Whether or not the man named Bodhidharma actually existed is still a matter for some debate, but it is very useful in our exploration of the origins of Ch'an. As the legend goes, Bodhidharma was a Buddhist scholar from India who visited the court of the Chinese Emperor Wu of Liang in the sixth century C.E. Following this visit, during which he is said to have debunked the Emperor's view of Buddhist teachings, he traveled to the Shaolin Monastery. There he spent nine years in a cave meditating. Bodhidharma advocated the teachings of the Lankavatara Sutra, which stressed the direct realization of one's Buddha-nature.
By this time Taoist thought was over 3000 years old and was woven into the fabric of Chinese society. Taoist and Buddhist scholars had intermingled for several hundred years before Bodhidharma's time, and many books looking at Buddhist teachings in a Taoist way had been written. The two systems were generally considered to be very complimentary.
Bodhidharma is credited with becoming the First Patriarch of Ch'an. The word Ch'an was a Chinese pronunciation of the Sanskrit word "dhyana, which referred to the Buddha's teaching of meditative concentration. But the Chinese chose to interpret the word to mean "awareness." Thus the Ch'an school was centered around utilizing meditative concentration, rather than relying on sacred texts, in order to attain a direct awareness of one's true nature.
Spread of Ch'an
By the seventh century C.E., significant numbers of Ch'an monks were gathering in organized monasteries to practice and study. Ch'an emphasized direct seeing through meditative practice, as well is what is known as "mind-to-mind transmission" between teacher and student. This transmission was epitomized by the story of how the Buddha once held up a flower instead of giving a verbal teaching. His disciple Mahakashapa simply smiled, confirming that his understanding was the same as the Buddha's
For the next hundred years, Ch'an grew rapidly. By the beginning of the 8th century it had spread to Korea, where it was called Son. In Vietnam it was known as Thien, and when the teachers Eisai and Dogen brought it to Japan from China it was called Zen. After some internal struggles, Zen grew rapidly in Japan, 21 of the 24 lines of Ch'an having been established there. After a total of 1200 years of development in Asia, the practices which stemmed from the Ch'an tradition were ready for another significant step: expansion to the West.
Coming to the West
Attending the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893 was a slightly built Japanese Zen priest named Soyen Shaku. At the behest of Illinois book publisher Paul Carus, Soyen Shaku asked one of his students, Daisetz T. Suzuki, to translate some Zen texts. One of D.T. Suzuki's writings, "A Manual of Zen Buddhism," helped introduce the Zen tradition to Americans outside of strictly scholarly circles.
As time passed more Zen teachers began to make their way to North America, including such figures as Nyogen Senzaki, Nakagawa Soen Roshi and Sokei-an Sasaki. The daughter of Sasaki's wife met and eventually married the noted English author Alan Watts, paving the way for him to come to the U.S. Watts, a former Episcopal clergyman, helped push Zen into the national consciousness. He coined the phrase "Beat Zen" to describe the kind of Zen practice which had become fashionable on the west coast in the 1950s. By this time, small Zen groups were forming and the number of practitioners was increasing. Watts' most famous book, "The Way of Zen," is credited with bringing many people to Zen practice.
Later came traditional Ch'an teachers like the Ven. Hsuan-Hua, a disciple of the famous Master Hsu-Yun. Hsuan-Hua founded the Gold Mountain Monastery in San Francisco as well as the Sagely City of 10,000 Buddhas and a number of other Ch'an monasteries and temples. The noted Master Sheng-Yen later founded the Ch'an Meditation Center in Elmhurst, New York. Many Ch'an monasteries and temples have sprung up in California and New York state as well as in Canada. Both the Ch'an and Zen traditions can now boast hundreds of sitting groups and dozens of monasteries in North America.