Ding-hwa HSIEH

Although its emphasis on seated meditation is rooted in Indian Buddhism, Chan Buddhism is a genuinely Chinese product. The goal of Chan practice is to attain a sudden awakening of one’s inherent Buddha-nature. Chan texts are well known for their iconoclastic, nonconceptual style, characterized by a unique form of intuitive, spontaneous “encounter dialogues” between Chan Buddhists.

Chan is a Mahayana Buddhist school that developed in the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) and flourished in the Song dynasty (960–1279). It emerged as a reaction against the intellectual tendency to conceptualize Buddhism. The word chan is from an abbreviation of channa, which is in turn a Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit word dhyâna, meaning “meditation.” Aside from the Indian Buddhist emphasis on meditation, Chan also appropriates indigenous Daoist concepts such as naturalism, nondualism, and nonaction (wuwei).


Chan traces itself back to the historical Buddha (c. 566–486 BCE). According to the classical accounts of Chan lineage, during one of his sermons ′Sâkyamuni (the historical Buddha) made a wordless mind-to-mind transmission (ixin chuanxin) to his disciple Mahâkâ′syapa by saying nothing, but simply holding up a flower. The line of transmission was carried on through twenty-seven Indian patriarchs and eventually to Bodhidharma, who allegedly traveled to China around 520 CE and founded the Chan School. It is said that Bodhidharma meditated by facing the wall for nine years and that even his legs became withered.

Bodhidharma is acknowledged as the first patriarch of Chinese Chan Buddhism. From him the patriarchal lineage was transmitted to Huike (c. 485–574 CE), Sengzan (d. 606 CE), Daoxin (580–651 CE), and Hungren (601–674 CE). (These are not family names but “dharma names,” Buddhist names given to monks and nuns.) After Hungren the Chan lineage was split into two branches: the Northern School led by Shenxiu (605?–706 CE), who is said to have taught gradual enlightenment (jianwu), and the Southern School led by Huineng (638–713 CE), who taught sudden enlightenment (dunwu 頓悟). Shenxiu’s school eventually declined while the Southern School continued to grow. Huineng was later recognized as the legitimate sixth patriarch. His autobiography, sermons, and verbal exchanges with his disciples were included in the Platform Sûtra of the Sixth Patriarch (Liuzu Tanjing), dated around 780.

From Huineng the Chan lineage was expanded into the Five Houses and Seven Sects (wujia qizong). Among them the Linji School founded by Linji Yixuan (d. 866 CE) and the Caodong School by Caoshan Benji (840–901 CE) and Donshan Liangjia (807–869 CE) gained prominence in the Song dynasty. Both Linji and Caodong were introduced to Japan and Korea around the twelfth century and have continued to flourish there.

Doctrine and Practice

As a school of Mahayana Buddhism, Chan’s rationale for universal salvation is based on the doctrine of Tathâgatagarbha (rulai zang), embryo of the Buddha “Thus-come.” According to this doctrine, Buddha-nature as the absolute reality is the basis for human perfectibility. Every person is endowed with a Buddha-mind and can achieve enlightenment here and now. Enlightenment, as Chan claims, is to realize one’s innate Buddha-nature with sufficient faith.

The vision of Chan as a mind-to-mind transmission of the Buddha’s teaching is summarized in the following four-part slogan:

A special transmission outside the scriptural
teachings (jiaowai biechuan);

Not setting up the written words (buli wenzi).

Directly pointing to the human mind (zhizhi


Seeing one’s self-nature and achieving
Buddhahood (jianxing chengfo).

Although individual phrases appeared already in the Tang period, this conception of Chan’s self-identity did not emerge as a set formula until the early twelfth century and was attributed retrospectively to Bodhidharma.

The most common Chan practice is “sitting in meditation” (zuochan 坐禪). In addition, Chan adopts the gong’an as an object of mental absorption. Gong’an, in origin a secular term for “public or legal case,” is a brief record that contains the unique form of intuitive, spontaneous “encounter dialogues” (jiyuan wenda 機緣問答) between Chan Buddhists. Mazu Daoyi (709–788 CE), for example, is well known in Chan history for his use of shouting, beating, and paradoxical statements to lead his students toward the experience of sudden enlightenment.

Under the Linji master Yuanwu Keqin (1063–1135) and his disciple Dahui Zonggao (1089–1163), Chan gong’an was no longer a literary piece intended for reading but rather an object used for meditation. Dahui, in particular, played a significant role in systematizing Chan gong’an meditation into the so-called kanhua Chan (Chan of investigating the [critical] phrase). The gong’an that Dahui often taught was the one attributed to Zhaozhou Congshen (778–897 CE):

A monk asked Zhaozhou: “Does a dog have
Buddha-nature or not?”

The master said: “No (wu)!”

“No” is the huatou, “head of speech,” of this entire exchange. Dahui instructed students to simply meditate huatou and emphasized the peculiar role of doubt (yi) in kanhua Chan. He thus claimed, “A great doubt will definitely be followed by a great awakening.”

The Linji School was famous for its advocacy of gong’an meditation, while the Caodong School emphasized sitting in meditation, known as “Silent-illumination Chan” (mozhao chan). In practice, however, Chan masters would usually adopt both forms of meditation in teaching students in the monasteries.

Chan Buddhist Literature

A great number of Chan texts were written and compiled during the Song dynasty. The main characteristic of Chan literature is the unique form of “encounter dialogues.” There are altogether three distinctive Chan genres: (1) the “discourse records” (yulu) that focus on the words and deeds of a single Chan master; (2) the “lamp histories” (denglu) that chronologically list the biographical accounts of a series of Chan masters in various lineages of transmission; and (3) the gong’an anthologies, among which the Record of the Blue Cliff (Biyen lu) by Yuanwu Keqin and the Gateless Gate (Wumen guan) by Wumen Huikai (1183–1260) are perhaps the most well-known works.

Chan and Chinese Literati Culture

Chan Buddhism had a close connection with Chinese literati culture. The sudden/gradual polarity that characterized the development of Chan became a dominant theme in Chinese poetic criticism, painting theories, and intellectual discourse. Literary critics and poets frequently discussed poetry in terms of Chan’s notion of the relationship between practice and enlightenment. Theorists of painting liked to analyze artistic expression by analogy to the Northern and Southern schools. The Chan concept of lineage transmission was influential in Song neo-Confucians’ formation of the “Orthodox Succession of the Dao” (daotong), and the Chan doctrine of Buddha-nature also played a crucial role in the neo-Confucian advocacy of “Learning of the Mind” (xinxue).

Chan Today

In modern China notable monks such as Taixu (1890–1947) and Yinshun (1906–2005) studied Chan. Xuyun (1840–1959) was a renowned Linji master, and Shengyan (b. 1930) received the dharma (basic principles of cosmic or individual existence) transmission in both the Linji and Caodong lineages. Chan meditation is a common practice among Chinese Buddhists today. Since the 1960s Chan has also attracted a large number of people in the West. Known commonly in the West as “zen” for its Japanese pronunciation, Chan becomes a fashion of spiritual pursuit and a source of inspiration for artistic expression.

Further Reading

Shi Daoyuan. (1969). Original teachings of Ch’an Buddhism: Selected from The Transmission of the Lamp (C. Chang, Trans.). New York: Grove Press.

Dumoulin, H. (1992). Zen Buddhism in the 20th century (J. O’Leary, Trans.). New York: Weatherhill.

Dumoulin, H. (1994). Zen Buddhism: A history, India & China with a new supplement on the Northern School of Chinese Zen. New York: Macmillan.

Faure, B. (1991). The rhetoric of immediacy: A cultural critique of Chan/Zen Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Gregory, P. N. (Ed.). (1987). Sudden and gradual: Approaches to enlightenment in Chinese thought. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Heine, S. (2000). The koan: Texts and contexts in Zen Buddhism. New York: Oxford University Press.

McRae, J. R. (1987). The Northern School and the formation of early Ch’an Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Miura, I., & Sasaki, R. F. (1966). The Zen koan: Its history and use in Rinzai Zen. New York: Harvest Books.

Pittman, D. A. (2001). Toward a modern Chinese Buddhism: Taixu’s reforms. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Poceski, M. (2007). Ordinary mind as the way: The Hongzhou School and the growth of Chan Buddhism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Source: Hsieh, Ding-hwa. (2009). Buddhism, Chan. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 227–229. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Buddhism, Chan (Chánzōng Fójiào 禅宗佛教)|Chánzōng Fójiào 禅宗佛教 (Buddhism, Chan)

Download the PDF of this article