About Chan

The Chan School of Buddhism

What is Chan?

Chan is the school of Chinese Buddhism popularly known as “Zen” in Japanese. It is also a term that refers to a way of living or experiencing the world. But ultimately, Chan means direct awakening to interconnectedness and impermanence, and the consequent arising of Buddhist wisdom and compassion. This awakening experience is inexpressible in words; it is inaccessible to the dualism of language and concepts. It is a state of awareness free of self-reference.

For this reason there is a saying: “Chan is not established on words and language;” yet Chan freely uses words and language to benefit the world. The teaching starts with knowing one’s self, but the process of practice leads to a discovery of our interconnectedness with others. Direct personal experience of Chan brings about the actualisation of wisdom and compassion, which leads to peace and understanding in the world.

Specifically, the Chan teaching encompasses four key elements: faith, understanding, practice, and awakening. Faith is confidence in oneself and the path. Understanding refers to the insights gained on the path. Practice transforms our negative habits and distorted views. Awakening is the actualisation of wisdom and compassion. These four elements are inseparable and mutually inclusive.

Your practice can exist in any situation. All you need is a few moments during your busy day, stop, sit, relax, and clear your mind. You need not always sit on a cushion to practice for thirty minutes. You can practice anywhere – at your desk, in a car, bus, or train – and any time, like right now. Relax your body and mind, let clarity and a gentle smile arise from within, and allow your body and mind to release and refresh.

Practice should not be separated from living, and living should be one’s practice at all times. A proper practice includes cultivating mindfulness, compassion, intuition, and wisdom. Be aware of your changing mental and physical conditions, and see how they affect your thoughts, words and actions. Then in this manner, cherish yourself less and others more. In all our actions, we should consider whether our intentions are beneficial to others. In this way, we can examine ourselves before acting. If we put other people before ourselves, selfish feelings will arise less frequently.

Compassion for others is as much a form of practice as meditation. However, all sentient beings have their own karmic causes and conditions, their own merits and virtues, their own karma; you cannot change them, nor can you take on others’ karma. Therefore, your intention is the key. You should sincerely try to help others, but not fixate on whether or not you succeed. At the same time, do not do anything that will make you feel tense, tired, or miserable – if you whip yourself all the time, you will be no use to others or yourself. Use meditation as a supporting discipline and Buddhadharma as your guide. Do the best you can, but not to the extreme.

After the death of the historic Buddha many schools of Buddhism arose, and over time declined. Today there exist two major branches of Buddhism; Theravada, (from the Pali meaning “The School of Elders”)  and Mahayana (from the Sanskrit meaning “The Great Vehicle”).  Chan belongs to the Mahayana branch of Buddhism.

Tradition has it that Chan was brought to China from the West, or India, in the fifth century CE by a monk named Bodhidharma. He is considered the first Patriarch of Chan. The teaching he brought emphasized Dhyana, which roughly translates to meditation in English. The word Chan is the Chinese rendition of the Sanskrit word Dhyana.

Over the next several hundred years the robe and bowl of the Patriarch of Chan was passed to 5 masters; Huike, Sengcan, Daoxin, Hongren and Huineng. During this time the practices brought from India were adapted to the Chinese culture.  Monasteries were constructed, and Chan became more and more prevalent in Chinese culture.

With the death of Huineng the robe and bowl of the Patriarchs were not passed down and over time Chan split into The Five Houses of Chan. Each was named after their founder, and at the time were not considered separate sects, but more indications of lineage. Yet over time each developed in their own way, and in modern times these houses have come to be referred to as “schools”. These were the Guiyang school, the Linji school, the Caodong school, the Fayan school and the Yumen school. Of these  “schools” only the Linji and Caodong  are still in existence. The Fayan, Yumen and Guiyang schools, over time, were absorbed into the Linji school, which became the dominant school in China.

Over the centuries Chan saw periods of preeminence and persecution. With the relative peace and prosperity of the Song dynasty (c.960-1300), Chan became the largest sect of Chinese Buddhism. This is often referred to as the golden age of Chan. It was during this time that many classic Chan texts such as the Blue Cliff Record and the Gateless Gate, to name just two, were compiled. It was also during this time that unique meditative practices, such as silent illumination and gong’an, were perfected, developed and codified.

From China Chan spread to Vietnam as Thien, to Korea as Seon and to Japan as Zen. In Japan the two remaining schools Linji and Caodong are called Rinzai and Soto respectively. With its emphasis on meditation and simple, practical day to day practice, Chan has had a history of adapting as it has moved from culture to culture, without loosing its distinct and recognisable core teachings.

The late Chan Master Sheng Yen was a Dharma heir of Venerable Master Dongchu in the Caodong lineage and was given the Dharma name Hui Kong (meaning “wisdom of emptiness”) and the Dharma title Sheng Yen (meaning “adorned with holiness”). Sheng Yen was the fifty-second generation descendant of co-founder Master Dongshan (807-869). He was also a Dharma heir of Venerable Master Lingyuan in the Linji lineage and was given the Dharma name Zhi Gang (meaning “to discern resoluteness”) and the Dharma title Wei Rou (meaning, “always gentle”). He was the fifty-seventh generation descendant of Master Linji (d. 866).

Through his innovative teachings, Master Sheng Yen became one of the best known modern Chan masters in the twenty first century, reviving the practice of Silent Illumination (mozhao) from the Caodong lineage and the Critical Phrase (huatou) method from the Linji lineage.

Master Sheng Yen founded Dharma Drum Lineage of Chan (Fagu zong) in 2006. The Dharma Drum Lineage unites his transmissions from the Caodong and Linji lines, and integrate features of different schools in Chinese and Indian Buddhism. It also inherits the wisdom of Buddhadharma and, at the same time, aims to make Chan practice accessible to modern people.