How Chan came to be

September 16, 2010

Dhyāna Yoga (yoga of meditation) is one of the four branches of yoga described in The Bhagavad Gītā, together with Karma Yoga (yoga of action in the world), Jnāna yoga (yoga of Wisdom and intellectual endeavor), and Bhakti Yoga (yoga of devotion to God). Dhyāna is also found in Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras. According to tradition, Bodhidharma brought his lineage school of a line of dhyāna masters from India to China. After a unremarkable meeting with a Chinese ruler in the south of the Country, Bodhidharma went to the north at a Shaolin Temple, until several disciples found him.

With growing importance and independence, the lineage school that was attributed to Bodhidharma became known as the “Chan” school in China. Huineng is the most influential figure in Chinese Chan who is considered the sixth in line of the founders of the school. He is credited with firmly establishing Chan Buddhism as an independent Buddhist school in China.

Dhyāna was very important for the Mahāyāna tradition. Being the fifth of six perfections (pāramitās), is translated as meditation, or meditative stability. In China, dhyāna was originally transliterated as chan-na, then shortened to chan. Dhyāna, usually under the related term of samādhi, together with the second and sixth pāramitās are known as the threefold training of Buddhism: śīla, dhyāna or samādhi, and prajñā. In Mahāyāna Buddhism, one has to be effective in all three studies.

When Buddhism was brought to China, the Buddhist masters tended to become more focused or primarily adept in one of the three studies. Vinaya masters specialized in the monastic rules of discipline and the moral precepts (śila). Dharma masters in the wisdom teachings of the sūtras and Buddhist treatises (śāstras). Dhyāna or Chan masters specialized in meditation practice and states of samādhi. Monks would often begin their training under one kind of master, such as a vinaya master, and then transfer to another master, such as a Dharma master or a dhyāna master, to further their training and studies. At that time there was no separate Chan school.

Zen is a dynamic Buddhist school, where the lives and examples of its practitioners are more important than an academic approach based only on studying texts. This approach makes easier for Chan than for other Buddhist schools to adapt to the “here and now”, and so Seon will grow more and more online.

This post is part of Zen: from China to cyberspace free booklet. You can download for free the whole book here

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