Ch’an (Zen)

Legend has it that this school started with Mahakasyapa, one of Shakyamuni’s ten key disciples and the convener of the “First Buddhist Council.” He is reported to be the only one who understood what the Buddha meant when the Buddha held up a flower and said nothing—that the direct experience of truth is not dependent on words or concepts. A form of Buddhist thought and practice that evolved in China, Ch’an lists Nagarjuna in its lineage and the Indian Bodhidharma as its founder and First Patriarch (6th century CE). Bodhidharma went to China in 526. Hui-neng (638-713), the Sixth Patriarch and an illiterate who was enlightened by hearing the Diamond Sutra, represents this school’s approach to “sudden” enlightenment and transmission of the truth outside of the scriptures. It must be noted however that Hui-neng was a high level incarnate bodhisattva and may not have been illiterate as the legend holds. The early Zen masters did focus on the mahayana Lankatara Sutra which expounds the doctrine of “Mind-only” and stressed meditation. Ch’an is a transliteration of the Sanskrit term dhyana, meaning meditation, while Zen is the Japanese transliteration of Ch’an. Ch’an also integrated Buddhism with many of the Chinese indigenous systems of belief, most notably Taoism. The golden age of Ch’an in China ended over a thousand years ago when it became formalized and lost much of its vitality. It was exported to both Japan (as Zen) and Korea (as Son) in the 12th century where it is still one of their major schools. The practice today consists of extensive sitting meditation, ideally in a retreat or secluded environment. Early Chinese Chan did not encourage separate meditation, but assumed practice should be part of everyday life. The Japanese Soto School holds that just sitting or shikantaza is in itself enlightenment, while the Rinzai School uses the koan (kung-an) or unanswerable question to arrive at understanding of one’s original nature. Korean Zen is less formal than its Japanese counterparts and incorporates more chanting and sutra study with its meditation. It also uses the koan. Vietnamese Zen with its focus on mindfulness was popularized by the Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh and other masters. All of these forms are popular in the US. However, one cannot become a buddha by just following the practices of these schools since they only lead to the level of realizing the dharmakaya. They do not have techniques for realizing the other aspects of a buddha.