The Development of Chan (Zen) in China

The character pronounced "Chan" in Chinese ("Zen" in Japanese) was originally a transliteration of the Sanskrit term "dyana" meaning meditation. Chan is a school that does not "believe in" meditation, yet emphasizes and practices meditation. People sit in meditation pondering the claim that meditation cannot lead to enlightenment.

Chan comes to understand meditation in a Daoist sense: an attitude of "total absorption" than can accompany any normal living activity. Sitting meditation is among the normal activities, but Chan gives us no particular reason to do that in preference to innumerable others. Enlightenment/meditation can be achieved in any of them. How do the Chanists arrive at this focus on 'practice.'
First, let us draw attention to Buddhism's famous "paradox of desires." Its logic explains the move to the Boddhisattva ideal of Mahayana Buddhism. According to the four noble truths, desire leads to suffering and overcoming desire is the way to achieve Nirvana. Suppose an individual seeker gets close to Nirvana--he overcomes his desire for wealth, status, sex, and then eventually even his desire for food, drink, and finally his desire to breath and live. Now is he able to enter Nirvana? Not yet. He still has one desire left--the desire to enter Nirvana. Only when he overcomes that one can he achieve it. He does! Standing on the brink of extinction, he no longer wants to go there, so he turns around and re-enters the cycle of Samsara--he is the Boddhisattva who voluntarily returns.
Similar paradoxes lurk behind the Yogacara and Madyamika systems. In the Yogacara system of illusions, the theory seems to say the minds and their illusions are all that exists. If they exist, they are real-real ideas. As such, they are not illusions. The world of appearances is identical with the Buddha-mind-it is what there is.
In the Madyamika system, we learn that the Buddha-nature is the only reality. If I is the only reality, then there is nothing that is not Buddha nature. Since there is nothing but Buddha nature everywhere Buddha nature is pure--there is nothing to be mixed with it. Hence you and I are pure Buddha nature. We have nothing to do or achieve.
Chan Buddhism can be viewed as pushing the implicit logic of Buddhism to reject the original goal of Buddhism--the quest for Nirvana. Chan is Buddhist atheism. The gradual development of this perspective, however, is a complex one in China and is made even more challenging by a pedagogical practice among Chan masters-"never tell to plainly." Each person should come to her own realization.
There are two stories of the development of Chan in China-an internal (pious) and an external (historical) story. According to the internal story, in the context of a particularly profound lecture, the Buddha stopped and sitting in silence, merely twirled a flower. A wordless doctrine was thus immediately apprehended by one Kashyapa, who smiled. This began a line of direct mind-to-mind transmission of some doctrine incommensurate with language. The transmission went through 28 "teacher-student generations" to the famous Boddhidharma who came to China.
In China it went through 5 more generations still emphasizing orthodox meditation and the search for enlightenment, when the 5th patriarch announced a competition for who would be the 6th. Everyone assumed Shen Xiu, acknowledged as the most brilliant student, would win the competition. But Hui Neng, an illiterate peasant from Guangdong province proved to have spontaneous and immediate insight and received the coveted transmission. The internal story is contained in the famous Platform Sutra of the 6th Patriarch.

The historian's story treats the Platform Sutra as an important piece of fiction. Its publication crystallizes a split in the Chan school between Northern (Gradual enlightenment) and Southern (Sudden enlightenment) trends. The key issue dividing them was whether there was a path to enlightenment so we could be understood as getting closer or was enlightenment something that happened totally or not at all. The Southern school represented the view that enlightenment did not require study. Notice Hui Neng was illiterate and did nothing in the temple but carry wood pound rice. The villian, by contrast, was a learned Northerner. Hui Neng's enlightenment came all at once in a flash of insight.
Buddhism had spread in China during the period of cultural disunity following the decline of the Han. During the long periods of disunity following the Han Dynasty, the North had often been ruled by "barbarian" dynasties and the south had become the refuge of China's intellectual culture. The more structured and disciplined Northern schools stressed gradual enlightenment requiring continual supervision and guidance (more like Japanese Zen). So Buddhism was more "orthodox" and authoritarian in the North, while in the South it was almost entirely spread by popular conversion rather than official patronage. Naturally, Southern Chan had a much more egalitarian outlook.
Now, with the ascendancy of the powerful T'ang dynasty, cultural self-confidence was returning. Buddhism, with its fondness for accumulating distinctions, endless lists, rules, and other tedious intellectualizing was beginning to tire intellectuals. The rituals, thousands of sutras, levels of truth, categories, lists, distinction etc. went on ad nauseam. The antipathy to this theoretical overkill explains the rise Sudden Enlightenment Chan--the Chinese revenge on Buddhism.
Historians argue that the story of Hui Neng was actually written by a Daoist poet, who was inspired by the fabulous story-telling of his close friend, a popular Southern monk named Shen Hui. Shen Hui had traveled North to the domain of the powerful and famous monk, Shen Xiu, the villain of the Platform Sutra story. At the time, the Tang officially recognized Shen Xiu as the 6th Chan Patriarch. Shen Hui was an extremely popular public speaker. He weaved spellbinding tales and avoided tedious theorizing. He had a large popular following but was in official trouble because of his attacks on Shen Xiu. Unsuccessful in his attempts to have Hui Neng recognized as the true successor, he was banished briefly to the hinterland-in Jiangxi province and subsequently kept on the move so he could not attract a large following.
Over the years, fortunate political events intervened. The Tang government had a serious budget deficit because of heavy defense expenditures following a six-year war putting down a military rebellion. One of the ways the Tang had of raising money was to require all those becoming Buddhist priests or nuns to buy a license-on the theory they were removing themselves from productive life (since they lived on donations and by begging). They decided they needed a "license salesman" and someone remembered that Shen Hui was the best one around, so they sent for him. He was, of course, successful, and bailed out the treasury and in gratitude the Tang officially declared him the 7th Patriarch-which by implication made Hui Neng the 6th as the Platform Sutra claimed.
The other thing that was important about Shen Hui's story was that in it, Hui Neng simply disappeared into the Southern mountains. That made it tempting and easy for other Southern monks to claim that they had encountered Hui Neng or his equally reclusive disciples as they wandered in the mountains and received the instantaneous transmission of the Dharma of Sudden enlightement. So the school's influence spread quickly throughout China and it became the dominant school during most of the long Tang dynasty-the Southern dynasty. (Cantonese speakers still refer to themselves "People of Tang" where Mandarin speakers call themselves "People of Han.")
The Southern school's position represented an indigenous Chinese cultural rebellion against the intellectualized, elitist and esoteric elements of this foreign religion. Traces of this Chinese egalitarianism and naturalism had been evident even during the first transmission of Buddhism to China. Chinese translators frequently argued that everyone was capable of enlightement and preferred Buddhist scriptures that endorsed that view. Other popular schools (Tiantai and Huayan) drew the positive conclusion from the Madyamika paradox-everything must already be Buddha. However, as we noted, Chan masters never said this too plainly and mainly stressed practice. Hence, the popular slogan has it "Tiantai and Huayan for theory and Chan for practice."
As the Chan attitude spread, it became a cultural movement against the hierarchy of Buddhism. Schools sprang up all over China. There was little "top-down" organization but a fairly consistent set of shared attitudes toward Buddhist theory.