In traditional histories of Chinese Ch'an Buddhism.Shen-hsiu is accounted the founder and first patriarch of the short-lived (and somewhat heretical) Northern School of Ch'an. Recent critical studies of early Ch'an sources, however, have revealed a different picture of the man and his religious practices. As a youth, Shen-hsiu is reputed to have been a very bright and adept student, reading widely in the classics of Taoism andConfucianism as well as Buddhism. The uncertainty of the years leading up to the establishment of the T'ang dynasty impelled him into monastic life, and it is possible he was ordained a monk in the very year of the first T'ang emperor's accession, 618. After this, there is no record of any of his activities until his meeting with the fifth patriarch of the Ch'an school, Hung-jen (601–74), in the year 656. Even though the latter was only a few years Shen-hsiu's senior, Shen-hsiu took him for his master and studied with him for six years, reading the Laṇkāvatāra Sūtra, Hung-jen's favoured scripture, and finally attaining the master's seal of authentic enlightenment (inka). Upon receiving this recognition, he left the East Mountain (Chin., Tung Shan) community and withdrew into solitude. In contradiction to traditional accounts that depict Shen-hsiu vying unsuccessfully for recognition as the sixth patriarch in a poetry contest with Hui-neng (638–713), Shen-hsiu's departure can be dated to 661, some ten years before Hui-neng's arrival at East Mountain.
Very little information exists on the next fifteen years of his life. He comes back into view in the year 676, already over 70 years of age. He may have reverted to lay life during this fallow period, eventually returning to the monastic fold and enrolling in the Yü-ch'üan Temple in Hupei province. Wishing to practise in solitude, he built a hermitage about 1½ miles from the temple. Ten years later, he began taking in some students, but almost as soon as he began teaching, his reputation spread and many came to practise under his guidance. Interestingly, among those who studied with him was one Shen-hui (684–758), the man who would eventually denounce Shen-hsiu's path as ‘gradualist’ and advocate its abandonment in favour of the ‘subitist’ (or sudden enlightenment) position (see subitism) of the so-called ‘Southern School’. Shen-hsiu's fame eventually reached the imperial court, where the Empress Wu Tse-t'ien, who had usurped imperial authority and was ruling in her own name, had been using Buddhism and eminent Buddhist clergy to bolster her claims to legitimacy. He was invited to the court in Lo-yang in 700, when he was already well over 90, and when he arrived, the empress breached all protocol by prostrating to him. Both she and her successors honoured the master with titles such as National Teacher (Chin., kuo shih), and kept him at court despite his wish to return to his home temple. He finally died in 706, over 100 years old. He was buried with state honours, and he is one of only three Buddhist monks to receive a biographical notice in the official histories of the T'ang dynasty. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the unwanted eminence that was thrust upon him, envy and hostility grew against him in some quarters after his death. In 732, his former disciple, Shen-hui, denounced him for having sold out to court life and abandoned the true teachings of Ch'an, exchanging the practice of sudden enlightenment for a gradual practice. Because the rhetoric of ‘sudden enlightenment’ eventually became normative as a result of the Northern–Southern School controversy, the charges stuck, and Shen-hsiu's reputation faded over time.