Golden Age of Ch’an

by tendo zenji


Over the next few months during the Sunday Zazenkai at Tahoma Zen Monastery there will be readings and short talks from essential figures in the development of Ch’an.  This is a continuation of the early Ch’an readings and talks and will be in two parts. The first will examine how Ch’an developed from Hui-neng (the Sixth Patriarch) whose teachings still reflected the Indian Buddhist Madhyamaka philosophies into what we have come to think of as idiomatic Ch’an.

The second part will examine the Five Houses of Ch’an two of which, the Lin-chi and Caodong, survive today as Rinzai and Soto Zen.  This part will examine surviving teachings of all five of the schools and look at how they gradually winnowed down to just the Lin-chi and Caodong schools by the time Ch’an transmitted to Japan.

Below I will include excerpts from the Wikipedia pages on the Golden Age and on the Five Houses. These articles are a good introduction to these topics and, with the usual Wikipedia caveats, worth reading. The various texts and online resources that are used throughout the series will eventually be collected into a single resources page.

In the introductory talk we also read from The Infinite Mirror: Commentaries on Two Ch’an Classics by the contemporary Ch’an Master Sheng Yen. In his introduction to Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi he compares the more philosophically-oriented Caodong and action-oreiented Lin-chi schools and the pitfalls that lies in either extreme.

Part 1: The Golden Age of Ch’an

Hongzhou school
The Hongzhou school was a Chinese school of Chán of the Tang period, which started with Mazu Daoyi (709–788). It became the archetypal expression of ch’an during the Song Dynasty.

Shítóu Xīqiān (700-790) was an 8th-century Chinese Ch’án Buddhist teacher and author. All existing branches of Zen throughout the world are said to descend either from Shitou Xiqian or from his contemporary Mazu Daoyi.

Part 2: The Five Houses of Ch’an

During the Song the Five Houses of Ch’an, or five “schools”, were recognized. These were not originally regarded as “schools” or “sects”, but based on the various Chan-genealogies. Historically they have come to be understood as “schools”.

The Five Houses of Chan are:

  • Linji school (臨濟宗), named after master Linji Yixuan (died 866), whose lineage came to be traced to Mazu, establishing him as the archetypal iconoclastic Chan-master;