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Chan Buddhism

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Traditional Chan Buddhist Grand Master Wei Chueh in Taiwan, sitting in meditation.

Chan (J. Zen; K. Sŏn; V. Thiền 禪) is one of the major forms of East Asian Buddhism, which orginated in China around the fifth or sixth century, and was then transmitted from China into Korea (as Korean Seon), Japan (as Japanese Zen) and Vietnam (as Vietnamese Thiền). In the West, this form of Buddhism is most commonly known by the Japanese name of "Zen".

The Chinese name chan is derived from the Sanskrit dhyana, which is loosely translated a "meditation".

Chan emphasizes direct insight into the nature of reality. This insight is developed primarily through combining the practice of sitting meditation with a direct mind-to-mind transmission from master to disciple. While both philosophical study and good works are also emphasized in this school, these are considered of little use without the wisdom that comes from direct insight into true nature of reality. In this view, while philosophy and positive actions play in important role on the spiritual path, obstacles arise if the student becomes overly attached to these methods. For example, obstacles can arise for:

  • a scholar who becomes arrogant at their accumulation of knowledge
  • an ordinary person who performs good deeds, but does so with a selfish motivation

Thus, in Chan, insight into reality is given the highest importance.[1]

The Chan "community" developed in China from the 6th century CE onwards, becoming dominant during the Tang and Song dynasties.

Brief history


Prior to the formal establishment of the Chan form of Buddhism, the title chan-shi ("meditation master") was used to refer to a small group of monks who specialized in the meditation.[2] According to the Princeton Dictionary:

Some of these specialists adopted the term chan as the formal name of their community (Chan zong), perhaps sometime during the sixth or seventh centuries. These early “Chan” communities gathered around a number of charismatic teachers who were later considered to be “patriarchs” (zushi) of their tradition.[2]

The Indian monk Bodhidharma was retrospectively named as the "first patriarch" and founder of the tradtion.[2]

Bodhidharma is said to have traveled from India to China in the fifth or sixth century CE. According to Rupert Gethin, “it is likely that the roots of Ch’an lie further back in Chinese Buddhist history.”[3]

Philosophical basis

Rupert Gethin describes the philosophical basis of Chan as follows:

Bodhidharma is said to have emphasized the teachings of the Lankavatara Sutra, and the theoretical basis of Ch’an centres on the notions of the tathāgatagarbha and ‘emptiness’ as pointing beyond all conceptual forms of thought. Our innermost nature is simply the Buddha-nature (fo-hsing) which is to be realized in a direct and sudden experience of inner awakening (wu/satori).[3]

Peter Harvey states:

The philosophical background of Chan comes from various texts and streams of thought. One is the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, especially the Heart Sutra and Diamond-cutter Sutra and their idea of emptiness, two levels of truth, and paradoxical modes of expression. Another is the Lankavatara Sutra, a Yogacara text which also draws on ideas of the Tathgata-garbha. The Indian Yogcara school saw human experience as a projection out of the ‘storehouse consciousness’, due to the maturation of karmic seeds in it. The Lankavatara Sutra equated this kind of unconscious mind with the Tathgata-garbha... Another influence came from the above two texts on the ‘Buddha-nature’: the Treatise on the Buddha-nature and Treatise on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana. As the Dharma-kaya, the ‘One Mind’ of the latter text is seen in Chan as the ‘original enlightenment’ of all beings... Many of these ideas are also found in the Huayan school, with its ideas of the One Mind as the unifying principle from which everything is made... In many ways Huayan can be seen as the philosophical counterpart of Chan.[4]

Schools of Chan

Around the ninth century in China, there were five schools of Chan. But following a government suppression of Buddhism in 842, only two schools emerged:[5][6]

  • Linji (Lin Chi; Japanese Rinzai)
    • Founded by Linji (died 867).
    • Emphasized the use of gong-ans (koans), direct methods in teacher-student interviews, and 'sudden awakening'
  • Cao-dong (Ts’ao Tung; Japanese Soto)
    • Founded by Dongshan (Tung-shan; 807– 69) and Caoshan (Ts’ao-shan; 840– 901)
    • Emphasized a particular form of sitting meditation, and 'gradual awakening'

"While the Japanese forms of these two schools have remained separate, they merged in China during the Ming dynasty (1368– 1644)."[6]

Spread of Chan Buddhism in Asia

Thiền in Vietnam

According to traditional accounts of Vietnam, in 580 an Indian monk named Vinītaruci (Vietnamese: Tì-ni-đa-lưu-chi) travelled to Vietnam after completing his studies with Sengcan, the third patriarch of Chinese Chan. This, then, would be the first appearance of Thiền Buddhism. Other early Thiền schools included that of Wu Yantong (Chinese: 無言通; Vietnamese: Vô Ngôn Thông), which was associated with the teachings of Mazu Daoyi, and the Thảo Đường (Caodong), which incorporated nianfo chanting techniques; both were founded by Chinese monks.

Seon in Korea

Seon was gradually transmitted into Korea during the late Silla period (7th through 9th centuries) as Korean monks of predominantly Hwaeom (Hangul화엄종; Hanja華嚴宗) and East Asian Yogācāra (Hangul유식종; Hanja唯識宗) background began to travel to China to learn the newly developing tradition. Seon received its most significant impetus and consolidation from the Goryeo monk Jinul (知訥) (1158–1210), who established a reform movement and introduced kōan practice to Korea. Jinul established the Songgwangsa (松廣寺) as a new center of pure practice.

Zen in Japan

Zen was not introduced as a separate school in Japan until the 12th century when Eisai traveled to China and returned to establish a Linji lineage, which is known in Japan as the Rinzai. In 1215, Dōgen, a younger contemporary of Eisai's, journeyed to China himself, where he became a disciple of the Caodong master Rujing. After his return, Dōgen established the Sōtō school, the Japanese branch of Caodong.

The schools of Zen that currently exist in Japan are the Sōtō, Rinzai and Ōbaku. Of these, Sōtō is the largest and Ōbaku the smallest. Rinzai is itself divided into several subschools based on temple affiliation.

See also


  1. Harvey 2013, p. 217.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. chan.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Gethin 1998, p. 262.
  4. Harvey 2013, pp. 217-218.
  5. Gethin 1998, p. 263.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Harvey 2013, p. 222.


Further reading