Ch’an Buddhism

Deutsch: Bodhidharma
Bodhidharma (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ch’an Buddhism is the Chinese equivalent of Japanese Zen Buddhism. Based on the Sanskrit word dhyana, Ch’an apparently was brought to China in the early 6th century by the Buddhist Missionary Bodhidharma (also said to be the first to develop the koan).

Ch’an essentially is a meditation school. While interpretations differ as to the character of its ultimate goal (i.e. Buddha-mind), generally it can be described as a stillness where no distinctions exist between subject and object, good and evil and where emotion is brought to a place of quiescence or indifference. In other words, Ch’an claims to offer a path that leads beyond duality.

These lines sum up Bodhidharma’s teaching:

A special transmission outside the scripture
No dependence upon words or letter
Direct pointing to the soul of man
Seeing into nature and attainment of Buddhahood

It should be noted, however, that Ch’an doesn’t scorn conceptual knowledge. Instead, it tries to avoid excessive intellectualization. This is an important distinction that many Buddhists and, perhaps, Gnostics seem to miss. There’s nothing wrong with thinking and forming concepts, Ch’an says. As human beings we simply must do. And healthy thinking can even extend to trying to map out ultimate concerns—that is, to develop a cosmology. The problem, as Ch’an sees it, is when we cling to intellectual ideas without enough spiritual experience to justify doing so.

Calligraphy of Bodhidharma, “Zen points direct...
Calligraphy of Bodhidharma, “Zen points directly to the human heart, see into your nature and become Buddha”, Hakuin Ekaku, 17th century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We find this kind of excessive intellectualization not just in Asian religions, but in any immature fundamentalism where people “think” about what’s right and what is, without any truly elevated experience behind their ideas. These people latch onto or proclaim a pet theory because doing so gives them social comfort and, perhaps, pays the bills (as in fundamentalist organizations that demand or pressure workers to believe in a particular interpretation of sacred scripture).²

Another interesting feature of Ch’an is that its insights do not rely on seated meditation. Instead, a great deal of creative physical activity goes hand in hand with the inner quest.

As D. Howard Smith puts it:

The search for direct communication with the inner nature of things and the vision of a world beyond all opposites led to a great outpouring of creative art in China and Japan.³

So with Ch’an we don’t always find navel gazing meditators who artificially try to remove themselves from all that the world has to offer. Instead, there seems to be more of a creative integration between the contemplative and creative aspects of the human self. This path arguably comes closer to the Hindu ideal of karma-yoga (the yoga of action).

¹ Cited in S. G. F. Brandon, ed., Dictionary of Comparative Religion (1970), p. 186.

² Whether or not these workers actually believe in and privately follow what they outwardly display through their sugar-coated, squeaky clean work personas is another matter altogether.

³ D. Howard Smith in S. G. F. Brandon (1970), p. 187.


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