What is Chan?
A Brief History of Chan
After the death of the historic Buddha many schools of Buddhism arose, and over time declined. Today there exist two major branches of Buddhism; Theravada, (from the Pali meaning “The School of Elders”) and Mahayana (from the Sanskrit meaning “The Great Vehicle”). Chan belongs to the Mahayana branch of Buddhism.
Tradition has it that Chan was brought to China from the West, or India, in the fifth century CE by a monk named Bodhidharma. He is considered the first Patriarch of Chan. The teaching he brought emphasized Dhyana, which roughly translates to meditation in English. The word Chan is the Chinese rendition of the Sanskrit word Dhyana.
Over the next several hundred years the robe and bowl of the Patriarch of Chan was passed to 5 masters; Huike, Sengcan, Daoxin, Hongren and Huineng. During this time the practices brought from India were adapted to the Chinese culture. Monasteries were constructed, and Chan became more and more prevalent in Chinese culture.
With the death of Huineng the robe and bowl of the Patriarchs were not passed down and over time Chan split into The Five Houses of Chan. Each was named after their founder, and at the time were not considered separate sects, but more indications of lineage. Yet over time each developed in their own way, and in modern times these houses have come to be refered to as ‘schools”. These were the Guiyang school, the Linji school, the Caodong school, the Fayan school and the Yumen school. Of these “schools” only the Linji and Caodong are still in existence. The Fayan, Yumen and Guiyang schools, over time, were absorbed into the Linji school, which became the dominant school in China.
Over the centuries Chan saw periods of preeminence and persecution. With the relative peace and prosperity of the Song dynasty (c.960-1300), Chan became the largest sect of Chinese Buddhism. This is often referred to as the golden age of Chan. It was during this time that many classic Chan texts such as the Blue Cliff Record and the Gateless Gate, to name just two, were compiled. It was also during this time that unique meditative practices, such as silent illumination and gong’an, were perfected, developed and codified.
From China Chan spread to Vietnam as Thien, to Korea as Seon and to Japan as Zen. In Japan the two remaining schools Linji and Caodong are called Rinzai and Soto respectively. With its emphasis on meditation and simple, practical day to day practice, Chan has had a history of adapting as it has moved from culture to culture, without loosing its distinct and recognizable core teachings.
In modern times this process continues in Europe and North America. Through the wisdom and teaching of Eastern masters, such as our founder Master Sheng Yen, Buddha-dharma has sunk roots in the west and it is growing. Through the guidance of Master Sheng Yen’s Western and Eastern Dharma Heirs, and our own practice of Chan, our hope is to help tend this relatively new shoot of Buddhism as it develops in the West.
Chan is the school of Chinese Buddhism popularly known as “Zen” in Japanese. It is also a term that refers to a way of living or experiencing the world. But ultimately, Chan means direct awakening to interconnectedness and impermanence, and the consequent arising of Buddhist wisdom and compassion. This awakening experience is inexpressible in words; it is inaccessible to the dualism of language and concepts. It is a state of awareness free of self-reference.
For this reason there is a saying: “Chan is not established on words and language;” yet Chan freely uses words and language to benefit the world. The teaching starts with knowing one’s self, but the process of practice leads to a discovery of our interconnectedness with others. Direct personal experience of Chan brings about the actualization of wisdom and compassion, which leads to peace and understanding in the world.
Specifically, the Chan teaching encompasses four key elements: faith, understanding, practice, and awakening. Faith is confidence in oneself and the path. Understanding refers to the insights gained on the path. Practice transforms our negative habits and distorted views. Awakening is the actualization of wisdom and compassion. These four elements are inseparable and mutually inclusive.
Your practice can exist in any situation. All you need is a few moments during your busy day, stop, sit, relax, and clear your mind. You need not always sit on a cushion to practice for thirty minutes. You can practice anywhere – at your desk, in a car, bus, or train – and any time, like right now. Relax your body and mind, let clarity and a gentle smile arise from within, and allow your body and mind to release and refresh.
Chan Practice in Daily Life
Practice should not be separated from living, and living should be one’s practice at all times. A proper practice includes cultivating mindfulness, compassion, intuition, and wisdom. Be aware of your changing mental and physical conditions, and see how they affect your thoughts, words and actions. Then in this manner, cherish yourself less and others more. In all our actions, we should consider whether our intentions are beneficial to others. In this way, we can examine ourselves before acting. If we put other people before ourselves, selfish feelings will arise less frequently.
Compassion for others is as much a form of practice as meditation. However, all sentient beings have their own karmic causes and conditions, their own merits and virtues, their own karma; you cannot change them, nor can you take on others’ karma. Therefore, your intention is the key. You should sincerely try to help others, but not fixate on whether or not you succeed. At the same time, do not do anything that will make you feel tense, tired, or miserable – if you whip yourself all the time, you will be no use to others or yourself. Use meditation as a supporting discipline and Buddhadharma as your guide. Do the best you can, but not to the extreme.