Linji Chan (Rinzai Zen) Buddhism in China

School of Koan Contemplation

Zen Buddhism usually means Japanese Zen, although there is also Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese Zen, called Chan, Seon and Thien, respectively. There are two major schools of Japanese Zen, called Soto and Rinzai, which originated in China. This article is about the Chinese origins of Rinzai Zen. 

Chan is the original Zen, a school of Mahayana Buddhism founded in 6th century China. For a time there were five distinct schools of Chan, but three of those were absorbed into a fourth, Linji, which would be called Rinzai in Japan.

The fifth school is Caodong, which is the ancestor of Soto Zen.

Historical Background

The Linji school emerged during a turbulent time in Chinese history. The founding teacher, Linji Yixuan, probably was born about 810 CE and died in 866, which was near the end of the Tang Dynasty. Linji would have been a monk when a Tang emperor banned Buddhism in 845. Some schools of Buddhism, such as the esoteric Mi-tsung school (related to Japanese Shingon) completely disappeared because of the ban, and Huayan Buddhism nearly so. Pure Land survived because it enjoyed broad popularity, and Chan was largely spared because many of its monasteries were in remote areas, not in the cities.

When the Tang Dynasty fell in 907 China was thrown into chaos. Five ruling dynasties came and went quickly; China splintered into kingdoms. The chaos was subdued after the Song Dynasty was established 960.

During the last days of the Tang Dynasty and through the chaotic Five Dynasties period, five distinct schools of Chan emerged that came to be called the Five Houses.

To be sure, some of these Houses were taking shape while the Tang Dynasty was at its peak, but it was at the beginning of the Song Dynasty that they were considered schools in their own right.

Of these Five Houses, Linji probably was best known for its eccentric style of teaching. Following the example of the founder, Master Linji, Linji teachers shouted, grabbed, struck, and otherwise manhandled students as a means to shock them into awakening.

This must have been effective, as Linji became the dominant school of Chan during the Song Dynasty.

Koan Contemplation

The formal, stylized manner of koan contemplation as practiced today in Rinzai developed in Song Dynasty Linji, even though much of the koan literature is much older. Very basically, koans (in Chinese, gongan) are questions asked by Zen teachers that defy rational answers. During the Song period, Linji Chan developed formal protocols for working with koans that would be inherited by the Rinzai school of Japan and are still generally in use today.

In this period the classic koan collections were compiled. The three best-known collections are:

  • The Biyan Lu (in Japanese, the Hekiganroku, commonly translated "The Blue Cliff Record"), compiled in its final form by Yuanwu Keqin (1063-1135)
  • The Congrong Lu (in Japanese, the Shoyoroku, commonly translated "The Book of Equanimity" or "The Book of Serenity"), compiled by Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091-1157). Note that Master Hongzhi actually was of the Caodong school, not Linji.
  • The Wumenguan (in Japanese, the Mumonkan, commonly translated "The Gateless Gate"), compiled by Wumen Hui-k'ai (1183-1260)

To this day the primary distinction between Linji and Caodong, or Rinzai and Soto, is the approach to koans.

In Linji/Rinzai, koans are contemplated through a particular meditation practice; students are required to present their understanding to their teachers and may have to present the same koan several times before the "answer" is approved. This method pushes the student into a state of doubt, sometimes intense doubt, that may be resolved through an enlightenment experience called kensho in Japanese.

In Caodong/Soto, practitioners sit silently in a state of alert mindfulness without pushing themselves toward any goal, a practice called shikantaza, or "just sitting." However, the koan collections listed above are read and studied in Soto, and individual koans are presented to assembled practitioners in talks.

Read More: "Introduction to Koans"

Transmission to Japan

Myoan Eisai (1141-1215) is thought to be the first Japanese monk to study Chan in China and return to teach it successfully in Japan.

Eisai's was a Linji practice combined with elements of Tendai and esoteric Buddhism. His dharma heir Myozan for a time was the teacher of Dogen, founder of Soto Zen. Eisai's teaching lineage lasted a few generations but did not survive. However, within a few years a number of other Japanese and Chinese monks also established Rinzai lineages in Japan.

Linji in China After the Song Dynasty

By the time the Song Dynasty ended in 1279, Buddhism in China already was going into a state of decline. Other Chan schools were absorbed into Linji, while the Caodong school faded away in China entirely. All surviving Chan Buddhism in China is from Linji teaching lineages.

What followed for Linji was a period of mixing with other traditions, primarily Pure Land. With a few notable periods of revival, Linji, for the most part, was a pale copy of what it had been.

Chan was revived in the early 20th century by Hsu Yun (1840-1959). Although repressed during the Cultural Revolution, Linji Chan today has a strong following in Hong Kong and Taiwan and a growing following in the West.

Sheng Yen (1930-2009), a third-generational dharma heir of Hsu Yun and a 57th generational heir of Master Linji, became one of the most prominent Buddhist teachers in our time. Master Sheng Yen founded Dharma Drum Mountain, a worldwide Buddhist organization headquartered in Taiwan.