Module IV
Sectarianism and the Koan

In the final stage of our story of Chinese Zen we explore a time in which the Chan movement diversified into a variety of schools, each beholden to a master or masters advocating an individualized path to enlightenment.

From this period of personality and experimentation gradually emerged two main Chan paths, the Linji (Lin-chi) and the Caodong (Ts'ao-tung) – later to become  Rinzai and Soto in Japan.

While Chan grew in numbers its quality declined. To maintain Chan's intellectual vigor, there emerged a new technique, the koan, which used episodes from Chan's Golden Age to challenge novices' mental complacency. This invention becomes the hallmark of the later Linji sect, and through the refinement of the koan technique Chan enjoyed a renaissance of creativity in China.

The Linji school concluded that enlightenment can be precipitated in a prepared novice through shouts, jolts, and mental paradoxes while the Caodong relied more on the traditional practice of meditation to gradually release enlightenment.

The five houses

The Great Persecution of 845 brought to a close the creative Golden Age of Chan, while also leaving Chan as the dominant form of Chinese Buddhism. In the absence of an establishment Buddhism for Chan to distinguish itself against, the sect proceeded to evolve its own internal sectarianism. There arose what are today known as the "five houses," regional versions of Chan that differed in minor but significant ways. Yet there was no animosity among the schools, merely a friendly rivalry. In fact, the teachers themselves referred back to the prophecy attributed to Bodhidharma that the flower of Dhyana Buddhism would one day have five petals.

The masters who founded the five schools were all individualists of idiosyncratic character. Yet the times were such that for the most part their flowers bloomed gloriously only a few decades before slowly fading. Two of the sects, however, did prosper and eventually went on to take over the garden. These two houses—the Linji and the Caodong—both were concerned with dialectics and became the forerunners of the two Zen sects (Rinzai and Soto) eventually to flourish in Japan. Of the two, the Linji is most directly traceable back to the earlier masters, since its-founder actually studied under the master Huangbo.