The history of Zen

Preliminary remarks

To write down THE HISTORY of Zen ist actually rather absurd – the very essence of Zen is that is doesn’t have any kind of history. However, Zen exists as form of a cultural historical phenomenon – which is an aspect that can very well be described. What kind of a value such a description has to it has to remain in the eyes of every reader anew.

In everything that I wrote I focused on a superficial description. I was neither able to nor wanted I to offer an analysis relation to the history of mind which is why the following text is hardly any more than just a bare listing of names and dates.

Due to my own laziness and an improved legibility I decided to avoid footnotes with references to the authors – not at all to create the impression that I wrote all of this myself. I’d like to take the liberty of naming, as representatives of all my soruces, the most important authors in the following section: Heinrich Dumoulin’s wonderful “History of Zen Buddhism” (a reissue of this book has been long overdue) and “The History and Development of Korean Buddhism: A Brief Overview” by A. Charles Muller.

The credit for the knowledge that will be presented to you on the following pages goes entirely to them and all the other authors whose knowledge I have profited from. The only claim that I’d like to make is that mistakes that are probably to be found throughout the text are my doing entirely.


All texts about the history of Zen are from my Dharma brother Ralf SoGen Boeck.

Mahakashyapa, erster buddhistischer Patriarch nach Buddha
Mahakashyapa, the first Buddhist patriarch after Buddha.

source: Wikipedia

Daruma Bodhidharma
Daruma (Bodhidharma)

Ink drawings on paper, 16th century

source: British Museum

Hui Yuan(慧遠)was a hierarch of the Chinese Buddhism in the Eastern Jìn Dynasty(東晋)
Hui Yuan(慧遠), eastern Jìn dynasty(東晋)

source: Wikipedia


LONG AGO WHEN BUDDHA was at Vulture Peak to give a talk, he held up a flower before the assembly. All remained silent except the venerable Kashyapa who smiled. The Buddha said: »I have the true Dharma eye, the marvellous mind of Nirvana, the true form of the formless and the subtle Dharma gate independent of words and transmitted beyond doctrine. This I have entrusted to Mahakashyapa an«.


This is how Mumonkan depicts the origin of Zen tradition in a classical collection of Koan (Zen anecdotes), a tradition without words. Every word (and throughout the centuries there have been many words about Zen) only serves to point to the true Dharma eye.


After the ‚first patriarch’ Mahakashyapa there were 26 successors, among them Ashvagosa, Nagarjuna and Vasubhandu and finally Bodhidharma, the 28th patriarch, who came in 520 from South India to China to become the first Chinese patriarch of Zen (Chinese Ch’an).


Bodhidharma (460?-534?) is considered the real founder of Zen and there is a vast number of legends about him. For the fact-orientated historian he is a rather obscure figure, some even argue about whether he actually existed. According to science the Ch’an school developed out of a reformatory movement in Chinese Buddhism and not thanks to one single founder.

Obviously this reformation was against a stiff religion with empty rituals that is only based on intellectual studies and had it’s new focus on meditation – ‚Ch’an’ or the das Japanese word ‘Zen’ are in each case the native pronunciation of the Sanskrit word ‘Dhyana’ which means meditative contemplation. At that time Buddhist meditation was nothing new in China – there were famous masters of meditation like An Shih-kao (around 150), Tao-an (312-385) and Hui-yüan (334-416) – however in its radical focus on the experience of enlightenment and its style of teaching Ch’an school was unique.


Ch’an first becomes historically determinable when there already existed three schools: the Niu-t’ou-tsung (oxhead school) Niu-t’ou Fajungs (594-657), a northern school under master Shen-hsiu (605?-706) and a southern school that was founded by Hui-neng (638-713).


Fajung, who wrote the most famous poem ‚Hsin-Ming’ (not identical with Hsin-hsin-ming of the third patriarch Seng-ts’an), is said to have been a student of Tao-hsin (580-651), so-called fourth patriarch – a derivation that has been considered to be true from 750. This school existed several centuries before the lineage became extinct during the northern Sung dynasty (960-1126). It was never counted as one of the ‘classic’ Zen schools.


Shen-hsiu, student of the fifth patriarch Hung-jen (601-674), had an excellent reputation in the north, and the capital cities Luoyang and Chang’an.

He was sponsored by the famous empress Wu Zetian (625-705) when he was attacked by Ho-tse Shen-hui (686-760), who had an equally good reputation among the aristocracy of the south. Shen-hui claimed that his own teacher, Hui-neng (638-713), was the true and only Dharma successor of Hung-jen who was the sixth patriarch of Ch’an.


Far more important than the dispute about the legitimate succession was that Shen-hsiu’s northern school taught its students a ‘gradual enlightenment’, while Hui-neng taught the ‘sudden enlightenment’. Even though Hui-neng’s claim was asserted that he had received the Dharma transmission of Hung-jen and was teaching the true Zen of Buddha and patriarchs, his teaching of the abrupt and sudden enlightenment, the immediate breakthrough to reality, was a new element – even if is wasn’t radically new. The concept of ‘sudden enlightenment’ had been taught before by Tao-sheng (360?-434), the founder of the Nirvana school. It is still undeniable, though, that Hui-neng gave this concept a new shape and gave it new spirit.


It was this kind of new spirit that made the southern school outstrip the northern school and finally turned it into the only surviving Ch’an school. The Platform Sutra of the sixth Patriarch, that passed of Hui-neng’s teaching, can justly be called the actual certificate of incorporation of Ch’an. It was students of Hui-neng who developed the classical Ch’an of the golden era, the Ch’an of the T’ang and Sung age.

»Wherever there’s desire, there will be suffering. Once the desire stops you will be free of suffering. Not desiring is the way to truth.«


Kaiser der Tang Dynastie Wu Zetian
Wu Zetian, emperor of the Tang dynasty

source: Wikipedia

Zeichnung von Huìnéng (6. Patriarch des Chán Buddhismus) der Sutren von Liáng Kǎi zerreißt.
Drawing of Huìnéng (6th patriarch of Chán Buddhism) who tears up Sutras of Liáng Kǎi.

source: Wikipedia

Lankavatara sutra
Lankavatara Sutra

source: Wikipedia

The Ch’an in the age of T’ang and Sung

MANY DETAILS IN THE EARLY HISTORY of the Ch’an school remain a mystery and that will most likely never change. It is indeed questionable whether Bodhidharma ,the first patriarch, ever lived at all. It is questionable whether Hui-K’o (487-593), Seng-ts’an (? – 606) and Tao-hsin (580-651), who are worshipped as second, third and fourth patriarch, are identical with the Lankavatara masters who are mentioned in contemporary literature and it is unclear how Hung-jen can be seen in relation to them – the fifth patriarch seemed to focus rather on the Diamond Sutra instead of the Lankavatara Sutra. Also, whether Hui-neng was indeed a student of Hung-jen or – what some records suggest – originally was part of the Nirvana school, will probably never be clarified. The actual history of Zen, beyond legends and speculations, begins with the students of Hui-neng, the sixth patriarch.


Hui-neng’s most prominent student at that time was Ho-tse Shen-hui, founder of the Ho-tse school. However, even this school doesn’t count as part of the traditional transmission lineage because it went extinct after only a few generations – however, not without creating Kuei-feng Tsung-mi (780-841), a very important master. Tsung-mi is also considered as fifth patriarch of Hua-Yen Buddhism (Japanese Kegon).


Further Dharma heirs of Hui-neng were the academic Tien-Tai monk Yung-chia Hsüan-chüeh (665-713), author of Cheng Tao Ko, and Nan-yang Hui-chung (675?-775?). He was teacher and master of emperors Su-tsung (756-762) and Tai-tsung (763-779) and was given the honorary title of Kuo-shih (jap. Kokushi). The most important for the further development of Ch’an however were the students of Hui-neng, Ching-yuan Hsing-ssu (660-740) and Nan-yueh Huai-jang (677-744), who were supposed to be the progenitors of all traditional Zen schools of the five houses, seven schools (jap. Goke-Shichishu).


Both of them had students who played an important role in the history of Zen: Ching-yuan was the teacher of Shih-t’ou Hsi-ch’ien (700-790) and Nan-yueh was the teacher of Ma-tsu Tao-i (709-788), who turned out to be the most famous teachers of their own time. Shih-t’ou taught in the province of Hunan (= ‘south of the lake’) and Ma-tsu in Kiangsi (= ‘west of the river’). Between these two centres there was always a lively exchange and it was said: »West of the river lives Ma-tsu, south of the lake Shih-t’ou. People travel between those two back and forth and those who have never met the two masters will remain ignorant «.

Ma-tsu had a great number of Dharma heirs, enlightened successors. Possibly the most important of them were Nan-ch’üan P’u-yüan (748-835), whose own student was the famous Chao-chou T’sung-shen (778-897) and Pai-chang Huai-hai (720-814). Pai-chang was the author of ‘Golden Rules’, the first rulebook for monks that was specifically directed at Ch’an monasteries. On the contrary to other Buddhist schools, Ch’an communities aimed at supporting themselves even if begging hadn’t officially been banned. Physical work became a part of practise and it has remained as such up until today. Due to their working for their own livelihood Ch’an communities were able to withdraw to regions that were sparsely populated and thereby ensured the survival of Ch’an Buddhsim throughout the persecution between 842-845. The imperial government of T’ang became increasingly worried about the growing wealth and the political influence of Buddhist monasteries and therefore destroyed 4600 monasteries and temples, seized their assets and forced 250 000 monks and nuns to become a part of the laity again. That kind of a blow was only survived by the Ch’an school and the Ching-t’u-tsung (Pure Land school) that was a firm part of the popular piety.

Among Pai-chang’s students two were especially outstanding: Kuei-shan Ling-yu (771-853), who together with his student Yang-shan Hui-chi (807-883) founded the Kuei-Yang school (jap. Igyo-shu) and Huang-po Hsi-yüan (?-850), whose student Lin-chi I-hsüan (?-866) was founding father of the Lin-chi school (jap. Rinzai-shu) which still exists up until today.


Returning to Ma-tsus contemporary Shih-t’ou – Over his student T’ien-huang Tao-wu (748-807) the lineage continued via Lung-t’an Ch’ung-hsin (um 800) who we don’t know a lot about apart from the fact that a number of important masters originate from him. Firstly, his student Te-shan Hsüan-chien (782-865) and his own student Hsüeh-feng I-tsun (822-908). Hsüeh-feng had a number of very capable Dharma heirs, among them Ch’ang-ch’ing Hui-leng (854-932), Hsüan-sha Shih-pei (835-908) and Yün-men Wen-yen (864-949). Hsüan-sha became the founder of the Hsüan-sha school, that later on was named Fa-yen Wen-I Fa-yen school (jap. Hogen-shu) after his ‘Dharma grandson’. Yün-men on the other hand became the founding father of the Yün-men school (jap. Ummon-shu).

Another student of Shih-t’ou was Yüeh-shan Wei-yen (745-828), whose ‘Dharma grandson’ Tung-shan Liang-chieh (707-869), was student of Yün-yen T’an-shen (780-841). The Ts’ao-Tung school (jap. Soto-shu) derives from Tung-shan and his student Ts’ao-shan Pen-chi (840-901). Tung-shan’s lineage, however, wasn’t continued by Ts’ao-shan but by his fellow student Yün-chü Tao-ying (?-901). The Soto-Shu is the biggest Zen community in Japan these days.


That is how around the year 900 there were the traditional ‚five houses’ of Zen: Igyo, Hogen, Ummon, Soto and Rinzai. About a hundred years later the Rinzai / Lin-chi school split up in two different main lineages: Yang-ch’i Fang-hui (992-1049) founded the Yang-chi lineage (jap. Yogi) and Huang-lung Hui-nans (1002-1069) the Huang-lung lineage(jap. Oryo). Both of them had been students of Shih-shuang Ch’u-yüan (986-1039). That is how the system of Goke-Shichishu, the ‚five houses, seven schools’ is complete – there were three Lin-chi schools, one ‘old’ and two ‘new’ schools.


The briefest of them was the Igyo school that turned into the Rinzai school in the middle of the 10th century. The Hogen school was most effective under Fa-yen and his direct successors, however, it became extinct in the fifth generation after Fa-yen around 1100. The Ummon school held up in China until the 12th century (in Vietnam a little longer) and finally the Rinzai-Oryo school became extinct as well. The contemporary Zen that came to Japan at the end of the Sung dynasty is the Zen of the Soto school or possibly even the Rinzai-Yogi school. After the collapse of the Sung dynasty and the conquest of China by the Mongols (1279) numerous Chinese Ch’an masters went to Japan and contributed immensely to the development there – however, afterwards Zen in Japan and Ch’an on the Chinese mainland went mostly separated ways.

»Let the thinking calm down and stop searching externally. Turn your attention to the things that present themselves to you; trust what happens within you right now and there will be nothing left to worry about.«


Japanese garden in Augsburg
Song Taizu, Gründer der Song Dynastie
Song Taizu, founder of the Song dynasty

source: Wikipedia

Further development in China

IT IS OFTEN CLAIMED – not only in Japanese descriptions but in western as well – that the Chinese Ch’an slowly declined after the end of the Sung dynasty and was only preserved purely in the lineages that were brought to Japan, the Japanese Zen. This thesis is rather problematic in many ways, though. Firstly, the Japanese wasn’t nearly as conservative as one might think. Zen was looking for new ways to be expressed and found specifically Japanese ones and therefore developed surrounded by the social and political conditions. Equally, further development adapting to societal conditions, took place in China. How this kind of development is assessed, however, remains everyone’s own personal preference.


The history of the Ch’an of the Yüan dynasty has only been sparsely investigated up until today. A common trend in its development seems to be the tendency to merge which seems to impede the previous history of splitting into new schools over and over again. Involved in this merge process was, apart from the traditional Ch’an schools, above all the Ching-t’u-tsung, the school of the Pure Land. The result became known under the name of Ch’an-ching I-chih, combined practise of Ch’an and the Pure Land.


Roughly speaking, one could say that the most peculiar cosmology of the school of the Pure Land was psychologically changed. In the spirit of a ‘higher truth’, according to the interpretation of Ch’an, the pure land in which you strive to be reborn conveniently, is not a place as such in a spatial way but a stage of development of the mind. The contribution of the Ching-t’u-tsung was mainly the practise of Nien-Fo, that is related to the mantra technique.

In many monasteries there was only one hall for Ts’o-Ch’an (jap. Zazen, seated meditation) and another hall for recitation. However, there used to be (and there still is) also practise together in another hall. Nien-Fo differentiates between different stages that a student can ‘work for’. Beginners recite names of Buddha while they contemplate a concrete image of Buddha i.e.. the statue in the meditation hall (kuan-hsiang nien-fo). Later on, this image is only visualised mentally (kuan-hsieng nien-fo) and finally the image as well as the recited ego disappear (shih-hsiang nien-fo).


The merge process of Ch’an and Ching-t’u not only started during the Mongol Yüan dynasty; Supposedly, Tao-hsin and Hung-jen, the fourth and fifth patriarch already taught the Nien-Fo. An important pioneer in the fusion of both schools was Yung-ming Yen-shou (904-975), the ‘Dharma grandson’ of Fa-yen and one of the most important masters of the Fa-yen- or Hogen school. He is also considered as sixth patriarch of the school of the Pure Land.

Socially this merge process could be characterised as a movement towards more popularity among the people. This was influenced positively by the fact that Ch’an lost its position as religion among the higher social classes after the end of the Sung. Even though the Mongolan Yüan were not anti Buddhist they preferred the Tibetan Buddhism that increasingly started spreading in China – much like the Ch’ing dynasty of Manduran conquerors.

The native Ming dynasty (1368-1644), that was founded by a former monk, regarded the Ch’an Buddhism as very positive, however, as a reaction to years of foreign domination through the Mongolans they developed a strong tendency to revive the native Confucian and Taoist traditions at the expenses of the ‘imported’ Buddhism. Nevertheless, the names of important Ch’an Masters from the Ming era are well-known. Especially the ‘four great masters’ are to be named: Ta-guen Cheng-Ke (1543-1603), Chih-hsu Ou-i (1599-1655), Lien-ch’ih Chu-hung (1535-1615) and Han-shan Te-ching (1546-1623). And least the last two were advocates of Ch’an and Ching-t’u. Lien-ch’ih once said: »Ch’an is the meditation of the Pure Land and the Pure Land is the land of meditation«.


After the collapse of the Ch’ing in 1911 there was a great movement to reform and revive Buddhism. It is especially connected to the names Tai-hsü (1889-1947) and Hsu Yun (1840-1959). Tai-hsü tried to connect the teachings of the Fa-hsiang, Hua-yen and Tien-tai-schools to give Chinese Buddhism a modern form that was supposed to be attractive for the intellectuals, as well. The worldwide famous Buddhist community that he founded counted four million members when he died. The Ch’an master Hsu Yun, on the contrary, mainly worked as a practical teacher. Many contemporary Ch’an masters in China and Taiwan originate from his lineage. The major setbacks that Buddhism was suffering from under communist governance (especially the expropriation of the monasteries that came with the land reform 1950-1952 and the cultural revolution 1966-1976) seemed to pass quickly. sein.

»You, who follow the way of Buddha! Why are you searching so vigorously for reality in remote places? Search for blindness and reality deep within your own hearts.«


Avalokitasvara Bodhisattva, attended by the Lotus Sutra Nagakanya (Long Nu) and Sudhana.
Avalokitasvara Bodhisattva with the lotus Sutra Nagakanya (Long Nu) and Sudhana.
Japanischer buddhistischer Priester ca.1897
Japanese Buddhist priest around 1897

Zen in Japan

The HISTORY OF ZEN in Japan had three short preludes that remained without any consequences. Dosho (629-700) had already gone on a pilgrimage to China in 653 to study the teachings of the Fa-hsiang school under Hsüan-tsang (600-664). It is said that it was upon his advice that Dosho studied the Ch’an of the southern school although it remains a mystery under whom – at least it shouldn’t be forgotten that at that time Hui-neng wasn’t much older than 20 years. According to another tradition he studied under a student of the second patriarch Hui-k’o who in that case must have outlived his own master by 60 years. After his return in 656 he then founded the Hossô school in Japan and also built a hall for Zen meditation in the Gang-go monastery in Nara.


Around 810 the Chinese Rinzai master I-k’ung (jap. Giku) was invited to Japan by the empress Tachibana Kachiko. Especially for him she had the monastery of Danrin-ji in Kyoto built. Since I-k’ung hardly had any students in this monastery he eventually went back to China.


In 1171 Kakua went to China to study the Rinzai of the Yogi lineage. After his return he was supposed to report to the emperor Takakura (1169-1180) about his Zen studies. Kakua pulled out a flute, produced one single tone, bowed cordially and disappeared – for ever.


The next one to try to transfer Zen to Japan was Myôan Eisai (1141-1215), who had previously been a monk of the Tendai school. He travelled to China in 1168 and for the second time in 1187 where he received the Dharma transmission after five years of studies at the am Tien-tung-shan of Hsü-an Huai-chang. After his return he founded the Shofuku-ji at Hakata in 1195, the first Japanese Rinzai monastery that still exists. In 1202 he was appointed to abbot of the Kennin-ji in Kyoto by Yori’ie, the second Minamoto-Shogun. At that time the Kennin-ji was not a pure Zen monastery because they also taught the Tendai and Shingon schools. In 1215 Eisai left the imperial capital of Kyoto and went to Kamakura, the seat of the Bakufu (the military government of the Shogune) and then founded the Jufuku-ji by invitation of the Shogun Sanetomo.


Just like in China, the Oryo lineage of the Rinzai Zen that had been transmitted by Eisai became extinct after only a few generations; It was the Yogi lineage that was to prevail. Eisai is still considered the father of the Japanese Zen – especially because he was the first teacher of Dogen Kigen who established the Soto school in Japan.


Dogen Kigen (1200-1253) became a novice at the age of 13 years and received, after a year, his full ordination. He studied the teachings of the Tendai school and the Rinsai Zen that had been introduced by Eisai at the Kennin-ji under Esai himself and later under Myozen, Eisas’s student. In 1223 Myozen and Dogen went on a journey to the southern Sung dynasty in China to study Zen at its sources.


In China they went different ways and Dogen stayed at four different monasteries before meeting Ju-ching, the 13th Dharma heir of Tung-shan Liang-chieh ( jap. Tozan Ryokan) at the Tien-t’ung monastery (jap. Tendo Nyojo 1163-1228) in 1225. Dogen studied under him and received enlightenment and Dharma transmission. In 1227 Dogen returned to Japan with the ashes of Myozen. Different from other pilgrims he didn’t bring along any writings. “I came back empty-handed. All I have learned is that the eyes are horizontal and that the nose is vertical”. What he actually brought back to Japan though was new teachings and a new practise that are based on two central terms: Shikantaza (single-minded sitting) and Shinjin datsuraku (dropping of body and mind).


In Japan he initially taught in Kosho-ji in Uji (close to Kyoto) before he founded the Daibutsu-ji in the province of Echizen (renamed as Eihei-ji in 1426) in 1244, following the invitation of Hatano Yoshishiges. Under the very same name it is nowadays known as one of the ‘headquarters’ of the Soto-shu, the Japanese lineage of the Ts’ao-tung school. Dogen was taken ill in the fall of 1252 and died in the late summer of 1253.

As second founder of the Soto-shu Keizan Jokin (1268-1325), fourth generation Dharma heir of Dogen, is being worshipped. He was already novice at the age of eight years and studied under Dogen’s famous students Koun Ejo (1198-1280) and Tettsu Gikai (1219-1309). At the age of 27 Keizan received the Kesa (robe) of Gikai as a sign of the Dharma transmission.


In the following years Keizan engaged in the fruitful work of teaching and writing. The foundation of the Soji-ji, that next to Dogen’s Eihei-ji was to be the second headquarter of the Soto-shu traces back to him – not to mention the foundation of the Ho’o-ji, the first nunnery of the Soto-shu.


In the meantine the Yogi lineage of the Rizai Zen had established in Japan, as well. Shomyo, called Daio Kokushi (1235-1309), had started studying under the Chinese Rinzai master Lan-chi Tao-lung (1203-1268) who had come to Japan in 1246. He then went to China in 1259 where he studied under Hsu-t’sang Chih-yu (1189-1269) from which he finally received Dharma transmission. Shomyo’s most important student was Myocho Shuho, called Daito Kokushi (1282-1338), founder of the Daitoku-ji in Kyoto and teacher of Kanzan Egen, called Muso Daishi (1277-1360), the second abbot of the Daitoku-ji and founder of the Myoshin-ji. The O-to-kan school got famous for its three masters and was the beginning of the contemporary Rinzai Zen in Japan.


It was especially the Rinzai-Zen that got supported by the Shikken (regents) of the Hojo clan who at that time ruled instead of the Shogune. Specifically, Tokiyori (reg. 1247-1256) and Tokimune (reg. 1268-1284) were themselves serious Zen practitioners; Tokiyori became a monk in 1256 and officially handed over regency. Following the invitation of regents several Chinese Ch’an masters came to Japan where they took part in forming the Japanese Zen tradition. Initially it was Tao-lung, first teacher of Shomyo. In 1280 Wu-hsüeh Tsu-yüan (jap. Mugaku Sogen, called Bukko Kokushi, 1226-1286) came to Japan and in 1327 Ch’ing-chou Cheng-shen (jap. Seicho Seisetsu, 1274-1339).


The Rinzai Zen that initially was established in Kamakura finally found its way to the imperial court in Kyoto. Mainly thanks to Enni Ben’en, called Shoichi Kokushi (1202-1280), who had begun his studies under Gyoyu, a student of Eisai. He then went to China for six years and finally received the seal of confirmation from Wu-chun Shih-fang (1177-1249). He then became first abbot of the Tofuku-ji and spiritual adviser of the emperor Gosagas. The three founders of the O-to-kan schools also had a good relationship with the imperial family. The most influential, however, was Muso Soseki, called Muso Kokushi (1275-1351); he was teacher of three emperors and advisor of the first Ashikaga Shoguns Takauji and is supposed to have taught 13 000 students, among them 52 Zen masters. At his inducement Takauji founded a Zen temple in each of the 66 provinces of Japan.


The close relationship between the Rinzai school and the imperial family and Bakufu, the military government, indirectly supported the fall of the Hojo in the period of Ashikaga Shogune. In Kamakura and Kyoto an institutional hierarchy of the Rinzai school was installed, the system of ‘five mountains – ten temples’, jap. Gozan-Jissetsu. Subsequently Zen had a strong influence on Japanese culture, especially the Gozan-Bungaku, the ‘literature of the five mountains’.


While the Rinzai school was most effective in the centres of power, Kyoto and Kamakura, the Soto school focused mainly on teaching the rural population. Especially two students of Keizan Jokins, Meiho Sotetsu (1277-1350) and Gasan Joseki (1275-1365), as well as Gasan’s student Jakurei Tsugen (1332-1391) started their missionary activity that was then continued by their successors. Meiho and Gasan are the founders of the two main lineages of Soto Zen.


With the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunat (1603-1867) symptoms of decline started to appear although both schools still produced great masters. From the Rinzai school there are especially Gudo Toshoku (1579-1661), Isshi (1608-1646), Takuan Soho (1573-1645) and Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693) to be named. However, the most important figure of that time was Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769), the great reformer of Rinzai Zen. The two still existent lineages of the Japanese Rinzai-Shu, the Inzan (after Inzan Ien, 1751-1814) and Takuju lineage (after Takuju Kosen, 1760-1833) both trace back to Gasan Jito (1727-1797), one of Hakuin’s students. You would be right to say that modern Rinzai Zen is actually Hakuin’s Zen – that is how much his activities as reformer have shaped this school. Another important student of Hakuin was Torei En’ni (1721-1792).

Already one generation before Hakuin, Gesshu Soko (1618-1696), ‘the great reviver’, hat started renewing the Soto Zen that had gotten into a crisis in times of civil wars. At that time several feudal clans of the nobility that before had supported monasteries and temples of the Miesho lineage in the northern provinces were against the victorious Tokugawa. Gesshu had mainly been concentrated on returning to the teachings of founder Dogen. Gesshu’s work was continued by a contemporary of Hakuin called Manzan Dohaku (1636-1714), ‘the great reformer’. Other important Soto masters were Tenkei Denson (1648-1735), Shigetsu Ein (1689?-1764) and Menzan Zuiho (1683-1769).


In 1654 Yin-yüan Lung-ch’i, jap. Ingen Ryuki (1592-1673) had transferred another Chinese Rinzai lineage to Japan. Yin-Yuan had been abbot in the Wan-fu monastery at the Huang-po-shan in China where also Lin-chi’s teacher Huang-po (jap. Obaku) had worked. After this origin the new lineage was called Obaku-shu. Yin-yüan was accompanied by several students and also in the following time several masters came from the mainland, among them above all Sokuhi Nyoitsu (1616-1673) and Mokuan Shoto (1611-1684). The Obaku-shu taught and still teaches the Ch’an of the Ming time that is fused with the practises of the Pure Land school. Its significance is mainly in the cultural impulses that it gave in Japan. These days it is almost insignificant.


With the period of Meiji (1868-1912) Japanese society and culture started changing radically. Significant for this era of modernisation and industrialisation were the efforts to create a national ideology. Components for this ideology should be found in Neo-Confucian thinking and Shintoism. Shintoist and Buddhist institutions were separated from each other and public authorities started a downright anti Buddhism campaign (Haibutsu-Kishaku). This lead on the one hand to a very uncritical and shaming over adaptedness of Buddhist institutions and its representatives and an increasingly military and chauvinistic state on the other hand, plus aspirations to gain a higher effectiveness in society.


Expression of these aspirations was the foundation of religious organisations, whose declared aim was to include laypersons. That is how the Soto Fushu-kai were founded, where publisher Seiran Ouchi (1845-1918) played his most important role-.


Another lay organisation is the order of Sanbo Kyodan that was founded in 1954 by Hakuun Ryoko Yasutani (1885-1973), named after the founder and his teacher Daiun Sogaku Harada (1871-1961) also known as Harada-Yasutani school. According to their own statements this school has generally a Soto character but also integrates the Rinzai methods of systematic Koan studies. Although the school isn’t very important in Japan (around 3000 followers), it plays an important part in European and American Zen because many western teachers (especially those with a Christian background) originate from this lineage.


It is hard to assign organisations or schools in Japan to a sect or even only a specific religion because especially Shinto and Buddhism aren’t mutually exclusive. Approximately 84% of the population could be considered as Buddhist in the broadest sense. There are 28 Buddhist sects that the government acknowledges, however, Tendai, Nichiren, Shingon and Jodo make up around 88 % and Zen around 8 % – which is an estimate of 8,4 million Zen followers in Japan. Of those 8,4 million 6,8 million are Soto and 1,6 million are Rinzai followers. The number of monasteries and temples of the der Soto-Shu is around 15 000, the Rinzai-Shu have around 6000.

»Everything is your life. Day and night, whatever you encounter is your life; this is why you should adapt your life to the situation that you are confronted with. Use your vitality to make a unity of the situation you are confronted with and your life to put all things to the right place.«

Dogen Zenji

Sôn in Korea

DURING THE THIRD AND FOURTH CENTURY A.D. the kingsdoms of Koguryô in the north, Paekche in the south west and Silla in the south east formed on the Korean peninsula. The were culturally strongly influenced by the Chinese. In 374 Buddhism was already officially introduced in Koguryô; in 384 in Paechke and finally at the beginning of the fifth century in Silla.


In 668 Silla caused the union of the peninsula by conquering the neighbouring states and a cultural time of prosperity started in which Ch’an – Korean Sôn – was to play an important role. The introduction of Sôn in Korea is ascribed to Pômnang (632-646), who was considered a student of the fourth patriarch Tao-hsin (see above). Sôn was spread further through Sinhaeng (704-779) and Toûi (? – 825). In the following period many people made a pilgrimage to China to study Ch’an at its source. After their return to Korea they founded their own schools. After the fall of the Silla kingdom in 918 in the early Koryô era (918-1392) their number was set to nine.


Toûi was a Dharma grandson of Ma-tsu; he had studied under Ma-tsu’s students Pai-chang (see above) and Chih-tsang (735-814). The Kaji-san school traces back to him. Equally students of Chih-tsang were Hongch’ôk (around 830), founder of the Silsang-san, and Hyech’ôl (785-861), founder of the Tongni-san. The Songju-san was founded by Muyôm (800-888), who had studied under Ma-ku Pao-ch’e (720? – ?), also a student of Ma-tsu. Another one of Ma-tsu’s students, Nan-ch’üan P’u-yüan (see above) became through his student Toyun (797-868) ‚grandfather’ of a Koran school, the Saja-san, and Ma-tsu’s student Chang-ching Huai-hui (748-835) was teacher of Wôngam Hyôn’uks (787-869), founder of the Pongnim-san.


The lineage of Hûiyang-san of Pômnang and Chisôn Tohôn (824-882) also traces back to Ma-tsu while the founder of Sagul-san, Pômil (810-889), was student under Ma-tsu’s own student Yen-kuan Ch’i-an (750?-842) and also under Shih-tou’s student Yüeh-shan Wei-yen (see above). Only the ninth school, the Sumi-san Iôms (869-936) is an offshoot of the Ts’ao-tung lineage.


That is why during the Koryô period there was talk of the ‘five doctrinal schools and the nine mountain schools’ (ogyo kusan), whereby it should be noted that nine mountain schools is synonymous for ‘Sôn’, while the five doctrinal schools are collected under the term ‘Kyo’, which means as much as ‘erudition’. Under the influence of Ûich’ôns the Ch’ônt’ae, the Korean offshoot of the Chinese Tien-Tai school, (different from China) was counted as another Sôn school which led to the system of the ‘five doctrinal and two meditation schools’ (ogyo yangjong).

During the Koryô period Sôn turned into some kind of state religion and was closely connected to the reigning classes. The consequences were a degeneration and a strong mainly Neo-Confucian countermovement. During the following Chosôn period (1392-1909) the influence of Buddhism on the public life decreased more and more and the remaining nuns and monks had to withdraw to the mountains.


In the Koryô period there had already been a countermovement from the Buddhist side that was against the deterioration of teachings and discipline. Apart from Ûich’ôn this tendency is mainly connected to the name Chinul (1158-1210) who might have been one of the most important, most influential personalities of the Korean Sôn. The reformation that he had introduced found its expression in the ‘community for Samadhi and Prajna’ and finally in the foundation of the monastery Sônggwangsa on the mountain Chogye, the nucleus of the order of Chogye. Chinul himself never received the Dharma transmission of a specific lineage, however, his teachings were strongly influenced by Tsung-mi (see above) and Ta-hui Tsung-kao (1089-1163). Ta-hui Dharma heir of Lin-Chi in 12th generation and propagated the exclusive use of the Kung-an (jap. Koan) in his teachings. Ever since Chinul the work with the Koan has turned into central practise of the Korean Sôn. Chinul’s work was continued especially by Kyônghan Paegun (1298-1374), T’aego Pou (1301-1382) and Naong Hyegûn (1320-1376), who all studied in China under masters of the Lin-chi (kor. Imje) school.


As already indicated was the situation of Buddhism during the Chosôn period mainly characterised by oppression. From hundreds of monasteries at the beginning of the era all that remained in the end were 36. The number of priests was restricted, as was the land property of the monasteries. Finally, monks and nuns weren’t allowed to enter cities anymore; Buddhist obsequies and begging was prohibited. In this time the ‘five doctrinal and to meditation schools’ reduced to two– Kyo and Sôn – in the end only the Sôn survived.


Despite these difficult conditions the Sôn school continued to produce formidable masters. Especially Naong Hyegûn’s student Muhak Chach’o (1327-1405) and his student Kihwa (1376-1433) should be named. Under Muhak and Kihwa the studies of the writings were emphasised more – following the common trend of a union of ‚Kyo’ and ‚Sôn’ that had already started with Ûich’ôn. After a while there was quite a curriculum for the studies of the writings in the order of Chogye that traces back to Chinul

A very rare role (also for the ‘rehabilitation’ of Buddhism as social force) played the invasion of Korea, that had been weakened by inner power struggles, by the Japanese Shogun Hideyoshi Toyotomi in 1592. Under the leadership of Sôsan Hyujông (1520-1604) they organised quite a guerrilla army of monks that played an important part banishing the invaders six years later. Sôsan was also an important Sôn master and writer. His Sônga kwigam, a handbook of the Sôn practise is still studied today. Some of the still existing lineages of Sôn trace back to Sôsan’s four main students Yujông (1544-1610), Ôngi (1581-1644), T’aenûng (1562-1649) and Ilsôn (1533-1608).


The development of Sôn was mainly completed at the beginning of the 17th century. The government kept a strong control over the Buddhist Sangha but the times of open oppression were over. Ironically, the last barriers were lifted during the second Japanese invasion between 1910 and 1945. Although the Sangha shared the terrible suffering of the Korean population and was subjected to strict supervision – the wish of Japanese Buddhists to do missionary work in the cities finally led to lifting the prohibition of entry for nuns and monks in the cities. The celibacy for priests that had been lifted under Japanese influence got reinstalled – not without a lot of discussion – after the war.


Nowadays the Republic of Korea (South Korea) is significantly coined by Buddhism. Around 36% of the population can be considered Buddhist. Buddhism is in the Republic of Korea mainly Sôn Buddhism, although the Chogye order plays the most dominant role. The Kwan Um school that is also well-known in the western world is an ‘offshoot’ of the Chogye order. It is difficult to make any reliable statements concerning the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea).

»Spring comes, the grass grows by itself.«

Seung Sahn

Buddhist temple and rock garden in Koya-San, Japan

source: Liquid

Kesa-Sutra Kobun Chino Roshi
Kobun-Sama writes the Kesa Sutra in calligraphy
Buryeongsa temple in Korea

source: Wikipedia

Thien in Vietnam

ACORDING TO THE NATIVE TRADITION Buddhism already came to Indochina in the third century B.C through Sona und Uttara, two of Asoka, the third king of the Indian Maurya dynasty, who had sent missionaries to Indochina. In the region of today’s northern Vietnam and southern China at that time there existed several mostly short-lived kingdoms (Xich Quy, Au Lac, Van Lang), which territory was then conquered in 208 B.C by Chinese general Tch’ao To (Trieu Da) who used the collapse of the Chinese Ch’in dynasty to found the independent kingdom Giao Chi and the Trieu dynasty. In 111 B.C Giao Chi was conquered by the Chinese and integrated into the Han kingdom. With only short breaks this region remained a part of the Chinese kingdom until 939 A.D.


This is the time when Thien (vietnamese für Dhyana / Ch’an / Zen) came to the country. A Chinese source, the Tsu Kao Seng Ch’uan, reports about the Indian Dhyana master Dharmadeva and his ‘Vietnamese student’ Thich Hue Thang. Dharmadeva had already taught in the northern part of Vietnam in the fifth century – even before Bodhidharma came from the west. Sometimes it is also said that Tang Hoi, a teacher for meditation and translator of Sutras, who had already worked in the third century, is considered as founder of the Thien tradition

The first permanent founding of a school, however, took place through the hands of the Indian monk Vinitaruci / Ty NiDa Lu Chi (? – 594) in 580. Vinitaruci originated from Bodhidharmas lineage – he was a student and Dharma heir of the third patriarch Seng-ts’an. The Ty Ni Da Lu Chi school at least existed over 19 generations around 650 years long.


The second school was founded by a student of Pai-chang Huai-hai (see above): Wu Yu Tong / Vo Ngon Thong, who came to Giao Chi was around 820 and existed over 17 generations.

The third and most influential of the early Thien schools was only formed in 939 after the Chinese – beaten by the leader of the rebels, Ngo Quyen – had withdrawn from Giao Chi and the independent kingdom Dai Co Viet had established itself. It was the Thao Duong school that doesn’t, despite it’s name, originate from the Ts’ao-tung school (Sotobut from the Yün-men (Ummons) lineage instead.


From the very beginning (At the latest from 968 with the beginning of the Dinh dynasty) regents worked closely together with the Buddhist Sangha and appointed important monks to royal advisors. It is well-known that the first kings of the Ly dynasty (1010-1225) were followers of Thien; Ty Tha’i To (reg. 1010-1028) was a student of Ty Ni Da Lu Chi – master Van Hanh (? -1018). From Van Hanh it is known that he taught ‘Dharani Samadhi’ which is some kind of Mantra technique. From his lineage derived Dieu Nhan (1043-1115), possibly the first ‘matriarch’ of a Buddhist school. The second monarch of the dynasty, Ty Tha’i Ton (ruled 1028-1045), was a student of Vo Ngon Thong’s master Thien Lao. The third king of the dynasty, Ly Thanh Ton (reg. 1054-1072), was as Dharma successor of Thao Duongs first patriarch of the Thao Duong school himself.

Thao Duong (chin. Ts’ao Tang) was one of 17 Dharma heirs of Hsueh-tou Ming-chueh (vietn. Tuye’t-Ddau Minh-Gia’c, 980-1052), the famous author of the Koan collection Pi Yen Lu (jap. Hekigan-roku) and important representantive of the Yün-men school. Thao Duong taught in Champa, one of the mainly Hindu kingdoms in today’s central Vietnam, where he became a prisoner of war during a military campaign of Ly Thanh Tons in 1069. He was abducted to Dai Co Viet where he became a teacher of the ruler by whom he got the title Quo’c-Su (chin. Kuo-shih, jap. Kokushi, Master of the country). The Thao Duong school was compared to the lineages of Ty Ni Da Lu Chis and Vo Ngon Thongs a ‚modern’ school, that taught the combined practise of Ch’an and the Pure Land, Thien-Tinh Nhat-Tri (chin. Ch’an-ching I-chih, s.o.).


Two other monarchs from the Ly dynasty also became patriarchs of the Thao Duong school (the 10th in third generation and the 16th in fifth generation): Ly Anh Ton (reg. 1138-1175) and his successor Ly Cao Ton (ruled 1176-1210). However, in taking the ’office’ they had to step down as kings. Interestingly enough the list of Thao Duong patriarchs also counts, next to ordained monks and kings, several lay people. The strong connection between this school and the ruling family didn’t lead to a repression of other schools, though. Especially Ly Anh Ton supported all kinds of Buddhist schools and appointed – being a student of the sixth Thao Duong patriarch Khong Lo – theTy Ni Da Lu Chi master Vien Thong to national champion. with Ly Cao Ton’s death not only the Ly dynasty became extinct, but also there couldn’t be passed on any more names after the fifth generation of Thao-Duong patriarchs and also the other two Thien schools disappeared.

The beginning of the following Tran dynasty was marked by three sequent Mongolan invasions (in 1257, 1285 and 1287), that were fought back by the regents of this dynasty – Tran Thai Tong (ruled 1225-1258), Tran Quoc Tuan (ruled 1258-1279) and Tran Nhan Tong (1258-1308, ruled 1279-1293). After Tran Nhan Tong stepped down from the throne for his son he turned into the founder of the Truc Lam or bamboo forest school, that contained strong Taoist and Confucian elements. His successors were Phap Loa Ton Gia (1284-1330) and Ly Dao Tai (also known as Huyen Quang , 1254-1334). This school also had two other kings as patriarchs; however, only four generations after it’s foundation there were no further records.


No further records don’t necessarily mean that these four schools became extinct in the following time, however, the alliance between the Thien Buddhism and the ruling family stopped when Neo-Confucianism became a ruling ideology in the 14th century. Partly this can be traced back to the increasing cultural and political influence of China at that time that finally led to the annexation of Dai Co Viets by the Ming. That is how Buddhism, that had quite a strong nationalist touch to it, was shut down as a societal power. This didn’t change when Vietnam gained back its independence in 1428 under the leadership of Le Lois, founder of the Le dynasty, and was being revived under the name Dai Viet. During the dynasty Champa in central Vietnam was conquered in 1471 and the expansion in southern and western direction continued. Up until 1673 there were still regular uprisings in the south, though.

An important role in the southern expansion and the reinvigoration of Buddhism played the Family Nguyen that prevailed in 1802 after almost 200 years of civil war against the Trinh clan and was to replace the Le dynasty that had already been deprived of power. Following an invitation of deputy king Nguyen Phuc Chu (ruled 1691-1725) a group of a hundred monks from the province of Kwantung under the leadership of Nguyen Thieu (? – 1712) came in 1696 to Hue in central Vietnam and founded the Lam Te school, the Vietnamese offshoot of the Lin-chi school. Similar to the Japanese Obaku-shu, that was roughly formed at the same time, the Lam Te school taught the Chinese Ch’an of the Ming time. This school was to coin the modern Thie, however, especially the lineages that traced back to the reformer Lieu Quan (? – 1774) a ‘Dharma grandson’ of Nguyen Thieu. Through Lieu Quan, who carried out and extraordinary missionary activity, Thien got a strong syncretic character. He consciously took to native Thien tradition, instead of teaching Chinese Ch’an. Lieu Quan ‘re-ordained’ for example also monks and nuns from other Mahayana traditions and even Theravada followers, who had been discontent with their former practise. The proselytes were allowed to stick to their former practises of meditation. That is why in modern Thien apart from the practise of Thoai-ddau (chin. Hua-t’ou, jap. Wato – a form of the Koan practise) there is also Niem-phat (chin. Nien-Fo, jap. Nembutsu – calling Amida) and theravadic Vipassana practises. Even Tantra exercises are not unknown. Added to that, temples and monasteries were or are usually used by Buddhists of different denominations together – this shows that Vietnam is an intersection of cultures.


The French colonial power (from 1862 – 1954) saw Buddhism – similar to the Chinese in the early times – as a national force and pushed the catholic missionary activities forward as counterbalance. The Buddhism discriminatory religious politics of the French were contained in the South after 1954 by Ngo Dinh Diem under the influence of his brother Ngo Dinh Thuc, archbishop of Hue, which led to the foundation of the committee of the protection of Buddhism in 1963, that all Vietnamese Buddhist traditions belong to. The self-immolation of the monk Thich Quang Duc at the peak of the battle against discrimination from the state (that had led to several deaths before) in June 1963 attracted international attention. The Diem regime reacted with a wave of arrests to this incident which only strengthened the resistance of the population until the United States of America finally dropped Diem and overturned him in a military coup in November. In January 1964 10 representatives of the Mahayana- and Theravada-Sanghas founded the Unified Vietnamese Buddhist Church (UVBC).


When the Communist north won the Vietnam war in 1975, the UVBC was dissolved. Only in 1981 a successor organisation, the Vietnamese Buddhist Church (VBC), was founded, controlled by the state leadership. Although the constitution guarantees freedom of religion time and again there are assaults.


Nominally around 50% of the population of Vietnam (around 77 million) is Buddhist, which means that normally this is a synthesis of Buddhist, Toist and Confucian elements that is known as ‘Tam Giao’ (triple religion). The ethnic group next in size (around 38%) calls itself irreligious; following are the Catholics with around 8%, Cao Dai (a modern mixed religion) with 1,5% and Hoa Hao (a reformed Theravada sect) also with 1,5%. The rest is Protestants (1,2%) and Muslims (0,1%).

»Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and failure to listen I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening to relieve suffering and promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups and nations.«

Thich Nhat Hanh

MU by Kobun Chino Roshi
Kalligraphie by Kobun-Sama


Stupa Kobun Chino Roshi
Stupa for Kobun-Sama,

Created by his students after his transformation.


Michael Ruppel

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