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Northern and Southern Schools

In the South, Sudden; In the North, Gradual (nan-tun, pei-chien)
During the time of the Fifth Patriarch Hongren, a gifted disciple, Faru (638-689), was given the Dharma transmission and, after leaving East Mountain temple, spread Ch’an to northern China and developed the style that was later identified as the Northern School.  Based in Shaolin temple near the imperial court of Luoyang, his teaching became popular and many disciples flocked to him.  Ch’an spread quickly here where previously it was little known and Faru and his dharma heirs are credited with Chan’s popularity in the two imperial capitals of Luoyang and Changan.  Upon Faru’s death in 689, the Ch’an movement in the north was led by Shenxiu.

Datong Shenxiu (605-706)                                       
He was the most highly regarded of Hongren’s enlightened disciples and was widely acknowledged as the Sixth Patriarch during his lifetime.  At the imperial court, three successive emperors became his disciples.  He continued the East Mountain Ch’an tradition of the fourth and fifth patriarchs and of his predecessor Faru, emphasizing the use of sutra study, chanting, and receiving the precepts.  These were values shared in common with other Buddhist schools and Chinese society at large.  The school maintained that these were necessary to preserve the purity of mind that is realised in enlightenment but that is not separate from it.  Pure mind is impeded by impure thoughts and intentions and so these delusive thoughts obscure the required clarity of the mind, the clarity that is needed to realise the natural state that is Buddha mind.  The method of practice was based on sitting meditation using a four-fold formula:

1. Concentrating the mind in order to enter dhyana
2. Settling the mind in that state by watching its forms of purity
3. Arousing the mind to shine in insight
4. Controlling the mind for its inner verification

Shenxui died in 706, only three years later than Huineng, but the tradition of East Mountain Ch’an continued under his successors, Yifu and Puji.

Shenhui (670-762) Controversy and Confrontation
After the death of Huineng 慧能 in 703, his disciples were the architects of the image of the Sixth Patriarch that we know today.  In particular it was Shenhui 神會 who defined the lineage of the six patriarchs for the first time and asserted the primacy of Huineng’s teaching over that of Shenxiu’s.  It was Shenhui’s single-minded determination that brought the complementary styles of the two Chan traditions into contention.

The verbal conflict began in 734, long after the deaths of both Huineng and Shenxiu, when Shenhui challenged the claim of the Northern School that Shenxiu was the Dharma heir of the Fifth Patriarch and stating that the method of gradual enlightenment was a false one and not in the tradition of the patriarchs.  He was a gifted orator and a charismatic personality who became abbot of the Heze monastery near Luoyang in 745 when his most intensive period of writing on the Southern School and sudden enlightenment took place.  Shenxiu’s Dharma heirs, Yifu and Puji, were both highly regarded nationally and continued the teaching tradition of the Northern School, however by 739 when the reputation of the Northern School began to falter under Shenhui’s claims, they were both dead.  The An Lushan rebellion (755-763) when the court and populace fled the capitals of Changan and Luoyang, delivered a further blow.  At that time the two great Buddhist capitals were reduced to ruin and Emperor Suzong needed funds to raise an army, Shenhui’s inspirational speeches to the populace of Changan helped the emperor to raise these funds through the sale of monk certificates and this won him the support of the Emperor and the populace at large.  

With the establishment of the legitimacy of the Southern over the Northern School and following the death of Shenhui in 762, the controversy that characterised this period came to an end.  The Southern School became dominant with Huineng as the Sixth Patriarch while sudden enlightenment was almost universally acknowledged as the true teaching.  Huineng’s disciples became the founders of the schools of Ch’an that followed while cooperation and interchange between masters and schools became the order of the day for Ch’an thereafter.

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