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Chán (Mandarin) is a Chinese tradition of Mahāyāna Buddhism. The word Chán is derived from the Sanskrit word Dhyāna, which can be approximately translated as "meditation" or "meditative state.

Chán developed from the 6th century CE onwards becoming the dominant Buddhist school of China during the Tang and Song dynasties. After the Song, Chán more or less fused with the Pure land-school.

From China, Chán spread south to Vietnam and east to Korea (where it is known as Seon) and, in the 13th century, to Japan, where subsequent developments took place, and which became the best-known Chán/Zen-tradition in the west.

Ch'an is an abbreviation of the word Ch'an-na, it is the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit word Dhyana. Zen is the teachings and practices of which are directed toward self-realization and lead finally to the complete awakening (enlightenment). In Ch'an, which is often also called the School of Buddha-Mind, sudden enlightenment has played a central role. It stressed meditation over teaching as the shortest, and the steepest way to realizing the Buddha-mind inherent in all of us.

According to legend this special transmission began with the famous discourse of Buddha Shakyamuni on Vulture Peak Mountain (Gridhrakuta). At that time, the Buddha held up a flower before the assembly and the only person who understood the profound meaning of this gesture was Mahakasypa; he responded with a smile. Subsequently, the Buddha announced "Here is the Tathagata's Dharma-eye, profound Nirvanic mind, formless reality, profound and mystical Dharma, wordless doctrine, and the special transmission outside the orthodox teaching; now I transmit it to you Mahakasypa as my successor." Thus Mahakasypa became the First Patriarch of Ch'an in India.

It is said that the special transmission was passed down in an unbroken chain to the twenty-eighth Indian patriarch Bodhidharma, the founder of Ch'an in China. During the reign of the emperor of Liang Wu-ti in the sixth century A.D., Bodhidharma brought Dhyana Buddhism from India to China (Fig. 1, Shau-Lin Temple, the first Ch'an teaching was given here).

In the course of further transmission of the teaching, down to the 5th patriarch, two lines initially developed:


    The "northern school" of gradual enlightenment: The doctrine is originated by Shen-hsiu, the rival of Hui-neng. Shen-hsiu's teaching was more scholastic and aimed to the ruler level as audiences. This school survived for only a short time.

    The "southern school" of sudden enlightenment: The doctrine is stressed by Hui-neng (638-713) focusing more on the normal people's needs and feelings. It quickly becoming the dominant school.

Hui-neng developed out of the combination of the spiritual essence of Dhyana Buddhism and the teaching of other religions, such as Taoism and Confucianism, in order to suit the trend of merging society in mid-Tang dynasty. With sensitive and dynamic approaches to address the meaning of liberation, Ch'an school combining the

speculative with the practical, the metaphysical with the earthy. After that Hui-neng and his immediate successors began the great period of Ch'an, which produced a large number of great masters during Tang and Sung dynasties. Among these were extraordinary masters such as Ma-tsu Tao-I, Pai-chang Huai-hai, Te-shan Hsuan-Chien, Tung-shan Liang-chieh, Chao-shou Tung-shen, and Lin-chi I-hsuan. These masters shaped training methods to fit the needs of their followers' different backgrounds. The flexible teaching became the typical training technique of Ch'an school.

The lineage of the Southern school of Ch'an split into five houses and seven schools. They are differed in details of training style but not in essential content. The five houses and seven schools are

        The Wei-yang school, found by Ling-You(771-853) and Hwei-chi(807-883).

        The Lin-chi school, found by I-hsuan(?-867). It later branched off Hwan-long and Young-chi schools.

        The Tsau-Tong school, found by Wu-ban(807-869).

        The Win-mane school, found by Wen-Yian(864-949).

        The Far-yang school, found by Wen-I(885-958).


While Ch'an in China declined after the Sung dynasty and then, through admixture with the Pure Land school during the Ming dynasty, ceased to exist altogether as an authentic lineage of transmission of the Buddha-Mind.

History of Chán

The historical records required for a complete, accurate account of early Chán history no longer exist.

The history of Chán in China can be divided in several periods. Zen as we know it today is the result of a long history, with many changes and contingent factors. Each period had different types of Zen, some of which kept influential, while others vanished.

Ferguson distinguishes three periods from the fifth century into the thirteenth century:

    The Legendary period, from Bodhidharma in the late fifth century to the end An Lushan Rebellion around 765 CE, in the middle of the Tang Dynasty. Little written Information is left from this period. It's the time of the Six Patriarchs, including Bodhidharma and Huineng, and the legendary "split" between the Northern and the Southern School of Chán.
    The Classical period, from the end An Lushan Rebellion around 765 CE to the beginning of the Song Dynasty around 950 CE. This is the time of the great masters of Chán, such as Mazu Daoyi and Linji Yixuan, and the creation of the yü-lü genre, the recordings of the sayings and teachings of these great masters

    The Literary period, from around 950 to 1250, which spans the era of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). In this time the gongan-collections were compiled, collections of sayings and deeds by the famous masters, appended with poetry and commentary. This genre reflects the influence of literati on the development of Chán. This period idealized the previous period as the "golden age" of Chán, producing the literature in which the supposed spontaneouty of the celebrated masters was portrayed.

Although McRae has reservations about the division of Chán-history in phases or periods, he nevertheless distinguishes four phases in the history of Chán:


    Proto-Chán (ca. 500-600). In this phase, Chán developed in multiple locations in northern China. It was based on the practice of Dhyana, and is connected to the figures of Bodhiharma and Huike. Its principal text is the Two Entrances and Four Practices, attributed to Bodhidharma.

    Early Chán (ca. 600-900). In this phase Chán took its first clear contours. Prime figures are the fifth patriarch Daman Hongren (601–674), his Dharma-heir Yuquan Shenxiu (606?-706), the sixth patriarch Huineng (638–713), antagonist of the quintessential Platform Sutra, and Shenhui (670-762), whose propaganda elevated Huineng to the status of sixth patriarch. Prime factions are the Northern School, Southern School and Oxhead School.

    Middle Chán (ca. 750-1000). In this phase developed the well-known Chán of the iconoclastic Zen-masters. Prime figures are Mazu Daoyi (709–788), Shitou Xiqian (710-790), Linji Yixuan (d.867), and Xuefeng Yicun (822-908). Prime factions are the Hongzhou school and the Hubei faction An important text is the Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall (952), which gives a great amount of "encounter-stories", and the well-known genealogy of the Chán-school.

    Song-Dynasty Chán (ca. 950-1300). In this phase Chán took its definitive shape, including the picture of the "golden age" of the Chán of the Tang-Dynasty, and the use of koans for individual study and meditation. Prime figures are Dahui Zonggao (1089–1163), who introduced the Hua Tou practice, and Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091-1157), who emphasized Shikantaza. Prime factions are the Linji school and the Caodong school. The classic koan-collections, such as the Blue Cliff Record were assembled in this period, which reflect the influence of the "literati" on the development of Chán. In this phase Chán is transported to Japan, and exerts a great influence on Korean Seon via Jinul.

Both Ferguson and McRae don't give a periodisation for Chinese Chán after the Song-dynasty, though McRae menions "at least a postclassical phase or perhaps multiple phases".
Introduction of Buddhism in China
Sinification of Buddhism

When Buddhism came to China, it was adapted to the Chinese culture and understanding. Theories about the influence of other schools in the Evolution of Chán are widely variable and rely heavily on speculative correlation rather than on written records or histories. Some scholars have argued that Chán developed from the interaction between Mahāyāna Buddhism and Taoism, while others insist that Chán has roots in yogic practices, specifically Kammaṭṭhāna, the consideration of objects, and Kasiṇa, total fixation of the mind. A number of other conflicting theories exist.

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Buddhism was exposed to Confucianist and Taoist influences when it came to China. Goddard quotes D.T. Suzuki, calling Chán a "natural Evolution of Buddhism under Taoist conditions." Buddhism was first identified to be "a barbarian variant of Taoism":

    Judging from the reception by the Han of the Hinayana works and from the early commentaries, it appears that Buddhism was being perceived and digested through the medium of religious Daoism (Taoism). Buddha was seen as a foreign immortal who had achieved some form of Daoist nondeath. The BuddhistsMindfulness of the Breath was regarded as an extension of Daoist breathing exercises.

Taoist terminology was used to express Buddhist doctrines in the oldest translations of Buddhist texts, a practice termed "matching the concepts",while the emerging Chinese Buddhism had to compete with Taoism and Confucianism:

    Because Buddhism was a foreign influence, however, and everything "barbarian" was suspect, certain Chinese critics were jolted out of complacency by the spread of the Dharma [...] In the first four centuries of the Christian Era, this barbarian influence was infiltrating China just when it was least politically stable and more vulnerable to sedition. As the philosophy and practice infiltrated society, many traditionalists banded together to stop the foreign influence, not so much out of intolerance (an attitude flatly rejected by both Taoism and Confucianism), but because they felt that the Chinese world view was being turned upside down.

Not only Taoist terminology, but also neo-Taoist concepts were taken over in Chinese Buddhism. Concepts such as "T’i -yung" (Essence and Function) and "Li-shih" (Noumenon and Phenomenon) were first taken over by Hua-yen Buddhism,which consequently influenced Chán deeply. On the other hand, Taoists at first misunderstood Sunyata to be akin to the Taoist non-being.

Divisions of training

When Buddhism came to China, there were three divisions of training:


    The training in virtue and discipline in The Precepts (Skt. śīla),
    The training in mind through meditation (Skt. Dhyāna) to attain deep states of meditation (Skt. Samādhi), and
    The training in the recorded teachings (Skt. Dharma).

It was in this context that Buddhism entered into Chinese culture. Three types of teachers with expertise in each training practice developed:

    Vinaya masters specialized in all the rules of discipline for monks and nuns,
    Dhyāna masters specialized in the practice of meditation, and
    Dharma masters specialized in Mastery of the Buddhist texts.

Monasteries and practice centers were created that tended to focus on either the Vinaya and training of monks or the teachings focused on one scripture or a small group of texts. Dhyāna (Ch. Chán) masters tended to practice in solitary hermitages, or to be associated with Vinaya training monasteries or the Dharma teaching centers. The later naming of the Zen school has its origins in this view of the threefold division of training.

McRae goes so far as to say: important feature must not be overlooked: Chan was not nearly as separate from these other types of Buddhist activities as one might think [...] [T]he monasteries of which Chan monks became abbots were comprehensive institutions, "public monasteries" that supported various types of Buddhist activities other than Chan-style meditation. The reader should bear this point in mind: In contrast to the independent denominations of Soto and Rinzai that emerged (largely by government fiat) in seventeenth-century Japan, there was never any such thing as an institutionally separate Chan "school" at any time in Chinese Buddhist history (emphasis McRae).

Legendary or Proto-Chán
Kasyappa and The Flower Sermon


The Chán tradition ascribes the origins of Chán in India to the Flower Sermon, the earliest source for which comes from the 14th century. It is said that Gautama Buddha gathered his disciples one day for a Dharma talk. When they gathered together, The Buddha was completely silent and some speculated that perhaps The Buddha was tired or ill. The Buddha silently held up and twirled a flower and his eyes twinkled; several of his disciples tried to interpret what this meant, though none of them were correct. One of The Buddha's disciples, Mahākāśyapa, silently gazed at the flower and broke into a broad smile. The Buddha then acknowledged Mahākāśyapa's insight by saying the following:

    I possess the true Dharma eye, the marvelous mind of Nirvāṇa, the true form of the formless, the subtle Dharma gate that does not rest on words or letters but is a special transmission outside of the scriptures. This I entrust to Mahākāśyapa.

The first six patriarchs (ca. 500 – early 8th century)

Traditionally the origin of Chán in China is credited to the Indian Monk Bodhidharma. Only scarce historical Information is available about him, but his hagiography developed when the Chan tradition grew stronger and gained prominence in the early 8th century. By this time a lineage of the six ancestral founders of Chán in China was developed. In the late 8th century, under the influence of Huineng's student Shenhui, the traditional form of this lineage had been established:

    Bodhidharma (達摩) ca. 440 – ca. 528
    Huike (慧可) 487–593
    Sengcan (僧燦) ?–606
    Daoxin (道信) 580–651
    Hongren (弘忍) 601–674
    Huineng (慧能) 638–713

In later writings this lineage was extended to include 28 Indian patriarchs. In the Song of Enlightenment (證道歌 Zhèngdào gē) of Yongjia Xuanjue (永嘉玄覺, 665–713), one of the chief disciples of Huìnéng, it is written that Bodhidharma was the 28th patriarch in a line of descent from Mahākāśyapa, a disciple of Śākyamuni Buddha, and the first patriarch of Chán Buddhism.


    Mahākāśyapa was the first, leading the line of transmission;
    Twenty-eight Fathers followed him in the West;
    The Lamp was then brought over the sea to this country;
    And Bodhidharma became the First Father here:
    His mantle, as we all know, passed over six Fathers,
    And by them many minds came to see the Light.

In its beginnings in China, Chán primarily referred to the Mahāyāna sūtras and especially to the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra. As a result, early masters of the Chán tradition were referred to as "Laṅkāvatāra masters". As the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra teaches the Doctrine of the "One Vehicle" (Skt. Ekayāna), the early Chán school was sometimes referred to as the "One Vehicle School". In other early texts, the school that would later become known as Chán is sometimes even referred to as simply the "Laṅkāvatāra school" (Ch. 楞伽宗, Léngqié Zōng). Accounts recording the history of this early period are to be found in Records of the Laṅkāvatāra Masters (Ch. 楞伽師資記, Léngqié Shīzī Jì).

Bodhidharma with Huike. Painting by Sesshū Tōyō, 15th century.

The establishment of Chán in China is traditionally credited to the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, who is recorded as having come to China during the time of Southern and Northern Dynasties to teach a "special transmission outside scriptures" which "did not stand upon words".

Little contemporary biographical Information on Bodhidharma is extant, and subsequent accounts became layered with legend. There are three principal sources for Bodhidharma's biography: Yáng Xuànzhī's (Yang Hsüan-chih) The Record of the Buddhist Monasteries of Luoyang (547), Tánlín's preface to the Two Entrances and Four Acts (6th century CE), and Dàoxuān's (Tao-hsuan) Further Biographies of Eminent Monks (7th century CE).


These sources vary in their account of Bodhidharma being either "from Persia" (547 CE), "a Brahman Monk from South India" (645 CE), "the third son of a Brahman king of South India" (ca. 715 CE).Some traditions specifically describe Bodhidharma to be the third son of a Pallava king from Kanchipuram.

The short text Two Entrances and Four Acts, written by T'an-lín (曇林; 506–574), contains teachings which are attributed to Bodhidharma. The text is known from the Dunhuang-manuscripts. The two entrances (to Enlightenment) are the entrance of principle and the entrance of practice:

    The entrance of principle is to become enlightened to the Truth on the basis of the teaching. One must have a profound Faith in the fact that one and the same True Nature is possessed by all Sentient beings, both ordinary and enlightened, and that this True Nature is only covered up and made imperceptible [in the case of ordinary people) by false sense impressions".

    The entrance of practice includes the following four increments:

        Practice of the retribution of enmity: to accept all Suffering as the fruition of past transgressions, without enmity or complaint
        Practice of the acceptance of circumstances: to remain unmoved even by good fortune, recognizing it as evanescent
        Practice of the absence of Craving: to be without Craving, which is the source of all Suffering
        Practice of accordance with the Dharma: to eradicate wrong thoughts and practice the six perfections, without having any "practice".

This text was used and studied by Huike and his students. The True Nature refers to the Buddha-nature.


Bodhidharma settled in the kingdom of Wei. Shortly before his Death, Bodhidharma appointed a disciple named Huike to succeed him, making Huike the first Chinese-born ancestral founder and the second ancestral founder of Chán in China. Bodhidharma is said to have passed three items to Huike as a sign of transmission of the Dharma: a robe, a bowl, and a copy of the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra. The transmission then passed to the second ancestral founder Huike, the third Sengcan, the fourth ancestral founder Daoxin, and the fifth ancestral founder Hongren.
Early Chán - Tang dynasty (618–907)
East Mountain Teachings

The period of Daoxin (道信 580–651) and Hongren (弘忍 601–674) came to be called the East Mountain Teaching, due to the location of the residence of Hongren at Huamgmei. The term was used by Shenxiu, the most important successor to Hongren. The East Mountain community was a specialized meditation training centre. Hongren was a plain meditation teacher, who taught students of "various religious interests", including "practitioners of the Lotus Sutra, students of Madhyamaka philosophy, or specialists in the monastic regulations of Buddhist Vinaya". The establishment of a community in one location was a change from the wandering lives of Bodhiharma and Huike and their followers. It fitted better into the Chinese society, which highly valued community-oriented behaviour, instead of solitary practice.

Shenxiu (神秀 606?-706) was the most important successor to Hongren. In 701 he was invited to the Imperial Court by Empress Wu, who paid him due imperial reverence. The first lineage documents were produced in this period:

    ...the genealogical presentation of the Chan transmission was first recorded on paper in the early years of metropolitan Chan activity. The earliest recorded instance of this was in the epitaph for a certain Faru, a student of Hongren's who died in 689, and by the second decade of the 8th century, the later followers of Hongren had produced two separate texts describing the transmission from Bodhidharma to Shenxiu".

The transition from the East Mountain to the two capitals changed the character of Chan: was only when Hongren's successors moved into the environment of the two capitals, with its literate society and incomparably larger urban scale, that well-written texts were required for disseminating the teaching".


Shenhui and Huineng
Huineng tearing sutras

According to tradition, the sixth and last ancestral founder, Huineng (惠能; 638–713), was one of the giants of Chán history, and all surviving schools regard him as their ancestor.The dramatic story of Huineng's Life tells that there was a controversy over his claim to the title of patriarch. After being chosen by Hongren, the fifth ancestral founder, Huineng had to flee by night to Nanhua Temple in the south to avoid the wrath of Hongren's jealous senior disciples.

Modern scholarship, however, has questioned this narrative. Historic research reveals that this story was created around the middle of the 8th century, beginning in 731 by Shenhui, a successor to Huineng, to win influence at the Imperial Court. He claimed Huineng to be the successor of Hongren's, instead of the then publicly recognized successor Shenxiu. In 745 Shen-hui was invited to take up residence in the Ho-tse temple in Lo-yang. In 753 he fell out of grace, and had to leave the capital to go into exile. The most prominent of the successors of his lineage was Guifeng Zongmi. According to Tsung-mi, Shen-hui's approach was officially sanctioned in 796, when "an imperial commission determined that the Southern line of Ch'an represented the orthodox transmission and established Shen-hui as the seventh patriarch, placing an inscription to that effect in the shen-lung temple".

Doctrinally the Southern School is associated with the teaching that Enlightenment is sudden, while the Northern School is associated with the teaching that Enlightenment is gradual. This was a polemical exaggeration, since both schools were derived from the same tradition, and the so-called Southern School incorporated many teachings of the more influential Northern School. Eventually both schools died out, but the influence of Shenhui was so immense that all later Chan schools traced their origin to Huineng, and "sudden Enlightenment" became a standard Doctrine of Chan.

Shenhui's influence is traceable in the Platform Sutra, which gives a popular account of the story of Huineng, but also reconciles the antagonism created by Shenhui. Salient is that Shenhui himself does not figure in the Platform Sutra; he was effectively written out of Chán-history. The Paltform Sutra also reflects the growing popularity of the Diamond Sūtra (Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra) in 8th century Chinese Buddhism. Thereafter, the essential texts of the Chán school were often considered to be both the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra and the Diamond Sūtra.
Classical Chán - Tang dynasty (618–907)


Daoxin, Hongren, Shenxiu, Huineng and Shenhui all lived during the early Tang. The later period of the Tang Dynasty is traditionally regarded as the "golden age" of Chan. This proliferation is described in a famous saying:

    Look at the territory of the house of Tang —
    The whole of it is the realm of the Chán school.

An Lu-shan rebellion

The An Lu-shan Rebellion (755-763) led to a loss of control by the Tang dynasty, and changed the Chan scene again. Metropolitan Chan began to lose its status, while

    ...other schools were arising in outlying areas controlled by warlords. These are the forerunnersof the Chan we know today. Their origins are obscure; the Power of Shen-hui's preaching is shown by the fact that they all trace themselves to Hui-neng.

Hung-chou School

The most important of these schools is the Hongzhou school (洪州宗) of Mazu, to which also belong Shitou, Baizhang, Huangbo and Linji (Rinzai). Linji is also regarded as the founder of one of the Five Houses.

This school developed "shock techniques such as shouting, beating, and using irrational retorts to startle their students into realization" Some of these are common today, while others are found mostly in anecdotes. It is common in many Chán traditions today for Chán teachers to have a stick with them during formal ceremonies which is a Symbol of authority and which can be also used to strike on the table during a talk.


These shock techniques became part of the traditional and still popular image of Chan masters displaying irrational and strange behaviour to aid their students. Part of this image was due to later misinterpretations and translation errors, such as the loud belly shout known as Katsu. In Chinese "Katsu" means "to shout", which has traditionally been translated as "yelled 'Katsu'" - which should mean "yelled a yell"

A well-known story depicts Mazu practicing Dhyana, but being rebunked by his teacher Nanyue Huairang, comparing seated meditation with polishing a tile. According to Faure, the Criticism is not about Dhyana as such, but "the idea of "becoming a Buddha" by means of any practice, lowered to the standig of a "means" to achieve an "end"". The Criticism of seated Dhyana reflects a change in the role and position of monks in Tang society, who "undertook only pious works, reciting sacred texts and remaining seated in Dhyana".Nevertheless, seated Dhyana remained an important part of the Chán-tradition, also due to the influence of Guifeng Zongmi, who tried to Balance Dhyana and insight.

The Hung-chou school has been criticised for its radical Subitism. According to Guifeng Zongmi (圭峰 宗密) (780–841), an influential teacher-scholar and patriarch of both the Chán and the Huayan school the Hongzhou school teaching led to a radical nondualism that denies the need for spiritual cultivation and moral discipline. While Zongmi acknowledged that the essence of Buddha-nature and its functioning in the day-to-day reality are but difference aspects of the same reality, he insisted that there is a difference.
Shitou Xiqian

Traditionally Shítóu Xīqiān (Ch. 石頭希遷, ca.700 - ca.790) is seen as the other great figure of this period. In the Chán lineages he is regarded as the predecessor of the Caodong (Soto) school. He is also regarded as the author of the Sandokai, a poem which formed the basis for the Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi of Dongshan Liangjie (Jp. Tōzan Ryōkan) and the teaching of the Five Ranks
The Great Persecution

During 845-846 Emperor Wu-tsung persecuted the Buddhist schools in China:

    It was a desperate attempt on the part of the hard-pressed central government, which had been in disarray since the An Lu-shan rebellion of 756, to gain some measure of political, economic, and military relief by preying on the Buddhist temples with their immense wealth and extensive lands.


This persecution was devastating for metropolitan Chan, but the Chan school of Ma-tsu and his likes survived, and took a leading role in the Chan of the later Tang.
Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (907–960/979)

After the fall of the Tang Dynasty, China was without effective central control during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period. China was divided into several autonomous regions. Support for Buddhism was limited to a few areas. The Hua-yen and T'ient-tai schools suffered from the changing circumstances, since they had depended on imperial support. The collapse of T'ang society also deprived the aristocratic classes of wealth and influence, which meant a further drawback for Buddhism. Shenxiu's Northern School and Henshui's Southern School didn't survive the changing circumstances. Nevertheless, chán emerged as the dominant stream within Chinese Buddhism, but with various schools developing various emphasises in their teachings, due to the regional orientation of the period. The Fayan school, named after Fa-yen Wen-i (885-958) became the dominant school in the southern kingdoms of Nan-T'ang (Jiangxi, Chiang-hsi) and Wuyue (Che-chiang).
Literary Chán - Song dynasty (960–1297)

The Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period was followed by the Song Dynasty, which established a strong central government. During the Song Dynasty, Chán () was used by the government to strengthen its control over the country, and Chán grew to become the largest sect in Chinese Buddhism. An ideal picture of the Chán of the Tang period was produced, which served the legacy of this newly acquired status:

    In the Song dynasty (960-1279), Chinese Chan Buddhism reached something of a climax paradigm. By "climax paradigm", I mean a conceptual configuration by which Chan was described in written texts, practiced by its adherents, and by extension understood as a religious entity by the Chinese population as a whole [...] Previous events in Chan were interpreted through the lens of the Song dynasty configuration, and subsequent developments in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam were evaluated, even as they occurred, against what was known of the standards established during the Song. Thus the romanticized image of the great Tang dynasty masters - Mazu and his students, Caoshan, Dongshan, and their students, and of course Linji - was generated by Song dynasty authors and functioned within Song dynasty texts. Similarly, even where subsequent figures throughout East Asia - Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1769), the famous reviver of Japanese Rinzai, is the best example - evoke the examples of Bodhidharma, the Sixth Patriarch Huineng, Mazu, and the others, they do so through the conceptual filter of Song-dynasty Chan.

The Five Houses of Chán


During the Song the Five Houses (Ch. 五家) of Chán, or five "schools", were recognized. These were not originally regarded as "schools" or "sects", but based on the various Chán-genealogies. Hhistorically they have come to be understood as "schools".

The Five Houses of Chán are:

    Guiyang school (潙仰宗), named after masters Guishan Lingyou (771–854) and Yangshan Huiji (813–890), Dharma-descendants of Mazu Daoyi;
    Linji school (臨濟宗), named after master Linji Yixuan (died 866), who's lineage came to be traced back to Mazu, establishing him as the archetypal iconoclastic Chán-master;
    Caodong school (曹洞宗), named after masters Dongshan Liangjie (807–869) and Caoshan Benji (840–901);
    Yunmen school (雲門宗), named after master Yunmen Wenyan (died 949), a student of Xuefeng Yicun (822-908), whose lineage was traced back to Shitou Xiqian:
    Fayan school (法眼宗), named after master Fayan Wenyi (885–958), a "grand-student" of Xuefeng Yicun.

Rise of the Linji-school
Main article: Linji school

The Linji-school became the dominant school within Chán, due to support from literati and the court. Before the Song Dynasty, the Linji-school is rather obscure, and very little is known about its early history. The first mention of Linji is in the Zutang ji, compiled in 952, 86 years after Linji's Death. But the Zutang ji pictures the Xuefeng Yicun lineage as heir to the legacy of Mazu and the Hongzhou-school.

According to Welter, the real founder of the Linji-school was Shoushan (or Baoying) Shengnian (首山省念)(926-993), a fourth generation Dharma-heir of Linji. The Tiansheng Guangdeng lu (天聖廣燈錄), "Tiansheng Era Expanded Lamp Record", compiled by the official Li Zunxu (李遵勗)(988-1038) confirms the status of Shoushan Shengnian, but also pictures Linji as a major Chan patriarch and heir to the Mazu, displacing the prominence of the Fayan-lineage. It also established the slogan of "a special transmission outside the teaching", supporting the Linji-school claim of "Chan as separate from and superior to all other Buddhist teachings".
Dahui Zonggao


Over the course of Song Dynasty (960–1279), the Guiyang, Fayan, and Yunmen schools were gradually absorbed into the Linji. Song Chán was dominated by the Linji school of Dahui Zonggao, which in turn became strongly affiliated to the Imperial Court:

    ...the Ta-hui school of Sung Chán had become closely associated with the Sung court, high officials, and the literati [...] With the establishment of the Wu-shan (Gozan) system during the Southern Sung the school of Ta-hui took precedence. The Chinese bureaucratic system entered into Chán temples throughout the country, and a highly organized system of temple rank and administration developed.

The Gozan system was a system of state-controlled temples, which were established by the Song government in all provinces.

The teaching styles and words of the classical masters were recorded in the so-called "encounter dialogues". Snippets of these encounter dialogues were collected in texts as the Blue Cliff Record (1125) of Yuanwu, The Gateless Gate (1228) of Wumen, both of the Linji lineage, and the Book of Equanimity (1223) of Wansong, of the Caodong lineage.

These texts became classic gōng'àn cases, together with verse and prose commentaries, which crystallized into the systematized gōng'àn (koan) practice. According to Miura and Sasaki, "[I]t was during the lifetime of Yüan-wu's successor, Dahui Zonggao (大慧宗杲; 1089–1163) that Koan Chán entered its determinative stage." Gōng'àn practice was prevalent in the Linji school, to which Yuanwu and Dahui belonged, but it was also employed on a more limited basis by the Caodong school.

The recorded encounter dialogues, and the koan collections which derived from this genre, mark a shift from solitary practice to interaction between master and student:

    The essence of Enlightenment came to be identified with the interaction between masters and students. Whatever insight Dhyana might bring, its verification was always interpersonal. In effect, Enlightenment came to be understood not so much as an insight, but as a way of acting in the world with other people

This mutual enquiry of the meaning of the encounters of masters and students of the past gave students a role model:


    One looked at the enlightened activities of one's lineal forebears in order to understand one's own identity [...] taking the role of the participants and engaging in their dialogues instead Koan practice was a literary practice, styling snippets of encounter-dialogue into well-edited stories. It arose in interaction with "educated literati".

There were dangers involved in such a literary approach, such as fixing specific meanings to the cases. Dahui Zonggao is even said to have burned the woodblocks of the Blue Cliff Record, for the hindrance it had become to study of Chán by his students
Silent illumination

The Caodong was the other school to survive into the Song period. Its main protagonist was Hung-chih Cheng-chueh, a contemporary of Dahui Zonggao. It put emphasis on "silent illumination", or "just sitting". This approach was attacked by Dahui as being mere passivity, and lacking emphasis on gaining insight into one's true nature. Cheng-chueh in his turn criticized the emphasis on koan study.
Post-classical Chán
Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368)

The Yuan Dynasty was the empire established by Kublai Khan, the leader of the Mongolian Borjigin clan, after Mongol conquered the Jin and the Southern Song Dynasty in China. Chán-teachings started to be mixed with Pure land teachings, as in the teachings of Zhongfeng Mingben (1263-1323).
Ming dynasty (1368-1644)

Chán Buddhism enjoyed something of a revival in the Ming Dynasty with teachers such as Hanshan Deqing (憨山德清), who wrote and taught extensively on both Chán and Pure Land Buddhism; Miyun Yuanwu (密雲圓悟), who came to be seen posthumously as the first patriarch of the Ōbaku Zen school; as well as Yunqi Zhuhong (雲棲祩宏) and Ouyi Zhixu (蕅益智旭).

Chán was taught alongside Pure Land Buddhism in many Chinese Buddhist monasteries. In time much of the distinction between them was lost, and many masters taught both Chán and Pure land.


With the downfall of the Ming Dynasty several Chinese Chán-masters fled to Japan, founding the Ōbaku school.
Qing Dynasty (1644-1912)

The Qing Dynasty, also Empire of the Great Qing or Great Qing, was the last imperial dynasty of China.

In the beginning of the Qing Dunasty Chán was "reinvented", by the "revival of beating and shouting practices" by Miyun Yuanwu (1566–1642), and the publication of the Wudeng yantong ("The strict transmission of the five Chan schools") by Feiyin Tongrong’s (1593–1662), a Dharma heir of Miyun Yuanwu. The book placed self-proclaimed Chan monks without proper Dharma transmission in the category of "lineage unknown" (sifa weixiang), thereby excluding several prominent Caodong-monks.
Modern times (after 1912)
Traditional Chán Buddhist Grand Master Wei Chueh in Taiwan, sitting in meditation.

After further centuries of decline during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), Chán was revived again in the early 20th century by Hsu Yun (虛雲), a well-known figure of 20th century Chinese Buddhism. Many Chán teachers today trace their lineage back to Hsu Yun, including Sheng-yen (聖嚴) and Hsuan Hua (宣化), who have propagated Chán in the West where it has grown steadily through the 20th and 21st century.

Chán was repressed in China during the recent modern era in the early periods of the People's Republic, but has more recently been re-asserting itself on the mainland, and has a significant following in Taiwan and Hong Kong as well as among Overseas Chinese.
Spread of Chán Buddhism in Asia

Thiền in Vietnam


According to traditional accounts of Vietnam, in 580 an Indian Monk named Vinitaruci (Vietnamese: Tì-ni-đa-lưu-chi) travelled to Vietnam after completing his studies with Sengcan, the third patriarch of Chinese Chán. This, then, would be the first appearance of Vietnamese Thiền Buddhism. Other early Vietnamese Chán schools included the Vô Ngôn Thông, which was associated with the teaching of Mazu, and the Thảo Đường, which incorporated nianfo Chanting techniques; both were founded by Chinese monks.
Seon in Korea
See also: Korean Seon and Buddhism in Korea

Seon was gradually transmitted into Korea during the late Silla period (7th through 9th centuries) as Korean monks of predominantly Hwaeom (華嚴) and Consciousness-only (唯識) 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 koan 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 until the 12th century, when Myōan Eisai traveled to China and returned to establish a Linji lineage, which is known in Japan as Rinzai. In 1215, Dōgen, a younger contemporary of Eisai's, journeyed to China himself, where he became a disciple of the Caodong master Tiantong 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 (曹洞), Rinzai (臨済), and Ōbaku (黃檗). Of these, Sōtō is the largest and Ōbaku the smallest. Rinzai is itself divided into several subschools based on temple affiliation, including Myoshin-ji, Nanzen-ji, Tenryū-ji, Daitoku-ji, and Tofuku-ji.
Doctrinal background

Though Zen-narrative states that it is a "special transmission outside scriptures" which "did not stand upon words", Zen does have a rich doctrinal background.

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Classical Chinese Chán is characterised by a set of polarities: absolute-relative, Buddha-nature - Sunyata, sudden and gradual Enlightenment, esoteric and exoteric transmission.

The Prajnaparamita-sutras and Madhyamaka emphasized the non-duality of form and Emptiness: "form is Emptiness, Emptiness is form", as The Heart Sutra says. This was understood to mean that ultimate reality is not a transcendental realm, but equal to the daily world of relative reality. This idea fitted into the Chinese culture, which emphasized the mundane world and society. But this does not tell how the absolute is present in the relative world. This question is answered in such schemata as the Five Ranks of Tozan, the Oxherding Pictures, and Hakuin's Four ways of knowing.

The Madhyamaka-scheme of the Two Truths Doctrine, and the Yogacara-schemes of the Three Natures and the Trikaya-Doctrine, also give depictions of the interplay between the absolute and the relative.
Buddha-nature and Sunyata

When Buddhism was introduced in China it was understood in terms of its own culture. Various sects struggled to attain an understanding of the Indian texts. The Tathāgatagarbha Sutras and the idea of the Buddha-nature were endorsed, because of the perceived similarities with the Tao, which was understood as a transcendental reality underlying the world of appearances. Sunyata at first was understood as pointing to the Taoist "wu", nothingness.

The Doctrine of the Buddha-nature asserts that all Sentient beings have Buddha-nature (Skt. Buddhadhātu, "Buddha Element", "Buddha-Principle"), the element from which awakening springs. The Tathāgatagarbha Sutras (literally: the womb of the thus-gone) state that every living being has the potential to realize awakening. Hence Buddhism offers salvation to every-one, not only to monks or those who have freed themselves almost completely from Karma in previous lives.The Yogacara theory of the Eight Consciousnesses explains how sensory input and the mind create the world we experience, and obscure the Alaya-vijnana, which is equated to the Buddha-nature.


When this potential is realized, and the defilements have been eliminated, the Tathagatagarbha manifests as the Dharmakaya, the absolute reality which pervades everything in the world. In this way, it is also the primordial reality from which phenomenal reality springs. When this understanding is idealized, it becomes a transcendental reality beneath the world of appearances.

Sunyata points to the "Emptiness" or no-"thing"-ness of all "things". Though we perceive a world of concrete and discrete objects, designated by names, on close analysis the "thingness" dissolves, leaving them "empty" of inherent existence. The Heart Sutra, a text from the prajnaparamita-sutras, articulates this in the following saying in which the Five Skandhas are said to be "empty":

The Yogacara explains this "Emptiness" in an analysis of the way we perceive "things". Everything we conceive of is the result of the working of the Five Skandhas—results of Perception, feeling, volition, and discrimination.] The Five Skandhas together compose consciousness. The "things" we are conscious of are "mere concepts", not Ding an sich.

It took Chinese Buddhism several centuries to recognize that Sunyata does not refer to "wu", nothingness, nor does Buddhism postulate an undying soul. The influence of those various doctrinal and textual backgrounds is still discernible in Zen. Zen teachers still refer to Buddha-nature, but the Zen tradition also emphasizes that Buddha-nature is Sunyata, the absence of an independent and substantial self.
Sudden and gradual Enlightenment
Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva sitting in meditation

In Zen Buddhism two main views on the way to Enlightenment are discernible, namely sudden and gradual Enlightenment.

Early Chán recognized the "transcendence of the Body and mind", followed by "non-defilement [of] Knowledge and Perception", meaning sudden insight into the true nature followed by gradual purification of intentions.


In the 8th-century the Ch'an-history was effectively re-fashioned by Shenhui, who created a dichotomy between the so-called "Northern School", led by Yuquan Shenxiu, and his own line of teaching, which he called the "Southern school". Shenhui placed Hui-neng into prominence as the sixth Chán-patriarch, and emphasized sudden Enlightenment, as opposed to the concurrent Northern School's alleged gradual Enlightenment. According to the sudden Enlightenment propagated by Shenhui insight into true nature is sudden; there-after there can be no misunderstanding anymore about this true nature.

In the Platform Sutra the dichotomy between sudden and gradual is reconciled. Guifeng Zongmi, fifth-generation successor to Shenhui, also softened the edge between sudden and gradual. In his analysis, sudden awakening points to seeing into one's true nature, but is to be followed by a gradual cultivation to attain Buddhahood.

This gradual cultivation is also recognized by Tozan, who described the Five ranks of Enlightenment.
Esoteric and exoteric transmission

According to Borup the emphasis on 'mind to mind transmission' is a form of esoteric transmission, in which "the tradition and the enlightened mind is transmitted face to face". Metaphorically this can be described as the transmission from a flame from one candle to another candle,, or the transmission from one vein to another. In exoteric transmission requires "direct access to the teaching through a personal discovery of one's self. This type of transmission and identification is symbolized by the discovery of a shining lantern, or a mirror.
Chán scriptureMain article: Zen and Sutras

Chán is deeply rooted in the teachings and doctrines of Mahāyāna Buddhism. What the Chán tradition emphasizes is that Enlightenment of The Buddha came not through intellectual reasoning, but rather through self-realization in Dharma practice and meditation. Therefore, it is held that it is primarily through Dharma practice and meditation that others may attain Enlightenment and become Buddhas as well.

A review of the early historical documents and literature of early Chán masters clearly reveals that they were all well versed in numerous Mahāyāna Buddhist sūtras. For example, in the Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng cites and explains the Diamond Sūtra, the Lotus Sūtra (Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra), the Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra, the Śūraṅgama Sūtra, and the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra.

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The Chán school had to develop a doctrinal tradition of its own to establish its position. Subsequently, the Chán tradition produced a rich corpus of written literature which has become a part of its practice and teaching. Among the earliest and most widely studied of the specifically Chán texts, dating back to at least the 9th century CE, is the Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch, attributed to Huineng. The most important Chán texts belong to the "encounter dialogue" genre, which developed into various collections of kōans.
Teaching and practice
The Bodhisattva ideal

As a school of Mahāyāna Buddhism, Chán draws many of its basic driving concepts from that tradition, such as the Bodhisattva ideal. Karuṇā is the counterpart of Prajna. Avalokiteśvara embodies the striving for Karuna, Compassion.

Central to Chán practice is Dhyana or meditation. In the Lin-ji (Rinzai) school this is supplemented with koan study.
Chán meditation

In meditation practice, the Chán tradition holds that the very notions of Doctrine and teachings create various other notions and appearances (Skt. saṃjñā; Ch. , xiāng) that obscure the transcendent Wisdom of each being's Buddha-nature. The process of rediscovery goes under various terms such as "introspection", "a backward step", "turning-about" or "turning the eye inward".
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). 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.

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At the beginning of the Song Dynasty, practice with the koan method became popular, whereas others practiced "silent illumination." This became the source of some differences in practice between the Linji and Caodong traditions.
Koan practice
Main article: Koan
A koan (literally "public case") is a story or dialogue, generally related to Chán or other Buddhist history; the most typical form is an anecdote involving early Chinese Chán masters. These anecdotes involving famous Chán teachers are a practical demonstration of their Wisdom, and can be used to test a student's progress in Chán practice. Koans often appear to be paradoxical or linguistically meaningless dialogues or questions. But to Chán Buddhists the koan is "the place and the time and the event where truth reveals itself" 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.
Chán monasticism

Chán developed a distinct monastic system.
Emphasizing daily Life

As the Chán 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 Chán 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. The Chinese Chán 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".
Sinification of Buddhism in China

It was scholar D.T. Suzuki's contention that a spiritual awakening was always the goal of Chán'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 Chán had to stand up well to the demands and potential frustrations of everyday Life.Template:Sfn=Suzuki
Chán in the Western world
See also: Buddhism in the West and Japanese Zen#Zen in the Western world

Chán has become especially popular in its Japanese form. Although it is difficult to trace when the West first became aware of Chán/Zen as a distinct form of Buddhism, the visit of Soyen Shaku, a Japanese Zen Monk, to Chicago during the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 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 Chán lineages
See also: Western Zen 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 Chán 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. Another Chinese Chán 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 Chán Meditation Center in Queens, New York and the Dharma Drum Retreat Center in Pine Bush, New York. The Fo Guang Shan organization, which has branches worldwide, also belongs to the Chán school; its founder, the Venerable Master Hsing Yun is a lineage holder in the Linji (Rinzai) tradition.