The Five Houses of Zen
It is sometimes said of Zen (like its philosophical cousin Taoism) that “he who knows does not speak, and he who speaks does not know.” Be this as
it may, there has been much chatter about Zen over the centuries and millennia, and library shelves both east and west groan under the weight of books
on this “non-verbal” form of spirituality.
At the risk of adding yet more chatter, I believe there is value to discussing Zen from philosophical and historical perspectives. One doesn’t have
to practice something to examine it, and although an analytical approach may not be the same thing
as Zen, it can be brought to bear
any topic, including Zen. The ultimate value of such an approach is, of course, for the reader to decide.
Whatever else Zen is, it is a phenomena that has unfolded in history.
Like other forms of spirituality, it has its big names and its texts, its
schools and sub-schools. This thread takes a brief look at the so-called “Five Houses of Zen,” which took root in China starting in the 9th
century AD and provided a general framework of theory and practice for later Zen thinkers and practitioners. Hopefully this information provides one
starting place for looking at Zen as a concrete historical, philosophical, and metaphysical phenomenon, rather than a vague hippie-dippy “vibe”
about which logical discussion is somehow mysteriously forbidden.
What Are the “Five Houses”?
Zen is often thought of in the West as a Japanese phenomenon, probably because the West became familiar with it on a mass scale through increased
contact with Japan following the U.S. occupation after WWII. However, as an identifiable form of Buddhism it originated in China, where it is known as
There have been sizable Zen movements in other parts of Asia as well, such as Korea and Vietnam. For convenience and familiarity,
though, I will refer to it as “Zen” here.
Zen is not the only form of Buddhism…not even close. It is a sub-category of Mahayana Buddhism
(one of the three primary “sub-divisions”
of Buddhism). Within Zen, the Five Houses (also called the “Five Schools”) are can be thought of as “flavors” or perhaps “styles” of Zen
that each grew out of a different original teacher. They were not originally separate institutions
per se, and there
was a some crossover between them. A seeker could study under more than one House of Zen, although if he received formal transmission
usually (but not always) tracked back to one of the Five Houses. Today, of the five, only the Caodong is still practiced formally in China. In Japan,
two of them remain living traditions: the Japanese forms of Caodong (called “Soto” in Japanese ) and Linji (“Rinzai” in Japanese).
Zen before the Five Houses
According to tradition (or legend, if you prefer), Zen “began” in India when Gautama Buddha allegedly gave the “Flower Sermon.” Instead of
talking, as was usual in his sermons, on this occasion he simply held up a flower and wordlessly showed it to his disciples (as depicted below). All
of them remained silent in confusion except Mahakashyapa, who smiled. Tradition has it that only Mahakashyapa understood what was Buddha’s
“special transmission, outside of words and texts” on that day, which made him the first Zen master.
Thus, the story goes, a non-verbal form of direct, experiential enlightenment was passed down directly from the Buddha, through his student
Mahakashyapa and in turn through his successors, down the various generations, until we reach the enigmatic figure of Bodhidharma (pic below), who
took Zen from India into China in the 5th century AD.
Perhaps because of the Indo-Chinese language barrier, and/or perhaps because of the nature of Zen, Bodhidharma was not a very verbal character. He
tried to convey the essence of Zen to his students directly through action or through short, cryptic sayings, rather than relying on the lengthy
written teachings (the Sutras) of Buddhism. In him we can see the beginnings of Chinese Zen, with its emphasis on the unreliability of words and texts
and the favoring of direct “transmission” of a kind of transcendent, experiential truth. Although words are used in Zen, they are likened to the
“finger pointing to the moon” as opposed to the “moon itself,” which is beyond words. Zen tries to keep its students from “mistaking the
finger for the moon.” This is, of course, in marked contrast to the Western monotheistic religions, which place central importance on their sacred
texts (“the Word”), and it is also in contrast to many of the other forms of Buddhism, some of which can be quite text-oriented as well.
The Buddha himself preached the “doctrine of expedient means,” which allows various different methods to be used to reach the goal of
enlightenment (“many roads, one mountain,” as a Zen saying has it). This, perhaps, accounts for the wide variety of practice methods considered
valid in Buddhism, from the cryptic puzzles and silent meditation of Zen to the complex rituals of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, to the deep text-based
intellectualism and scholarship of the T’ien Tai tradition, to name just three of many examples.
After Bodhidharma passed his wordless “transmission” of direct enlightenment on to his Chinese student Huike, the Zen tradition began to take root
in the Middle Kingdom, from which it spread to Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. By the time we come to the 9th century, we can begin to think of the Five
Houses as separate “streams” into which Bodhidharma’s mighty river of Zen had split.
In the next post, then, I provide a brief outline of each of the Five Houses.
edit on 8/12/2012 by silent thunder because: (no reason given)