Meditation (Chan) Buddhism
Meditation, or Chan, Buddhism is perhaps the most Sinicized (rendered Chinese) of all Buddhist denominations. Because of the initial difficulty and obscurity of Buddhist sutras to the Chinese audience, many of whom were Daoists, the Chinese emphasized an intuitive understanding with or without the reading of the sutras, which is the original meaning of Chan, or meditation. The development of Chan Buddhism reached its height in the Tang Dynasty (618-906), which was, after the Han Dynasty, the greatest Chinese dynasty in history and the most prosperous, when Chinese cultural exchanges with the outside world reached its height. Chinese monks went to seek Buddhist sutras in India, and Indian monks such as Bodhidharma came to preach in China (520- ) in the Sui Dynasty, a short lived dynasty before the Tang Dynasty. The Silk Road linking China to India and to central Asia allowed many cultural exchanges between China and western/southern Asia, and the many Korean and Japanese students studying in China spread Buddhism to Korea and Japan.
The Chan school of Buddhism emphasized long meditation followed by "sudden" awakening to the Truth. Of all the Buddhist denominations in China, Chan and Pure Land give the least emphasis on doctrine, but they also differ. While Pure Land emphasizes prayers to Amita, Chan calls for meditation, and the transmission of the message from master to disciple without words and phrases. Thus in a Chan meditation session, master and disciples may be doing nothing but meditating in total silence for hours. This emphasis on silent transmission is also reflected in Zen Buddhism in Japan. When you see art influenced by Zen, such as bonsai (small manicured plants or trees in a pot), or a Zen style garden, you may notice the emphasis on peace and tranquility, which are conducive to meditation.
Because their emphasis is on intuitive understanding, Chan Buddhism is not big on explaining things, but often uses parables to illustrate things, such as the parables given by the Buddhist teacher Yunmen, in the form of the highly esoteric statements "the old buddhas commune with the pillars," "Clouds on the southern mountains...(even a knife cannot cut through)," If clouds gather on the southern mountains, rain falls on the northern mountains," and "Rain on the northern mountains (not a single drop of rain can fall...)." (de Bary, 515-516) All three impossible situations.
The reason why Yunmen gives these examples is to suggest that the very reason why we think these are impossible scenarios is because we have used our intellectual abilities and consciousness: we have reasoned that old monks could not possibly have had sexual intercourse, and it is not possible to have rain but not a single drop of it falling, and so on. Also, our separation of things in this world (e.g. into the northern and southern mountains, into rain and air, into soft clouds and hard objects ) makes it impossible for us to understand why clouds on the southern mountains leads to rain in the northern mountains, and why there is rain but it is not falling, and why there is cloud but it cannot be cut through. All this has violated the Chan teachings on cutting off consciousness, conceptual thinking, and phenomenal existence.
Yet, Yunmen is not asking his disciples to completely demolish consciousness. According to Buddhism, human reasoning is ultimately controlled by our deepest consciousness, the alaya consciousness (besides the senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell, and mind), which is the seed or, to use our modern day language, the "mastermind" and "memory chip" of all other senses because it contains the seeds and traces of past actions. The alaya consciousness, in its original and pure form, was good, but because it could not work alone, and had to be projected through the six senses, which were "contaminated," so to speak, its reflection of the true world became successively degenerated over the generations. In order to restore the alaya's power to reflect the truth, one needs to completely rid of all existent reasoning, conceptions, and separation of the world into many things, in other words, problems associated with the other six senses. True knowledge is achieved through intuiting that the world is an integral whole, hence, the 28 Indian Patriarchs and the Six Chinese Patriarchs [who were considered founders of the Chan School] see each other and see the same truth. (516) Hence although humans err in their views of the world and suffer, there is the potential to change this and achieve happiness. The relationship between suffering and happiness is the difference between what is manifest and what is potential. The world is full of things that are happening and that are potentially to happen, such as the Koreans going to the Buddhist temples (who are more to the east, hence morning comes earlier to them than to the Chinese), and the Chinese just about to do so. But if one does not use one's intuition and just goes about the motions, one will not get the truth.