What are Zen’s major sects?

Five major schools or “houses” developed during Zen’s early years in China, where it was known as Chan. By the 13th century, only two of the original schools remained active—the Linji and the Caodong. Most Zen schools in the world today trace their lineage back to one or the other of them.

The Linji school, named for the Chinese master Linji Yixuan (d. 866 CE), developed the practice of meditating on gong’an (Jp., koan), brief stories that point to an aspect of enlightenment. These anecdotes are further boiled down to their essence, called the huatou, the “head of the phrase” or “source of the thought.” Using koans or huatou to focus the mind is the central practice of the Linji school. One oft-cited gong’an features the 8th-century monk Zhaozhou [Jp., Joshu] who, when asked if a dog has buddhanature (the potential in all sentient beings to become enlightened), enigmatically replied, “Wu [Jp. Mu],” or “emptiness,” referring to the fundamental empty nature of the mind. Over time, this gong’an was shortened to the huatou “What is Wu?” or simply “Wu.

The Caodong school was founded by Dongshan Liangjie (807–869), and its central practice is mozhao chan (Jp., shikantaza), or silent illumination zen, a form of zazen that involves sitting with deep and open mindfulness of present experience. Dongshan Liangjie is also notable for his teachings on suchness (tathata), the ultimate nature of all things and beings.

In Chinese Zen, called Chan, Linji is by far the larger and more dominant tradition. Chan is perhaps best known in the West through Dharma Drum Mountain, an international organization founded in Taiwan by master Sheng Yen (1931–2009).

Linji was transmitted to the Korean Peninsula from China in the 9th century. In the 12th century, Korean Zen (Soen) Buddhists formed the Jogye order, combining elements of Linji with forms of Buddhism already practiced in Korea. Today, Jogye is the largest and oldest Zen school in Korea, and a 20th-century Jogye master founded what is now the West’s best-known Korean Zen order, the Kwan Um school. Another Soen order, Taego, was founded in the 14th century and emphasizes a more purely Linji approach.

Although it’s believed Zen reached Vietnam sometime in the 1st millennium, today’s Vietnamese Zen (Thien) evolved primarily from a branch of Linji that arrived in the 17th century. In the West, Vietnamese Zen is represented by the Order of Interbeing, founded by the Zen master, author, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh (b. 1926).

Both Linji and Caodong Zen reached Japan in the 13th century. Eihei Dogen (1200–1253 CE), a Zen master in the Caodong tradition, founded the Soto school, which became the largest Zen school in Japan. Japanese Linji, called Rinzai, developed a unique approach to huatou meditation: Students work through a curriculum of hundreds of koans over their lifetime. Later, a third Zen school arose in Japan when Linji teachers from China were rejected by the Rinzai establishment, which objected to devotional practices that Chan had absorbed from the Pure Land school. The Chinese delegation was, however, allowed to continue as a separate sect called Obaku Zen.


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