The roots of Chan (Zen)


“You cannot sound the depth of the Buddha’s realization by sitting meditation.”

Current movements trying to modernize Buddhism (like Secular Buddhism) don’t go far enough, as they still rely on dogma (e.g. the four noble truths) or meditation. Early Chan was already more developed. Here are some of the achievements that are mostly forgotten or unknown in other Buddhist traditions.

1) Zen is not about being good or bad: “Cutting the bad and cultivating the good to become a Buddha – that is a wrong thought stemming from one’s own mind.” Zen goes beyond those categories or wants to detect what lies behind it. Any criteria and moral judgment has to be treated with caution, being a product of thought that is superimposed on “reality”.

2) “Truth” lies beyond any norms, the mind has to blast them. This goes for the norms of Buddhist teachers, too: “If one does not seek understanding and wisdom, he will avoid the delusions of dharma teachers and meditation masters.”

3) Events trump words: “Who deduces the dharma from events instead of relying on the teaching of a master can be called a man with sharp wisdom.”

4) The life of a zen adept welcomes all feelings, he “neither rejects jealousy nor greed” because he knows they are empty, but “turns any place of bad influence (karma) into a Buddha event”.

The place of precepts are the four immeasurable states of mind (kindness, empathy, shared joy, equanimity), no set of sila or rules that paint the world in black and white.

5) Scriptures (sutras) are seen as products of the mind and therefore misleading: “When there are no sophisticated gimmicks of the mind, what need is there for sitting meditation and right mindfulness?”

Thoughts toward enlightenment and the invocation of scriptures and commentaries only nourish intellectual understanding: “Don’t use mind to get rid of mind!”

6) Karma has not existed per se but is created by mankind through believing: ‘I do bad, so I will be punished; I do good, so I will be rewarded.’ The ‘bad’ karma arises only by this distinction itself.

All those quotes come from the Tunhuang rolls, the earliest findings of chan transmission. More can be read in Jeffrey L. Broughton’s The Bodhidharma Anthology (Berkeley 1999). It becomes obvious were so many Buddhist schools in the East and West went astray and that not even in zen dojos you will find much of this early spirit.


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