Chan (Zen) Buddhism

Buddhism was widely spread during the period of the Southern
and Northern Dynasties (420- 581). Both in the South and in the
North, a great number of temples were built, and many Buddhist su-
tras were translated into Chinese. Moreover, new Buddhist theories
and a few Chinese sects of Buddhism were founded.
This trend was continued during the Sui and Tang dynasties,
when more new Buddhist sects emerged. They inherited and elabo-
rated original Indian Buddhism and at the same time developed Bud-
dhist theories that were essentially Chinese.
One common character of these Chinese sects was that they tried
to incorporate into their tenets part of Taoist philosophy and part of
Confucianism, in an effort to merge the three philosophies. Their
doctrines, especially those of Huayan and Zen, may be called Chinese
Buddhism, because they were quite different from Indian Buddhism.
What follows is a brief story of the beginning of Zen Buddhism.
Its history began with the coming of Bodhidharma to China from
Southern India in 520. He was a learned monk and was determined
to spread Buddhism in China. He came by sea and, when he arrived
in Guangzhou, the emperor of the Liang (the third of the four south-
ern dynasties), who believed in Buddhism, invited him to Nanjing,
the capital. But they disagreed in their first meeting, so the Indian
monk left Nanjing and went further north to the state of Wei. He
preached in the area between Luoyang and Mount Songshan, where
well-known Shaolin Temple was located.
His main teaching was to attain Buddhahood by way of medita-
tion. Those who aspired to enlightenment should isolate themselves
from the outside world and concentrate on their own thinking. He
held that all people originally had Buddha nature, which they could
discover in themselves if they got rid of all impure thoughts. The
Sanskrit word for meditation was dhyana, which was translated into
Chinese as chan. So this sect of Buddhism came to be called Chart
Buddhism. The name Zen Buddhism, a Japanese term, has been
more commonly used abroad.
Bodhidharma was regarded as the first patriarch of this sect. Its
fifth patriarch was a monk called Hongren. He preached in a temple
in Huangmei, in eastern Hubei. His two prominent disciples, Shen-
xiu and Huineng, especially the latter, enriched the theory of the sect
and made it known throughout the country.
Huineng(638- 713)was born in Guangdong. His father died
when he was young, and he supported his mother by collecting and
selling firewood. One day he heard a man reciting a Buddhist sutra on
the street and was deeply touched by the words. He asked the man
where he had learned it. The man told him the name of a temple in
Huangmei, Hubei. Immediately he decided to go there. After mak-
ing arrangements for his mother's daily life, he started.
It took him a month to get to the temple. When he went to see
Hongren, the master asked him, "Where do you come from, and
what do you want to do here?"
'I'm from the South, and want to become a Buddha," he an-
"The Southerners have no Buddha nature. How could you expect
to attain Buddhahood?"
"There may be Southerners and Northerners, but as far as Bud-
dha nature goes, there is no distinction between them."
This answer pleased the master, who allowed him to stay, and
told him to work as a rice pounder in the temple.
Some time later, the master thought it was time for him to
choose a successor, for he was very old. He announced that the disci-
ple who wrote agatha (short poem) expressing a thorough under-
standing of Buddhist principles would be named the next patriarch.
Most of the monks in the temple believed that Shenxiu would write
one and be chosen. After a few days of hard thinking, he wrote the
following poem on a wall:
The body is a boclhi tree,
The mind is a bright mirror.
They need dusting from time to time,
So that no dirt may gather.
When the master saw the poem, he commented, "He has not
seen the truth yet. More meditation is necessary."
Huineng, who was illiterate, heard his fellow monks talking
about the poem, and composed one to comment on it. He asked
someone to write his poem on the wall:
Originally the bodhi is not a tree,
Neither is there a bright mirror.
Since originally there is nothing,
Where can dirt gather?
When the master saw this poem, he knew that Huineng had a
deeper understanding of the truth. He appointed him the sixth patri-
arch. As there were many jealous monks in the temple, the master
told Huineng to go back to Guangdong and live in hiding, to wait for
an opportunity to reveal his status and perform his duties.
Back in Guangdong, Huineng lived a secluded life in the moun~
rains for many years. Then one day, when he was 39 years old, he
went to a temple to listen to the learned abbot's explanation of Bud-
dhism. Two monks were arguing on the fluttering of a pennant. One
said, "The pennant is fluttering," and the other said, "The wind is
fluttering the pennant. "Huineng interrupted them by saying, "Nei-
ther the pennant nor the wind is moving. It is your own mind that is
moving." The abbot heard this remark and was surprised, so he in-
vited the stranger in and began to talk with him.
In this way Huineng's status as the sixth patriarch of the Zen
sect was known. Shortly afterwards he started preaching in a temple
in Shaoguan in northern Guangdong. His talks on Buddhism were
recorded by some of his disciples. These talks made up a book enti-
tled Scripture from the Platform, which contained the basic theories
of the Zen sect.
As has been mentioned, Zen followers believed that everyone
possessed Buddha nature, but owing to the confusion of thought,
they failed to realize this. To seek enlightenment, one should not rely
on the study of scriptures, but on the discovery of one's own Buddha
It was possible for one to awaken to the truth in an instant, and
the moment he was enlightened, all his confused thoughts would
vanish, and he would become a Buddha. This theory of instant
awakening was directly opposed to Shenxiu's theory of gradual awak-
ening, which was reflected in the short poem he wrote in the temple
in Huangmei.
Zen principles were summarized in these four lines: "The belief is
passed on outside the religion. There is no reliance on written
scripts. It goes straight into people's minds. One becomes a Buddha
the moment he sees his own Buddha nature."
For some time, Shenxiu and Huineng led respectively the north-
ern and southern schools of the Zen sect, or the school of gradual
awakening and that of instant awakening. But the southern school
was more influential than the northern one.
Later Zen Buddhism was spread to Japan, Korea and some west-
ern countries.