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The rise of Southern doctrine

Was Shenhui really the father of the new "meditationless" Chan of the mind? Some traditional scholars claim it was not really Shenhui who revolutionized Chan, but rather his master, the Southern teacher Huineng. For example, D. T. Suzuki believed that it was Huineng who correctly understood that prajna was intuition and who knew that it could be realized only through the "sudden" path rather than through the "step-by-step" path.

Although we have described in some detail the philosophical differences between the two schools, the Northern school's demise was most likely due not to the substance of its teachings but rather to its association with urban society undone by internal and external unrest.

In any case, the political triumph of Shenhui made Southern Chan the official sect, but it also meant that he, now one of the leading religious figures in China, had necessarily become a part of the ruling establishment. Little wonder that the actual future of Chan soon reverted back to rural teachers, men who could more convincingly claim to despise the ways of the world, as they meditated in their secluded mountain retreats far from imperial patronage.

A five-petalled flower blossomed

Huineng (and his disciple Shenhui) redefined the specific characteristics of the Chan goal and described in non-theological terms the mind state in which duality is banished. But he failed to go the next step and explain what was required. The answer to this question was to be worked out during the next phase of Chan, the so-called Golden Age of Zen, when a new school of Southern Chan exploded, (to use a common description) in the south and went on to take over all of Chan. These new teachers seem to have accepted Huineng as their patron—although the direct connection is not entirely clear—and they devised systematic ways to produce the state of "no-thought" that Huineng and Shenxiu apparently could only invoke.

Such was Huineng's genius that he was apparently able to transmit the Dharma to forty-three successors! After Huineng, "a five-petalled flower blossomed." Chan opened up like a flower with five petals and spread throughout the whole country, with five main schools. Over time Chan impregnated Chinese civilization, elevating its thinking, culture and art to sublime heights.

What united Zen was the figure of Huineng. The two most important Zen figures after the Sixth Ancestor, Mazu and Shitou, vigorously adopted a teaching style that expressed the "sudden" Zen outlook. We meet these masters in the next module.