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The Five Houses of Ch’an

During the Classical period a number of Ch’an schools arose, five of which were later identified in the Literary Period as the Five Houses.   All were founded by disciples of Mazu and Shitou and were known by their own distinctive teaching traditions.   The teaching techniques of these schools were then handed down and embellished through the master and disciple lineage.  These styles arose naturally and do not represent differing views of Ch’an.  Indeed routine interchange of teaching methods was a common practice among the schools.  By the start of the Sung Dynasty, three of these houses had passed from existence and only the Linji and Caodong remained.

 Guiyang School (潙仰宗) (Experience in Action)

This is characterised by action and silence rather than through words and used mystical and esoteric symbols to enable and to demonstrate sudden enlightenment.  It was centred on two monasteries, Guishan and Yangshan.   Guishan Lingyou (771-853) was a prominent Chan master of this school while two of his disciples, Yangshan Huiji (807-883) and Xiangyan Zhixian (d.898), went on to have prominent careers. 

 Yunmen School (雲門宗) (One Word Barriers)

This and the Fayan School arose in the Five Dynasties period (907-960) when north China was wracked by war while south China was peaceful.  Yunmen Wenyan (864-949) was the founder who gained enlightenment under Muzhou Daoming and eventually settled on Yunmen mountain.  The many disciples that he gathered here were led to enlightenment by him through his method of short, sharp answers or retorts to questions aimed at aiding practice, stimulating insight and promoting realisation.   Yunmen Wenyan made a considerable contribution to Chinese culture and with the Linji school, captured the attention of the upper class of society.  Succeeding masters of Yunmen wrote poetry, the most famous of these was Xuedou Chongxian (980-1052).  Yunmen flourished in the early Sung period but was eventually absorbed into the Linji School.

Fayan School (法眼宗)

This school came late in the transition from Classical to Literary periods and although short lived it made important contributions to Ch’an literature.  Founded by Fayan Wenyi (885-958), his monastery was Chingliang  near Nanjing.  Among Fa-yan’s techniques was repeating the words of a question or remark without any explanation.  He also employed paradoxes to bring about enlightenment in his students.  He integrated the teachings of the Huayen School into his own much more than the other Ch’an schools, particularly the six attributes of being, showing difference in sameness and sameness in difference.  He was an exceptional monk.   Three enlightened disciples took the school in different directions however.  Tiantai Deshao (891-971), Fayan’s Dharma heir, brought the teachings of the Tiantai School into his practice during a period of growth for Fayan.  Yongming Yanshou (904-975) was an early and enthusiastic exponent of the syncretism of Buddhist teachings and this was reflected in the school.  He became also the first Pureland Patriarch of the Sung period.  Daoyuan by contract compiled an important chronicle of Ch’an masters past and present that has proven the cornerstone of Chan literature. 

Linji School (臨濟宗)

 This was founded by Linji Yixuan (d.867), a disciple of Huangbo Xiyun who was the third generation after Mazu Daoyi.   Linji yuan (monastery overlooking the ford) is where he settled after his enlightenment and pilgrimage periods.  He taught here for 10 years and the monastery became a popular centre of Ch’an activity. Master Linji’s method was called the Three Mysteries.  These were the mystery of the essence (Dharma teaching on interpenetration of phenomena), the mystery of words to break the practitioner’s attachment to doctrine, and the mystery of the mystery.  All these were methods of arousing awakening in practitioners through gestures, shouting and beating as well as silence.  He lived in north China during a time of continual unrest and died at 55 and his contribution was not recognised for generations after his death.  His disciples struggled to keep their master’s teachings alive and only with the 7th generation, when Shih-shuang Chuyuan brought school to Hunan in the south did the school find rapid growth.   The core of Linji teaching was through the identification of the human, the concrete individual, not the Buddhas or the patriarchs of the past, nor some ideal still to be realised in the future and without philosophical abstractions.  Nonetheless, his teaching is rooted in the Mahayana sutras but applied to the individual, here and now.  His teachings express that each of his students is a buddha or patriarch, thus they lack nothing but confidence in themselves.  To stir them from their hesitating doubts, he resorted to violent displays, shouts and blows and body language.   The generations that followed him continued and embellished this teaching style.  Feng-yang Shan-chao and his dharma heir Shih-shuang  were responsible for the revival of the teaching method of the school founder LInji in the 10th century and the school became dominant during the Sung Dynasty. 

Caodong School (曹洞宗)

The founder was Dongshan Lingjie (807-869) and his two most prominent disciples, Caoshan Benji (840-901) and Yunju Daoying (d.902).  An intellectual, Dongshan used a highly poetic style to express the Five Rank system, handed down to him by his master Yunyan Tansheng (780-853) as a secret teaching.  He in turn, handed down this teaching to Caoshan Benji.  Dongshan’s method of quiet meditation and the use of the Five Rank system of learning thus continued.  The Five Ranks is a classic Ch’an work describing the five stages of enlightenment that were widely used throughout Ch’an thereafter.  However Dongshan’s most significant disciple was Yunju, who established himself as one of the most important and influential figures of his age producing many enlightened disciples and ensuring the continuation of the school.  His focus was not on the Five Ranks but on the immediate experience of enlightenment and the strict adherence to monastic discipline. Not until the 12th century when there was a revival of this school did the teaching of the Five Ranks receive the attention it deserved, becoming a part of the Ch’an heritage.

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