Module III
The Golden Age of Chinese Zen

In this module we look at a period of Chan often called "The golden age of Zen", a time in which teachers of southern rural Chan begin to experiment with new ways to precipitate the "sudden" enlightenment experience, even bringing into question the role of meditation.

The masters of this period searched for and experimented with new techniques. They attempted to define precisely what enlightenment is and, as well, formalized the transmission process.

During this time, Chan monasteries become independent organizations and Chan a recognized—if eccentric—Buddhist sect. The iconoclastic, self-supporting Chan establishments rode out a persecution of Buddhism in the mid-ninth century that effectively destroyed all other Buddhist schools in China.

This was the great creative era of Chan in which it secured its own identity and produced many great masters such as Mazu, Zhaozhou and Nanquan who—recognizing the importance of distinguishing Chan from the more doctrinal Buddhist schools—developed a new teaching style that made heavy use of paradox, cryptic statements, shouts, and beatings to jolt their students out of the discursive mind-set that led to scholarly debates in the first place.

Although these methods had their roots in the practices of the old Taoist sages, they were also supported by the teaching in the Vimalakirti Sutra reflecting the inability of language to express nonduality. The stories and anecdotes of these masters were recorded in collections like the Mumonkan, the Hekiganroku, the Shoyoroku and the Tetteki Tosui that are studied by Zen students to this day.

The story of the writing and rewriting of the history of Chan lineage is often one of politics, and we will leave such stories for a more detailed history course.

In the previous lessons we learned of the struggle between the followers of the step-by-step sutra-reading Buddhists of the cities and the all-at-once, anti-literary proponents of sudden enlightenment in the country. Shenhui's success in establishing the Zennist "Southern" school as a state religion new in the north actually contributed to its decline, for while Zennism could not flourish as an officially patronized religion, but only as all attitude of mind, a method of thinking and a mode of living, an officially patronized teacher of Buddhism was obliged to perform all the traditional rituals and ceremonies which the true Zennist rejected.

All further development of Chinese Zen consequently to come from those great teachers who valued simple life and intellectual freedom and independence‚Ä® more than worldly recognition. And in fact just such teachers had begun springing up like mushrooms. On lonely mountaintops, teachers of sudden enlightenment were experimenting with new ways to transmit wordless insight. They seem to have disdained traditional Buddhism, perhaps partly because Buddhists — that is the cultural elitists and aristocrats in the capitals of power — had so long rejected them. (Recall the Fifth Ancestor's greeting to Huineng: "If you're from the south, you must be a barbarian.") As the political power of the Tang government in the north gradually withered, so too did the fortunes of the traditional Chan establishments that had flourished under imperial patronage.