Having done extensive research on Buddhism as part of both my Master’s and PhD work, I thought I would share some of it with those of you who are not familiar with how Buddhism began and developed. It is a fascinating story, beginning with the life of an aspiring Indian sovereign.
There are no entirely reliable sources for the life and teachings of the Buddha,though there are many accounts of him by his followers. But the following biography is generally believed to be factual.
A prince of the Shakya tribe of Lumbini, India, Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 BCE) grew up in the region of Kapilavastu, close to the Nepalese border. A kshatriya (member of the warrior caste) like his father Suddhodana, Siddhartha was wealthy and privileged. According to legend, he became disillusioned with status and wealth, and left his princely life behind at 29 years of age to study the various religious ascetic traditions of the day, mastering all yet being satisfied with none. Earlier schools of thought (Brahmanism, Materialism, Jainism, and others) were dominated by a search for ultimate objectivity in philosophical explanation. But Siddhartha thought that their efforts were dominated by faith, preferences, tradition, reflection on form, and a certain delight in the contemplation of views, and as such were not necessarily capable of discerning truth. Ultimately Siddhartha renounced pure objectivity, as well as any mysterious substance (kiñci) as the explanation of phenomena, in favor of the doctrine of dependant arising. Phenomena are in a constant state of arising and ceasing, and people’s attachment to views, mystery and the ‘hidden’ is a/the cause of their perceptual and epistemological difficulties. Thus one who does not look for mystery and perceives things as they are enjoys peace of mind and is elevated morally, intellectually, and spiritually.
Thus, at age 35, while meditating in the shade of a bodhi tree, Siddhartha had the sudden realization of what he believed is the essential understanding of Reality, what he called the Four Noble Truths. These truths were Siddhartha’s expression of the realization that (1) Life is filled with suffering, (2) the origin of all suffering is desire, (3) there can be a cessation of suffering, and (4) practicing an eightfold path of living provides the opportunity to achieve such cessation. If one practices the proper manner of viewing the world; intention, speech, livelihood, action, effort, concentration, and mindfulness of the world and other beings, then one can experience and recognize the normal pains of living without suffering from them.
After this “awakening” Siddhartha referred to himself as the Tathagata, one who has “thus come,” and in scripture he is referred to as Shakyamuni, the “sage of the Shakya clan.” He is also known as a spiritually “awakened” person (Skt: buddha). After Siddhartha’s death, his followers compiled a collection of what they believed were authentic sayings of his, the Dhammapada (roughly 200 years after his death), and “Buddhism” branched into several schools, categorized under two main branches: Theravada (which some Mahāyānists pejoratively referred to as “Hinayana,” the lesser of the two “vehicles” of Buddhism) and Mahāyāna (the “greater” vehicle), under which the esoteric Vajrayana schools are also categorized). The spread of Buddhism throughout India and beyond was greatly assisted by the conversion of the ruler (Ashoka) of the first Indian empire during the third century BCE in which the great Theravada/Mahāyāna schism took place.
Mahāyāna and Theravadan Buddhism differ primarily in their conception of the Buddha. For Theravadans (at least initially) Siddhartha was a man living on the earth with all the accompanying frailties and affective vicissitudes, a mortal being devoid of transcendental or theistic elements. The deification of the Buddha not only gave the masses an opportunity to satisfy their emotional urges but also supported the Mahāyānist move towards the doctrine of the Buddha not being born of this world, rather making a show of existence for his followers.
Zen (literally “meditation”) is an abbreviation of the word Zenna, the translation of the Sanskrit term dhyana (Ch: ch’anna). Dhyana refers to the state of collectedness of mind and/or deep contemplation where dualities such as truth/falseness or you/I do not exist. Zen originated in China as a meditation school of Mahāyāna Buddhism and, like many other schools of Chinese Buddhism, was shaped by Mahāyāna teachings and scripture. Though some scholars consider Mahāyāna a later development, scholar Heinrich Dumoulin suggests that it gradually developed within the tradition of the oldest scriptural study and exegeses, hardly noticed by people at the time. Specific to Mahāyāna though was the concept of the Bodhisattva, a Buddhist saint who, having reached enlightenment, foregoes it in favor of helping all other beings reach this state before they themselves finally enter into perfection. They were and are also subjects of veneration, especially the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, (Japan: Kannon), the Saint of Compassion. As opposed to the Theravadan stage of development accorded to a bodhisattva, the Mahāyāna bodhisattva is the embodiment of perfected wisdom, both aware of the illusion of Reality, and not attached to judgment of that illusion. Their salvific power though became revered by many, rather than the enlightened wisdom that was the source of their actions. Also, the tenets of Zen that distinguish it from the various schools of Mahāyāna Buddhism from which it partially evolved were a special transmission of knowledge outside of exegesis (kyōge-betsuden), non-dependence on scripture (furyū-monji), direct pointing to one’s essential nature (jikishi-ninshin), and realization of one’s own nature as the same as the nature of the original Buddha Siddhartha (kenshō-jobutsu).
Zen began to develop in China with the advent of translations of Indian Buddhist texts by Chinese monks, with local and national traditions of shamanism and Taoism providing the conceptual basis for the more abstract concepts expressed in the original Sanskrit texts. And though an Indian Buddhist saint named Bodhidharma is almost universally credited as being the “founder” of Zen (Ch: Ch’an), this is fiction, as I will demonstrate later. During the eighth century Ch’an masters began arriving in Japan but did not have any significant influence there until the monk Myōan Eisai (1141-1215 CE) went to China and was exposed to and transformed by Ch’an teachings. He was later credited for establishing Ch’an in Japan, founding the Japanese branch of the Ch’an teachings of the monk Lin Chi (Japan: Rinzai), presumably when he became the abbot of Kennin-ji Temple in Kyoto in 1204.
The following 200 year formative period of Japanese Zen Buddhism lasted from the late twelfth century through the middle of the fourteenth century, as monks from both Japan and China emigrated back and forth across the Sea of Japan. The first Japanese monk to actually meet with a Ch’an master in China, Kakua (1142-1182 CE), came back home in 1175. The last Japanese monk in this period transmitting Ch’an teachings, Daisetsu Sonō (1313-1377 CE), completed his travels in 1358, roughly equivalent to Japan’s Kamakura Era (1185-1333 CE). This transplanting of Ch’an in Japan is considered by Kenneth Kraft to have been fully realized in the life and teachings of the monk Myōchō (1282-1337 CE), better known by his honorific title Daitō, though his teachings are not widely read in either Japan or the West. Daitō’s lineage eventually became the dominant branch of Rinzai Zen.
Much of the Chinese Buddhist literature became the foundational source for Korean, Vietnamese, Tibetan, and Japanese Buddhist schools, both in its original Chinese and in translation or commentary, including earlier works preceding the Chinese Buddhist eras. Nāgārjuna, the second century CE South Indian Buddhist philosopher/saint who founded the Mādhyamika (Middle Path) school of Mahāyāna Buddhism, is the author of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (the Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way). This text has often been the source of sectarian divergence, playing a part in the dialectic between the epistemological and metaphysical philosophies of competing schools, the Svātatrikā-Mādhyamika and Prāsangika-Mādhyamika being two examples.
The work itself is a treatise on emptiness, which Nāgārjuna posits as the lack of independent or inherent existence (dependant arising) though phenomena are conventionally real. It is this doctrine of ‘two truths’ (conventional and ultimate) as the basis for understanding Buddhist metaphysics and epistemology that was, and continues to be, Nāgārjuna’s great contribution to Buddhism and Zen, having arrived in Japan via its Chinese translation.
Works such as the Precious Lessons from the Chan Schools (also known as Zen Lessons) were written by early Song Dynasty Zen masters who believed Zen had been corrupted by dilettantism and artifice, while Zen Essence is a collection of random Zen sayings by various Chan masters from the eighth to the fourteenth century including Linji, Dahui, Wuzu, Yangshan, and others.
The writings known as The Five Houses of Zen are works on classical Buddhism in China which adhered more strictly to the Mahayana axiom that particular systems cannot be fixed as universal prescriptions for everyone’s enlightenment. The Five Houses were not sects or schools but later became known as such, and were categorized as the Kuei-Yang House named after the masters Kuei-shan Ling-yu (771-854 CE) and Yang-shan Hui-chi (813-890 CE); the Linchi House, named after Lin-chi I- hsuan (d.866 CE); the Ts’ao-Tung House, named after Tung-shan Liang-chieh (807-869 CE) and Ts’ao-shan Pen-chi (840-901 CE); the Yun-men House, named after the master Yun-men Wen-yen (d.949 CE); and the Fa-yen House named after the master Fa-yen Wen-I (885-958 CE). This collection has been used extensively in part or whole for centuries, including the famous critique of Zen cultic deviations by master Yen-shou of the Fa-yen House.
(continued in Part Two…)