A Brief Zen History


 Buddha meditating under the bodhi tree

Buddha in sitting meditation under the bodhi tree

 


 

Bodhidharma 1st Zen Patriarch 5th or 6th CE

Bodhidharma
1st Zen Patriarch
5th or 6th CE

Zen began to emerge as a distinctive school of Mahayana Buddhism when the Indian sage Bodhidharma (ca. 470-543) taught at the Shaolin Monastery of China.  To this day Bodhidharma is called the First Patriarch of Zen.

Bodhidharma’s teachings tapped into some developments already in progress, such as the confluence of philosophical Taoism with Buddhism. Taoism so profoundly impacted early Zen that some philosophers and texts are claimed by both religions. The early Mahayana philosophies of Madhyamika (ca. 2nd century CE) and Yogacara (ca.3rd century CE) also played huge roles in the development of Zen.

 

 

 

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Huineng 6th Zen Patriarch 638-713 CE

Under the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng (638-713), Zen shed most of its vestigial Indian trappings, becoming more Chinese. Some consider Huineng, not Bodhidharma, to be the true father of Zen. His personality and influence are felt in Zen to this day.

Huineng’s tenure was at the beginning of what is still called the Golden Age of Zen. This Golden Age flourished during the same period as China’s Tang Dynasty, 618-907. The masters of this Golden Age still speak to us through koans and stories.

During these years Zen organized itself into five “houses,” or five schools. Two of these, called in Japanese the Rinzai and the Soto schools, still exist and remain distinctive from each other.

Zen was transmitted to Vietnam very early, possibly as early as the 7th century. A series of teachers transmitted Zen to Korea during the Golden Age. Eihei Dogen (1200-1253), was not the first Zen teacher in Japan, but he was the first to establish a lineage that lives to this day.

1200-1253 CE

Eihi Dogen Zenji 1200-1253 CE

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To learn the Buddha Way
is to learn one’s own self.

To learn one’s own self
is to forget one’s own self.

To forget one’s own self
is to be enlightened
by the myriad dharmas.

To be enlightened
by the myriad dharmas
is to let one’s own mind and body
as well as that of all others
fall off.

( from: Chapter “Genjô-kôan” in the Shôbôgenzô by Master Dôgen )
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