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Chinese Buddhism



The Ch'an School is the Meditation School of Chinese Buddhism, its name transliterating the Sanskrit word dhyana, meaning meditation.  It is the most well known (especially in its Japanese form, Zen), most original, and at the same time, the most Chinese of the Schools to arise in China, its thought and spirit being strongly influenced by the philosophical Taoism of Chuang-tzu and Lao-tzu.  The School’s emphasis on spontaneity, creative individuality, simplicity, and natural "earthiness", as well as its belief in the immanence, paradoxicality, and ineffability, of the Buddhist religious ultimate, all echo Taoist teachings on the nature of the sage and the Tao.
     A famous quatrain from the T’ang Dynasty contains some of the main doctrines of Ch'an:
                        A special tradition outside the scriptures;
                        No dependence upon words and letters;
                        Directly pointing at the human heart;
                        Seeing into one’s own nature and achieving Buddhahood.
Historically read, the first line simply attests to Ch'an beliefs on how their School was started, but doctrinally it indicates Ch'an views on how enlightenment is transmitted.   It is held that one day the Buddha, without saying a word, held up a lotus flower before a gathering.  Only one man, Mahakasyapa, understood, and smiled: he had received the truth of enlightenment, directly transmitted from mind to mind without recourse to speech or scriptures.  Enlightenment is held to be transmitted in this way, without “words and letters” (second line), because we cannot separate ourselves from, in other words objectify, reality, in order to make objective, factual statements about it.  Indeed, to believe that any of the names and categories we apply to reality, really describe or exhaust the nature of reality, is the very essence of ignorance.  Reality is therefore said to be “empty” or “void” (Skt. sunya; Ch. kung) of the qualities we project upon it.  Thus if reality cannot be discussed in words, it can only be “directly pointed” at, for example in “the human heart” (third line).  This is done with the intent and hope that, in the absence of conceptualisation, one will see reality, “one’s own nature”, as it really is, thus “achieving Buddhahood” (fourth line).  However, this achievement is also, paradoxically, no achievement, because enlightenment itself involves transcending the opposition or dualism between enlightenment and ignorance, which is but one more conceptualisation.  All things, including enlightenment, ignorance, Nirvana, and samsara, are seen as equally empty, and equally a part of the universal Buddha-nature or One Mind.  Thus we find in Ch'an a return to, and celebration of, the previously prosaic world, and the manifestation of enlightenment in the everyday, in just, as one Ch'an master said, “carrying water and chopping wood”.
     In practice, the Ch'an transcendence of scripture and condemnation of language is not categorically applied, indeed to do so would be to miss the central point that words do not in themselves hold us back from spiritual progress: only when we cling to them do they keep us from reality.  In the same way, some Ch'an masters, most notably Hui-neng, have stressed that meditation itself can become ultimately obstructive if it is practised within a rigid dualistic conceptual framework, one in which an ignorant “I” is practising to become an enlightened “Buddha”.
     While the Ch'an School does give normal reasoned instruction, its distinctive practices are directed toward de-activating or by-passing the rational conceptualising mind.  In the sitting meditation emphasised by the Ts’ao-tung School, the practitioner first learns to allow thoughts to subside by following the breath.  In time the meditator should “just sit” with no specific goal or purpose.  Eventually the mind becomes totally still, but also totally aware, reflecting the universe perfectly, with “no thought” dividing the meditator from reality.  This state slowly permeates one’s everyday existence, and gradually one’s enlightenment unfolds.  In the Lin-chi School the master gives a kung-an, a kind of non-rational riddle, to the practitioner: for example, “What was my original face before my father and mother were born?”  The practitioner wrestles with the kung-an, trying all manner of answers, until finally the rational mind is exhausted, gives up the fight, and abandons rational thought.  At this point enlightenment arises, according to the Lin-chi, suddenly and completely.  Another technique employed by Lin-chi masters is to say or do something unexpected or extreme to the student, such as striking him or shouting at him.  This, again, is intended to allow enlightenment to arise by shocking the student out of his habitual thought processes.


Although Ch'an was the first and only School to emphasise meditation exclusively, the Chinese had maintained an active interest in meditation since the first Buddhist texts were translated around 150 CE, and wandering meditation masters were not uncommon during the period of Ch'an’s beginnings.  Ch'an doctrine, meanwhile, as well as being influenced by philosophical Taoism, was also to owe much to the ideas of two early Chinese Buddhist thinkers, Seng-chao (383-414) and Tao-sheng (360-434).
     The Ch'an School claims that its lineage extends back to the Buddha himself.  In China the School’s first patriarch was the monk Bodhidharma (461?-534?) who reputedly arrived from India in 520, although his existence has been disputed.  Ch'an’s iconoclastic vein is established in Bodhidharma’s interview with the Emperor Wu (r. 502-550), where he tells the ruler that he has gained no merit whatsoever by promoting Buddhism in his empire, and that there is nothing sacred in Buddhist doctrine.  Bodhidharma went on to spend nine years in “wall-gazing” meditation at the Shao-lin monastery near Lo-yang.  There he accepted his first disciple, Hui-k’o (493-583), who, it is said in one account, demonstrated the extent of his commitment to receiving instruction by chopping of his own arm.  Bodhidharma was apparently convinced, and transmitted the Dharma, including the Lankavatara Sutra, to Hui-k’o, who thus became the second Ch'an patriarch.  Not a great deal is known about the subsequent career of Hui-k’o, nor of the life of his pupil, the third patriarch, Seng-ts’an (d. 606), both of them having led peripatetic existences.  With the advent of the fourth Ch'an patriarch Tao-hsin (580-651), and the fifth, his pupil Hung-jen (601-674), Ch'an adherents assumed a more settled lifestyle in monasteries, practising communal meditation and working in the fields. 
     At this time, and indeed up until the ninth century, the Ch'an School was known as the “Eastern Mountain teaching” after the location of Hung-jen’s monastery.  Hung-jen taught the Vajracchedika Sutra, or Diamond-cutter Scripture, and was the first patriarch to have a considerable following, around five hundred monks in all.  As the most able of these went on to teach in both the north and south of China, Northern and Southern Schools arose.  The Northern School was headed by Hung-jen’s apparent heir, Shen-hsiu (605?-706), whose fame as a meditation master and teacher resulted in an invitation to the court of Empress Wu Tse-t’ien (r. 683-705) in 700, where he was honoured with a title.  The Southern School was led by Shen-hiu (670-762), whose master, Hui-neng (637-713), had been a pupil of Hung-jen.  At an assembly of the Ch'an School in 732 Shen-hiu argued that Hung-jen had in fact recognised Hui-neng, not Shen-hsiu, as his successor, and that Hui-neng had preserved the authentic tradition by teaching that enlightenment was achieved suddenly, while Shen-hsiu had corrupted it with his own doctrine that enlightenment was achieved gradually.  Shen-hiu’s claims were supported by the contents of the T’an ching, or Platform Scripture, said to be by Hui-neng, but more probably written by Shen-hiu himself. 
     Shen-hiu proved successful in his campaign.  Hui-neng was recognised as the sixth patriarch, with the T’an-ching being revered as holy writ.  The Northern School of Shen-hsiu disappeared within a couple of generations, while the Southern School, now accepted as the authentic Ch'an School, flourished, both in terms of the numbers of monks and monasteries, and in the quality of its masters - such men as Shih-t’ou (700-790), Ma-tsu (709-790), and Huang-po (d. 850).  Another master, Pai-chang Huai-hai (720-840) formulated a monastic code for the School, which included the rule that monks had to do some sort of work to support themselves and the monastery.  This rule, summarised in Pai-chang’s saying, “a day without work is a day without food”, helped the Ch'an avoid the accusation of parasitism on the state, levelled at the Buddhist Schools during the persecution of 845.  A further reason why the Ch'an survived was that it was not reliant, as the other Schools were, upon the scriptures and images that were destroyed in the persecution. 
     After 845 the different individual methods and styles of various Ch'an masters led to the so called “Five Houses” being formed within the Ch'an School.  Three of these were short-lived, but two, the Lin-chi (Jap. Rinzai), founded by Lin-chi I-hsuan (d. 867), and the Ts’ao-tung (Jap. Soto), founded by Liang-chieh (807-869) and Pen-chi (840-901), developed into Schools and were of more lasting influence.  The Ts’ao-tung stressed graded instruction and meditation, while the Lin-chi emphasised the use of non-rational riddles, kung-an (Jap. koan), and shock tactics.  Both did well during the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), but more so the Lin-chi, which was to eventually absorb the Ts’ao-tung in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
     Part of the original inspiration for Ch'an had been re-emphasis on the core Buddhist experience of enlightenment, with a commensurate rejection of the scholasticism, devotionalism, and ritualism, of much of Chinese Buddhism.  However, late in the T’ang Dynasty and into the Sung, the Ch'an began to adopt the doctrines of the other Schools, particularly those of the Hua-yen, the T'ien-t'ai, as well as the practices of the Ching-t'u.  It became more literate, more popular, and at the same time, more worldly, playing a greater role in society and making connections with the ruling classes and imperial court.  Large monasteries were built, but as the numbers of monks rose their general quality fell, as did the quality of religious instruction.  Thus, in as much as the School increased materially, it declined spiritually.  Nonetheless, Ch'an adherents had a great influence on the culture of the period, especially in the visual and literary arts, and also upon Neo-Confucianism.
     During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) the Ch'an School enjoyed an amicable relationship with the Mongol rulers, while during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) the syncretic tendency both within Chinese Buddhism, and within Chinese religions in general, meant that the original identity and spirit of Ch'an became increasingly diluted.  The School was favoured by some of the early emperors of the Manchu Ching Dynasty (1644-1911), but like all of Chinese religion it suffered under the two Republics, most especially during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. 
     Today, with more liberal policies in place, Chinese Buddhism, which means in the main the Ch'an, and the other surviving School, the Ching-t'u, is undergoing a minor renaissance.  Monasteries and temples are being re-opened, and the ordination and training of monks and nuns has resumed.


On the one hand the Ch'an School would appear to have no great love for images (for example the Ch'an master T’ien-jan Ch’an-shih [738-824] is said to have burnt a wooden statue of the Buddha to keep himself warm), while on the other hand the School has produced powerful works of art, especially in the field of painting.  Ch’an paintings are usually done in one of three categories, figurative, “bird and flower”, and landscape, and while the paintings themselves are rarely explicitly symbolic, they do illustrate aspects of the Ch'an spirit and understanding of the world.  For example Liang K’ai’s (fl. 1200) The Sixth Patriarch Tearing Up a Sutra vividly expresses Ch'an iconoclasm, as well as the joyful liberating energy of enlightenment.  In “bird and flower” painting the ideal was for the artist to “become the subject, for example to “become the bamboo”, - and so go beyond its outward appearance to experience and reveal the bamboo’s inner essence, or true nature.  Perhaps most well known are the Ch'an (and Ch'an influenced) landscape paintings.  These often show a small inconsequential figure in a huge landscape, suggesting not only that man is not so important in the scheme of things as he thinks he is, but also that he nonetheless does belong in the (natural) world (a very Chinese, as well as a very Ch'an, view) and not in some other-worldly Nirvana.  Equally significant is the fact that these landscapes often seem to emerge out of a mist or a pale nothingness, symbolising the fecund emptiness or Void which “underlies” everything. 
     Specific symbols in Ch'an are few, but one is the empty circle (sometimes concretised in the full moon) which is symbolic, again, of emptiness, as well as the unity, and the beginninglessness and endlessness, of reality.  The empty circle may also appear as a mirror, in which case it symbolises the enlightened mind which reflects perfectly - without becoming attached to - all that passes before it.  The use of the empty circle to indicate emptiness is found in the series of Oxherding pictures, in which the oxherd pursues, tames, and finally becomes one with, the ox, which symbolises the oxherd’s true self.  In the most famous version with ten pictures by Kou-an Shih-yuan (fl. 1150), the eighth picture shows neither oxherd nor ox, just an empty circle, symbolic of the emptiness in which such objective distinctions of "oxherd" and "ox" disappear.  Equally symbolic of Ch'an doctrine is the ninth picture in which the world reappears but the oxherd does not, indicating not only that emptiness does not destroy phenomena but merely renders them non-absolute in their interdependence, but also the oxherd’s own tranquil and unobtrusive observation of reality “just as it is”.  Finally the tenth picture has the oxherd happily returning to the market-place carrying a gourd (another symbol of emptiness), showing that enlightenment does not entail a rejection or transcendence of the world, but rather its joyful acceptance.


Reliable and up-to-date figures for the numbers of Buddhists in China, including the numbers of Ch'an Buddhists, are not currently available.  The figure of 100 million believers given for the year 1990 (Europa Publications Limited 1996: 853) is the same figure that has been used repeatedly by the Chinese Buddhist Association (the organisation which co-ordinates Buddhist activities in China) since the early 1950’s.  Moreover, it is not indicated what proportion of this figure is accounted for by monastic Buddhists, devout lay believers, and, if the figure includes them, what one might call “occasional” Buddhists.  The most recent statistics available which are at all dependable were gathered in 1930.  Welch (1967: 411-414) gives these as the following: monks, 513,000; nuns, 225,000; male devotees, 1,510,000; female devotees, 2,360,000: total, 4,608,000.  Here one presumes that the devotees were primarily serious, rather than occasional, Buddhists.  More recently it has been estimated that the number of Buddhists in China (inclusive of Tibet) is more than 72 million, with around 17 million of these being adherents of Tantric or Mongolian-Tibetan Buddhism (also referred to as Lamaism) and with around 1.6 million of these 17 million being resident in Tibet.  The figure of 72 million also includes 1.5 million adherents of Hinayana Buddhism, located particularly in the south-west province of Yunnan which borders Laos and Burma.  The numbers of monks and nuns is estimated to be about 200,000 in total, with more than half of these being Tibetan in location or origin (Stockwell 1993: 89).
     As to the question to of the precise numbers of monastic adherents of particular schools, any answer is complicated by the fact that Chinese Buddhist monks and nuns often consider themselves as belonging to different Schools in different ways.  Thus the great majority of monasteries and their inhabitants (excluding those which are specifically Lamaist, such as those in Tibet) are Ch'an in terms of their lineage, but within them the doctrines of the some of the philosophical Schools may be taught, for example those of the Fa-hsiang, T'ien-t'ai, and Hua-yen.  Thus monks and nuns may recognise one of these Schools as their doctrinal school.  Similarly, monks and nuns accept the Lu as their disciplinary school.  In terms of practice, meanwhile, nearly all monasteries employ a combination, and in some cases also a synthesis, of Ch'an meditation and Ching-t'u devotional practice, and a monk or nun may identify themselves with either or both.  The situation, then, is complex, and the best one can do in regard to the Ch'an School is to say that it is the dominant monastic tradition, and that it is recognised by the majority of monks and nuns as their lineal School, and that many of these monks and nuns practice its meditation techniques.
     The Ch'an School has also been very successful outside of China, primarily in its Japanese incarnation, Zen.  There are Ch'an/Zen communities in the USA, Canada, and the United Kingdom.  In Japan itself there were around nine million Zen Buddhists in 1981 (Harvey 1990: 287).  In Korea, where Ch'an is known as Son, it is the dominant School.

Main Centre

The Shao-lin Monastery in the Sung Mountain area, thirty-five miles south-east of the city of Lo-yang in Honan Province.