Chan Buddhism raised as an answer to the need of the laypeople who wanted to wholeheartedly practice Buddhism, without leaving it only to monks. Chan offered a straight-forward, non-dogmatic and intuitive approach to Buddhism, which was what laypeople wanted and still want.
Through Hellenistic Gandhara and then the Silk Road, Buddhism was firstly introduced to China during the Han period (206 BC-220 AD). The Indian prince and monk Bodhidharma is the traditional founder of Chán (early 5th century), who went to China to teach a “special transmission outside scriptures” which “did not stand upon words”. He settled in the kingdom of Wei where he took among his disciples Daoyu and Huike. Shortly before his death, Bodhidharma appointed Huike to succeed him, making Huike the first Chinese born patriarch and the second patriarch of Chán in China, passing him a robe, a bowl, and a copy of the Lankavatara Sutra. The transmission then passed to the second patriarch (Huike), the third (Sengcan), the fourth patriarch (Dao Xin) and the fifth patriarch (Hongren).
Bodhidharma focused on direct insight about one’s own experience, under the instruction of a Zen teacher, discouraging misguided veneration of Buddhas for the sake of superstition. Often attributed to Bodhidharma is the Bloodstream Sermon, which was composed after his death. It is said he had a meeting with Emperor Wu of Liang. The Emperor sought an audience with him, and asked how much karmic merit he had gained from his noble support of Buddhism. Bodhidharma replied, “None at all.” The Emperor asked, “Then what is the truth of the teachings?” Bodhidharma replied, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.” So the emperor asked, “Then who are you standing in front of me?” Bodhidharma replied, “I do not know,” and walked out. A legend involving Bodhidharma is that he visited the Shaolin Temple in the kingdom of Wei, at some point, and taught them a series of exercises which became the basis for the Shaolin martial arts.
Chan approach to change and interdependency, and the already existing stratus of Chinese religions like Taoism and Confucianism, were fertile lands for a non-theistic religion. Instead of promising access to secret knowledge, Chan proved what we need to know is already in front of us, we just need to see as it is. Chan evolved with the adoption, and adaptation, of Indian Buddhist practice into China. Overall, the main criticism against Buddhism was that it may lead to people being detached from family and wordly affairs.
While the visit of Bodhidharma in the 5th Century is often considered the tipping point in the spread of Chan, this Buddhist school has been already under development in China before his arrival, around the Han period. The other three first Buddhist schools in China were Tiantai (Heavenly Terrace, whose name came from its princiapl center on the mountain in Chekiang; founded by Hui-ssu around 515-576), Huayan (Flower ornament, which lasted from about 5th century to 8th), and Ching-te (Pure Land, started during the Later Han Dynasty; inititally, not a formal lineage by itself, more of a popular broad movement until teachers in the sixth to ninth centuries started to develop a more sistematic school). Their members decided to use Chinese versions of the texts instead of the Indian ones, by translating and re-ranking the different Sutras.
An important translator was Xuanzang (602 – 664). Born in Henan province, he displayed signs of intellectual and spiritual greatness even at an early age. From boyhood he took to reading sacred books, mainly the Chinese Classics and the writings of the ancient sages. While residing in the city of Luoyang, Xuanzang became a monk at the age of thirteen. Due to the political and social unrest, he moved to Chengdu (in Szechuan), where he was ordained at the age of twenty. Then he travelled throughout China in search of sacred books of Buddhism. At length, he came to Chang’an, then under the peaceful rule of Emperor Taizong of Tang, where he decided to visit India. He became famous for his seventeen year overland trip to India and back, which is recorded in detail in his autobiography and a biography, and provided the inspiration for the epic novel Journey to the West.
Chan lineage has been strong, especially from the 7th century up to the 13th where it also spread in Japan, one of the main reason being in the practice itself: instead of having an intellectual approach, Chan is focused on gaining insight and then acting upon it, at the benefit of all. Compared to other schools like Pure Land, Chan identifies awakening as possible here and now, with the “pure land” simply being our own minds. Considering the importance for Chan of being living examples, and the limited interest in Indian texts, the ranking and translating of foreign text into Chinese were not so important. The keystone of Chan was its “homegrown Buddhas”, in full Mahayana tradition.