The history of Chan can be viewed in three periods of growth and development. While the reality does not quite fit this model, it nevertheless, helps the reader to gain an overview of the evolution of this important school of Buddhism.
The Legendary Period (c. 512 – 765)
This time stretches from the arrival of Bodhidharma in China to the triumph of Southern over Northern Chan Schools by the middle Tang period. Although we know that the patriarchs were historical figures and we have some biographical detail, information on this period is sketchy and the stories of their exploits are largely the work of later generations. These stories, whether genuine or not, are instructive about Chan teachings. The actual number of confirmed teachings by the patriarchs from this period is noticably few. One matter that is clear about the patriarchs is that the teachings of Bodhidharma which they expounded were not popular and he and his first two successors were persecuted, threatened and suffered attempts on their lives. The close of this period is dominated by the most influential figure of Chan, the Sixth Patriarch Huineng and the recognition of his teaching after his death as the fundamental core of Chan.
The Classical Period (765-950)
For this time, the records of Chan masters become gradually clearer and there is more certainty about the development of the school. During this time, Chan moved from the cities to the countryside while the popularity and celebrity of Chan grew as stories of masters and their teachings spread throughout all levels of society. This was due to such Chan masters as Mazu Daoyi and Shitou Xinqian both of whom belonged to the third generation of Ch’an masters after Huineng and formed the two main lineages of Chinese Chan. Their teachings were recorded by their disciples in written form called yulu (discourses).
As itinerant monks (yunshui) widely circulated news of these enlightened Chan masters, they drew public and imperial attention and adoration while people of all stations flocked to be trained by individual masters with their unique teaching styles. Literary works of this period were based on the oral teachings of the Chan masters that demonstrate the clarity of mind of these early masters with their distinctive methods of bringing disciples to enlightenment. Subsequent generations appended these written records with their own comments on the stories.
During this time, the number of enlightened monks who had evolved their own teaching styles was the catalyst for the development of a number of schools within Chan. Disciples of these Chan masters both spread their master’s teaching style and developed their own techniques forming a natural evolution; some of these methods and schools flourished while others did not. Later generations officially recognised five schools or houses of Chan with their unique teaching methods.
Another feature of this period was the Dharma debates where masters met and tested one another on their understanding. Also, the first appearance of the gongan dates to this era (late 700s) as another tool of the master to bring disciples to enlightenment.
The Literary Period (950-1250)
Chan’s main focus had always been oral transmission from master and disciple. During the Classical period while this tradition continued, the written word was also used to record the oral teachings of the Chan masters. In the Literary period, there was a departure from this as Chan written works flourished. The continuation of the lineage of great Chan masters, however, did not seem to be hindered by this. Further, whereas during the Classical period, Chan greatly influenced writers and poets in China, during this period Chan masters became writers and poets.
In the early Literary period, traditional gongans were compiled into collections by Fengyang Shanzhao, Hongzhi Zhangjue and Touzi Yiqing to which were added written verses, forming a new genre called songgu (in praise of the ancients).To these songgu were then added commentaries which were called niangang (held up and praised). These works were the Blue Cliff Record, the Gateless Gate, and the Book of Serenity. As a teaching technique, the huatou (speech heads) was developed as a shortened version of a gongan, using just a phrase, a few or even one word.
Another trend of this period was the syncretism of Chan with the ideas of the other schools of Buddhism whose separate existence was fading. The ideas from these schools had both good and bad consequences for Chan while there arose also a longing for the purity of the old Chan and this generated literature that idealised the earlier periods of the school.
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