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Chan and Zen are the Same

Mahayana Buddhism spread to central Asia, Himalaya areas including Tibet, and China, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan. Buddhism got many local accommodations or adaptations: The old tree has a stem with many branches.

Chinese Chan Buddhism is the "parent" and Japanese Zen Buddhism is the offshoot. Chan Buddhism developed in China from the 6th century CE onwards, with many variants, and became dominant during the Tang and Song dynasties. After the Yuan dynasty (in the thirteenth and fourteenth century CE), Chan more or less fused with Pure Land Buddhism, and it spread east to Japan as Zen in the thirteenth century. Chan also spread south to Vietnam as Thien and north to Korea as Seon.

Chinese Buddhism

The main part of this section rests on Dwight Goddard's introduction to A Buddhist Bible.

When Buddhism came to China, Taoism was the faith of the common people. Furthermore, deep psychological insight of the Mahayana Buddhist Scriptures came as an intellectual revelation to Chinese scholars. A Chinese type of Buddhism began to manifest, one which had much in common with Taoism. Wisdom doctrines of Tao and the Buddha could be harmonised without very much strain that we know of. Sanskrit terms of Indian Buddhism slowly gave way to Chinese, the term Tao was freely used for Buddhahood - yet also signifying dynamic activity. One of the early Chan (Zen) Masters said: "Buddha is Tao, Tao is dhyana."

To take things as they are and as they come is the teaching of Taoist wisdom. However, Buddhism is quite opposed to any lazy inertness in life. Buddhism teaches that good karma [good fortune] is to be attained by a series of well regulated approaches, and includes clear thinking, focused meditation, and attained wisdom.

Buddhist saints sought solitude so as to attain Self-realisation, of ultimate Truth. The result of the contact of Indian Buddhism with Taoism was a Buddhist variant discipline that "makes monks" that rather often are to be found in some solitary hermitage, busy and cheerful.

Here is something Hsuanchien is reported to have said to his disciples - he is usually reckoned as an extremist Chan Buddhist: "The Bodhisattvas are only dung-heap coolies. Nirvana and bodhi are dead stumps to tie your donkey to."

Words like these illustrate how the literature of Chan Buddhism abounds with extravagant, flippant-looking or seemingly foolish remarks.

For a century it was a question whether the result of the intermingling would be Taoism as modified by Buddhism, or Buddhism modified by Taoism. Even down to today Taoist temples and Taoist monks are often indistinguishable from Buddhist temples.

By the 300s CE most of the outstanding Mahayana scriptures had been translated into Chinese. The first name that emerges in this connection is the monk Tao-an (d 385), learned in both Confucian and Taoist lore. It is easy to see from his writings that he looked on the Buddhist practices as good working methods.

Tao-an left a disciple, Hui-yuan (333-416), who was also a great scholar and learned in Taoist mysticism. He is most remembered as the founder of the White Lotus Society, where people concentrated on the Divine Name. Hui-yuan is regarded as the founder of the Pure Land Sects of China and Japan. He was interested in the serious practise of dhyana and to him the repetition of the Divine Name was the best method for attaining concentration of mind. There was nothing new in the practice of dhyana; it had existed in India for a thousand years and was taken over by Buddha and given a new content of meaning as the Eighth Stage of his Noble Path.

After Hui-yuan, one of his disciples, Tao-seng ( -434) with his disciple, Tao-you, developed the doctrine of "Sudden Awakening", that thereafter entered into Chinese Buddhism. By this teaching the old conception of the gradual attainment of Buddhahood was challenged and in its place was offered, through the right concentration of dhyana, the possibility of sudden and perfect enlightenment.

Distinctive Chinese elements: A more strenuous dhyana, and the possibility of a sudden awakening and attainment of enlightenment, were mingled with the Indian philosophy of the Mahayana.

The next outstanding name of Chan Buddhism in China, is Bodhidharma. He arrived in South China about 470 AD and lived and travelled in China for decades.

An Imperial Meeting

Emperor Wu of Liang was very favorably inclined toward Buddhism; he founded temples, supported monks, and translated scriptures, but when he asked Bodhidharma during an interview what credit he himself had earned thereby, the old monk replied,

"None at all, your majesty."

To the question, "What is the first principle of the holy doctrine?" Bodhidharma replied, "There is nothing in it to be called 'holy,' Sire."

"Who is it, then, that confronts me?" asked the emperor.

"I don't know, Your Majesty."

Bodhidharma practised for nine years a kind of concentrative dhyana that came to be called wall-gazing by the single method of mind-concentration on Mind-essence. To Bodhidharma, books, logical ideas, study, ritual, worship were useless; only simple but "seeking" and tireless "wall-gazing" was enough. [Cf. A Zen study]

His teachings

Inasmuch as one's own inner conscience is Mind-essence, why seek for it elsewhere? This "treasure of the heart" is the only Buddha there ever was, or is, or ever will be. There is no Buddha but your own thoughts. Buddha is Tao. Tao is dhyana. Dhyana cannot be understood by the definitions of the wise. Dhyana is a man's successful seeing into his own fundamental nature."

Mind-essence in its undifferentiated, no-thought, state may be transmitted by a Buddha. I have no interest in monastic rules, nor merely sitting in meditation."

In Bodhidharma's distrust of scriptures and intellectual knowledge, he made an exception of the Lankavatara Sutra, because that sutra taught the doctrine of Self-realisation of the Oneness of all things in Mind-essence.

After nine years of "wall-gazing" he got one disciple who understood him, Hui-k'e (486-593). Bodhidharma gave him certain instruction that could only be transmitted from mind to mind, and gave him his own begging-bowl and robe and his copy of the Lankavatara Sutra, which afterward became the insignia of the Chan Patriarchate.

At first and for a long time the "Sudden Awakening" Chan school was a hard one to attend. From that hard school rose a succession of Chan Masters. About the Mind-essence Hui-k'e is reported to have said, 'I know it always in a most convincing manner but to express it in words—that is impossible.' On this Bodhidharma said, 'That is the Mind-essence itself."

After Hui-k'e had attained his deep experience, he made light of his great learning, and sought for perfect enlightenment. He withdrew to a hermitage in the mountains and lived with the lowest classes of society till he was finally murdered by an envious Master.

Very little is known about the Tird Patriarch, Seng-ts'an ( -606) . He is said to have handed over his begging-bowl and the robe to Tao-hsin (580-651), who also was also a recluse.

The Fifth Patriarch was Hung-jen (605-675). He was a near neighbour or relative of Seng-ts'an and came to be with him when quite young. With Hung-jen, Chan Buddhism was made publicly known: Hung-jen headed a great establishment with hundreds of disciples and gained imperial favour. Among Hung-jen's disciples were two who afterwards came into great public notice; Hui-neng and Shen-hsui. When the time came for Hung-jen to appoint a successor, he passed by Shen-hsui and appointed Hui-neng, author of the Platform Sutra, an influential scripture.

The outstanding features of Hui-neng's Chan included:

  1. Distrust of all dogmatic teachings.
  2. An enquiring mind and earnest search into the depths of one's own nature.
  3. Faith in the possibilities of such an enquiring mind, and in Self-Realisation of Enlightenment, Buddahood.
  4. Adjusting to that self-realisation in life by "assonance" and congruence.

The conception of the active, wise Tao gave depth and substance to Hui-neng's convictions. He made little of the personal Buddha and very much of Prajna [Heavenly Wisdom] in which he saw the Ultimate Principle of Tao. The term he used for Ultimate Reality, and made so much of, was Mind-essence. Self-realisation of this was all the Buddha he cared about. It was Buddhahood and universal, undifferentiated and inscrutable enough. Thus, to Hui-neng, self-realisation of Mind-essence and Buddhahood were the same thing, and found within one's own mind from earnest dhyana (contemplation, deep meditation).


Buddhism in China, Chinese Mahayana and Zen, Chan, Ch'an, Mahayana Buddhist literature  

Chang, Garma Chen-Chi. The Practice of Zen. New York: Perennial/Harper, 1970.

Chang, Garma Chen-Chi, ed. A Treasury of Mahayana Sutras: Selections from the Maharatnakuta Sutra. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1983.

Cleary, Thomas, tr, ed. A Tune beyond the Clouds: Zen Teachings from Old China. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1990.

Goddard, Dwight, ed. A Buddhist Bible. Thetford, Vt.: Dwight Goddard, 1932.

Jia, Jinhua. The Hongzhou School of Chan Buddhism in Eighth- through Tenth-Century China. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2006.

Ling Haicheng. Buddhism in China. Beijing: China Intercontinental Press, 2004.

Mitchell, James. Soto Zen Ancestors in China: The Recorded Teachings of Shitou Xiqian, Yaoshan Weiyan and Yunyan Tansheng. San Francisco. CA: Ithuriel's Spear, 2005.

Nan Huai-chin. The Story of Chinese Zen. Tr. Thomas Cleary. Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1995.

Poceski, Mario. Ordinary Mind as the Way: The Hongzhou School and the Growth of Chan Buddhism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Sasaki, Ruth Fuller, tr. The Record of Linji. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2009.

Thich Thien Tam, tr. Pure-land Zen and Zen Pure-Land: Letters from Patriarch Yin Kuang. 2nd ed. New York: Sutra Translation Committee of the United States and Canada, 1993.

Wright, Arthur F. Buddhism in Chinese History. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1959.

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