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Buddhism: Zen: Early Masters & Teachings

Last Updated: May 15, 2024 3:52 PM

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Zen Buddhism: Early Masters & Teachings

Bodhidharma  |  Huineng  |  Dogen  |  Hakuin
On this page you can find the best resources for exploring scholarly perspectives on the most important early masters and teachings in the Zen tradition of Buddhism. Each book listed below is linked to WorldCat, where you can discover library holdings for that item in your region. Resources within the gallery box are arranged from the newest to the oldest publications, left to right. The area below the gallery highlights a few recent or especially notable works selected from the gallery above.

Garden at Enkoji

Above: A view of the garden from within the Enkō-ji Temple in northeast Kyoto, Japan.

Ukiyo-e print of BodhidharmaBodhidharma (5th or 6th century CE)

A Buddhist monk who lived during the 5th or 6th century CE, traditionally credited as the transmitter of Chan Buddhism to China, and regarded as its first Chinese patriarch. According to Chinese legend, he also began the physical training of the monks of Shaolin Monastery that led to the creation of kungfu. Little contemporary biographical information on Bodhidharma is extant, and subsequent accounts became layered with legend and unreliable details. According to the principal Chinese sources, Bodhidharma came from the Western Regions, which refers to Central Asia but may also include the Indian subcontinent. Throughout Buddhist art, Bodhidharma is depicted as an ill-tempered, profusely-bearded, wide-eyed non-Chinese person. Bodhidharma's teachings and practice centered on meditation and the Lankavatara Sutra. The Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall (952 CE) identifies Bodhidharma as the 28th Patriarch of Buddhism in an uninterrupted line that extends all the way back to the Gautama Buddha himself. The latter text reports that in 527 CE, Bodhidharma had the following exchange with Emperor Wu of Liang, a fervent patron of Buddhism:
Emperor Wu: "How much karmic merit have I earned for ordaining Buddhist monks, building monasteries, having sutras copied, and commissioning Buddha images?"
Bodhidharma: "None. Good deeds done with worldly intent bring good karma, but no merit."
Emperor Wu: "So what is the highest meaning of noble truth?"
Bodhidharma: "There is no noble truth, there is only emptiness."
Emperor Wu: "Then, who is standing before me?"
Bodhidharma: "I know not, Your Majesty."
Left: Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892), "The moon through a crumbling window," a portrait of Bodhidharma. An ukiyo-e woodblock print in the "A Hundred Aspects of the Moon" series, 1887. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. Image license: Public domain.



Image of Huineng at Nanhai Guanyin Temple, ChinaHuineng (638–713 CE)

Also commonly known as the Sixth Patriarch or Sixth Ancestor of Chan, Huineng is a semi-legendary but central figure in the early history of Chinese Chan Buddhism. He was said to have been an uneducated layman who suddenly attained awakening upon hearing the Diamond Sutra. Despite his lack of formal training, he demonstrated his understanding to the fifth patriarch, Daman Hongren, who then supposedly chose Huineng as his true successor instead of his publicly known selection of Yuquan Shenxiu. Twentieth century scholarship revealed that the story of Huineng's Buddhist career was likely invented by the monk Heze Shenhui, who claimed to be one of Huineng's disciples and was highly critical of Shenxiu's teaching. Huineng is regarded as the founder of the "Sudden Enlightenment" Southern Chan school of Buddhism, which focuses on an immediate and direct attainment of Buddhist enlightenment. The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (六祖壇經), which is said to be a record of his teachings, is a highly influential text in the East Asian Buddhist tradition.
Left: Image of the Sixth Patriarch Huineng, Nanhai Guanyin Temple, Foshan, Guangdong, China. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Huangdan2060. Image license: Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.


The 'floating temple' at Mangetsu-ji

Above: A view of Ukimidō or "floating temple" hall at Mangetsu-ji Temple in Ōtsu, Shiga Prefecture, Japan.

Portrait of DogenDōgen (1200–1253)

A Japanese Buddhist priest, writer, poet, philosopher, and founder of the Sōtō school of Zen in Japan. Originally ordained as a monk in the Tendai School in Kyoto, he was ultimately dissatisfied with its teaching and traveled to China to seek out what he believed to be a more authentic Buddhism. He remained there for five years, finally training under Tiantong Rujing, an eminent teacher of the Chinese Caodong lineage. Upon his return to Japan, he began promoting the practice of zazen (sitting meditation) through literary works such as Fukan zazengi and Bendōwa. He eventually broke relations completely with the powerful Tendai School, and, after several years of likely friction between himself and the establishment, left Kyoto for the mountainous countryside where he founded the monastery Eihei-ji, which remains the head temple of the Sōtō school today. Dōgen is known for his extensive writing including his most famous work, the collection of 95 essays called the Shōbōgenzō but also Eihei Kōroku, a collection of his talks, poetry, and commentaries, and Eihei Shingi, the first Zen monastic code written in Japan, among others.
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Unknown. Image license: Public domain.


Engaging Dogen's Zen is a practice-oriented study of Shushogi (a canonical distillation of Dogen's thought used as a primer in the Soto School of Zen) and Fukanzazengi (Dogen's essential text on the practice of "just sitting," a text recited daily in the Soto School of Zen). It is also a study of the entire self. Here, the principles of Soto Zen practice are unpacked and explained by leading contemporary Buddhists from the living tradition--monks, priests, academics, and community teachers. Tackling Dogen's approach to key issues, such as the preeminence of shikantaza, universal buddha nature, and what it means to be a Mahayana Buddhist, the contributors to the volume help Zen practitioners and any who are trying to deepen their lives to appreciate better the teachings of Soto Zen and make these teachings part of their lives.

Dogen Treasury cover artTreasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen's Shobo Genzo by Dogen, edited & translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, 2013.

Treasury of the True Dharma Eye (Shobo Genzo, in Japanese) is a monumental work, considered to be one of the profoundest expressions of Zen wisdom ever put on paper, and also the most outstanding literary and philosophical work of Japan. It is a collection of essays by Eihei Dogen (1200–1253), founder of Zen’s Soto school. Kazuaki Tanahashi and a team of translators that represent a Who’s Who of American Zen have produced a translation of the great work that combines accuracy with a deep understanding of Dogen’s voice and literary gifts. This volume includes a wealth of materials to aid understanding, including maps, lineage charts, a bibliography, and an exhaustive glossary of names and terms.

Dogen Textual cover artDogen: Textual and Historical Studies, edited by Steven Heine. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

This collection of essays explores the life and thought of Zen Master Dōgen (1200-1253), the founder of the Japanese Soto sect. Through both textual and historical analysis, the volume shows Dōgen in context of the Chinese Chan tradition that influenced him and demonstrates the tremendous, lasting impact he had on Buddhist thought and culture in Japan. Special attention is given to the Shobogenzo and several of its fascicles, which express Dōgen's views on such practices and rituals as using supranormal powers (jinzu), reading the sutras (kankin), diligent training in zazen meditation (shikan taza), and the koan realized in everyday life (genjōkōan). It also analyzes the historical significance of this seminal figure: for instance, Dōgen's methods of appropriating or contrasting with Chan sources, as well as how Dōgen was understood and examined in later periods, including modern times.

Extensive Record cover artDogen's Extensive Record: A Translation of the Eihei Koroku by Dogen, edited & translated by Taigen Daniel Leighton & Shohaku Okumura. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2010.

As Shakespeare does with English, Dogen utterly transforms the language of Zen, using it in novel and extraordinarily beautiful ways to point to everything important in the religious life. The Eihei Koroku is a collection of all Dogen's later teachings, including short formal discourses to the monks training at his temple, longer informal talks, and koans with his commentaries, as well as short appreciatory verses on various topics. The Shobogenzo has received enormous attention in Western Zen and Western Zen literature, and with the publication of this watershed volume, the Eihei Koroku will surely rise to commensurate stature. This book is the first-ever complete and scholarly translation of this monumental work into English and this edition is the first time it has been available in paperback.

Virtue (toku) calligraphy by HakuinHakuin (白隠 慧鶴, 1686 – 1769)

One of the most influential figures in Japanese Zen Buddhism, Hakuin is regarded as the reviver of the Rinzai school from a moribund period of stagnation, refocusing it on its traditionally rigorous training methods integrating meditation and koan practice. Hakuin saw "deep compassion and commitment to help all sentient beings everywhere" as an indispensable part of the Buddhist path to awakening. Hakuin emphasized the need for "post-satori training", purifying the mind of karmic tendencies and "whipping forward the wheel of the Four Universal Vows, pledging yourself to benefit and save all sentient beings while striving every minute of your life to practice the great Dharma giving." Insight into the need of arousing bodhicitta formed Hakuin's final awakening: "What is to be valued above all else is the practice that comes after satori is achieved. What is that practice? It is the practice that puts the Mind of Enlightenment first and foremost. [... At] my forty-first year, [...] I at long last penetrated into the heart of this great matter. Suddenly, unexpectedly, I saw it — it was as clear as if it were right there in the hollow of my hand. What is the Mind of Enlightenment? It is, I realized, a matter of doing good — benefiting others by giving them the gift of the Dharma teaching."
Left: Virtue (Toku), calligraphy by Hakuin Ekaku, ink on paper, mid-18th century. Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Hakuin Ekaku. Image license: Public domain.


With this volume, Norman Waddell completes his acclaimed translation - the first full publication in a foreign language - of the teaching record of one of the greatest Zen masters of all time. Hakuin lived at a time when Japanese Buddhism as a whole and his own Rinzai sect in particular were at low ebb. Through tremendous force of character and creative energy, he initiated a reform movement that swept the country, and today, all Rinzai Zen masters trace their lineage through him. Poison Blossoms contains a highly diverse set of materials: formal and informal presentations to monastic and lay disciples, poems, practice instructions, inscriptions for paintings, comments on koans, letters, and funeral orations. While most items are brief, easily read in a quick sitting, the book also includes extended commentaries on the Heart Sutra, one of Mahayana Buddhism’s central texts; on the famously difficult Five Ranks of Tung-shan; and on the accomplishments of his eminent predecessor Gudō Tōshoku. Having devoted himself for more than three decades to the study and translation of Hakuin's works, Norman Waddell is peerless when it comes to conveying into English the vital, sometimes elegant, often earthy voice of this outstanding teacher.

Precious Mirror Cave cover artHakuin's Precious Mirror Cave: A Zen Miscellany by Hakuin, translated by Norman Waddell. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2009.

The two great streams of Zen Buddhism are the Soto sect, known as the School of Quiet Reflection, and the Rinzai school of rigorous koan study. Hakuin is credited with the modern revival of the Rinzai sect and is its most important teacher. Hakuin’s life has been a great inspiration to the students and practitioners of Zen in the West, his writings offering great authority and practical application. This collection of six diverse and independent works contains five pieces never translated into English before, some of which have been—until quite recently—unknown, even in Japan. One piece offers the most detailed biographical account of his life, from birth to death, and another is his earliest spiritual autobiography. A rich and various group, the offerings here will be important to seasoned practitioners as well as attractive to Zen newcomers.

Religious Art Hakuin cover artThe Religious Art of Zen Master Hakuin by Katsuhiro Yoshizawa, translated by Norman Waddell. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2009.

A charismatic and extraordinary Zen teacher and artist, Hakuin is credited with almost single-handedly reforming and revitalizing Japanese Zen from a state of extreme spiritual decline. As a teacher, he placed special emphasis on koan practice, inventing new koans such as the famous “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” He also stressed the need to extend the benefits of Zen to others. What made Hakuin even more remarkable was that he was not only a religious teacher but also a prolific artist. Using calligraphy and painting to create "visual Dharma," his teachings were rendered on paper in pictures, characters, and images, uniquely and magnificently expressing the nature of enlightenment as he wished to impart it to his students. This book contains many of Hakuin’s finest calligraphies and paintings, along with brilliant commentary by Katsuhiro Yoshizawa, the leading Japanese expert on Hakuin and his work. Yoshizawa masterfully guides the reader from one piece of artwork to the next, sharing the story of Hakuin’s life, revealing the profound religious meaning embedded in each illustration, and providing a detailed documentary of the lessons of one of Zen’s most respected teachers.

Essential Teachings Hakuin cover artThe Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin: A Translation of the Sokko-roku Kaien-fusetsu by Hakuin, translated by Norman Waddell. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 1994.

A fiery and intensely dynamic Zen teacher, Hakuin placed special emphasis on koan practice, inventing many new koans himself, including the famous “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” As an artist, Hakuin used calligraphy and painting to create “visual Dharma”—teachings that powerfully express the nature of enlightenment. The text translated here offers an excellent introduction to the work of this extraordinary teacher. Hakuin sets forth his vision of authentic Zen teaching and practice, condemning his contemporaries, whom he held responsible for the decline of Zen, and exhorting his students to dedicate themselves to "breaking through the Zen barrier." Included are reproductions of several of Hakuin’s finest calligraphies and paintings.

Enko-ji Temple under snow

Above: A view of the stone garden at Enkō-ji Temple in northeast Kyoto, Japan, under snow.

More Masters, More Teachings