Making Zen Your Own - Introduction

Giving Life to Twelve Key Golden Age Ancestors


A generic Zen master on a mountain top—when I began doing koan work in my formative years of Zen training, this is how I generally perceived the Chinese Zen masters whose paradoxical teachings I was trying to break open. All the major Zen koans are based on the insights of Chinese teachers who lived primarily between the sixth and tenth centuries. These teachers were, for me, shadowy figures with strange names—sometimes Chinese, sometimes Japanese, depending on which source I was reading—and they were seemingly devoid of individuality, life history, and societal context. To be sure, there was biographical material on them in the various koan books I was using, largely presented in the commentaries on the koans, written by modern Zen masters. But the biographies didn’t mean much to me, since I knew little about Chinese history and geography and had no interest then in finding out more because—well, working through the koans was hard enough.

All of this began to change as I moved more deeply into koan study and especially after I began to teach. In the spring of 2001, faced with the daunting task as a new teacher of having to write four talks for the annual weeklong summer retreat of New York City–based Still Mind Zendo, which I founded and where I am now co-resident teacher, I hit upon the idea of focusing on just one of the Chinese masters who had appeared in the koan texts I had worked on. The first one I chose was the ninth-century master Deshan Xuanjian (J. Tokusan Senkan), because the koans that came out of his teachings seemed to reveal an interesting figure. I decided to present Deshan’s insights in the context of his life story, which I pieced together from biographies in the koan texts and personal research—and then filled in a bit using my imagination. I connected Deshan’s teachings and life story to the practice challenges and life issues faced by those attending the retreat at which I was teaching about him. In subsequent years I chose a different Chinese master for each of my summer retreat talks, and it is these talks that I have adapted into this book. Accordingly, though grounded in the facts as known by scholars, I encourage the reader to meet this book not as a work of scholarship but as Zen teaching expressed through the life stories of these ancestors.

What I discovered is that these men (and sadly, it is indeed only men who are represented in what has for centuries been the official Zen record) were not formed from a generic mold but individuals with interesting quirks, senses of humor, heartfelt enlightenment experiences, varied ways of living, and unique ways of expressing the Dharma. In other words I discovered that they were each human. I discovered, for example, that Dajian Huineng (J. Daikan Eno) was an animal rights advocate of sorts; that Mazu Daoyi (J. Baso Doitsu) had a rough-and-tumble personality; that Shitou Xiqian (J. Sekito Kisen) had been a hermit for a large part of his life; that Deshan, in his early years, was a man of high drama. I learned that Zhaozhou Congshen (J. Joshu Jushin), enlightened at an early age, did not become the master of his own (miserably cold) monastery until well into his eighties; that Linji Yixuan (J. Rinzai Gigen), later known for exploding all the “Zen rules,” had been in his early years a strict fundamentalist; and that Xuefeng Yicun (J. Seppo Gison) had been an utter failure as a Zen student. Yes! I discovered that these men were human, not the rarified, superhuman beings I had always imagined them to be. And I discovered that it was their humanity that could teach us as much as the words they spoke. It was their humanity that brought their teachings to life, gave the teachings freshness, and, above all, offered encouragement. Being familiar with their humanity allowed me to know with confidence that if they could do it, so can I, so can you—so can we! Isn’t that what Zen encouragement is all about? These great teachers have all certainly encouraged me. They opened and continue to open my limited vision. They taught me and continue to teach me about different ways of seeing into the true nature of reality. They strengthened and continue to strengthen my determination and my practice.

Knowing the life stories of these masters not only enriched my experience of their teaching but also sparked a deeper understanding of their social and political environments, as well as their connection to one another. The Dharma, after all, is not a static entity. It is life, and just like life, the Dharma evolves in the context of the times in which it is practiced and builds on all that came before. So it is important to know, for example, that Zen was greatly influenced by the nature-based, Chinese Tao te Ching and the ethical teachings of Confucius, that it began to be formalized during a brutal and savage period of strife in Chinese history, and that in many ways the Dharma of Shakyamuni Buddha in the fourth century BCE was not the same as the Dharma in China more than a thousand years later—although both point to the heart of the Great Matter of life and death. It was expressed differently a thousand years later, because the Dharma, while fundamentally unchanged, is always changing and always evolving.

In addition, just as it is important for Americans to know that Lincoln came after Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, and was influenced by each, it is important for us as Zen practitioners to know that Mazu preceded Linji, that Zhaozhou was Mazu’s Dharma grandson, and that Huineng was the Zen ancestor of us all. For just as Lincoln evolved from—and used—the insights of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, each Zen ancestor built upon the insights of those who came before. Tracing how these interconnections and linkages developed from generation to generation of Chinese teachers offers today’s Zen practitioner invaluable context. Knowing, for instance, that Huineng’s “not one thing exists” led to Mazu’s “ordinary mind is the Way,” which led to Zhaozhou’s famous Mu, helps us to see more clearly into the essence of Mu, the first koan in the book of koans known as The Gateless Gate (Wumenguan in Chinese and Mumonkan in Japanese). It also helps us to see that our own insight is born out of this unbroken line of Zen Buddhist teachers and that we—yes, we—are also part of the evolving Dharma.

Knowing the history of our Zen ancestors—knowing what difficulties and obstacles they overcame in order to see clearly, being aware of their intense determination and unrelenting discipline, understanding their relationships with one another, seeing the uniqueness of each one’s teaching, knowing a little about the times they lived in—is, it seems to me, indispensable for anyone seriously interested in Zen. Grasping the essence of any koan or Zen teaching is greatly helped by knowing who the person was who originally expressed that teaching. The great teachers of the ages are appreciated far more when we know their history. Jesus did not teach in a generic land during some vague period; he taught in a particular land at a particular time. The same can be said for Shakyamuni Buddha. In modern times, we must place Gandhi in modern-day India and Martin Luther King Jr. in the American Deep South in order to appreciate their insights. Why should this not be true of the great Zen ancestors?

We miss so much when we disembody the Zen masters, reducing them only to their preserved teachings. More significantly, we run the risk of separating the insights of the Zen ancestors from our own lives if we separate the ancestors from theirs. “Zen is your life. Appreciate your life,” taught Taizan Maezumi Roshi, the founder of the White Plum Asanga. And indeed Zen was life for these teachers. Not to know about their lives is to miss a great deal of their splendid Dharma.

I begin this book with the four foundational masters whose teachings made Zen what it is today: Bodhidharma, Huineng, Mazu, and Shitou. The first, Bodhidharma, was an Indian Buddhist monk who early in the sixth century brought the essence of meditation, or chan (zen in Japanese), to China. His history is murky, often shrouded in legend, and key dates in his life are uncertain, but recent discoveries by Zen scholars such as Andy Ferguson and modern Chinese researchers are revealing more clues that seem to contradict the popularly accepted version of Bodhidharma’s life. A thirteenth-century text has him arriving in China as a rather elderly man in 527 and meeting with Emperor Wu—a famous encounter at the heart of Zen Buddhist lore—shortly after that. However, the earliest record, Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks, has Bodhidharma arriving in China on or before the year 475, a date that some scholars say is more reliable since, according to Ferguson, Continued Biographies was written “perhaps only 130 years or so after Bodhidharma lived.” Under this scenario, Bodhidharma could not have met the emperor upon his arrival, since Wu did not ascend the throne until 502. Instead, it would have taken place at a later date. I base my chapter on this timeline because it makes the most sense to me.

Skipping four generations of teachers whose recorded history is slim, I come to Huineng, the great sixth patriarch, out of whom, it is said, all Zen flows. His personal story and teaching are compiled in what is known as the Platform Sutra, a work that modern scholarship has pretty much determined was written by one of his disciples after the master’s death. His life is described in embellished, almost mythic, terms in the richly detailed biography that opens the work, but myths hold much truth, and his story, as recounted by the monk who wrote it, contains splendid teaching, while the purported lectures of the master that make up the bulk of the text remain part of Zen’s fundamental teachings. The Platform Sutra made Huineng a deeply respected figure in not only Zen Buddhism but Tibetan Buddhism as well, and later generations of Chinese teachers traced all Zen lines back to him.

Huineng’s Dharma grandsons, Mazu and Shitou, each spawned successors who were to develop what came to be known later as the Five Schools of Zen, two of which exist to this day: the Linji (J. Rinzai) school, formed by Mazu’s Dharma great-grandson Linji, and the Caodong (J. Soto) school, formed by Shitou’s Dharma great-grandson Dongshan Lingjie (J. Tozan Ryokai). Three other masters described in this book developed such distinctive ways of teaching that they were designated as founders of Zen schools that carried their names, though these schools eventually died out as their teachings were absorbed into the Rinzai and Soto schools. The founders of these three schools are Guishan Lingyou (J. Isan Reiyu), Fayan Wenyi (J. Hogen Bun’eki), and Yunmen Wenyan (J. Ummon Bun’en).

Deshan is part of the story not only because Yunmen and Fayan, as well as Xuefeng (whose early years of “failing” at Zen offer us much encouragement), were all his Dharma descendants, but also because Deshan was a colorful personality, to say the least. Finally, no book on the Golden Age Zen masters would be complete without Zhaozhou, another great-grandson of Mazu, because of the depth and breadth of his insight. Zhaozhou has twenty koans in the The Gateless Gate and The Blue Cliff Record alone; his teachings survived, even though he did not found a Zen school, because of their directness and simplicity.

I have touched on the lives and teachings of twelve masters. But it is my hope that being introduced to some of Zen’s Chinese ancestors in this way will encourage readers to approach other ancestors in a similar fashion—to take what is known of their lives and imagine what was not recorded. There are several excellent sources one can use, but Andy Ferguson’s book Zen’s Chinese Heritage certainly stands out. While I examine only a few of the major figures of Zen’s Chinese years, Ferguson presents all of them and provides fine samples of their teachings. In addition, The Roaring Stream, edited by Nelson Foster and Jack Shoemaker, is another collection of writings by the major Chinese masters that offers today’s practitioners easy access to their teachings.

Finally, this book is based on scholarly sources and historical records, but most of these historical records do not necessarily present historical facts in the way we think of facts. The early records of the Chinese masters were written by others to preserve and pass on the essence of a particular teacher, primarily the essence of his teaching. Biography was not an important concern and, as such, played a minor role in the records. In addition, biographical details were not always factual and were often tailored to fit a particular Zen master after he had passed away. What was important to the biographer was the essence of his subject and the subject’s teaching. It would be helpful for the reader to approach these teachers in the same way.

To tie this book together, I have intertwined Dharma reflections of my own, based on my years as a Zen student and a Zen teacher. The result, I hope, is a presentation of Zen insight vividly relevant for the twenty-first century, addressing both the needs of longtime Zen practitioners and those new to the way of Zen. Knowing that it is easier to digest and retain information that comes through storytelling, I have strived to present the history and teaching of each ancestor as a story and, in this way, to bring each of these seminal masters to life in such a way that their teachings can be heard afresh, with new ears.

For me, these great teachers are no longer generic Zen masters on a mountain top. Rather, they are now my friends, fellow travelers, and above all encouragers in the Dharma, whom I have grown not only to know and respect but also to love. It is my hope that readers of this book will come to see them in the same way.

In light of all this, I can say quite certainly that the Chinese Zen masters are alive and well and teaching today.


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