History of Zen Buddhism



Around the 5th century, a mendicant Buddhist monk from southern India arrived in China. Few historical facts have survived about Bodhidharma, as he is known, though the legends surrounding him would have us believe that he was a truly remarkable individual. To Bodhidharma is ascribed the practice known worldwide as Zen ( from the Sanskrit ,‘Dhyan’ to the Chinese ‘Ch’an’, meaning meditation or contemplation). Bodhidharma was the first of 28 Zen Buddhist patriarchs, and his was a new vision of Buddhism:

A special tradition outside the sutras,

Independent of word and writ,

Pointing directly to Man’s heart,

Seeing (one’s own true) nature and becoming Buddha.

There’s the apocryphal story of Chinese Emperor Wu-Ti, head of the ruling Liang dynasty, who asked Bodhidharma, “What is the underlying principle of Buddhism?” The monk responded, “An enormous void. A vast sky, which accepts all beings – the enlightened and the unaware – as the same.” Wu-ti, a fervent Buddhist himself , was nonplussed. Bodhidharma left his court, realizing that China was not yet ready for his “wordless tradition”.

Bodhidharma spent several years deep in meditation, to the extent that, according to one legend, his legs atrophied and fell off. Many monks found their way to him for teaching.

Tao-hsin (580-651), fourth in the line of patriarchs, introduced a seminal change in the functioning of the Zen clergy. He established a permanent base, abandoning the earlier tradition of itinerant monks. Henceforth, regular work in the field and garden became an intrinsic aspect of Zen discipline. The impact of this change was far reaching – it widened the base for religious practice. It also enabled the community to become self-sustaining.

Around the late 7th century, differences arose in the community as to the nature of Zen practice. The northern school, headed by Shen-hsiu, believed that attaining enlightenment is a gradual process, through the daily practice of concentration. The southern camp opined that enlightenment comes in a flash, a sudden experience of one’s inherent Buddha nature. Its leader, Hui-neng, is often considered the second founder of Zen. He rejected the scholastic, approach of the northern school, propounding that Enlightenment was an entirely personal, direct experience wherein an individual intuitively realizes oneness with the Self.

Koan and Katsu

The century following Hui-neng is considered the Golden Age of Chinese Zen. Ma-tsu (707-786), one of Zen’s notable personalities, introduced the koan as a vital aspect of Zen teaching, brief dialogues between Zen masters and disciples that defy logical thinking processes, and whose meaning can only be grasped intuitively. He also introduced “Katsu!”, a sudden yell that shocks the mind into enlightenment.

Soto and Rinzai

Hui-neng and the later masters incorporated Indian Buddhist thought and Taoism into Zen teachings. Towards the late10th century, five Zen sects had come into existence, Ts’ao-tung (Soto) and Lin-chai (Rinzai) being the two most important. Rinzai was introduced into Japan by the monk Eisai and Soto by Dogen, both of whom spent many years studying in China.

Rinzai emphasized meditating on the koan as the way to achieve “sudden” enlightenment. The Soto school propounded “Zazen” or seated meditation, which over time, brings lasting changes in personality and behavior.
Zen Buddhism spread rapidly through Japanese society, thanks to the patronage of the Shogunate government. Rinzai teachings were favored by warriors while the Soto school found widespread acceptance among farmers and local chieftains.

Zen Masters

Dogen, the best known proponent of Soto, taught that human beings are born enlightened. Since the Buddha strove for improving mankind’s lot, all men should similarly work for their communities. He stressed on the importance of zazen as a lifelong discipline and an end in itself.

In later years, Muso Soseki (1275-1351), another Zen master, became an advisor to several Japanese rulers. He influenced the sending of missions to China, thus allowing for the continued channeling of Zen influences into Japan. Since then, Zen thought has seeped into every aspect of Japanese culture, from art and architecture, to music, dance and theatre.