A Brief History of Chan | An Excerpt from Zen Master Yunmen

Yunmen in Context

Setting the Stage for Chan

Long before Buddhism arrived in China around the beginning of the Common Era, Chinese thinkers taught ideas whose orientation was of striking similarity to some central tenets of that foreign religion that had yet to arrive. These teachings, ascribed to the ancient sages Laozi (Lao-tzu) and Zhuangzi (Chuangtzu), are often called “philosophical Daoism,” and originated in China between the fourth and second centuries before the Common Era. They not only contain a fundamental expression of the wisdom of the Chinese and their view of humanity— its beauty, its problematic sides, and its ideals—but are also great works of literary art whose imagery and terminology exerted an unmistakable influence on later religious and philosophical teachings.

In particular, the writings of Zhuangzi, the author of parts of a classic of the same name, and of his followers were to play an important role in facilitating the introduction and acculturation of Buddhism in China some centuries later. Many of Zhuangzi’s stories exude a kind of down-to-earth spirituality that is very similar to that found a thousand years later in Chinese Zen (Chan) texts. For example:

Duke Huan was in his hall reading a book. The wheelwright P’ien, who was in the yard below chiseling a wheel, laid down his mallet and chisel, stepped up into the hall, and said to Duke Huan, “This book Your Grace is reading— may I venture to ask whose words are in it?”

“The words of sages,” said the duke.

“Are the sages still alive?”

“Dead long ago,” said the duke.

“In that case, what you are reading there is nothing but the chaff and dregs of the men of old!”

“Since when does a wheelwright have permission to comment on the books I read?” said Duke Huan. “If you have some explanation, well and good. If not, it’s your life!”

Wheelwright P’ien said, “I look at it from the point of view of my own work. When I chisel a wheel, if the blows of the mallet are too gentle, the chisel slides and won’t take hold. But if they’re too hard, it bites in and won’t budge. Not too gentle, not too hard—you can get it in your hand and feel it in your mind. You can’t put it into words, and yet there’s a knack to it somehow. I can’t teach it to my son, and he can’t learn it from me. So I’ve gone along for seventy years and at my age I’m still chiseling wheels. When the men of old died, they took with them the things that couldn’t be handed down. So what you are reading there must be nothing but the chaff and the dregs of the men of old."

Such currents of thought had already existed in China for several centuries when Buddhism was gradually imported to China by people traveling the Silk Road. As in many other religions, images or icons initially played a much more important role than texts written in foreign languages. However, beginning in the third century an increasing number of Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures were translated into Chinese. These translations made ample use of terms coined by Zhuangzi and Laozi as well as by their heirs and commentators. The translation process, however, was not limited to the words in scriptures. Rather, the whole Indian religion was given a Chinese face, not unlike the Buddha statues whose facial features gradually changed from Indo-European large noses and eyes to their Chinese equivalents. By the sixth century there were already several forms of Buddhism that were unmistakably Chinese in character. Among them grew the movement that will primarily concern us here: Chan Buddhism.

Meditation was also an important aspect of Chinese Buddhism from an early period, and several noted teachers and texts placed a strong emphasis on meditative concentration. The Sanskrit term for such concentration was dhyāna; imitating the sound of this word, the Chinese called it “Chan,” using the Chinese character that the Japanese came to pronounce as “Zen,” the Koreans as “Sŏn,” and the Vietnamese as “Thiền.”

Chinese Buddhist Meditation

The Chan movement did not shoot out of the Chinese ground like a bamboo stalk during the rainy season; rather, it grew gradually from soil that had been formed during centuries of extensive adaptation of doctrine and practice to the conditions of China. In the first few centuries, Chinese Buddhist nuns and monks engaged in activities such as building  doctrine and rules of monastic discipline, and performing feats of magic. Meditation was also an important aspect of Chinese Buddhism from an early period, and several noted teachers and texts placed a strong emphasis on meditative concentration. The Sanskrit term for such concentration was dhyāna; imitating the sound of this word, the Chinese called it “Chan,” using the Chinese character that the Japanese came to pronounce as “Zen,” the Koreans as “Sŏn,” and the Vietnamese as “Thiền.” The eminent scholar-monk Daoan (312–385), for instance, outlined in one of his prefaces the meditative process that leads from the counting of breaths to a state of pure awareness. The early popularity of meditation practices was in part due to the belief that through such practices various magical powers could be acquired. Thus centuries before we can discern the movement we now label Chan Buddhism, there were numerous monks with meditative (“Chan”) interests gathering around teachers who appeared to have actualized what the texts explain and who concentrated their efforts on leading their students in the same direction.

Recent research shows that the early phase of Chan did not proceed as smoothly as later authors would make us believe; rather, it appears as a period marked by numerous controversies of doctrinal and personal nature. The best known of these disputes divided Chan adherents in the so-called Northern (“gradual awakening”) and Southern (“immediate awakening”) factions.

Early Chan

After the first adaptation and translation phase of Indian Buddhism in China (second to fifth centuries) and the gradual formation of meditative circles belonging to various schools of Chinese Buddhism, the movement we now call Chan emerges as an identifiable entity around the seventh century of the Common Era. Stories by later authors assert that the Chan tradition had been founded in the fifth or sixth century by the Indian monk Bodhidharma, whose teachings are said to have been handed down through a succession of patriarchs to the sixth and most famous one: Huineng, the purported author of the Platform Sutra. Recent research shows that the early phase of Chan did not proceed as smoothly as later authors would make us believe; rather, it appears as a period marked by numerous controversies of doctrinal and personal nature. The best known of these disputes divided Chan adherents in the so-called Northern (“gradual awakening”) and Southern (“immediate awakening”) factions. Some themes that were discussed gained broader attention; the sudden/gradual controversy, for example, stood also at the center of the “Council of Tibet,” a famous public controversy at the end of the eighth century involving representatives of early Chinese Chan and Indian Buddhism.

Professor Seizan Yanagida, who after World War II almost single-handedly rewrote the history of early Chan, has pointed out that masters in the sixth to eighth centuries still discussed the nature of Buddhist awakening much in the words of the sutras or holy scriptures of Buddhism scriptures that were thought to reproduce the actual words of the historical Buddha. But gradually more and more importance was given to the words of Chinese masters who had actualized the spirit of these scriptures in themselves—people who had themselves become buddhas, or “awakened ones.” These masters used simple words to explain the essence of awakening and responded in like manner to concrete questions about its realization.

Although the Chan movement did not yet have a clearly discernible monastic organization, its teachings and teaching methods with time became remarkably different from those of other sects. The widespread emergence of illustrious and original Chan teachers marks the onset of the “classical” age of Chan (eighth to tenth centuries) toward whose end Yunmen lived.

The Classical Age of Chan

Around the end of the eighth century a number of masters taught what they took to be the essence of Buddhism in a startlingly direct and fresh way. In examining the sources we have from this period, we notice an extraordinary change in the way masters related to their students and vice versa. Few quotes from scriptures appeared in talks by these masters; instead of repeating the words of the historically remote Buddha or commenting on them, these masters themselves spoke, here and now—and they were not beyond whacking and swearing if the need arose. In place of doctrinal hairsplitting, they demonstrate the teachings in action: shouting and joking, telling stories, and handing out abuse or encouragement as they see fit. The unctuous style of Buddhist sermons and learned scholastic exegesis gave way to colloquialisms and slang: the masters of the classic age of Chan talk so bluntly that to some people their talks must at the outset have been hardly identifiable as Buddhist.

The great majority of Chan’s most famous masters, including Mazu, Linji, and Zhaozhou, lived during the two centuries before the turn of the millennium. Master Yunmen is the last Chan teacher of this classical period who rose to great fame.

Instead of learned discussions about this or that doctrinal problem of the past, the masters and their students aim directly at the one thing they consider essential: being a buddha oneself, right here and now. In the following example from a classical Chan record, we see Master Linji simply repeating a question of a student, whereupon the student resorts to a physical action that seeks to show that the master is not really an awakened teacher. However, the master quickly gets the better of the questioner. Characteristically, he does this not by asking him a complicated question about Buddhist doctrine but rather by a completely unexpected inquiry about the questioner’s well-being:

One day Lin-chi went to Ho-fu. Counselor Wang the Prefectural Governor requested the Master to take the high seat. At that time Ma-yü came forward and asked, “The Great Compassionate One has a thousand hands and a thousand eyes. Which is the true eye?” The Master said: “The Great Compassionate One has a thousand hands and a thousand eyes. Which is the true eye? Speak, speak!” Ma-yü pulled the Master down off the high seat and sat on it himself. Coming up to him, the Master said: “How are you doing?” Ma-yü hesitated. The Master, in his turn, pulled Ma-yü off the high seat and sat upon it himself. Ma-yü went out. The Master stepped down.

Most of what we know about the teachings of this classic age of Chan stems from later compendia containing biographies and samples of teachings and from the collected sayings of various masters. Such sayings were often recorded by the masters’ disciples and went through the hands of a number of compilers and editors. The instructions and dialogues that are translated in this volume come from a typical example of the “recorded sayings” genre, the Record of Yunmen.

The great majority of Chan’s most famous masters, including Mazu, Linji, and Zhaozhou, lived during the two centuries before the turn of the millennium. Master Yunmen is the last Chan teacher of this classical period who rose to great fame. These teachers and their disciples form the classic core of the Chan tradition within the whole of Chinese Buddhism. The records and compendia of this time are also classic in the sense that they functioned as both the main source and the reference point of Chan teaching ever since, even in Korea, Japan, and now the West. Today’s Chan, Sŏn, and Zen masters constantly refer to their Chinese forebears, and much of the writing about Chan consists—like this book—of translations of the sayings of classical masters.

Collections of the words of masters were treated as prize possessions as early as the ninth century. But this very adulation of old writings was criticized by many masters. In the Record of Linji ( Jap. Rinzai, died 866), for example, we find the following words:

Students of today get nowhere because they base their understanding upon the acknowledgment of names. They inscribe the words of some dead old guy in a great big notebook, wrap it up in four or five squares of cloth, and won’t let anyone look at it. “This is the Mysterious Principle,” they aver, and safeguard it with care. That’s all wrong. Blind idiots! What kind of juice are you looking for in such dried-up bones!

Master Linji’s harsh criticism of collecting and safeguarding the words of masters points toward the central aim of Chan teaching. Since approximately the year 1000, the following quatrain has been used to characterize Chan:

Transmitted outside of established doctrine,
[Chan] does not institute words. [Rather,]
It points directly to the human being’s heart:
Seeing your nature makes you a buddha.

Because of the role that Chan texts and Buddhist scriptures play at Chan monasteries, the meaning of the first two lines of his quatrain has provoked much discussion. To me, they point to what nineteenth-century Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said about the Bible. He said that reading it is like looking at a mirror: some may wonder of what material it is crafted, how much it cost, how it functions, where it comes from, etc. Others, however, look into that mirror to face themselves. It is the latter attitude that is addressed in the quatrain above.

The central concern of Chan is nothing other than the thorough seeing of one’s own nature, and the Buddha and the enlightened masters after him tried to guide and prod their students toward this. Many of these masters point out that with such a goal, sutras as well as Chan scriptures can be no more than a finger pointing at the moon. Yet these very observations were written down and soon collected in records comprising the sayings of individual masters.

In addition to such records, compendia appeared that usually furnished the biographical information and selected teachings of numerous masters. These compendia are another sign of the growing awareness on the part of Chan monks that they were members of a single tradition that could be arranged in various lineages. The first major compendium of this kind is the Collection from the Founder’s Hall (Ch. Zutangji, Kor. Chodang chip, Jap. Sodōshū), completed in 952. It appeared just three years after Master Yunmen’s death and stands at the end of the classical age, just as the second major compendium, the Jingde Era Record of the Transmission of the Lamp (Ch. Jingde chuandenglu, Jap. Keitoku dentōroku), published in 1004, marks the beginning of a new period of great expansion and literary and cultural productivity
during the Song dynasty (960–1279).

Chan in the Second Millennium

Around the turn of the millennium the first rulers of the Song dynasty ushered in a new political age in which Chan flourished. The religion broadened its influence dramatically and grew into a considerable force both religiously and culturally. During the Song dynasty, the Chan Buddhists not only attracted respect (or criticism) as members of a famous movement, they also created much of what we now call Chan monasticism (monastic rules, rituals, etc.), Chan methodology (especially the systematic use of koans), Chan literature (recorded sayings, koan collections, Chan histories, etc.), and Chan art (painting, calligraphy, etc.). This influence radiated internationally, as some talented Japanese monks such as Eisai and Dōgen studied in China and founded Zen traditions upon their return to Japan.

The Yunmen line flourished for about two centuries after the death of the master. Toward the end of the Song dynasty it was gradually absorbed into the Linji tradition, as were all the other Chan lines with the exception of Caodong ( Jap. Sōtō).

Although during the classical age lineages were not at all distinct and many monks studied under different masters at different times, the Song editors of compendia and Chan histories made great efforts to reduce the complex historical web to neat linear threads strung from master to successor. Thus they began to speak of five major classical traditions of Chan: those of Guiyang ( Jap. Igyō), Linji ( Jap. Rinzai), Caodong ( Jap. Sōtō), Yunmen ( Jap. Ummon), and Fayan ( Jap. Hōgen). The two most influential traditions during the Song era were the lines of Yunmen and Linji. This is probably due to both the eminence of their progenitors and the presence in these two lines of literarily gifted monks who rewrote Chan history and edited various compendia, chronicles, and records. The best-known representative of the Yunmen line was Xuetou Chongxian (980–1052), the gifted poet and popular Chan teacher who wrote the poetic comments in the Blue Cliff Record. Partly because of monks like him, Yunmen overshadows all other masters with regard to the number of his sayings included in Song-era koan collections. Three major koan collections (the Blue Cliff Record, the Gateless Barrier, and the Record of Serenity) feature Yunmen as protagonist more often than any other master.

A representative of the line of Yunmen who was in many ways typical was Master Qisong (1007–1072), who lived four generations after Yunmen. He was the author of a book entitled Record of the True Tradition of Dharma Transmission, which tried to show that Chan is the most genuine of the traditions of Buddhism. Such texts had considerable influence on the intelligentsia of the time, so much so that the great Neo-Confucianist philosopher Zhuxi (1130–1200) discussed mainly Chan teachings when writing about Buddhism. But this influence went both ways: Master Qisong was also an ardent student of Confucianism and composed a book about one of the four Confucian classics, the Doctrine of the Mean, as well as other works that make an argument for the underlying unity of such different teachings.

The Yunmen line flourished for about two centuries after the death of the master. Toward the end of the Song dynasty it was gradually absorbed into the Linji tradition, as were all the other Chan lines with the exception of Caodong (Jap. Sōtō). During the Yuan dynasty (1260–1367), the Yunmen line vanished altogether. From the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) on, the Linji tradition flourished to such an extent that it became practically synonymous in China with Chan and even Buddhism as a whole. By the beginning of the twentieth century, to be a Linji monk meant little more than to be an ordained Buddhist monk.

The influence of Yunmen’s teaching, however, did not suffer the same fate as his school: it remains omnipresent in Chan to this day.

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Urs AppUrs App, PhD, is a Swiss scholar of Buddhism and religious studies, specializing in Zen. See more about the author here.