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Some attribute the name "Cáodòng" as a union of "Dongshan" and "Caoshan" from one of his Dharma-heirs, Caoshan Benji; however, the "Cao" much more likely came from Cáoxī (曹溪), the "mountain-name" of Huineng, the Sixth Ancestor of Chan, as Caoshan was of little importance unlike his contemporary and fellow Dharma-heir, Yunju Daoying. The school emphasised sitting meditation, and later "silent illumination" techniques.
The Caodong school was founded by Dongshan Liangjie (807-869) and his Dharma-heir Caoshan Benji (840-901) (Ts'ao-shan Pen-chi, Jpn. Sōzan Honjaku). Dongshan traced back his lineage to Shitou Xiqian (700-790), a contemporary of Mazu Daoyi (709–788). Sayings to the effect that Shitou and Mazu were the two great masters of their day date from decades after their respective deaths. Shítóu's retrospective prominence owes much to the importance of Dongshan Liangjie. Shítóu does not appear to have been influential or famous during his lifetime:
He was a little-known teacher who led a reclusive life and had relatively few disciples. For decades after Shitou's death, his lineage remained an obscure provincial tradition.
In the 11th century the Caodong-school nearly extinguished. Dayang Jingxuan (942-1027), the last desecendant of the Caodong-lineage passed on his dharma-transmission via Fushan Fayuan, a teacher from the Linji school, to Fayuan's student Touzi Yiqing (1032-1083), who was born five years after Jingxuan's death.
During the Northern Song (960-1127) the Caodong was not successful in the social elite. The Linji school and Yunmen school dominated Chán. It was Touzi Yiqing's student Furong Daokai (1043-1118) who was a successful monastic, and revived the Caodong school.
His dharma "grandson" Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091-1157) became very successful among elite literati in the Southern Song (1127-1279), when the Imperial Court decreased their influence on society, and Chán schools became dependent on elite literati for support. This success drew opposition of Dahui Zonggao, who promoted the Hua Tou method of koan-study as an accessible means for Chán-practice, and attacked the silent illumination of Hongzhi.
In 1227 Dōgen Zenji, a former Tendai student, studied Caodong Buddhism under Tiantong Rujing, and returned to Japan to establish the Sōtō sect. Ironically, his lineage incorporates not only the dharma-transmission via Fushan Fayuan, but also Linji dharma-transmissions via Eisai and his student Myozen, a teacher of Dogen, and the Linji dharma-transmission of Dahui Zonggao via the Nōnin school.
via Shitou the Caodong traces back its origins to Huineng.
| Huineng (638-713)
(WG: Hui-neng. Jpn: Enō)
| Qingyuan Xingsi (660-740)
(WG: TCh'ing yüan Hsing-ssu. Jpn: Seigen Gyōshi)
| Shitou Xiqian (700-790)
(WG: Shih-t'ou Hsi-ch'ien. Jpn: Sekitō Kisen)
| Yaoshan Weiyan (ca.745-828)
(Yao-shan Wei-yen, Jpn. Yakusan Igen)
| Yunyan Tansheng (780-841)
(Yün-yen T'an-shen, Jpn. Ungan Donjō)
| Linji lineage|
|0|| Dongshan Liangjie (807-869)
Tung-shan liang-chieh, Jpn. Tōzan Ryōkai)
|1|| Caoshan Benji (840-901)
(Ts'ao-shan Pen-chi, Jpn. Sōzan Honjaku)
| Yunju Daoying (d.902)
(Yün-chü Tao-ying, Jpn. Ungo Dōyō)
|2||Tongan Daopi (Daopi)||Nanyuan Huiyong|
|3||Tongan Guanzhi (Tongan)||Fengxue Yanzhao|
|4||Liangshan Yuanguan||Shoushan Xingnian|
|5||Dayang Jingxuan (942-1027) (Dayang)||Shexian Guixing|
|Fushan Fayuan (Rinzai-master) )|
|6||Touzi Yiqing (1032-1083) (Touzi)|
|7||Furong Daokai (1043-1118) (Daokai)|
|8||Danxia Zichun (1064-1117) (Danxia)|
|9||Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091-1157)||Zhenxie Qingliao (Wukong)|
|10||Tiantong Zongjue (Zongjue)|
|11||Xuedou Zhijian (Zhijian)|
|12||Tiantong Rujing (Rujing)|
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- Ferguson, Andy (2011), Zen's Chinese Heritage. The Masters and their Teachings, Wisdom publications
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- SOTO ZEN ANCESTORS IN CHINA
- Matthew Gindin (2008), The Bright Field of Spirit: The Life and Teachings of Chan Master Hongzhi Zhengjue
- Taigen Dan Leighton, Sōtō Zen (Caodong)