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Chan – a uniquely Chinese Mahayana School

Character for Chan, calligrapher is Chen Hung Chang

Character for Chan, calligrapher is Chen Hung Chang

A Chinese word pronounced as Ch’an, is a form of Buddhist teaching founded by Bodhidharma, an Indian monk who arrived in China in the late 5th century CE. By the 7th century, Ch’an was the dominant method of meditation; Ch’an masters and their literature have inspired generations of practitioners to the present day.

Although Ch’an was founded by an Indian monk, Bodhidharma, it evolved into a uniquely Chinese School. Mahayana Buddhism has always spoken of the true Dharma as beyond words and Bodhidharma brought this ‘wordless transmission’ to China, given by a master to a disciple who is prepared to receive it. This was a method of teaching as well as the discipline of meditation. Ch’an teaching and practice then developed through successive Chinese patriarchs and the tireless work of Chinese interpreters and commentators on the many Mahayana sutras coming from India and Central Asia for three centuries before Ch’an came to China and afterward.

Buddha Nature – the original nature within onself

Bodhidharma, the first Patriarch of Ch'an

Bodhidharma who introduced Ch’an to China

The Ch’an that emerged was the collective thought of Buddhist monk scholars reflected through the mature cultural philosophy of China at that time. Chinese Ch’an concerns accessing the original (Buddha) nature that is a part of us. This original nature is the womb of all Buddhas that permeates all sentient beings. All beings are therefore Buddhas but it is delusion that obscures this and prevents us from realising our enlightenment.

Buddha Nature

His Platform Sutra emphasised the importance of accessing original nature

His Platform Sutra emphasised the importance of accessing original nature

The Ch’an that emerged was the collective thought of Buddhist monk scholars reflected through the mature cultural philosophy of China at that time.  Chinese Ch’an concerns accessing the original (Buddha) nature that is a part of us.  This original nature is the womb of all Buddhas that permeates all sentient beings.  All beings are therefore Buddhas but it is delusion that obscures this and prevents us from realising our enlightenment. 

Method of Accessing the Wordless Doctrine
Accepting that all beings were enlightened but could not realise it due to delusion, successive generations of enlightened Ch’an masters developed methods of bringing about a ‘sudden enlightenment’ from the adepts among their disciples to assure a master to disciple transmission.  This ‘sudden enlightenment’ was not complete enlightenment but an enlightening moment (the first of many) that would enable individuals to glimpse their way forward in their practice toward the unspoken Dharma. In time, this produced a rich literature of accounts of Ch’an masters, encounters with disciples and highly developed poetry.  Collections of kung-an led to a new method of teaching through these ‘encounter dialogues’ that in its turn spawned the use of hua-tou called Kan-hua Ch’an. These last two teaching methods were originally developed for lay practitioners and they were used to ‘raise the great doubt’ which led to an enlightening moment. 

What is Ch’an today?
Chinese Ch’an, from which Korean Sen and Japanese Zen subsequently evolved, is a teaching that allows individuals access to their original nature studying the Dharma, meditating and practicing the Dharma in daily life.   In particular the techniques of using kung-an or hua-tou in and out of meditation are frequently used.  Also, the Ch’an meditation method of Silent Illumination is used with or without hua-tou practice.  Ch’an literature from the Classic period with the cryptic dialogues between enlightened masters are used to begin the process of understanding an enlightened approach. 
This sort of study should be undertaken after mastering the basics of meditation and establishing a meditation routine.

To learn more about this important component of Ch’an, please visit our meditation pages.

Practice in Daily living

From the 8th century, Ch’an monks physically worked inside and outside the monasteries and this became a fundamental part of their practice, just as important as meditation. From this comes the Ch’an invocation for practitioners to ‘investigate this matter of ‘life and death’. Through hearing or reading the Dharma, a practitioner will meditate on this. Rising from the meditation seat, the question or theory arrived at in meditation is then investigated in daily life. Observations or queries from daily life then inform subsequent meditation. This method is ideally suited from lay practice in our time.

Meditation practice is not only sitting on the cushion but a habit in making awareness of moment to moment of our daily activities