Zen began to emerge as a distinctive school of Mahayana Buddhism when the Indian sage Bodhidharma (ca. 470-543) taught at the Shaolin Monastery of China. To this day Bodhidharma is called the First Patriarch of Zen.
Bodhidharma’s teachings tapped into some developments already in progress, such as the confluence of philosophical Taoism with Buddhism. Taoism so profoundly impacted early Zen that some philosophers and texts are claimed by both religions. The early Mahayana philosophies of Madhyamika (ca. 2nd century CE) and Yogacara (ca.3rd century CE) also played huge roles in the development of Zen.
Under the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng (638-713), Zen shed most of its vestigial Indian trappings, becoming more Chinese. Some consider Huineng, not Bodhidharma, to be the true father of Zen. His personality and influence are felt in Zen to this day.
Huineng’s tenure was at the beginning of what is still called the Golden Age of Zen. This Golden Age flourished during the same period as China’s Tang Dynasty, 618-907. The masters of this Golden Age still speak to us through koans and stories.
During these years Zen organized itself into five “houses,” or five schools. Two of these, called in Japanese the Rinzai and the Soto schools, still exist and remain distinctive from each other.
Zen was transmitted to Vietnam very early, possibly as early as the 7th century. A series of teachers transmitted Zen to Korea during the Golden Age. Eihei Dogen (1200-1253), was not the first Zen teacher in Japan, but he was the first to establish a lineage that lives to this day.