53.   Development of Sects in Chinese Buddhism

  1. Development of Sects in Chinese Buddhism

53.1 Meaning of ‘tsung’

After the advent into the world, Shakyamuni Buddha preached in over 300 assemblies in 49 years after his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree at the age of 35. His sermons were later collected into the Tripitaka in Twelve Divisions subsequent to several councils in Buddhist history. His teaching is broad and precise covering all worldly matters and phenomena in the world, as well as in transcendental super-mundane worlds. No matter it is a mote of dust, or it is the entire universe, it is perfectly and completely explained in his teachings.

When Buddhism is transmitted to China, it is divided into many different sects. In Chinese, they call sect as ‘tsung’ ( 宗 ). It should be noted that ‘tsung’ bears a wider meaning than ‘sect’ or ‘school’ as translated. ‘Tsung’ consists of people in hierarchy who succeed their Dharma-descent to the common ‘tsu’, ( 祖) i.e. patriarch.


53.2 Reasons for the division of sects

The reasons for the division of sects are as follows:

  1. The text in Tripitaka is as huge as encyclopedia. If they are not edited and divided into different subjects, they cannot be studied systematically.
  2. Each doctrine is different from others. Sometimes, they may be contradictory. Despite to the fact that each doctrine has its own profound meaning, it may be meaningless if we try to combine the doctrines together.
  3. Human beings differ in background and disposition, their studies in Buddhism are diverse. Moreover, their roots, abilities and interests are also different. In order to deal with their problems individually, they must be treated separately with different ‘medicines’.
  4. Some Buddhist doctrines must be simplified and clear, so that they can be transmitted properly generation by generation.
  5. Our life and energy is limited. It is almost impossible to study all the Buddhist scriptures in one life, so it is better and easier to study in one single school in details. Actually, Buddhahood can be achieved through each sect or school, just like PhD degree can be obtained whichever subjects we study.
  6. The patriarchs have different experience in their cultivation towards enlightenment. It is inevitable that they have their own ways to teach their followers, transmit them onwards.

Having different sects does not mean splitting in Buddhism, as all Buddhist Dharma is based on the Tripitaka. Buddhahood is the ultimate goal to be achieved, no matter which way we choose to take. Sects are like departments in a company, which have to co-operate to achieve the common business objective. One sect should not look down upon the other, or exaggerate one’s own superiority over the other.