Dhyana is the Indian Sanskrit word for meditation, transliterated into Chinese as chan by Chinese Buddhists. In the Tang and Song dynasties, a school of Chinese Buddhism calling itself Chan became the most popular school among educated elites, later spreading to Japan as Zen, Korea as Seon and Vietnam as Thien. America and much of the world uses the Japanese term Zen to refer to the school as an international whole, but use Chan to refer to specific figures and texts in China and likewise with the Korean and Vietnamese terms.
Much as the Tiantai Lotus school was a sect of Chinese Buddhism inspired by the Indian Lotus Sutra, Chan was a Chinese sect inspired by the Lankavatara Sutra, the Diamond Sutra and many other Indian Mahayana texts that taught we all have pure buddha-nature within that our desire and ignorance conceal. While the Lotus school focused on devotional practices to bodhisattvas and scholarly analysis of texts, Chan focused on meditation and philosophical interaction, interviews between master and student that test the student’s insight into Buddhist teaching and practice. Many are familiar with the puzzling and paradoxical questions of the sound of one hand clapping and the tree falling in the woods when no one is around, pieces snipped from the recorded interactions between Chan masters and monks, government officials and commoners.
Chan developed in China during the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 CE), the period that the great masters Huineng, Joshu, Mazu and Linji lived and taught. During a period of rebellion after the fall of the Tang, outlying schools that trace themselves back to Huineng became increasingly popular in areas controlled by local rulers, and the most popular of these schools was the Hongzhou school of Mazu, the first figure to use the term ‘Chan’ as one title for the school. From his line came Linji, whose school dominated the Song dynasty imperial court, composed the famous collections of koan cases, and who shaped Zen as a whole such that most of the tradition today traces itself back to Bodhidharma by way of Huineng, Mazu and Linji.
According to modern scholarship in the past few years, Chan developed into what it is today in the Song dynasty (960 – 1279). As Linji’s house became dominant in Chan and the most powerful sect of Buddhism in the Song imperial court, Linji’s followers wrote the koan collections and other texts that were codified as Chan history and doctrine by blending history and legend together to present a lineage of masters leading from the Buddha himself straight to their own school. In the process, the figures of Bodhidharma, Huineng, Joshu, Mazu and Linji himself were made into legends in line with the purposes of the House of Linji.
According to the Zen tradition which developed in the Song and is shared worldwide still today, their sect is the bearer of a silent and inexpressible teaching of the Buddha outside the Buddhist sutras, a way of life found outside of language, given to his single greatest student, Mahakashapa. According to Chan texts that developed in China, the Buddha once came before the assembly of his followers to lecture, but instead of speaking he silently held up a lotus flower. Everyone was confused, not knowing what to think or say, but Mahakashapa silently smiled. The Buddha said, “I have the eye of the true teaching, not expressible in words, but transmitted beyond teaching. I have given it to Mahakashapa.”
This is considered the first koan, the first case, and serves not only as a historical record of the lineage but as an object of study for students. It appears in many koan collections, including The Gateless Gate, the most popular collection. After Mahakashapa twenty six Indian patriarchs received the inexpressible transmission before the monk Bodhidharma left India around 400 CE and traveled to China to spread the inexpressible there. Though this makes him the twenty eighth Indian patriarch, he is also called the first patriarch of the Chinese tradition. According to Linji’s house and Zen today, the timeline of patriarchs in India and China are:
Buddha > Mahakashapa > (25 India) > Prajnatara > Bodhidharma
Bodhidharma > (4 China) > Huineng > Huairang > Mazu > Baizhang > Huangbo > Linji