise of Chán by people such as An Shigao (c. 148–180 CE) and his school who translated various meditation treatises (Chán-jing, 禪経). Other important translators of meditation texts were Kumārajīva (334–413 CE) and Buddhabhadra. These Chinese translations of mostly Indian Yogacara meditation manuals were the basis for the meditation techniques of Chinese Chan.[web 10]

When Buddhism came to China from Gandhara (now Afghanistan) and India, it was initially adapted to the Chinese culture and understanding. Buddhism was exposed to Confucianist[92] and Taoist[93][94][95][96] influences.[note 10] Goddard quotes D.T. Suzuki,[note 11] calling Chán a "natural evolution of Buddhism under Taoist conditions."[97] Buddhism was first identified to be "a barbarian variant of Taoism":[95]

Judging from the reception by the Han of the Hinayana works and from the early commentaries, it appears that Buddhism was being perceived and digested through the medium of religious Daoism (Taoism). Buddha was seen as a foreign immortal who had achieved some form of Daoist nondeath. The Buddhists’ mindfulness of the breath was regarded as an extension of Daoist breathing exercises.[60]

Taoist terminology was used to express Buddhist doctrines in the oldest translations of Buddhist texts,[95] a practice termed ko-i, "matching the concepts",[98] while the emerging Chinese Buddhism had to compete with Taoism and Confucianism.[92]

The first Buddhist recruits in China were Taoists.[95] They developed high esteem for the newly introduced Buddhist meditational techniques,[99] and blended them with Taoist meditation.[100] Representatives of early Chinese Buddhism like Sengzhao and Tao Sheng were deeply influenced by the Taoist keystone works of Laozi and Zhuangzi.[101] Against this background, especially the Taoist concept of naturalness was inherited by the early Chán disciples:[102] they equated – to some extent – the ineffable Tao and Buddha-nature,[103] and thus, rather than feeling bound to the abstract "wisdom of the sūtras", emphasized Buddha-nature to be found in "everyday" human life, just as the Tao.[103]

In addition to Taoist ideas, also Neo-Taoist concepts were taken over in Chinese Buddhism.[98] Concepts such as "T’i -yung" (Essence and Function) and "Li-shih" (Noumenon and Phenomenon) were first taken over by Hua-yen Buddhism,[98] which consequently influenced Chán deeply.[58] The two truths doctrine was a point of confusion. Chinese thinking took this to refer to two ontological truths: reality exists on two levels, a relative level and an absolute level.[104] Taoists at first misunderstood sunyata to be akin to the Taoist non-being.[105] In Madhyamaka the two truths are two epistemological truths: two different ways to look at reality. Based on their understanding of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra the Chinese supposed that the teaching of the Buddha-nature was, as stated by that sutra, the final Buddhist teaching, and that there is an essential truth above sunyata and the two truths.[60]

Legendary or Proto-Chán – Six Patriarchs (c. 500–600)

Traditionally the origin of Chán in China is credited to Bodhidharma, an Iranian language speaking Central Asian monk[106] or an Indian monk.[107] The story of his life, and of the Six Patriarchs, was constructed during the Tang Dynasty to lend credibility to the growing Chán-school.[43]

Bodhidharma. Woodcut print by Yoshitoshi (Japanese), 1887.

Bodhidharma is recorded as having come into China during the time of Southern and Northern Dynasties to teach a "special transmission outside scriptures" which "did not stand upon words".[16] Throughout Buddhist art, Bodhidharma is depicted as a rather ill-tempered, profusely bearded and wide-eyed barbarian. He is referred as "The Blue-Eyed Barbarian" (碧眼胡:Bìyǎn hú) in Chinese Chan texts.[web 11] Only scarce historical information is available about him, but his hagiography developed when the Chan tradition grew stronger and gained prominence in the early 8th century. By this time a lineage of the six ancestral founders of Chán in China was developed.[43] The short text Two Entrances and Four Acts, written by T'an-lín (曇林; 506–574), contains teachings which are attributed to Bodhidharma. The text is known from the Dunhuang-manuscripts.

The actual origins of Chán may lie in ascetic practitioners of Buddhism, who found refuge in forests and mountains.[108] Huike, "a dhuta (extreme ascetic) who schooled others"[108] and used the Srimala Sutra,[52] one of the Tathāgatagarbha sūtras ,[109] figures in the stories about Bodhidharma. Huike is regarded as the second Chán patriarch, appointed by Bodhidharma to succeed him. One of Huike's students, Sengcan, to whom is ascribed the Xinxin Ming, is regarded as the third patriarch.

Early Chán – Tang Dynasty (c. 600–900)

See also: Tang Dynasty

With the fourth patriarch, Daoxin (道信 580–651),[52] Chán began to take shape as a distinct school. The link between Huike and Sengcan, and the fourth patriarch Daoxin "is far from clear and remains tenuous".[108] With Daoxin and his successor, the fifth patriarch Hongren (弘忍 601–674), there emerged a new style of teaching, which was inspired by the Chinese text Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana.[52] A large group of students gathered at a permanent residence, and extreme ascetism became outdated.[108] The period of Daoxin and Hongren came to be called the East Mountain Teaching, due to the location of the residence of Hongren at Huamgmei.[110][43]

The term "East Mountain Teaching" was used by Shenxiu (神秀 606?–706), the most important successor to Hongren. By this time the group had grown into a matured congregation which became significant enough to be reckoned with by the ruling forces.[52] In 701 Shenxiu was invited to the Imperial Court by Empress Wu, who paid him imperial reverence. This gave his school the support and the legitimation of the imperial court.[111] The school was typified by a "loose practice,"[54] aiming to make meditation accessible to a larger audience.[54] Shenxiu used short formulas extracted from various sutras to package the teachings,[54] a style which is also being used in the Platform Sutra.[54] Members of the "East Mountain Teaching" shifted the alleged scriptural basis, realizing that the Awwakening of Faith is not a sutra but a sastra, commentary, and fabricated a lineage of Lankavatara Sutra masters, as being the sutra that preluded the Awakening of Faith.[52]

This growing influence, and the need to be supported by patrons, is reflected in the campaign of Shenhui (670–762) for imperial patronage.[52] Shenhui was a successor to Hui-neng (惠能; 638–713), a minor student of Hongren.[110][43] At 731 Shenhui started to propagate that Huineng was the real successor of Hongren's, instead of the then publicly recognized successor Shenxiu.[43][110] A dramatic story of Huineng's life was created, as narrated in the Platform Sutra, which tells that there was a contest for the transmission of the title of patriarch. After being chosen by Hongren, the fifth patriarch, Huineng had to flee by night to Nanhua Temple in the south to avoid the wrath of Hongren's jealous senior disciples.[43][110] The Diamond Sutra was incorporated into the story as being the favorite sutra of Huineng, thereby shifting the alleged textual basis of the Chán-school again.[112] Shenhui succeeded in his campaign, and Huineng came to be regarded as the Sixth Patriarch.[110][43] Shenxiu's Northern School was denigrated as "gradual", in opposition to the self-acclaimed "sudden" approach of Shenhui's Southern School. Shenhui's story was so influential that all surviving schools regard Huineng as their ancestor. [43][110]

Classical or Middle Chán (c. 750–1000)

An Lushan Rebellion (755–763) till end of Tang Dynasty (907)
Blue-eyed Central Asian monk and East-Asian monk. A fresco from the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves, dated to the 9th century; although Albert von Le Coq (1913) assumed the blue-eyed, red-haired monk was a Tocharian,[113] modern scholarship has identified similar Caucasian figures of the same cave temple (No. 9) as ethnic Sogdians,[114] an Eastern Iranian people who inhabited Turfan as an ethnic minority community during the phases of Tang Chinese (7th–8th century) and Uyghur rule (9th–13th century).[115]

The An Lushan Rebellion (755–763) led to a loss of control by the Tang-dynasty, and changed the Chan scene again. Metropolitan Chan began to lose its status, while "other schools were arising in out-lying areas controlled by warlords. These are the forerunners of the Chan we know today."[116]

The most important of these schools is the Hongzhou school (洪州宗) of Mazu, to which also belong Shitou, Baizhang, Huangbo and Linji. This school became the archetypal expression of Zen, with its emphasis on the personal expression of insight, and its rejection of positive statements of this insight.[108] Shitou is regarded as the Patriarch of Caodong (Jp. Sōtō), while Linji is regarded as the founder of Rinzai-Zen.

During 845–846 Emperor Wuzong persecuted the Buddhist schools in China.[117] This persecution was devastating for metropolitan Chan, but the Chan school of Mazu and his likes survived, and took a leading role in the Chan of the later Tang.[117]

This surviving rural Chan developed into the Five Houses of Chán (Ch. 五家) of Zen, or five "schools". These were not originally regarded as "schools" or "sects", but historically they have come to be understood that way. Most Zen lineages throughout Asia and the rest of the world originally grew from or were heavily influenced by the original five houses of Zen.

Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (907–960/979)

After the fall of the Tang Dynasty, China was without effective central control during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period. China was divided into several autonomous regions. Support for Buddhism was limited to a few areas. The Hua-yen and T'ient-tai schools suffered from the changing circumstances, since they had depended on imperial support. The collapse of T'ang society also deprived the aristocratic classes of wealth and influence, which meant a further drawback for Buddhism. Shenxiu's Northern School and Henshui's Southern School didn't survive the changing circumstances. Nevertheless, chán emerged as the dominant stream within Chinese Buddhism, but with various schools developing various emphases in their teachings, due to the regional orientation of the period. The Fayan school, named after Fa-yen Wen-i (885–958) became the dominant school in the southern kingdoms of Nan-T'ang (Jiangxi, Chiang-hsi) and Wuyue (Che-chiang).[118]

Literary Chán – Song Dynasty (c. 960–1300)

See also: Song Dynasty

The Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period was followed by the Song Dynasty, which established a strong central government. During the Song Dynasty, Chán (禪) was used by the government to strengthen its control over the country, and Chán grew to become the largest sect in Chinese Buddhism. An ideal picture of the Chán of the Tang period was produced, which served the legacy of this newly acquired status, and the period of the Tang Dynasty came to be regarded as the "golden age" of Chan.[119][43] With the establishment of the Wu-shan (Gozan) system during the Southern Sung, the Chinese bureaucratic system entered into Zen temples throughout the country, and a highly organized system of temple rank and administration developed.[120]

The Linji school became the dominant school within Chán, due to support from literati and the court.[121] Before the Song Dynasty, the Linji-school is rather obscure, and very little is known about its early history.[110] The first mention of Linji is in the Zutang ji, compiled in 952, 86 years after Linji's death.[121] But the Zutang ji pictures the Xuefeng Yicun lineage as heir to the legacy of Mazu and the Hongzhou-school.[121] According to Welter, the real founder of the Linji-school was Shoushan (or Baoying) Shengnian (首山省念)(926–993), a fourth generation dharma-heir of Linji. The Tiansheng Guangdeng lu (天聖廣燈錄), "Tiansheng Era Expanded Lamp Record", compiled by the official Li Zunxu (李遵勗)(988–1038) confirms the status of Shoushan Shengnian, but also pictures Linji as a major Chan patriarch and heir to the Mazu, displacing the prominence of the Fayan-lineage.[121] It also established the slogan of "a special transmission outside the teaching", supporting the Linji-school claim of "Chan as separate from and superior to all other Buddhist teachings".[122]

During the 12th century, a clear difference between the Linji and the Caodong schools emerged. The two schools were competing for support of the literati, who became more powerful when the Song-government started to limit their influence on society. Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091–1157) of the Caodong-school emphasized silent illumination or shikantaza as a means for solitary practice, which could be undertaken by lay-followers. Dahui Zonggao (1089–1163) introduced k'an-hua practice, "observing the word-head", as a means of solitary practice.[123]

During the Song, both schools were exported to Japan, where they eventually became two clearly distinguished schools or "sects".

Post-Classical Chán (c. 1300 till present)

This was different from China, where the Buddhist schools tended to coalesce into a syncretic Chinese Buddhist school.

Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368)
See also: Yuan Dynasty

The Yuan Dynasty was the empire established by Kublai Khan, the leader of Mongolian Borjigin clan, after Mongol conquered the Jin and the Southern Song dynasty in China. Chán-teachings started to be mixed with Pure Land teachings, as in the teachings of Zhongfeng Mingben (1263–1323).

Ming Dynasty (1368–1644)
See also: Ming Dynasty

Chán Buddhism enjoyed something of a revival in the Ming Dynasty with teachers such as Hanshan Deqing (憨山德清), who wrote and taught extensively on both Chán and Pure Land Buddhism; Miyun Yuanwu (密雲圓悟), who came to be seen posthumously as the first patriarch of the Ōbaku Zen school; as well as Yunqi Zhuhong (雲棲祩宏) and Ouyi Zhixu (蕅益智旭).

Chán was taught alongside Pure Land Buddhism in many Chinese Buddhist monasteries. In time much of the distinction between them was lost, and many masters taught both Chán and Pure Land.[124]

With the downfall of the Ming Dynasty several Chinese Chán-masters fled to Japan, founding the Ōbaku school.[125]

Qing Dynasty (1644–1912)
See also: Qing Dynasty

The Qing Dynasty was the last imperial dynasty of China.

In the beginning of the Qing Dynasty Chán 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 five 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" (sifa weixiang), thereby excluding several prominent Caodong-monks.[126]

Modern times
Shuixin Chán Temple in Anhai Town, Fujian

After further centuries of decline during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), Chán was revived again in the early 20th century by Hsu Yun (虛雲) (1840–1959), a well-known figure of 20th-century Chinese Buddhism. Many Chán teachers today trace their lineage back to Hsu Yun, including Sheng-yen (聖嚴) and Hsuan Hua (宣化), who have propagated Chán in the West where it has grown steadily through the 20th and 21st centuries.

Chán was repressed in China during the 1960s in the Cultural Revolution, but subsequently has been re-asserting itself on the mainland, and has a significant following in Taiwan and Hong Kong as well as among Overseas Chinese.

Spread of Chán

Thiền in Vietnam

Thiền monks performing a service in Huế.

According to traditional accounts of Vietnam, in 580 an Indian monk named Vinitaruci (Vietnamese: Tì-ni-đa-lưu-chi) travelled to Vietnam after completing his studies with Sengcan, the third patriarch of Chinese Chán. This, then, would be the first appearance of Vietnamese Thiền Buddhism. Other early Vietnamese Chán schools included the Vô Ngôn Thông, which was associated with the teaching of Mazu, and the Thảo Đường, which incorporated nianfo chanting techniques; both were founded by Chinese monks.

Seon in Korea

Seon monk in Seoul, South Korea

Seon was gradually transmitted into Korea during the late Silla period (7th through 9th centuries) as Korean monks of predominantly Hwaeom (華嚴) and Consciousness-only (唯識) background began to travel to China to learn the newly developing tradition. Seon received its most significant impetus and consolidation from the Goryeo monk Jinul (知訥) (1158–1210), who established a reform movement and introduced koan practice to Korea. Jinul established the Songgwangsa (松廣寺) as a new center of pure practice.

Zen in Japan

Sojiji Temple, of the Soto Zen school, Tsurumi-ku, Yokohama, Japan

Zen was not introduced as a separate school until the 12th century, when Myōan Eisai traveled to China and returned to establish a Linji lineage, which eventually perished.[web 12] Decades later, Nanpo Shōmyō (南浦紹明) (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.[web 12] 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 Sōtō school, the Japanese branch of Caodong.

The three traditional schools of Zen in contemporary Japan are the Sōtō (曹洞), Rinzai (臨済), and Ōbaku (黃檗). Of these, Sōtō is the largest, Rinzai is middle, and Ōbaku the smallest. These are further divided into subschools by head temple, with 2 head temples for Sōtō (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 Five 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 which have especially attracted Western lay followers, namely the Sanbo Kyodan and the FAS Society.

Zen in the Western world

Although it is difficult to trace 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 its profile 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, pursuing a serious interest in Zen began to reach a significant level. Especially Japanese Zen has gained popularity in the West. The various books on Zen by Reginald Horace Blyth, Alan Watts, Philip Kapleau and D. T. Suzuki published between 1950 and 1975, contributed to this growing interest in Zen in the West, as did the interest from beat poets such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder.[127]

See also


  1. Dumoulin writes in his preface to Zen. A History. Part One: India and China: "Zen (Chin. Ch'an, an abbreviation of ch'an-na, which transliterates the Sanskrit Dhyāna (Devanagari: ध्यान) or its Pali cognate Jhāna (Sanskrit; Pāli झान) , terms meaning "meditation") is the name of a Mahayana Buddhist school of meditation originating from India and passed to China. It is characterized by the practice of meditation in the lotus position (Jpn., zazen; Chin., tso-ch'an and the use of the koan (Chin., kung-an), as well as by the enlightenment experience of satori[1]
  2. According to Kalupahana, the influence of Yofacara is stronger in the ts'ao-tung school and the tradition of silent meditation, while the influence of Madhyamaka is clear in the koan-tradition and its stress on insight and the use of paradoxical language.[21]
  3. Yasutani discerns five kinds of Zen:[33]
    1. Bompu Zen: aimed at bodily and mental health
    2. Gedo Zen:, practices like dhyana, Yoga and Christian contemplation which are akin to Zen, but not Buddhist
    3. Shojo Zen: the Hinayana, aimed at one's own liberation
    4. Daijo Zen: the Mahayana, aimed at attaining kensho and the realisation of Zen in daily life
    5. Saijojo Zen: in which practice is enlightenment
  4. Sasaki's translation of the Linji yulu contains an extensive biography of 62 pages, listing influential Chinese Buddhist texts which played a role in Song dynasty Chán.[41]
  5. Albert Low: "It is evident that the masters were well versed in the sutras. Zen master Tokusan, for example, knew the Diamond Sutra well and, before meeting with his own Zen master, lectured upon it extensively; the founder of the Zen sect, Bodhidharma, the very one who preached selfrealization outside the scriptures, nevertheless advocated the Lankavatara Sutra; Zen master Hogen knew the Avatamsaka Sutra well, and koan twenty-six in the Mumonkan, in which Hogen is involved, comes out of the teaching of that sutra. Other koans, too, make reference directly or indirectly to the sutras. The autobiography of yet another Zen master, Hui Neng, subsequently became the Platform Sutra, one of those sutras so condemned by those who reject intellectual and sutra studies"[42]
  6. Poceski: "Direct references to specific scriptures are relatively rare in the records of Mazu and his disciples, but that does not mean that they rejected the canon or repudiated its authority. To the contrary, one of the striking features of their records is that they are filled with scriptural quotations and allusions, even though the full extend of their usage of canonical sources is not immediately obvious and its discernment requires familiarity with Buddhist literature." See source for a full-length example from "one of Mazu's sermons", in which can be found references to the Vimalakīrti Scripture, the Huayan Scripture, the Mahāsamnipata-sūtra, the Foshuo Foming Scripture 佛說佛名經, the Lankāvatāra scripture and the Faju jing.[5]
  7. Hakuin goes as far as to state that the buddhat path even starts with study: "[A] person [...] must first gain wide-ranging knowledge, accumulate a treasure-store of wisdom by studying all the Buddhist sutras and commentaries, reading through all the classic works Buddhist and nonBuddhist and perusing the writings of the wise men of other traditions. It is for that reason the vow states "the Dharma teachings are infinite, I vow to study them all.""[49]
  8. McRae gives no further information on this "Hubei faction". It may be the continuation of Shenxiu's "Northern School". See Nadeau 2012 p.89.[86] Hebei was also the place where the Linji branch of chán arose.[87]
  9. During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) and the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) Chán was part of a larger, syncretic Buddhist culture. A final phase can be distinguished from the 19th century onward, when western imperialism had a growing influence in South-East Asia, including China. A side effect of this imperial influence was the modernisation of Asian religions, adapting them to western ideas and rhetorical strategies.[71]
  10. See also The Tao of Zen, which argues that Zen is almost entirely grounded in Taoist philosophy, though this fact is well covered by Mahayana Buddhism.[96]
  11. Godard did not provide a source for this quote.


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Source list

Web sources

Further reading

Modern works
Classic historiography
Critical historiography


Formation of Chán in Tang & Song China


Modern times

Orientalism and East-West interchange

Contemporary practice
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