Zen (or “chan” in China and “dhyan” in India) is trendy now. It is seen in shops, magazines, songs, literature, meditation centers, and many other places. However, the real Zen, the one of history, has a long tradition. Zen is a type of Buddhism that started in India and traveled to China, across Asia, and ultimately became a global phenomenon. Its secular nature and simplicity has made it more accessible to the masses than many other spiritual practices. In this essay, the eras of Zen will be looked into: Proto-Chan, Early Chan, Middle Chan, Song-Dynasty Chan, Post-Classical Chan, and the Modern Era.
The beginning of Zen stems from the teachings of Bodhidharma, who was an Indian Buddhist monk. However, there is not much reliable historical evidence of his life, and mostly legends are relied upon. What is known is that Bodhidharma taught “dhyan,” or the quieting of the mind to reach a state of thoughtless awareness. Bodhidharma traveled to China on orders from his teacher, and his brand of Buddhism spread throughout northern China. Carrying the torch of Zen in China after Bodhidharma’s passing was Dazu Huike. He is considered the Second Patriarch of Chinese Chan (McRae, John R.).
This period is famous for the founding of the first Chan institution in Chinese history by the fifth patriarch Daman Hongren and his student Yuquan Shenxiu. Also, this era featured a debate between the ideas of sudden or gradual enlightenment. The sixth patriarch, Dajian Huineng, focused on spontaneous nirvana. These differences in approaches formed various sects of Zen (Ray, Gary L.).
Many new schools of Zen developed during this period. The Hongzhou school of Mazu Daoyi came about, and concentrated on insight, the lack of positive statements, and on questions and answers between a master and student. Ultimately, this school promoted the idea that there is no real difference between ignorance and enlightenment, or the Buddha and an ordinary person. But later in this period, new traditions cropped up that became known as the Five Houses of Chan: the Cáodòng school (Soto in Japan), the Línjì school (Rinzai in Japan), the Guiyang school (Igyō in Japan), the Fayan school, and the Yunmen school. Each school promoted varied teachings based on a certain master. A lot of the hallmarks of Zen were developed during this time, such as dialogues between masters and students, the drawing of circles, shouting, hitting, and other methods to prompt enlightenment (McRae, John R.).
In addition, two important occurrences took place in Middle Chan. The Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall was created, and there was The Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution in 845. This had a strong detrimental effect on the propagation of Zen, but the Hongzhou school stayed intact (Takeuchi, Yoshinori, and Jan Van Bragt).
You can say that Zen, or Chan, flowered in this period. Chan became the most popular Buddhist sect in China and made strong ties with the imperial government. Through the support of the government, the Linji school began to be the most renowned form of Chan. Also, the Linji school absorbed the other schools of Zen, except the Caodong school. These two schools did their best to win the favor of the imperial government (Wang, Youru).
Furthermore, Chan started to embrace teachings from Pure Land Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. This integration had effects on the aforementioned religions as well, as Zen started to influence them. Also, classic koan collections were written during the Song Dynasty, and Zen took hold in Japan and Korea (Wang, Youru).
Chan became so widespread that about every monk in China was either from the Linji school or the Caodong school. However, as time went on, the syncretism of Zen and Pure Land Buddhism increased, with most temples practicing both. This prompted some people like Yunqi Zhuhong (1535-1615) and Daguan Zhenke (1543-1603) to carve out the distinction between Zen and other types of Buddhism through the study of scriptures and writing new texts. In addition, transitioning from the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty, monks focused on reviving the practices of shouting and beating to prompt enlightenment and published influential works on the transmission of knowledge across all the schools of Zen (Wang, Youru).
Though there was a decline in the popularity of Zen in the Qing Dynasty, the 19th and 20th centuries saw a fresh revival of the practice. Chan started to take on social issues like poverty and injustice, and even got involved in politics. Modern scholarship coupled with science was encouraged, and a deep study of the history of Zen began. It was also at this time that Zen reached the West, and despite it being repressed in the 1960s in China, it flourished in America and other major western nations. In the 1970s, China once again embraced Zen, and throughout the decades since, it has only grown in popularity as a practice, media phenomenon, and way of life (Wang, Youru).
In summary, Zen began from the teachings of a Buddhist monk from India named Bodhidharma. He spread his teachings around China, and he was succeeded by several capable disciples. Through hundreds of years of tradition, Zen has become a mainstay sect of Buddhism through the nature of its mainly secular teachings, its connection with the Chinese imperial court, and its many revivals through literature and opening of new schools. Once Zen became the main spiritual practice of China during the Ming Dynasty, its influence was strongly felt in other religions and in political power. Chan also proved popular not only in Japan, Korea, and other Asian countries, but also in America and many other western countries. Now Zen is so popular that it is difficult to separate the practice from the cultural phenomenon.
McRae, John R. Seeing through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism. University of California Press, 2005.
Ray, Gary L. The Northern Ch’an School And Sudden Versus Gradual Enlightenment Debates In China And Tibet, Institute Of Buddhist Studies Berkeley.
Takeuchi, Yoshinori, and Jan Van Bragt. Buddhist Spirituality: Indian, Southeast Asian, Tibetan, Early Chinese. Crossroad, 1994.
Wang, Youru. Historical Dictionary of Chan Buddhism. Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.