Who are some prominent figures in Zen Buddhism?

bodhidharma historical figures in zen

Indian monk Bodhidharma (5th-6th century) is credited with bringing Buddhism to China. This South Korean painting depicts him in traditional style. | robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo

While some of the colorful characters who figure prominently in traditional Zen tales are based on historical fact, the existence of many others has been a matter of scholarly debate. Nonetheless these figures serve as enduring archetypes for practitioners. Two of them hold a central place in Zen lore.

The Indian monk Bodhidharma (5th–6th century) is credited with bringing Buddhism to China and is called the “first ancestor,” or “first patriarch,” of Chinese Chan and Japanese Zen. He is famous for a possibly apocryphal dialogue with China’s Emperor Wu of Liang (464–549 CE). At their first meeting, Emperor Wu, who had spent vast sums building Buddhist temples, asked Bodhidharma how much merit his generosity had accrued. Donating to monastics is one of many good deeds believed to generate merit, which makes favorable rebirth more likely. But Bodhidharma answered, “No merit.” (Note: “no” here is the Chinese character wu [Jp. mu], which has a special significance in Zen practice and philosophy.) Flabbergasted, Emperor Wu inquired, “Who are you to question the merit of such deeds?” Bodhidharma replied, “I don’t know,” or “Not knowing.” Bodhidharma was saying that although merit exists, the extent of it cannot be known or fathomed because of its fundamental emptiness. When he answered “Not knowing,” he was pointing to the infinite, ineffable nature of our being as well as to the importance of opening ourselves to life’s mysteries.

The Sixth Patriarch of Zen, Huineng, lived in China in the 8th century, six generations after Bodhidharma. He was an illiterate woodcutter who is said to have achieved enlightenment upon hearing someone chant the Diamond Sutra, an important Mahayana Buddhist scripture. Huineng then entered a monastery, where he worked at a rice mill. The abbot, who was growing old, held a contest to find his new successor. The most senior student wrote a poem describing the mind as a mirror that needs to be cleaned of dust through constant mental training. But Huineng’s poem declared the very opposite: “Buddhanature is always clean and pure; where is there room for dust?” Huineng was rejecting the notion that enlightenment is achieved gradually, claiming instead that it is all around us, here and now. He won the contest and, as the abbot’s dharma heir—designated successor—helped spread the Zen concept of spontaneous awakening.

There are many other storied Zen figures who are remembered for their insights, poetry, artistry, or unique lifestyles, or for establishing new schools and practices. Among them: Dongshan Liangjie (807-869), founder of the Caodong school of Chan Buddhism in China; Linji Yixuan (d. 866 CE), founder of the Linji school of Chan Buddhism; Wumen Huikai (Jp., Mumon Ekai), known for The Gateless Gate, his 12th-century collection of Zen koans and commentaries; Myoan Eisai (1141–1215), credited with bringing both Rinzai Zen and tea to Japan from China; Eihei Dogen (1200–1253), founder of the Soto school of Japanese Zen.


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