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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 Buswell and Lopez:

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.[3]

The Indian monk Bodhidharma was retrospectively named as the "first patriarch" and founder of the tradtion.[4]

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.”[5]

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).[5]

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.[6]

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:[7][8]

  • 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)."[8]

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.

Chan in Indonesia

In the 20th century, during the First Buddhist revival, missionaries were sent to Indonesia and Malaysia. Ashin Jinarakkhita, who played a central role in the revival of Indonesian Buddhism, received ordination as a Chan śrāmaṇera on July 29, 1953[web 1] and received the name Ti Zheng (Te Cheng) from bhikṣu Ben Qing.

Chan in the Western world

Chan has become especially popular in its Japanese form. Although it is difficult to trace when the West first became aware of Chan as a distinct form of Buddhism, the visit of Soyen Shaku, a Japanese Zen monk, to Chicago during the 1893 Parliament of the World's Religions is often pointed to as an event that enhanced its profile in the Western world. It was during the late 1950s and the early 1960s that the number of Westerners pursuing a serious interest in Zen, other than the descendants of Asian immigrants, reached a significant level.

Western Chan lineages

Covering over 480 acres of land and located in Talmage, California, the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas was founded by Hsuan Hua.

The first Chinese master to teach Westerners in North America was Hsuan Hua, who taught Chan and other traditions of Chinese Buddhism in San Francisco during the early 1960s. He went on to found the City Of Ten Thousand Buddhas, a monastery and retreat center located on a 237-acre (959,000 m²) property near Ukiah, California, founding the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association. Another Chinese Chan teacher with a Western following is Sheng-yen, a master trained in both the Caodong and Linji schools. He first visited the United States in 1978 under the sponsorship of the Buddhist Association of the United States, and subsequently founded the CMC Chan Meditation Center in Queens, New York and the Dharma Drum Retreat Center in Pine Bush, New York.[web 2]

Teaching and practice

Editor's note: this section needs attention. Needs edit for clarity Review-icon.png

Bodhisattva ideal

Chan is a form of Mahāyāna Buddhism, which emphasizes the ideal of the Bodhisattva. Karuṇā is the counterpart of prajna. Avalokiteśvara embodies the striving for Karuna, compassion.[9][note 1]

Sitting meditation

Sitting meditation is called zuòchán (坐禅), zazen in Japanese, both simply meaning "sitting dhyāna". During this sitting meditation, practitioners usually assume a position such as the lotus position, half-lotus, Burmese, or seiza postures. To regulate the mind, awareness is directed towards counting or watching the breath, or put in the energy center below the navel (see also anapanasati).[web 3] Often, a square or round cushion placed on a padded mat is used to sit on; in some other cases, a chair may be used.

At the beginning of the Song Dynasty, practice with the koan method became popular, whereas others practiced "silent illumination."[10] This became the source of some differences in practice between the Linji and Caodong traditions.

Koan practice

A koan (literally "public case") is a story or dialogue, generally related to Chan or other Buddhist history; the most typical form is an anecdote involving early Chinese Chan masters. These anecdotes involving famous Chan teachers are a practical demonstration of their wisdom, and can be used to test a student's progress in Chan practice. Koans often appear to be paradoxical or linguistically meaningless dialogues or questions. But to Chan Buddhists the koan is "the place and the time and the event where truth reveals itself"[11] unobstructed by the oppositions and differentiations of language. Answering a koan requires a student to let go of conceptual thinking and of the logical way we order the world, so that, like creativity in art, the appropriate insight and response arises naturally and spontaneously in the mind.

Monastic life in Chan

Chan developed a distinct monastic system.

Emphasizing ordinary activities

As the Chan school grew in China, the monastic discipline also became distinct, focusing on practice through all aspects of life. Temples began emphasizing labor and humility, expanding the training of Chan to include the mundane tasks of daily life. D.T. Suzuki wrote that aspects of this life are: a life of humility; a life of labor; a life of service; a life of prayer and gratitude; and a life of meditation.[12] The Chinese Chan master Baizhang (720–814 CE) left behind a famous saying which had been the guiding principle of his life, "A day without work is a day without food".[web 4]

Contrast with Buddhist practice in India

It was scholar D.T. Suzuki's contention that a spiritual awakening was always the goal of Chan's training, but that part of what distinguished the tradition as it developed through the centuries in China was a way of life radically different from that of Indian Buddhists. In Indian Buddhism, the tradition of the mendicant prevailed, but Suzuki explained that in China social circumstances led to the development of a temple and training-center system in which the abbot and the monks all performed mundane tasks. These included food gardening or farming, carpentry, architecture, housekeeping, administration (or community direction), and the practice of Traditional Chinese medicine. Consequently, the enlightenment sought in Chan had to stand up well to the demands and potential frustrations of everyday life.[13][14]

See also


  1. Lathouwers (2000) mentions: Blofeld, John (1988), Bodhisattva of Compassion - The Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin. Boston: Shambhala


  1. Harvey 2012, p. 217.
  2. Princeton Dict icon 166px.png Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. chan
  3. Princeton Dict icon 166px.png Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. chan
  4. Princeton Dict icon 166px.png Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. chan
  5. 5.0 5.1 Gethin 1998, p. 262.
  6. Harvey 2012, pp. 217-218.
  7. Gethin 1998, p. 263.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Harvey 2012, p. 222.
  9. Lathouwers 2000.
  10. Blyth 1966.
  11. Shimano 1991, p. 152.
  12. Suzuki 2004.
  13. Suzuki 1955, p. 155–156.
  14. Suzuki 1970.


Primary sources

Secondary sources


  1. Ven. Ditthisampanno, Buddhism in Indonesia, Past and Present Archived 2013-03-09 at the Wayback Machine.
  2. Dharma Drum Mountain. Who Is Master Sheng-yen.
  3. Sheng, Yen. "Fundamentals of Meditation". Archived from the original on 13 June 2010. 
  4. "Digital Dictionary of Buddhism". Retrieved 2008-03-26. , entry "Baizhang Huaihai"

Further reading

Modern classics

  • D.T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, 3 vols
  • Thomas Cleary, Zen Mind, Buddha Mind
  • J. C. Cleary, Swampland Flowers: The Letters and Lectures of Zen Master Ta Hui

Classic history

  • Dumoulin, Heinrich (2005), Zen Buddhism: A History. Volume 1: India and China. World Wisdom Books. ISBN 978-0-941532-89-1
  • Dumoulin, Heinrich (2005), Zen Buddhism: A History. Volume 2: Japan. World Wisdom Books. ISBN 978-0-941532-90-7

Critical Zen-studies

  • Jeffrey Broughton, Zongmi on Chan.
  • Sung Bae Park, Buddhist Faith and Sudden Enlightenment.

External links


Overview of Chan centers

Specific Chan centers



Critical Chan Research

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