Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Buddhist philosophy, Chinese

1 Historical overview
2 Earliest developments
3 Indian transplants: Madhyamaka and icchantikas
4 Indian transplants: tathāgatagarbha and Yogācāra
5 The Awakening of Faith in Mahāyāna
6 The Chinese Buddhist Schools
7 The Chinese Buddhist Schools: Tiantai
8 The Chinese Buddhist Schools: Huayan
9 The Chinese Buddhist Schools: Chan
10 The Chinese Buddhist Schools: Pure Land
11 Sinicizing Buddhist concepts
12 Sinicizing Buddhist concepts: emptiness
13 Sinicizing Buddhist concepts: suffering and ignorance
14 Sinicizing Buddhist concepts: is Buddha-nature good or evil?


9 The Chinese Buddhist Schools: Chan

Better known in the West by its Japanese pronunciation, Zen, Chan emerged as a reaction against the increasing scholastic complexities of the Tiantai and Huayan schools and their voluminous, hairsplitting literature, which, some Chan practitioners believed, could be more of an obstacle than an aid to enlightenment. The Pāli term for meditative absorption, jhāna (Sanskrit, dhyāna), was transliterated into Chinese as Channa, and then shortened to Chan. Until the early Tang Dynasty, chanshi (Chan master) meant a monk adept at meditation, though it did not specify what sorts of meditation he was practising. Some monks were called dharma masters (fashi), some were called scriptural masters (zangshi), some were called disciplinary masters (lushi) and some were meditation masters. These titles could be applied to a monk (or nun) of any school, since they denoted one’s methodological focus rather than one’s ideological leanings.

Chan begins to denote a specific doctrinal and meditative ideology around the time of Huineng (638–713). Although Chan tradition describes a transmission by five patriarchs culminating in Huineng as the sixth patriarch, as noted above, that transmission is more fiction than fact. Huineng’s followers established the Southern School of Chan, which unleashed a polemical tirade against the Northern School. Since the Northern School disappeared about a thousand years ago, our only source of information on these schools was the prejudiced accounts of the Southern School, until the discovery at Dunhuang early this century of Northern School documents. We now know that many different versions of lineage histories were circulated, and, more importantly, that the positions attributed to the Northerners by their Southern rivals were grossly inaccurate and unfair. In fact, the Northern School had initially been the more successful of the two, but its success led to its ultimate ruin, since its growing dependence on Imperial patronage made it a vulnerable target during times of Imperial persecution of Buddhism. The Southern School, because it had taken root in remote areas less affected by actions of the Central government, survived the persecutions relatively intact.

Huineng is depicted in the Platform Sutra (authored by his leading follower and promoter, Shenhui) as an illiterate seller of firewood who experiences sudden enlightenment while overhearing someone reciting the Diamond Sutra. He joins a monastery where, without any official training in scriptures or meditation, he demonstrates that his enlightenment is more profound than all the monks who had been practising for years. Hence sudden enlightenment is one of the main tenets of the Platform Sutra (and subsequently for all forms of Chan). Another is ‘direct pointing at mind’, which, similar to the Tiantai approach, means that what is important is to observe one’s own mind, to recognize that the nature of one’s mind is Buddha-nature itself (see Platform Sutra).

While some Buddhists had argued that the goal was wisdom, and meditation was merely a means to that goal, Huineng argued for the inseparability of meditation and wisdom. Using an analytic device probably introduced by the so-called neo-Daoist Wang Bi (226–49), the tiyong model (see Ti and yong), Huineng claimed that meditation is the essence (ti) of wisdom, and wisdom is the function (yong) of meditation. Wisdom does not produce meditation, nor does meditation produce wisdom; nor are meditation and wisdom different from each other. He drew an analogy to a lamp: the lamp is the ti, while its light is the yong. Wherever there is a (lit) lamp, there is light; wherever there is lamplight, there is a lamp. Lamp and light are different in name but identical in substance (ti), hence nondual.

Huineng’s style of Chan was still sober, calm, rational, and rooted in commonly accepted Buddhist tenets. New and more radical elements were soon incorporated into Chan, some iconoclastically renouncing meditation and practice as well as scholasticism, and others trying earnestly to work out a rational system by which Chan could be syncretized with the other schools. Zongmi (780–841) considered a patriarch of both the Chan and Huayan schools, attempted just such a synthesis, but his sober approach was soon overshadowed in China by more abrupt, startling forms of Chan.

Of the ‘Five Houses of Chan’, only the Linji school survives today in China, Taiwan and Korea. Based on the teachings of Linji (d. 867), this school possibly provided Buddhism with its most ‘Chinese’ voice. Chan literature of the Linji and related schools were among the first texts ever written in vernacular as opposed to classical Chinese. Daoist elements also began to appear prominently. Zhuangzi’s ‘true man’ becomes Linji’s ‘true man of no rank’ who is going in and out of each person’s face this very moment, and is always right here before one. The anecdotal humour associated with Zhuangzi’s stories and the irreverent exploits of the Bamboo Sages of the Six Dynasties period clearly infused the style of Chan anecdotes. Rather than indulge in elaborate, complicated theoretical abstractions, Chan focused on experience as lived, in terms familiar to anyone immersed in Chinese culture (though often exotic to Western students, which has led to the common misconception that Chan is nonsensical or obscurantist).

Teaching techniques began to overshadow doctrinal content. At the heart of Chan training are the exchanges between teacher and student. Records, called gongan, were compiled of classic encounters, and even these eventually became part of the teaching techniques, as they were presented to students as riddles to concentrate on during meditation. To disrupt the sort of idle or pernicious speculation that could prove a hindrance to enlightenment, abrupt and shocking techniques were employed, from radical statements such as, ‘If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him!’, to exchanges punctuated by blows and shouts (all the more startling in the subdued monastic atmosphere in which they would unexpectedly occur). Linji’s methods were designed to make students confront and overcome their mental and emotional habits and crutches, so as to become truly free and independent. Even dependency on Buddhism could be such a crutch. Linji summarized his teaching with the phrase: ‘Don’t be deceived.’

How to cite this article:
LUSTHAUS, DAN (1998). Buddhist philosophy, Chinese. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved April 19, 2014, from

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