The origins of Zen Buddhism are ascribed to the Flower Sermon, the earliest source for which comes from the 14th century. It is said that Gautama Buddha gathered his disciples one day for a dharma talk. When they gathered together, the Buddha was completely silent and some speculated that perhaps the Buddha was tired or ill. The Buddha silently held up a flower and several of his disciples tried to interpret what this meant, though none of them were correct. One of the Buddha's disciples, Mahākāśyapa, silently gazed at the flower and is said to have gained a special insight directly from the Buddha's mind, beyond words. Mahākāśyapa somehow understood the true inexpressible meaning of the flower and the Buddha smiled at him, then acknowledged Mahākāśyapa's insight by saying the following:
I possess the true Dharma eye, the marvelous mind of Nirvana, the true form of the formless, the subtle dharma gate that does not rest on words or letters but is a special transmission outside of the scriptures. This I entrust to Mahākāśyapa.
Thus, through Zen there developed a way which concentrated on direct experience rather than on rational creeds or revealed scriptures. Wisdom was passed, not through words, but through a lineage of one-to-one direct transmission of thought from teacher to student. It is commonly taught that such lineage continued all the way from the Buddha's time to the present. Historically, this claim is disputed, due to lack of evidence to support it.
From Mahākāśyapa through various other teachers and students, the dharma was eventually transmitted to the Indian monk, Bodhidharma. Several scholars have suggested that Bodhidharma as a person never actually existed, but was a combination of various historical figures over several centuries.
In the Song of Enlightenment of Yǒngjiā Xuánjué (665-713)—one of the chief disciples of Huìnéng, the 6th patriarch of Chan Buddhism—it is written that Bodhidharma was the 28th patriarch in a line of descent from Mahākāśyapa, a disciple of Śākyamuni Buddha, and the first patriarch of Chan Buddhism:
Mahākāśyapa was the first, leading the line of transmission;
Twenty-eight Fathers followed him in the West;
The Lamp was then brought over the sea to this country;
And Bodhidharma became the First Father here:
His mantle, as we all know, passed over six Fathers,
And by them many minds came to see the Light.
Bodhidharma is said to have spent several decades living in a cave, staring at a cave wall, meditating. He left India in 517 C.E. and arrived in China in 520 C.E., to spread Buddhism to Asia. When he got there, he found that Buddhism, which had already been established, was perverted by superstitious devotionalism, devoid of true insight. Thus, Bodhidharma focused on direct insight about one's own experience, under the instruction of a Zen teacher, discouraging misguided veneration of Buddhas for the sake of superstition. Often attributed to Bodhidharma is the Bloodstream Sermon, which was actually composed quite some time after his apparent death.
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.
Another famous legend involving Bodhidharma is his meeting with Emperor Wu of Liang. Emperor Wu took an interest in Buddhism and spent a great deal of public wealth on funding Buddhist monasteries in China. When he had heard that a great Buddhist teacher, Bodhidharma, had come to China, he sought an audience with him. When they met, Emperor Wu had asked how much karmic merit he had gained from his noble support of Buddhism. Bodhidharma replied, "None at all." The Emperor asked, "Then what is the truth of the teachings?" Bodhidharma replied, "Vast emptiness, nothing holy." So the emperor asked, "Then who are you standing in front of me?" Bodhidharma replied, "I do not know," and walked out.
Another legend involving Bodhidharma is that he visited the Shaolin Temple in the kingdom of Wei, at some point, and taught them a series of exercises which became the basis for the Shaolin martial arts.
As noted above, much of Zen history is combined with mythology and there no longer exist the historical record required for a complete, accurate account of early Zen history. Chan, as it is generally called when referencing Zen Buddhism in early China, developed from the interaction between Mahāyāna Buddhism and Taoism. Some scholars also argue that Chan has roots in yogic practices, specifically kammaṭṭhāna, the consideration of objects, and kasiṇa, total fixation of the mind.
The entry of Buddhism into China was marked by interaction and syncretism with Taoic faiths, Taoism in particular. Buddhist scriptures were translated into Chinese with Taoist vocabulary, because it was originally seen as a kind of foreign Taoism. In the Tang period, Taoism incorporated such Buddhist elements as monasteries, vegetarianism, prohibition of alcohol, the doctrine of emptiness, and collecting scripture into tripartite organisation. During the same time, Chan Buddhism grew to become the largest sect in Chinese Buddhism.
The establishment of Chan is traditionally credited to the Indian prince turned monk Bodhidharma (formerly dated ca 500 CE, but now ca early fifth century), who is recorded as having come to China to teach a "special transmission outside scriptures" which "did not stand upon words". Bodhidharma settled in the kingdom of Wei where he took among his disciples Daoyu and Huike. Early on in China Bodhidharma's teaching was referred to as the "One Vehicle sect of India". The One Vehicle (Sanskrit Ekayāna), also known as the Supreme Vehicle or the Buddha Vehicle, was taught in the Lankavatara Sutra which was closely associated with Bodhidharma. However, the label "One Vehicle sect" did not become widely used, and Bodhidharma's teaching became known as the Chan sect for its primary focus on chan training and practice. Shortly before his death, Bodhidharma appointed Huike to succeed him, making Huike the first Chinese born patriarch and the second patriarch of Chan in China. Bodhidharma is said to have passed three items to Huike as a sign of transmission of the Dharma: a robe, a bowl, and a copy of the Lankavatara Sutra. The transmission then passed to the second patriarch (Huike), the third (Sengcan), the fourth patriarch (Dao Xin) and the fifth patriarch (Hongren).
The sixth and last patriarch, Huineng (638–713), was one of the giants of Chan 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, Huineng had to flee by night to Nanhua Temple in the south to avoid the wrath of Hongren's jealous senior disciples. Later, in the middle of the 8th century, monks claiming to be among the successors to Huineng, calling themselves the Southern school, cast themselves in opposition to those claiming to succeed Hongren's then publicly recognized student Shenxiu. It is commonly held that it is at this point—the debates between these rival factions—that Chan enters the realm of fully documented history. Aside from disagreements over the valid lineage, doctrinally the Southern school is associated with the teaching that enlightenment is sudden, while the Northern School is associated with the teaching that enlightenment is gradual. The Southern school eventually became predominant and their Northern school rivals died out. Modern scholarship, however, has questioned this narrative, since the only surviving records of this account were authored by members of the Southern school.
Bodhidharma about 440 - about 528
Huike 487 - 593
Sengcan ? - 606
Daoxin 580 - 651
Hongren 601 - 674
Huineng 638 - 713
The Five Houses of Zen
Developing primarily in the Tang dynasty in China, Classic Zen is traditionally divided historically into the Five Houses of Zen or five "schools". These were not originally regarded as "schools" or "sects", but historically, they have come to be understood that way. In their early history, the schools were not institutionalized, they were without dogma, and the teachers who founded them were not idolized.
, named after masters Guishan Lingyou (Japn., Isan Reiy, 771-854) and Yangshan Huiji (Japn., Kyozan Ejaku, 813-890)
, named after master Linji Yixuan (Japn., Rinzai Gigen, d. 866)
), named after masters Dongshan Liangjie (Japn., Tozan Ryokai, 807-869) and Caoshan Benji (Japn., Sozan Honjaku, 840-901)
, named after master Yunmen Wenyan (Japn., Unmon Bun’en, d. 949)
(Japn., Hogen, named after master Fayan Wenyi (also Fa-yen Wen-i) (Japn., Hogen Mon’eki, 885-958)
Most Zen lineages throughout Asia and the rest of the world originally grew from or were heavily influenced by the original five houses of Zen.