Chan Buddhism

chan budizam

A quest for true nature

Chan is a school of Mahāyāna Buddhism, in the West better known under its Japanese name Zen. Term chan is a Chinese translation of the Sanskrit word dhyāna, meaning meditation or meditative absorption.

The school emphasizes meditation practice, or cultivation of the mind, hence the name.

Word chan refers to the school, as well as to the goal of the practice. Therefore, it is often used for awakening, ultimate truth or true nature. Chan or Zen Buddhism is not just a school of meditation, it is also considered the school that embodies the living wisdom that the Buddha, the awakened one, obtained sitting in meditation under the bodhi tree.

Emphasizing the embodiment of the direct awakening experience, Chan approach, its methods and a way of transmission differs from other Buddhist schools. This does not however mean that it is opposed to them. Chan is simple, distinct and more direct. It accentuates the essential, without wandering off into auxiliary. 

The school of sudden awakening

Chan school is considered a school of sudden awakening, in contrast to the gradual awakening. This is why many think that once they start practicing Chan, they will quickly, almost instantaneously attain awakening. In the West, many books have been published about Chan, and especially Zen, that present Zen through Japanese koan or Chinese gong’an. These are recorded conversations between a disciple and a master in which the disciple, due to something the master said or did, suddenly experiences awakening. Based on this, one can come to a wrong conclusion that the awakening can happen in a variety of situations, regardless if one is practicing or not. Something happens and in that moment one is simply awakened – and voilà – that’s that Zen or Chan!

What does sudden awakening mean in Chan? The simplest way to put it is that the awakening is always sudden, but the path leading to it is gradual. The progress on the path of Chan depends mostly on the practitioners themselves, on their disposition for meditation that is not arbitrary and given, but a result of effort and practice.

Chan is considered a school of sudden awakening due to its methods that are often considered no methods at all. Awakening can be attained instantaneously because it is not conditioned by the category of time. It is conditioned by the capacity to let go of everything that prevents it. If we could in this moment let go of all the phenomena, we would experience awakening. If we succeed in it, we can say we did it without any particular method. Instantaneously letting go of everything requires no method indeed. Aside from that, we cannot say that awakening is created by something. No method, no matter what kind, creates it. Awakening is a true state of things that manifests itself when we let go of all the phenomena. Our true nature simply manifests itself the moment it stops being concealed by anything.

Principles of Chan

Bodhidharma, the first patriarch of Chan, taught that everything arises from the mind, that our true nature is buddha nature and that it is imminent to all beings.  That path to insight into one’s own nature is to observe the mind. On one hand, this is Buddhism that is deeply rooted in the teachings of Mahāyāna. On the other hand, it is a return to the core of the teaching and the experience of the awakening through the practice of meditation.

The direction of the Chan school is expressed in four renown principles:

  1. Special transmission outside of holy scriptures.
  2. Independence from words and letters.
  3. Points directly to the mind.
  4. Seeing one’s own nature and attaining Buddhahood.

First two principles refer to the transition of the experience of awakening which the whole tradition of Chan is based upon. Independency from words and letters as well as a special transmission outside of the holy scriptures point to the fact that Chan as a primal truth and the original Buddha-nature, is beyond words, talks, ideas and concepts. In the tradition of Chan this experience of true nature is often compared to the moon, and words, talk, ideas and concepts are compared with a finger pointing to the moon. Words and concepts can never fully express or describe that experience, because it needs and has to be experienced by each person for themselves. This principle warns us to not mistake the finger for the moon, knowledge for wisdom, or the description of reality for the reality itself. However, it would be false to conclude that Chan rejects the standard means of transmission and continuation of Buddhist tradition through various forms of ordinations, taking of moral precepts and study of texts and teachings. The need for them is undeniable, however, Chan justly warns that they cannot end in themselves because it sacrifices the spirit of the teaching for the letter of the teaching.

The remaining two principles declare that our mind is originally the buddha-mind and that there is no need to seek the buddha outside of our own mind. Stilling and observing the mind through all stages of meditation practice – from dispersed to focused to unified mind – finally leads to insight into its own nature.