Chan Buddhism

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  • Post last modified:March 24, 2023
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Chan (traditional Chinese: 禪; simplified Chinese: 禅; pinyin: Chán; abbr. of Chinese: 禪那; pinyin: chánnà), from Sanskrit dhyāna (meaning “meditation” or “meditative state”), is a Chinese school of Mahāyāna Buddhism. It developed in China from the 6th century CE onwards, becoming especially popular during the Tang and Song dynasties.

Chan is the originating tradition of Zen Buddhism (the Japanese pronunciation of the same character, which is the most commonly used name for the school in English). Chan Buddhism spread from China south to Vietnam as Thiền and north to Korea as Seon, and, in the 13th century, east to Japan as Japanese Zen.

When Buddhism came to China, it was adapted to the Chinese culture and understanding. Theories about the influence of other schools in the evolution of Chan vary widely and are heavily reliant upon speculative correlation rather than on written records or histories. Some scholars have argued that Chan developed from the interaction between Mahāyāna Buddhism and Taoism, while one believes that Chan has roots in yogic practices, specifically kammaṭṭhāna, the consideration of objects, and kasiṇa, total fixation of the mind.

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Buddhist meditation was practised in China centuries before the rise of Chan, by people such as An Shigao (c. 148–180 CE) and his school, who translated various Dhyāna sutras (Chán-jing, 禪経, “meditation treatises”), which were influential early meditation texts mostly based on the Yogacara meditation teachings of the Sarvāstivāda school of Kashmir circa 1st-4th centuries CE.

The five main types of meditation in the Dhyana sutras are Anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing); paṭikūlamanasikāra meditation, mindfulness of the impurities of the body; loving-kindness maitrī meditation; the contemplation on the twelve links of pratītyasamutpāda; and the contemplation on the Buddha’s thirty-two Characteristics.

Other important translators of meditation texts were Kumārajīva (334–413 CE), who translated The Sutra on the Concentration of Sitting Meditation, among many other texts; and Buddhabhadra. These Chinese translations of mostly Indian Sarvāstivāda Yogacara meditation manuals were the basis for the meditation techniques of Chinese Chan.

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