The Journey to China

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Early Zen History

The Trip to China

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A special tradition outside the scriptures;
No dependance upon words and letters;
Direct pointing at the soul of man;
Seeing into one's own nature, and the attainmen of Buddhahood.

    --Bodhidharma

The spread of Buddhism from China to India was an event of tremendous significance in the history of both Buddhist religion and the culture of China. Buddhism began its migration to China around the time of the beginning of the Christian era and had become pervasive by the fourth century.
The rapid spread of Buddhism throughout China speaks to both its powerful theology and its kinship with the ancient Taoist religion. In the wisdom of Shakyamuni, the Chinese people found a fuller reflection of the teachings of Lao-Tzu, Chuang-Tzu, and other ancient Taoist masters. An extremely inclusive religion, Mahayana Buddhism proved to be readily exportable in China, as seen by the ease with which the Chinese people applied their own language and philosophical thought to Buddhist terms. Thus the Primal Nothingness of the Tao was easily transferred to the Buddhist concept of nirvana. The spontaneity of nonaction (wu-wei) was seen as the precursor of the Buddhist Middle Way. And the Great One of the ancient Chinese masters laid the foundation for acceptance of the Absolute Enlightenment of Buddhism. Zen was the result of this great merging of culture, mysticism, and theology.

D.T. Suzuki, generally regarded as the "voice of Zen" to the West, believes that Zen could not have developed anywhere but in China. Indian Buddhism is rife with intellectualizing and delights in constructing elaborate lists and rules. The Chinese found the message of Enlightenment to be true, but the men who accepted the essential tenets translated not merely the language, but the message itself into something the Chinese people could relate to. Minds that had been raised in the tradition of Lao-Tzu found traditional Buddhism difficult to accept, but they were well able to ground themselves in the mystical melding of the mundane details of daily life and the lofty ideas of Gautama.
Suzuki offers an excellent comparison of the differences between Indian and Chinese approaches in his Essays in Zen Buddhism.

"The Indian Buddhist way of impressing the idea [non-attachment] is this: a Brahman named Black-nails came to the Buddha and offered him two huge flowering trees which he carried each in one of his hands through his magical power. The Buddha called out, and when the Brahman responded the Buddha said, 'Throw them down!' The Brahman let down the flowering tree in his left hand before the Buddha. The latter called out again to let them go, whereupon Blacknails dropped the other flowering tree in the right hand. The Buddha still kept up his command. Said the Brahman: 'I have nothing now to let go. What do you want me to do?' 'I never told you to abandon your flowering plants,' said the Buddha, 'what I want you to do is to abandon your six objects of sense, your six organs of sense, and your six consciousnesses. When these are all abandoned, it is then that you are released from the bondage of birth-and-death.'

In contrast, the Chinese master Joshu is far more direct, and yet much more paradoxical:

'A monk came and asked the master, 'How is it when a man brings nothing with him?' 'Throw it away!' was Joshu's immediate response. 'What shall he throw down when he is not burdened at all?' 'If so, bring it along!'

Bodhidharma

The history of Zen itself is generally considered to have begun with the arrival of Bodhidharma from India in 520 C.E. While Bodhidharma's historical life is nearly as legendary as Siddhartha's, we do have the accounts of the Chinese scholars Tao-Hsuan (Biographies of the High Priests) and Tao-Yuan (Records of the Transmission of the Lamp). Unfortunately, the first account dates from roughly 645 C.E., and the second from 1004 C.E. While each author claimed to have consulted texts much older, none of the listed texts have survived. In the first account, the impact of Bodhidharma on Buddhism in China is relatively little, while in Tao-Yuan's account Bodhidharma is given a much more central presence. This is perhaps because Tao-Hsuan wrote before Zen was a widely established religion, while Tao-Yuan had the benefit of knowing the result of Bodhidharma's teachings in China. While the accounts differ, each provides an picture of an impressive, eloquent man who was much beloved.

According to legend, Bodhidharma was the son of a Brahman king from South India whose ardent desire was to master the doctrine of the Mahayana. He dedicated himself to monkhood and became much agrieved at the decline of Buddhist teachings in the more distant parts of the world. He therefore determined to travel to China and preach the teachings of the Buddha, where he became the First Patriarch of Zen. Bodhidharma's teachings were different from those of other Buddhists in China at the time, for he asserted that the building of temples and studying of the sutras was futile. Instead, Bodhidharma traveled to a monastery where he sat meditating before a wall for nine years until his legs withered away. He is said to have foiled six poison attempts, to have confronted emperors and princes, and to have practiced Zen in the same manner as the classical T'ang and Sung periods. It is from the stories of Bodhidharma that the traditional passing on of the Robe and Bowl of succession is derived.

While reliable details of Bodhidharma's life are few, it has been definitively established that he existed and was from India. He traveled through southern China into the north, where he devoted more than forty years to developing and establishing his doctrine of Enlightenment. Bodhidharma's great bequeathment to posterity was the use of "pi-kuan, or "wall-gazing," and its generation of "sudden enlightenment." Bodhidharma would leave many important followers behind, and from them the flower of classical Chinese Zen would spring.

The Northern and Southern Split

The Fifth Patriarch was Hung-jen. From Hung-jen would come two schools: the Northern, which practiced "gradual enlightenment," and the Southern, which continued to cultivate the sudden enlightenment doctrine. The two schools each laid claim to being founded by the "Sixth Patriarch, and it would be the Southern school which would survive and prosper. Shen-hsiu, master of the Northern School, was acknowledged as the most senior and polished student at the school of Hung-jen, but according to legend was upstaged by the future master of the Southern School, Hui-neng.
The legend tells us that Hui-neng was born of extremely humble origins and risked all to travel to study with Hung-jen in order to achieve Enlightenment. When he arrived, he could neither read nor write, but Hung-jen recognized his extraordinary gifts and provided him a place as manual laborer. When Hung-jen was coming to the end of his life, he realized he needed to pass on the leadership of the school, and therefore, gathering his disciples together, he asked them to write a poem that would demonstrate their mastery of Zen. Shen-hsiu wrote his poem on a wall for all to see:

The body is the Bodhi tree [enlightenment]
The mind is like a mirror bright.
Take heed to keep it always clean,
Allow no dust to alight.

All the monks were extremely impressed with Shen-hsiu's poem, and all were secretly sure he would win. Hui-neng, however, saw the writing and asked one of the monks to read it to him. He then asked a monk to write his response:

The Bodhi is not like a tree
The mirror bright is nowhere shining;
As there is nothing from the first,
Where can the dust itself collect?

Hung-jen immediately realized that the second poem was the sign of an enlightened mind, but he did not wish to create a rift in monastery, as Hui-neng was a mere layman. According to the legend, Hui-neng was brought to the masters room late one night and given the robe and bowl of succession. In order to avoid conflict within the monastery, he then sent Hui-neng away.
While the later Zen stories imply a great deal of acrimony between the two masters, no sources surrounding the period indicate such a conflict. To all appearances, the two schools were not in an acrimonious competition until after the death of the masters. While the Northern School would later be absorbed by the Southern, many of its techniques, the continuous, slow, and peaceful meditation practices, would survive in the Soto School of Japan.

During the second half of the Tang dynasty Zen once more divided, this time into the Five Houses. Of the Houses, two would continue to live on in Japan, even after the ultimate unifaction of all Buddhism in China finally combined Pure Land Buddhism with the surviving Zen sect: Rinzai. The Rinzai School grew during the Sung period (960-1279), combining the treasured meditation techniques with abrupt shouting and the striking of students with a sick to impel enlightenment. Perhaps most significantly was the development of the Zen Koan. The Rinzai School was eventually brought to Japan in 1202 by Myoan Eisai. The Ts'ao-tung School (Soto) was transferred to Japan by the greatest of Japanese Zen masters: Dogen. The Soto School emphasizes the quiet of meditation and the quiet deeds of an everyday life. Each school reproaches the other, with Rinzai accusing the Soto School of passivity, and Soto pointing out that Rinzai neglects the sutras and ignores the dangers of Sudden Enlightenment, which may instead be only partial, or even an illusion.
It is at this time, in 1202 C.E., that Zen truly arrived in Japan.