In spite of Zen Buddhism’s de-emphasis of doctrine and the written word, there is a remarkable variety of literature passed down through a well-documented lineage of masters. What unites all Zen practitioners is the emphasis on personal realization of enlightenment instead of reliance on scripture. Two schools of Zen are thriving today while the rest have been withered by time.

To call the school Zen, without acknowledging its roots in India and China, would oversimplify the tradition’s rich, varied history.  The history of Zen begins with the transmission of Buddhism into China, traditionally associated with the travels of the “barbarian from the west,” Bodhidharma.  Bodhidharma brought Buddhist teachings with him to a time and place in which other philosophies, namely Taoism, predominated.  Buddhism and Taoism interacted so intensely that Ch’an Buddhism (as it was called in China before being transliterated as Zen in Japan) exhibited traits of both philosophies.  Indeed, one author goes so far as to say that Ch’an “was less Buddhism than a rebellion against Buddhism […] it is most accurately described not as Buddhism reconfigured by Taoism, but as Taoism reconfigured by a Buddhism that was dismantled and discarded after the reconfiguration was complete.”1

Fa-yen-tsung/Hogen-Shu: Hogen Zen

Hsuan-sha Shih-pei founded the Fa-yen-tsung school, which became known as the Hogen school in Japan.  Hsuan-sha Shi-pei was a student of Hsueh-feng I-ts’un.  The school was first known as the Hsuan-sha school, after it’s founder.  Hsuan-sha’s grandson Fa-yen Wen-i became an influential figure in the school.  Eventually, his renown overshadowed his grandfather, thus leading to the school being renamed after Fa-yen.  Fa-yen’s 63 dharma successors spread the school’s message throughout China.  The school flourished for three generations, then died out after five generations.2

Yun-men-tsung/Ummon-Shu: Ummon Zen

The Ummon Zen school traced its lineage to Ummon (Yunmen Wenyan), a figure who pops up frequently in the koan texts.  Yuan-wu K’o-ch’in published a collection of koans first collected by Hsueh-tou Ch’ung-hsien.  This collection is the Blue Cliff Record.  Hsueh-tou, another renowned master, belonged to this school.  The school’s lineage survived for roughly 300 years and died out in the 12th century.3

Kuei-yang-tsung/Igyo-Shu: Igyo Zen

The Kuei-yang-tsung school, eventually known as the Igyo school, was short-lived and was absorbed by the Rinzai school in the 10th century.  The name derives from its two founders, Kuei-shan Ling-yu and Yang-shan Hui-chi, who were master and student, respectively.  Its teaching method was not well-preserved, but consisted of a series of instructions inscribed within a circle.  Its method, credited to Hui-neng, influenced the development of the 10 ox-herding pictures and the five degrees of enlightenment.  The method of instruction is said to have included a secret language understandable to those with a profound realization of Zen.4

Lin-chi I-hsüan/Rinzai-shu: Rinzai Zen

Rinzai Zen, also called kanna Zen, emphasizes the practice of koans as a means to excising the rational mind from the practice of meditation. This school is one of the gokeshichishu and its kanna practice is considered an especially quick way to enlightenment. It is one of the two Zen schools still active in Japan, the other being Soto Zen.5

Tung-shan Liang-chieh/Soto-shu: Soto Zen

The divide between the Southern School and Northern School of Ch’an occurred relating to both the question of lineage and of practice. Regarding lineage, both schools accept Bodhidharma as founder and Hui-k’o, Seng-ts’an, Tao-hsin, and Hungjen as the next four successors, but differ on the subsequent lineage. Further, the Southern School favored sudden enlightenment while the Northern School favored a gradual approach. The question of transmission relates to two of Fifth Patriarch Hungjen’s disciples. The Sixth Patriarch, accepted by the Southern School, was Hui-Neng. Conversely, the Northern School accepts Shen-hsiu. The concepts of sudden enlightenment and gradual enlightenment, are traced, respectively back these two ostensible Sixth Patriarchs.6

Some key figures of Zen include:

Dogen Zenji: The young child Dogen Zenji, left without a father from birth and without a mother at age 7, harnessed his pain of loss and channeled it into fruitful spiritualism. He went from being an ancillary fixture in a Tendai temple in Mount Hiei Japan to what we now consider the founder of Soto Zen. He was inquisitive and particular from an early age, and found his fellow Tendai monks unable to answer his questions and bound by social performance. He eventually grew tired of studying at the Mount Hiei temple and ventured to China. While in China, he studied koans with Ch’an teachers, but, continuing his obstinate streak, questioned usefulness of Kanna study. Eventually, he received Dharma transmission from a teacher he fully respected. Soon thereafter, he returned to Japan, eventually founding a new monastery. The monastery, Eihei-ji, survives today as one of the two main Soto Zen temples of Japan. Dogen Zenji also produced an often-quoted Zen masterpiece, the Great Treasury of the True Dharma Eye.

Hakuin Zenji: The Zen master Hakuin Zenji reformed a Rinzai Zen school which had been losing prominence for roughly 300 years. He brought the school back from the brink of irrelevance to a state of vibrancy still evinced by the Ryūtaku-ji temple I’m the Shizu-oka province of Japan. Rinzai owes much of its present character to Zenji, including its emphasis on pairing koan practice with sitting, the fruitfulness of strict asceticism and mundane daily tasks, and the keen emphasis on the Kensho/Satori experience and its many travails.

Hui-Neng: Hui-Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen in China, received his status from the Fifth Patriarch through an exceptionally well-composed poem. The Fifth Patriarch asked his students to write a gatha to demonstrate their understanding of Zen. Hui-Neng, as a menial worker green in his Zen training, had not been among the students asked to compose and recite their Gathas. In a manner somewhat reminiscent of Good Will Hunting, Hui-Neng caught wind of the gatha challenge and composed what the Fifth Patriarch would ultimately conclude was the Dharma itself:

The mind is the bodhi tree

the body is the mirror’s stand

the mirror itself is so clean

dust has no place to land

To best understand Hui-Neng’s insight, a comparison is helpful. Hui-Neng was responding to another monk’s verse (also called a Gatha) of Dharma understanding. The other monk, Shen-hsiu, had written:

The body is a Bodhi tree

the mind is like a standing mirror

always try to keep it clean

don’t let it gather dust

Shen-hsiu’s verse was unsatisfactory in the eyes of the head monk Master Hung-jen. He ordered all monks to retreat and compose verses of their own.

Bodhidharma: The “Barbarian from the West” brought the dharma into China. He is regarded as the first Zen Patriarch of China (and the twenty-eighth patriarch of India after Shakyamuni Buddha).

The Blue Cliff Record and Book of Equanimity recount two respective versions of a encounter between Bodhidharma and Emperor Wu of Liang which describes the absurd irreverence of the Zen tradition which flourished in East Asia after his arrival. In each account, Emperor Wu asks how much merit he has accumulated by erecting Buddhist temples throughout the kingdom. Bodhidharma’s legacy is encapsulated in further detail in lengthier sermons attributed to him. The Zen teachings attributed to him comprise a vibrant record of early Chinese Buddhism.

1David Hinton, 2020, 7-8.
Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, 1991, 86.
3Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, 1991, 238.
4Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, 1991, 98.
5Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, 1991, 178.
6Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, 1991, 209.