Buddhism arrived in China at the beginning of our era, in a country which was already culturally rich. Two major schools of thought had flourished there for hundreds of years: Taoism and Confucianism. During its time in China, Buddha’s message became immersed in the culture of this great country while keeping its own authenticity.
To understand S?t? Zen today, it is worth going back to its source and studying one of the richest periods of Buddhism: the spread of Chan in China from the sixth to the thirteenth century. This period of seven centuries can be divided into three great periods.
The First Period (VI-VII century)
From the sixth to the seventh century Chan developed in China after the arrival of the Indian monk, Bodhidharma. This period, where legend and history merge, was the time of the founding patriarchs: Bodhidharma, Eka, S?san, D?shin and K?nin and, the high point of the era, the sixth patriarch, Daikan En?. En? had two main successors: Nangaku Ej? and Seigen Gy?shi, who were the founders of two great lineages that subsequently appeared.
Second Period (VII-X century), the Golden Age of Chan
From the seventh to the tenth century, many lineages proliferated in the transmission of Chan. Many of them died out, but others were to be the source of five great schools that would appear later. At the time of Hyakujo (IX century) the first monasteries appeared with their own rules. D?shin had already established the basis of the first rule; Hyakujo followed in his footsteps and instituted the famous rule: “A day without work is a day without eating.” This was the birth of samu.
During this period, the first founding texts of S?t? Zen were written, such as the Sand?kai and the H?ky? Zanmai. It was a time of extraordinary creativity, and reputable masters from various lineages such as Nangaku, Sekit?, Tokusan, Bas?, Yakusan, T?zan, Hyakujo, Sepp?, Rinzai, Nansen and J?sh?, all developed original, uniquely formulated teachings.
For example, T?zan and S?zan, considered as the founders of the S?t? School, created a large number of formulas like the five ranks (go i), the three paths, the three falls, the three flights, etc… All these different expressions and formulas were meant to help disciples avoid the pitfalls of intellectual understanding and get them out of the rut of their previously held knowledge, awakening them to the reality of the Buddha-way.
Some of these masters were at the head of very large communities, sometimes comprising more than a thousand monks, and had a large number of Dharma successors. This was how Sepp? was able to transmit to fifty of his disciples.
This period is called the Golden Age of Chan; it was at this time that the five schools or five houses came into being: H?gen, Ummon, Igy?, S?t? and Rinzai. Stories and anecdotes about the patriarchs of these schools have become reference points for students and are the source of what would later be called k?ans or public cases.
The Third Period (X-XIII century)
It was in this particularly rich and prolific context that the third period of expansion of Chan began (the Song dynasty). It saw the appearance of literature which was more and more sophisticated and schools which established their uniqueness with such rigour that the cures themselves produced new diseases. Thus it was in the XII century that the famous polemic (true-false) took place between Wanshi Sh?gaku, in the S?t? lineage and Daie S?k?, who wrote the Hekiganroku, a collection of commentaries on koans in the Rinzai lineage.
Wanshi Sh?gaku (1091-1157) is considered as the one who reanimated a dying S?t? lineage, giving back to shikantaza its true meaning. Little by little, zazen had become a tranquil practice devoid of the spirit of awakening, the monks more drowsy than meditative. So, being absorbed in an empty, mental state, the monks could no longer meet the demands of daily life, especially in their relationship with lay people.
It was to answer critics and to the disapproval of many masters, notably Daie S?k?, that Wanshi wrote his most profound texts, such as the Mokush?ka in which the practice of shikantaza regained all of its dimension and mystery.
It was this pure shikantaza that Tendo Ny?j? transmitted to the young D?gen, who had come from Japan seeking the authentic Dharma.