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Respective Schools of Chan During the Sung Dynasty Essay

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An Introduction to Chan Buddhism

Among the Chinese schools of Buddhism, Chan Buddhism was the most popular. It is also known as Zen Buddhism in Japan and in western countries. The word Chan was derived from the Sanskrit word dhyana which means contemplation or meditation. Chan Buddhism was introduced in China by an Indian monk named Bodhidharma. He arrived in China around 520 AD when he advocated the importance of meditation and rejected concentration on scriptural knowledge. Chan Buddhism disregarded concepts of suffering and salvation, and depended on simple thinking and the ordinary events of day to day living as a means to enlightenment (Jayaram, 2000). The Chan School of Buddhism opposed the scholarly approach to religion as this would toughen the mind and prevent a sudden opening of the mind and paradigm shift experience. The concept of the sudden opening of the mind and the concept of meditation are deemed as opposing aspects of Chan Buddhism. This is when Chan Buddhism shares the meditation ideology of Buddhism, but distinguishes itself from it with its immediacy ideology (Faure, 1994).

The masters of Chan Buddhism while discouraging focus on scriptural studies, did not encourage illiteracy as they required the initiates to still study the basic scriptures of Chan in preparation for the next stages of freeing themselves from worldly notions. The followers of Bodhidharma’s teachings initially consisted of a limited number who often included new elements in the original teachings. In the early part of the eighth century AD, the practice began to grow along with the followers of various teachers (Jan, 1981).

Five Schools or Houses arose from Chan Buddhism. These schools presented different styles and methods but used the basic teachings of Chan Buddhism as their foundation. The Five Houses included The House of Kuei-Yang, The House of Lin-Chi, The House of Ts’ao-Tung, The House of Yun-men, and The House of Fa-yen (Cleary, 1997). Notable masters included Kuei-shan, Huai-hai, Pai-chang, Huang-po, Lin-chi, Ts’ao-shan, Sun-chi, and Yung-ming. During the period of the Sung Dynasty, some houses merged and texts consisting of the teaching styles and the words of the masters were created.

The Social and Political Conditions During the Sung Dynasty (960-1279)

During the Sung Dynasty, China experienced major changes and development in terms of its economy, culture, politics and social structure. Economic growth was spearheaded by the flourishing of trade. Quanzhou, which was located in the Fujian region, became the center of international maritime trade with countries from South and Southeast Asia, along with Japan and Korea conducting trade activities. The custom duties which were collected in Quanzhou added to the government’s source of revenue, with agriculture still as the primary source of state revenue. Paper money was also first used during the Sung Dynasty when copper coins proved to be heavy and impractical. The introduction in 1012 of early-ripening rice strain increased yields, and consequently resulted to an increase in the population. What used to be a population of less than 60 million increased to 100 million by 1127 (The Song Dynasty in China (960-1279)). Manufacturing of textiles, silk and ceramics also contributed to the economic growth.

Commercialization and urbanization affected Chinese society. Populations became concentrated on major cities and modes of transportation were increased to accommodate the need of the people in going about their businesses. Goods are sold on side streets which gives more life and energy to an already bustling city. Negative effects included the problem of absentee landlordism for those who are in the countryside, and the increase in poverty amidst the luxury experienced by some city residents.

Cultural development consisted of significant progress and enhancement in painting, poetry, and popular literature which became more accessible due to the use of printing techniques. The accessibility and availability of inexpensive books resulted to an increase in literacy. The social and political structures in the Sung Dynasty were greatly modified by the emergence of a new elite. The hereditary aristocracy was replaced by an elite whose status was gained from land ownership, excellent education, and access to political office. The Chinese society during the Sung Dynasty was predominantly illiterate, which gave the elite superiority owing to their reading and writing skills. Status difference became more evident as the elite gained more control over the local population through their wealth and through government positions.

A civil service examination was put into effect for those who are interested to hold government office. This exam favors the educated elite as the exam questions required learned answers which could only be acquired through a lengthy and comprehensive education, and most of the content was based on Confucian texts. The civil service exams did not only allow elite dominance in the government and in local affairs, but it aimed to lessen the power of the military. Military officials could no longer shift between military and civil services.

The Socio-Political Factors which Affected the Growth of Chan Buddhism Schools during the Sung Dynasty

The different schools of Chan Buddhism grew and developed as a reaction to the social and political conditions during the Sung Dynasty. The growth of the schools sought to establish balance and reform in society by offering alternatives to the status quo or providing a different means or a perceived better way. During the Sung Dynasty, education was both a privilege for the wealthy and a means to amass more wealth. It was also a means to acquire power in government and over the local population who were mainly illiterate. The status difference became more prominent and egalitarian principles were disregarded.

Chan Buddhism’s main principle includes a natural way of absorbing knowledge into the mind from observation of the nature of things to arrive at a paradigm shift or a moment of enlightenment. It does not espouse learning by reading lengthy and structured texts to arrive at self advancement or fulfillment. However, the existing social and political situation during that time necessitated comprehensive scholarly education to be able to experience personal economic advancement and to establish a position in the higher levels of society. This meant that Chan Buddhist masters had to think of ways to modify their principles in order to advance the cause of Chan Buddhism which is to propagate its teachings to as many people as possible. The most effective way to accumulate support for Chan Buddhism was through government policy, and the means to sustain their followers and the physical structures was through economic viability. Other basic concepts was compromised and had to be changed, or some principles were not suited to the present circumstances that they had to be changed. Thus, different groups developed their own modifications to Chan Buddhism teachings to suit their needs and to advance their cause. Difference and conflicts in certain altered or added elements resulted to the creation of different branches of Chan Buddhism. As with any other societal group, individuals who do not share the exact similar ideologies tend to break away and search for individuals who share similar principles and ideas.

Aside from adjusting to the current social and political circumstances, another major factor that contributed to the creation and growth of the five houses of Chan Buddhism is the political crisis which resulted to the persecution of Buddhism. The persecution was ordered by Emperor Wuzong during the period 841-846. The persecution was the only resort for the growing hostility towards Chan Buddhism. The hostility started due to the fact that Buddhism was an imported religion from India which was greatly resented by the followers of Taoism and Confucianism. Due to the growing interest in Buddhism, Confucian officials and scholars felt threatened in the event that the followers of Buddhism increase in number and gain more power. Economic reasons were also cited by the Confucian officials stressing the vast wealth of the monasteries. Wealth of the monasteries was attributed to income from land holdings, which was exempt from tax. For the monasteries, more monks meant more earnings. This did not suit the government well because a person who becomes a monk meant that there will be one less soldier or farmer for the state. Agriculture being the primary source of state revenue, losing farmers to the Buddhist monasteries posed a major effect on productivity.

This persecution made it impossible for Buddhism to be declared as the state religion. The goal of Chan Buddhism to reach this status was hindered. Political turmoil usually leads to the creation of new forms of social groups or organizations, as well as new forms of religious practices. The same can be said for social dilemmas or unrest. The development of these new forms is a natural reaction to disappointment, distress and frustration wherein options are considered, new directions or path are treaded, and new strategies are attempted. In the case of Chan Buddhism, the political turmoil brought about different ideas on how to better address the predicament. Thus, the different houses of Chan Buddhism came about and several literatures were created as a reflection of sentiments and as an account of what happened.

The status, functions and goals of social, political and religious movements are always dependent on the socio-political events in a society. Changes in the structure and trends of movements or organizations are always inevitable as societies will not cease to be dynamic.


Cleary, T. (1997). Five Houses of Zen. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Faure, B. (1994). The Rhetoric of Immediacy: A cultural Critique of Chan/Zen Buddhism. NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jan, Y.-H. (1981). The Mind as the Buddha-Nature: The Concept of the Absolute in Ch’An Buddhism. Philosophy East and West. Vol. 31, Issue 4 , 467.

Jayaram, V. (2000). . Web.

(960-1279). (n.d.). Web.

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