Origins of Zen School

16 Sep


1.1. Mahakasyapa was an enlightened disciple of the Buddha. One day, while Mahakasyapa was sitting with the Master, in silence, the Master picked up a lotus flower and held it in front of him. Mahakasyapa, at once smiled knowingly; he understood the master’s teaching. That teaching was an instant communication, a direct meeting of the hearts without use of words. It was a secret teaching; but Mahakasyapa did not keep the secret. He passed it on to his disciples. The later scholars remarked,” If you do not understand, then it is the secret of Sakyamuni. If you do understand, it is Mahakasyapa not keeping the secret”.

1.2. That was how the Dhyana School was born. Its emphasis was on one’s own experience; and asked its students to desist from borrowing others’ experiences. It therefore discouraged undue reliance on what one heard or read. Its teaching had four main aspects:

  • Transmission of the instructions is beyond book learning.
  • It is not couched in words and letters.
  • It points directly to the human mind.
  • It lets one see into one’s own true nature and leads to attaining Buddha- hood.

1.3. The tradition of Dhyana masters began with Mahakasyapa. After the passing away of the Buddha, Ananda, his cousin, became a disciple of Mahakasyapa and received the wordless instruction. The Dhyana School counts 28 masters in the line of Mahakasyapa. They include great names such as Ananda, Asvaghosha, Nagarjuna and Vasabhandu. The twenty-seventh in the lineage was Prajnatara, whose disciple was the 28th Dhyana master Bodhidharma, who also became the first patriarch of the Dhyana –> Cha’n – > Zen schools of China and Japan.

Tibetan sources mention him as Bodhidharmottara  or Dharmottara (Dharma of enlightenment) . Bodhidharma is presumably a shortened form of that name. Let’s , however , stick to the standard usage.

2.1. According to some sources, Bodhidharma (470-543 AD) hailed from Kanchipuram in south India; and was a Pallava prince.  He was the third son of Simhavarman II; and a contemporary of Skandavarman IV and Nandivarman I. He was the disciple of Prajnatara. Bodhidharma lived with his teacher for nearly forty years, until the teacher’s demise. Thereafter, as per the wish of his teacher, Bodhidharma left for China. He arrived at the port city of Kwan-tan (Canton), along the southern coast of China, during the year 520. He was honored by the Chinese emperor Wu-li in whose court was the great translator Paramartha. Bodhidharma soon left the palace headed north and crossed the Yangtze River. He continued moving north until he arrived at the Temple in Ho Nan Province. It was here that Bodhidharma meditated for nine years facing a wall, not uttering a sound for the entire time.



2.2. After he initiated his disciple Hui-k’o into Dhyana, Bodhidharma moved on to Chen Sung (One Thousand Saints) Temple to propagate the Dharma. He passed away in 543 AD. It is said Bodhidharma was buried in Shon Er Shan (Bear Ear Mountain) in Ho Nan, and a stupa was built for him in Pao Lin Temple. Later, the Tang dynasty Emperor, Dai Dzong, bestowed on Bodhidharma the name Yuen Che Grand Zen Master, and renamed his stupa as Kong Kwan (Empty Visualization).


2.3. There is a legend connected with his death; it surely does not sound real and yet, is interesting. It says, soon after his death, someone saw Bodhidharma walking towards India barefoot and with a single shoe in hand. His grave was later exhumed, and according to legend, the only thing found in it was the shoe he left behind.

For nine years he had remained and nobody knew him;
carrying a shoe in hand he went home quietly, without ceremony.

Another legend says that Bodhidharma, during his last days, remarked, “I came to China and transmitted my Dharma to three people. One received my marrow, one received my bones, and one received my flesh.” After the transmission,   Hui K’o received the marrow and Tao Yu received the bones.  A bikshuni Tsang Chih received Bodhidharma’s flesh. And, in the end Bodhidharma had no body at all.

2.4. His main teaching which has impacted Zen was taken from Vajrasamadhi Sutra:” Be at rest in all things and seek nothing, for Buddha-hood is attained by perceiving one’s own true nature.”

[There are varying accounts of Bodhidharma’s early life; his arrival and life in China. Some accounts mention that Bodhidharma lived for 150 years.]

3.1. Bodhidharma was the first patriarch of the Chinese Cha’n School. But, he was not the first one to bring Buddhism into China.  By the time he arrived, the teachings of the Buddha were already prevalent in China. It is not clear when exactly the Buddha’s teachings entered China. In any event, Tao-sheng (360-434 AD) the disciple of the Indian saint Kumara-jiva (ca. 400 AD) had been a well recognized Buddhist teacher. Tao-sheng, following the footsteps of his teacher, advocated the practice of meditation and rejected mere book learning; he also spoke of enlightenment or awakening.

3.2. Bodhidharma relied, to a large extent, on the premier text of Yogachara School of the Mahayana Buddhism: the Lankavatara Sutra. It is regarded a difficult text; and, its basic thrust is on “inner enlightenment that does away with all duality and is raised above all distinctions.”

One of the recurrent themes in the Lankavatara Sutra is, not to rely on words to express reality. It holds the view that objects do not owe their existence to words that indicate them. The words themselves are artificial creations. Ideas, it says, can as well be expressed by looking steadily, by gestures, by a frown, by the movement of the eyes, by laughing, by yawning, or by the clearing of the throat, or by recollection, or by trembling.

Bodhidharma in China

3.3. Bodhidharma instructed his disciples to follow a certain principle; and to practice.

The principle was to: “Leave behind the false, return to the true; make no discrimination between self and others. In contemplation, one’s mind should be stable ,  alert and clear  like the wall ; illuminating  with compassion. .”  He warned, it might sound like the direct, easy path to enlightenment, but it is, in fact, difficult. Bodhidharma’s rigors life long sadhana was  a testimony to that.

[The wall in these contexts carries a special meaning. All mental activities are like murals on a wall. Without the wall there can be no paintings; but the paintings hide the wall, cover it up and hide it from the view. The wall, here, stands for awareness (prajna), free from all thoughts. This (wall) is the original mind or no- mind, as the Buddhists call it. To get back to that blemish– less wall is the aim off Cha’n (Zen) practice.

The wall in this context is analogues to the clear cloudless sky that Vedanta talks about.

The mind is formless like the sky,
Yet it wears a million faces.
It appears as images of the past, or as worldly forms;
But it is not the supreme Self.
All your senses are like clouds;
All they show is an endless mirage.
The Radiant One is neither bound nor free.
I am the Bliss, I am the Truth, I am the Boundless Sky.
–  Avadhuta Gita

This was also what Bodhidharma  taught.]

The practice involved:

(i)The willingness to accept, without complaining, suffering and unhappiness because you understand it is your own karma.

(ii) Understanding that all situations are the consequences of karmic causes, and therefore, you maintain equanimity in all circumstances, both negative and positive.

(iii)  Acting in accordance with ones Dharma (one’s own nature or svabhava) which is therefore pure. Realizing through practice the essence of one’s Nature, which is equanimity.

3.4. It is said, the following four-line stanza captures Bodhidharma’s teaching. Its first two lines echo the Lankavatara Sutra’s disdain for words and its latter two lines stress the importance of the insight into reality.]

A special transmission outside the scriptures,
Not founded upon words and letters;
By pointing directly to [one’s] mind
It lets one see into [one’s own true] nature and [thus] attain Buddhahood


3.5. Bodhidharma approached Buddhism in the most direct, simple and practical way. He grasped that enlightenment was the most fundamental aspect of Buddhism; and , that did not need   either sacred scriptures, rituals or objects of worship,  though all of which had  somehow become a part  of Mahayana Buddhism in India. . He discouraged superstitious veneration of the Buddhas .The practice of meditation, according to him, was the key to awakening ones inner nature, compassion and wisdom

3.6. Bodhidharma’s method also implied that Dhyana is not an intellectual exercise one can learn from books. Instead, it’s a practice of studying mind and seeing into one’s nature. The face-to-face transmission of the Dharma was important. That meant, the student and the teacher have to work together face -to – face. This made the student–teacher relation critical to its success. Consequently, the lineage of teachers also became important.

Ultimately, Dhyana is about coming face-to-face with yourself, in a very direct and intimate way. And, that is not easy.

4.1. Bodhidharma’s teaching became known as the Cha’n sect for its primary focus on cha’n (Dhyan) training and practice. Shortly before his death, Bodhidharma appointed Hui-k’o (486 -593) to succeed him, making Hui-k’o the first Chinese born patriarch and the second patriarch of Cha’n in China. Bodhidharma is said to have passed three items to Hui-k’o as a sign of transmission of the Dharma: a robe, a bowl, and a copy of the Lankavatara Sutra. The following verse is attributed to Hui-k’o:

From the seed bed
Flowers rise.
Yet there is no seed
Nor are there flowers
The “seed bed “refers to the heart, which is the ground on which the mind rests and rises. It is what is called the original-mind, devoid of thought constructions (mano vikalpa).The seeds of enlightenment are hidden in it. The flowers of wisdom sprout from those seeds only when there is a seed-bed. But, if the seed-bed is void it has no flowers, no attributes.

This is analogues to what the Upanishads call nirguna (devoid of attributes), daharakasha (the subtle space within the heart). It is in the nature of void; it has no form; and, it is all pervasive. It is the substratum of all existence.


4.2. The Third Chinese Patriarch after Bodhidharma was Jianzhi Sengcan, a Taoist, best known for his verses on Faith-Mind. The opening lines of his gatha read:

Follow your nature and accord with Tao
Saunter along and stop worrying.
If your thoughts are tied, you spoil what is genuine.
Don’t be antagonistic to the senses
For when you are not antagonistic to it
It turns out to be the same as complete awakening
The wise person does not strive (wu wei)
The arrogant man ties himself up
If you work on your mind with your mind,
How can you avoid immense confusion?
The Perfect Way knows no difficulties
Except that it refuses to make preferences;
Only when freed from hate and love,
It reveals itself fully and without disguise.
 (D.T.Suzuky’s translation)

He advised “Let your mind alone; trust it to follow its own nature.” This is typical of Indian outlook too. We find its formulation in Upanishads. And, this became the main stay of the Mahayana Buddhism, which in turn had pervasive influence on the developments in the Chinese, Tibetan and Japanese traditions.

4.3. The fourth Chinese patriarch was Dayi Daoxin (580 -651); and he was followed by Daman Hongren (601-674).

4.4. The most famous teacher was Hui-Neng (638-713 AD), the sixth and the last Chinese patriarch. He appears to have led an adventures life. He had a huge following. It was during his time that Cha’n entered the realm of fully documented history. Cha’n school, during his time, also emerged out of Indian influence and acquired its unique Chinese characteristics. During his time, the Cha’n school of thought took a definite form. Later, the school branched into five major sects or five houses, which in due course consolidated into two streams of practices. They were Tsao-tung (Sato in Japan) and Lin-chi (Rinzai in Japan).The former retained the simple teachings of Bodhidharma, the serene reflections in silent meditation. The latter branch made the Koan- exercise its corner stone. It is in essence, working on the solution to problem which has no solution; trying to understand something which is not meant to be understto; and it is where talking (hua) ends (tou).

5.1. How Cha’n travelled to Japan, transformed to Zen and wove into the spiritual, artistic, cultural and social fabric of Japan is a long story. As regards Zen as spiritual practice, suffice it to say, it reached Japan in several waves; and each significant wave gave rise to a Zen sect.

5.2. Línjì Yìxuan (Rinzai Gigen, in Japanese) (ca.806), of China, was well trained in Cha’n by the Cha’n master Huang-Po Hsi-Yun. He later gained fame as an accomplished Cha’n master; and, by around the year 851, he founded the Linji school of Cha’n Buddhism. The Linji School ultimately became the most successful and widespread of the Five Houses (Schools) of Cha’n.

5.3. By around this time, the Cha’n practices had entered Japan but were not recognized as separate schools of spiritual enquiry.  However, later during the twelfth century, Myoan Eisai traveled to China to study Cha’n of the Linji School: and on his return to Japan he established a sect of Linji lineage. The sect founded by him in Japan came to be known as Rinzai School.

5.4.  Much later, that is, during the seventeenth century a Chinese monk named Yinyuan Longqi (Japanese name: Ingen Ryuki) also a member of the Linji School of Cha’n introduced into Japan another sect of Cha’n; It was called Obaku – named after Mount Obaku near Ingen Ryuki’s hometown in China.

The Rinzai and Obaku schools share common heritage traced back to Hui-neng the sixth and the last Chinese patriarch; and therefore they are closely related.

5.5. In the meantime , that is around the year 1215, Dogen, a younger contemporary of Myoan Eisai,  also visited China and studied Cha’n under Caodong teacher Tiantong Rujing .On his return Dogen established Soto school , the Japanese branch of Caodong.

5.6. Cha’n as it arrived in Japan acquired the name Zen, which is an abbreviation of the term Zenna (the Japanese form of the Mandarin: Channa) derived from the Sanskrit term Dhyana, Pali Jhana; all of which refer to a type or specific aspect of meditation.

5.7. The schools of Zen that currently exist in Japan are Soto, Rinzai and Obaku. Of these, Soto has the largest following and Obaku has the smallest following. Rinzai is itself divided into several branches, based on affiliations to various temples.

6.  Much has been written concerning the differences between Rinzai and Soto Zen though both advocate study of koans and practice Zazen (sitting meditation). The differences are mainly in the emphasis rather than in their contents. Soto Zen considers the practice of Zazen to be the sole means of realization. While in Rinzai Zen practice, a koan is examined while sitting in order to deepen insight. Soto is considered the more conservative of the two. Rinzai takes a more liberal, at times radical view of the Buddha-nature. The Soto Zen believes the awakening can happen gradually; while Rinzai believes awakening can occur in a flash of insight. In either case, awakening comes as the result of one’s own efforts.


7.1. Though Zen recognized the validity of the Buddhist scriptures, it created its own set of texts, over the generations, written in informal language studded with folk sayings and street slang. Zen literature came to be built around anecdotes of its masters; the Buddha is barely mentioned. It is flavoured by a mix of Taoism, Confucianism and Chinese poetry.

7.2. Zen Buddhism’s emphasis on simplicity and the importance of the natural world generated a distinctive aesthetic style that influenced almost all walks of life say, art, literature, landscaping, gardening, tea ceremonies etc.

7.3. The Zen school eventually emerged as the most successful school of Buddhism in China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam. By the mid-1980’s, the Zen traditions of all these countries had been transmitted to America.

8.1. Zen had its roots in India, undoubtedly; but its immediate ancestor and inspiration was the Cha’n school of the Chinese. During the time of Hui-Neng (638-713 AD), the sixth patriarch, the Cha’n school shed its Indian influences and became characteristically Chinese. And, Cha’n, when it moved into and took root in Japan, it became Zen- typically Japanese. It was no longer the simple Indian ideology; and, Zen had acquired a sophisticated, aesthetic style that influenced al walks of life.

8.2. But, the basic tenets of Zen and its “view” was the one provided by Bodhidharma .The enquiry into the nature of the Self, the symbol of the Buddha-hood latent in every living being, forcefully pronounced by Bodhidharma flowered into Cha’n School; and, that had its roots in the Upanishads. The understanding of Zen will be complete when it is viewed as a flowering of the Upanishads.

Buddhas don’t save Buddhas.
If you use your mind to look for a Buddha, you won’t see the Buddha.
As long as you look for a Buddha somewhere else,
You’ll never see that your own mind is the Buddha.
Don’t use a Buddha to worship a Buddha.
And don’t use the mind to invoke a Buddha.
Buddhas don’t recite sutras. Buddhas don’t keep precepts.
And Buddhas don’t break precepts.
Buddhas don’t keep or break anything.
Buddhas don’t do good or evil.
To find a Buddha, you have to see your nature.
-Attributed to Bodhidharma

There are no divine scriptures, no world, no imperative religious practices;
There are no gods, no classes or races of men,
No stages of life, no superior or inferior;
There’s nothing but Brahman, the supreme Reality.

 I do not know Shiva; how can I speak of Him?
I do not know Shiva; how can I worship Him?
I , myself, am Shiva, the primal Essence of everything;
My nature, like the sky, remains ever the same.
–  Avadhuta Gita

Please also read: Bodhidharma -stories and Legends


References and Sources:

Dhyana and Zen by Prof. SKR Rao

The 28th Patriarch of Indian Buddhism:


Zen History:

What is Zen:

Zen Buddhism:


Posted by on September 16, 2012 in Bodhidharma, Buddhism, Zen


Tags: , , ,

15 responses to “Origins of Zen School

  1. soniabellani

    September 16, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Reblogged this on My Blog.

    • sreenivasaraos

      September 16, 2012 at 8:50 pm

      Dear soniabellani , Thank you . I am glad you liked this.

    • sreenivasaraos

      September 18, 2012 at 4:08 pm

      Dear soniabellani , Thank you . I am glad you liked this.Regards

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  3. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 11:00 am

    dear sreenivasarao thanks for a wonderful introduction to zen. i should say i liked the pictures also a lot. as usual i know a little about zen (i scratch surfaces but never go deep !) one of the zen poems i like goes something llike this : at first there were mountains, there was the sear. then there were no mountains, and no sea. again there were mountains and there was the sea. one of my disappointments was i could not see the famous rock garden (ryoko ? ) when i visited kyoto anyway , i have two questions (1) you mentioned nagarjuna as a zen patrirach. isnt he more mahayana ? (2) where does huen-tsang fit in. he is supposed to have come here to take the tripitakas etc (incidentally there is this chines fol novel called the monkey which talks about a super ape escorting huenstang))



    • sreenivasaraos

      March 20, 2015 at 11:00 am

      dear shri palahali,
      thank you for the comments; and, thank you for asking the questions.
      (1) nagarjuna (ca.150 – 250 ad) is recognized as the 14th patriarch in the dhyana tradition of buddhism. as you said, he was of the mahayana school; and he structured its philosophy around the concept of the emptiness (shunyata) of all existents (dharmas). he also came up with “skill-in-means” (upaya-kausalya). upaya rejects the idea that theoretical speculation overrides the praxis (the practical application) or the skill. he also removed the two “ends” of time, the past and the future, from consideration. these ideas are common to the mahayana, dhyana and zen schools.
      dhyana school developed as an amalgam of yogachara and madhyamika philosophies in mahayana. bodhidharma relied on lakavatara sutra, a primer text of the yogachara – mahayana school , which put premium on ones efforts and ones own (not borrowed) experiences.
      2. as i mentioned, cha’n entered japan as early as in sixth century; but had not been recognized as a separate school of pursuit. it said that one of the earliest cha’n students in japan was a japanese scholar do sha (629-700) who visited china in the year 653, which is at the time of the fifth patriarch of cha’n school – daman hongren (601-674). while in china, do sha met huen tsang (603-664 a.d.) the great scholar, traveler and translator; and learnt from him the doctrine of dharma_lakshana. later, at the instance and advice of huen tsang, do sha studied cha’n under a chinese scholar named hwui mann (?).). after returning home, do sha built a meditation hall for practicing cha’n in the gan-go monastery, nara.
      thus cha’n was initially transplanted into japan by do-sho; but it took a longtime get rooted in japan. yet, huen tsang was in someway responsible for the initial movement of cha’n school towards japan.
      3. what you mentioned about huen tsang and the ape sounds interesting. i have not read the book.
      4. yes, the poem you quoted and such others (as below) are typical of cha’n /zen.
      there is no bodhi tree
      nor stands a mirror bright
      since all is void
      where can dust settle?

      they are meant to suggest not to get attached to mind, to be free from notions of form and stay undisturbed. let’s talk more of such poems in the next segments.


  4. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 11:01 am

    dear bijaya ghosh,
    thank for reading. that was an interesting observation.
    cha’n, after 12th -13th century went into decline in china. thereafter, it was active intermittently. serious efforts were made to revive cha’n during the late 19th and early 20th century by the chinese buddhists. the principal among them was hsu yun. again, cha’n along with other religious sects was severely repressed during the cultural revolution.

    i understand, recently, cha’n recently has been re-asserting itself on the mainland; it also has a sizeable following in taiwan and hong kong, as also among overseas chinese.

  5. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 11:02 am

    sriniji that was a wonderful blog n pics enjoyed the info therein- did not know the origin of zen in china and the return of the master w/one shoe in hand was rather significant cos in the end we all end where we originated-

    bina :)))

    • sreenivasaraos

      March 20, 2015 at 11:02 am

      dear binagupta,
      thank you for the comments.
      yes, perhaps he thought his work there was done.
      but what is amazing is the plethora of dance clubs, discotheques and u-tube posts, all named bodhidharma’s shoe. there are daruma (dharma) good luck dolls with big bulging eyes. one paints in one eye of daruma and makes a wish; if it comes true they paint in the other

      the tea leaves are believed to be his eyelashes as they fell off while he meditated for nine years.
      there are a number of stories and legends associated with bodhidharma.
      there is another delightful story about bodhidharma. it is said, as bodhidharma was walking along a street , a parrot called out to him. the parrot could talk. it said:

      mind come from the west,
      mind come from the west,
      please teach me the way
      to escape from this cage.

      bodhidharma thought, ‘i came here to save people and it’s not working out; at least i can save this parrot.’ and so he taught the parrot:

      to escape from the cage,
      to escape from the cage,
      stick both legs straight out.
      close both eyes tight.
      that’s the way to escape your cage.

      the parrot heard and understood. it pretended to be dead. it lay on the bottom of its cage with its legs stuck out still and its eyes closed tight, not moving, not even breathing. the owner found the parrot this way and took it out to have a look. he held the bird in his hand, peering at it from the left and right until he was convinced it was indeed dead. the only thing about it was, it was still warm. but it wasn’t breathing. and so the owner opened his hand and in that instant the parrot was fully revived. it flew away and escaped its cage.


  6. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 11:03 am

    Dear Sir,

    All your blogs radiate rich information. May I submit you a humble question? How many books have you written and are they available in any of the online shopping malls?


    • sreenivasaraos

      March 20, 2015 at 11:03 am

      Dear Vikram Narayan, Thank you. No, I have not authored any books so far. I have, otherwise, been writing for the past few years; but have read a great deal.

      Please also read the following which continue upon the Zen theme. Regards

      Bodhidharma: Stories and Legends

      What is no-mind?

      Crazy Wisdom

  7. sreenivasaraos

    March 20, 2015 at 11:05 am

    Meditating before a wall for days on end
    commoner that I am, I thought of Bartleby
    poor soul had not heard of of Bodhidharma
    perhaps it came naturally to him
    who is to judge?

    judging, remembering, alluding, thinking —
    these balls bounce off the wall and entice me to play
    it becomes a game of squash, delightful, addictive
    makes me want to become a champion of the game
    wanting accolades and praise

    if the wall be too formidable then lower it
    to become a net across which your mind can bat
    send a sizzling serve or volley hoping
    there wont be a return, so win a point
    in a pointless game between net and base line

    how many different pointless games we play hoping
    to notch up points in the game of life
    piling them high or hiding them in numbered accounts
    until someone something tells us
    there is no ball, why wield the bat?

    Your article inspired me to write this poem Sir,

    Padma Raghavan

    • sreenivasaraos

      March 20, 2015 at 11:05 am

      Dear padma raghavan ,Wow..that was great. You are a multi-talented person.Tomes have been written speculating why Bodhidharma sat before a wall and stared at it for nine long years.They talked about self, mind etc ; debated wheter it was meditation or something else.Your interpretation is reffreshing – that in the game of life verily there is no wall , ball or net; it is infact a point-less game.You might be right.Warm Regards

      • sreenivasaraos

        March 20, 2015 at 11:07 am

        Life is a point-less game when we chase thoughts connected with ‘unreal’ things — which is avidya I suppose. To erase thoughts instead of reacting to them — if that is possible, if that is the no-mind state, then there are no thought balls to play with. Thank you for the hyphen in ‘point-less’ — that makes the play on the word meaning clearer.

        Padma Raghavan


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