Zen Basics

A Brief History of Zen

Zen (Japanese) or Chan (Chinese) is a Buddhist tradition that came to China from India and then later to Korea, Japan and elsewhere in the world. The name ‘Zen’ derives from the Sanskrit ‘Dhyana’ [meditation]. In China the school became known for making its central tenet the practice of meditation, rather than adherence to a particular scripture or doctrine.

The founder of Zen in China was the legendary Bodhidharma, who came to China from India in the late 5th cent. A.D; he taught the practice of “wall-gazing” which he passed on to his successor Hui-k’o (487-593).

According to tradition, Hui-neng (638-713) became the sixth patriarch of Chinese Zen even though he was illiterate. The Platform Sutra, attributed to Hui-neng, defines enlightenment as the direct seeing of one’s “Original Mind” or “Original Nature,” which is Buddha, and this teaching has remained characteristic of Zen.  A number of teaching lineages arose after Hui-neng, teaching the method of “sudden enlightenment best known in the West by the term Satori.

The 8th and 9th centuries in China were the “golden age of Zen,” producing such great masters as Ma-tsu, Nan-chuan, Huang-po, Lin-chi, and Chao-chou. The unique Zen teaching style developed, stressing oral instruction and using non rational forms of dialogue, from which koans were derived.

After the great persecution of Buddhism in 845, Ch’an emerged as the dominant Chinese sect, due partly to its innate vitality and partly to its isolation in mountain monasteries away from centres of political power. Two main schools, the Lin-chi (Rinzai ) and the Caodong (Soto), flourished and were transmitted to Japan in the 14th cent. The Lin-chi sect placed greater emphasis on the use of the koan and effort to attain sudden enlightenment, while the Soto patriarch Dogen (1200-1253) emphasized sitting in meditation (zazen) without expectation and with faith in one’s own intrinsic state of enlightenment or Buddha-nature.

The Zen influence on Japanese aesthetics ranges from poetry, calligraphy, and painting to tea ceremony, flower arrangement, and landscape gardening, particularly the distinctive rock-and-sand temple gardens. Japanese Zen declined in the 16th and 17th centuries, but its traditional forms were revived by the great Hakuin (1686-1769), from whom all present-day Rinzai masters trace their descent. World interest in the practice of Zen meditation blossomed after the second World war, resulting in the establishment of Zen Centres in many countries, including Australia.

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