Buddhism A–Z
What is Chan Buddhism?
Muqi, Detail of dusk over fisher’s village, from the handscroll “Eight Views of Xiao and Xiang”, circa 1250, Collected in Nezu Art Museum

Chan Buddhism is a school of Mahayana Buddhism with roots in China dating back to the 7th century. Chan Buddhism emphasizes meditation and direct insight into the nature of reality. Zen is the school of Japanese Buddhism that developed from Chan. The word Zen is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word Chan, which is itself derived from dhyana, the Sanskrit word for meditation.

Origins of Chan Buddhism

The Indian monk Bodhidharma is considered the first patriarch, or teacher, of Chan. Bodhidharma is said to have traveled from India to China sometime during the 5th or 6th century CE and began transmitting the teachings of meditation and direct insight to his disciples. While the teachings of Chan incorporated ideas from Indian Mahayana Buddhism, Chan also integrated Buddhist teachings with those of Taoism, an ancient Chinese philosophy and religion.

Spread from China

From China, Chan Buddhism spread to other parts of East Asia, including Vietnam (where it was called Thien Buddhism), Korea (Seon Buddhism), and Japan (Zen Buddhism). This tradition mostly came to the West in its Japanese form, Zen, but there are active Chan communities in the United States and Europe. The best-known Chan teacher in the United States was the late master Sheng Yen, who founded the Dharma Drum Mountain Chan community.

Direct Transmission

A central tenet of Chan Buddhism is the idea of a “special transmission outside the scriptures.” This means that understanding is passed directly from the mind of teacher to student, not through written texts. As Gilbert Gutierrez writes, “Chan is a practice tradition that puts spiritual authority and knowledge not in written scripture, but in immediate, embodied experience, which is available to anyone, anywhere.” This direct transmission can sometimes involve non-verbal gestures, like a shout or a sudden slap, designed to provoke a student to a realization.

Emphasis on Koans

In Chan Buddhism, there is an emphasis on teaching and meditating on koans. These are questions, stories, or statements that can’t be understood by logical reasoning or concepts. Famous koans include: “Does a dog have buddhanature?” and “What is the sound of one hand?” The intention of contemplating such koans is to break through a practitioner’s rational thought and arrive at direct realization of reality.

Chan Meditation Methods

Huatou and mozhao are the main meditation methods in Chan. Like a distilled version of koans, huatou, meaning “before the word,” involves repeating a koan-like inquiry such as “What is emptiness?” or “Who is reciting the Buddha’s name?” or “Who is dragging this corpse around?” The purpose is to place the mind’s attention on where the question arises. 

The method of mozhao, literally “silent illumination,” is sometimes called “just sitting.” This is a form of meditation in which the practitioner is fully present without any specific object of concentration. Both of these Chan meditations cultivate a clear, calm mind and help the meditator realize the true nature of mind.

Chan Buddhist Retreats

Chan Buddhist retreats may include several sitting periods per day, as well as walking meditation, mindful yoga, dharma talks, and one-on-one opportunities to interact with the teacher.

Mindfulness in Daily Activities

Beyond formal meditation, Chan Buddhism encourages mindfulness in every activity, whether it is eating, walking, working, or doing simple chores. Every moment is seen as an opportunity for awakening. 

Art and Culture

Chan Buddhism, as well as its Japanese branch Zen, have had a profound influence on East Asian art, poetry, and culture. The simplicity and spontaneity prized by Chan and Zen can be seen in tea ceremonies, ink paintings, and poetry.

Related Reading

The Heart of Chan Buddhism

Chan Buddhism is a painstaking practice of learning nothing, says Gilbert Gutierrez. You can’t become enlightened — you can only embody it.

Buddhism A–Z

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