ZEN HistoryBodhidharma (c. 6th century CE) was the Buddhist monk traditionally credited as the founder of Chán (Zen) Buddhism in China. Very little contemporary biographical information on Bodhidharma is extant, and subsequent accounts became layered with legend, but most accounts agree that he was a South Indian monk who journeyed to southern China and subsequently relocated northwards. The accounts differ on the date of his arrival, with the earliest account claiming that he arrived during the Liú Sòng Dynasty (420–479) and later accounts dating his arrival to the Liáng Dynasty (502–557). The accounts are, however, generally agreed that he was primarily active in the lands of the Northern Wèi Dynasty (386–534).
Shortly before his death, Bodhidharma appointed his disciple Huike to succeed him, making Huike the first Chinese patriarch and the second patriarch of Zen in China. The transmission then passed to the second, third, and fourth patriarchs, of whom little is known beyond their names. The sixth and last patriarch, Huineng (638–713), was one of the giants of Zen history, and all surviving schools regard him as their ancestor. However, the dramatic story of Huineng's life tells that there was a controversy over his claim to the title of patriarch: after being chosen by Hongren, the fifth patriarch, he had to flee by night to Nanhua Temple in the south to avoid the wrath of Hongren's jealous senior disciples. In the middle of the 8th century, monks claiming to be the successors to Huineng, calling themselves the Southern school, cast themselves in opposition to those claiming to succeed Hongren's student Shenxiu (神秀). It was at this point—the debates between these rival factions—that Zen enters the realm of fully documented history. The Southern school eventually became predominant and their rivals died out.
In the following centuries, Zen grew to become the largest sect in Chinese Buddhism. The teachers claiming Huineng's posterity began to branch off into numerous different schools, each with their own special emphasis, but all of which kept the same basic focus on meditational practice, personal instruction and personal experience. During the late Tang and the Song periods, the tradition truly flowered, as a wide number of eminent teachers, such as Mazu (Wade-Giles: Ma-tsu; Japanese: Baso), Shitou (Shih-t'ou; Jap.: Sekito), Baizhang (Pai-chang; Jap.: Hyakujo), Huangbo (Huang-po; Jap.: Obaku), Linji (Lin-chi; Jap.: Rinzai), and Yunmen (Jap.: Ummon) developed specialized teaching methods, which would variously become characteristic of the five houses (五家) of mature Chinese Zen. The traditional five houses were Caodong (曹洞宗), Linji (臨濟宗), Guiyang (潙仰宗), Fayan (法眼宗), and Yunmen (雲門宗). This list does not include earlier schools such as the Hongzhou (洪州宗) of Mazu.
Over the course of Song Dynasty (960–1279), the Guiyang, Fayan, and Yunmen schools were gradually absorbed into the Linji. During the same period, the various developments of Zen teaching methods crystallized into a technique that was unique to Zen Buddhism: koan practice (described below). According to Miura and Sasaki, "it was during the lifetime of Yüan-wu's successor, Ta-hui Tsung-kao 大慧宗杲 (Daie Sōkō, 1089-1163) that Koan Zen entered its determinative stage." Koan practice was prevalent in the Linji school, to which Yuanwu and Ta-hui (pinyin: Dahui) belonged, but it was also employed on a more limited basis by the Caodong school. The teaching styles and words of the classical masters were collected in such important Zen texts as the Blue Cliff Record (1125) of Yuanwu, The Gateless Gate (1228) of Wumen, both of the Linji lineage, and the Book of Equanimity (1223) of Wansong, of the Caodong lineage. These texts record classic koan cases, together with verse and prose commentaries, which would be studied by later generations of students down to the present.
Zen, which had developed into a distinctively Chinese school of Buddhism, became an international phenomenon early in its history. This first occurred in Vietnam, according to the traditional accounts of that country. These traditions state that, in 580, an Indian monk named Vinitaruci (Vietnamese: Tì-ni-đa-lưu-chi) travelled to Vietnam after completing his studies with Sengcan, the third patriarch of Chinese Zen. This, then, would be the first appearance of Vietnamese Zen, or Thien (thiền) Buddhism. The sect that Vinitaruci and his lone Vietnamese disciple founded would become known as the oldest branch of Thien. After a period of obscurity, the Vinitaruci School became one of the most influential Buddhist groups in Vietnam by the 10th century, particularly so under the patriarch Vạn-Hạnh (died 1018). Other early Vietnamese Zen schools included the Vo Ngon Thong (Vô Ngôn Thông), which was associated with the teaching of Mazu, and the Thao Duong (Thảo Đường), which incorporated nianfo chanting techniques; both were founded by Chinese monks. All three of the early schools appear to have largely disintegrated during the Mongol invasions of the 13th century. A new school was founded by one of Vietnam's religious kings; this was the Truc Lam (Trúc Lâm) school, which evinced a deep influence from Confucian and Taoist philosophy. Nevertheless, Truc Lam's prestige waned over the following centuries as Confucianism became dominant in the royal court. In the 17th century, a group of Chinese monks led by Nguyen Thieu (Nguyên Thiều) established a vigorous new school, the Lam Te (Lâm Tế), which is the Vietnamese pronunciation of Linji. A more domesticated offshoot of Lam Te, the Lieu Quan (Liễu Quán) school, was founded in the 18th century and has since been the predominant branch of Vietnamese Zen.
The Zen school began to appear in Korea in the 9th century. During his lifetime, Mazu had begun to attract students from Korea; by tradition, the first Korean to study Zen was named Peomnang. Mazu's successors had numerous Korean students, some of whom returned to Korea and established the Nine Mountain Schools. This was the beginning of Korean Zen, which is called Seon. Among the most notable Seon masters were Jinul (1158–1210), who established a reform movement and introduced koan practice to Korea, and Taego Bou (1301–1382), who studied in China with Linji teacher and returned to unite the Nine Mountain Schools. In modern Korea, by far the largest Buddhist denomination is the Jogye Order, which is essentially a Zen sect; the name Jogye is the Korean equivalent of Caoxi (曹溪), another name for Huineng.
Although the Japanese had known of Zen for centuries, it was not introduced as a separate school until the 12th century, when Myōan Eisai travelled to China and returned to establish a Linji lineage, which is known in Japan as Rinzai. Decades later, Nanpo Jomyo (南浦紹明) also studied Linji teachings in China before founding the Japanese Otokan lineage, the most influential branch of Rinzai. In 1215, Dogen, a younger contemporary of Eisai's, journeyed to China himself, where he became a disciple of the Caodong master Tiantong Rujing. After his return, Dogen established the Soto school, the Japanese branch of Caodong.
The Zen schools also continued to develop in China up to the present.