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Religion Library: Zen


Written by: Julia Hardy

Multiple influences contributed to the development of Chan. One of these was early Buddhism as it was understood to have been practiced by the Buddha. The second patriarch of Chan, Huike, practiced asceticism and lived in the forests away from urban areas. He called for a return to the fundamentals of the tradition as taught by the Buddha—asceticism and meditation. Even as Chan moved to urban areas and became associated with centers of power, it continued to identify itself as a practice that returned to the basics of Buddhism.

Despite the interest in early Buddhist practices, it was the later Mahayana scriptures that had the greatest appeal to Chan monks and scholars. Of particular importance to Chan were The Perfection of Wisdom Sutras (especially the Vajracchedika Sutra), the Garland Sutras, the Vimalakirti Sutra, and the Lankavatara Sutra.

Among Buddhist philosophers, the thoughts of Indian monk and scholar Nagarjuna (c. 2nd-3rd c.) appealed to many Chan scholars because of his systematic deconstruction of all Buddhist principles. While some early Buddhists pursued an understanding of emptiness through concentrated meditation, Nagarjuna approached it through logical analysis. He used logic to show the limitations of any ultimate explanation of existence and non-existence, or of spiritual attainment. For Nagarjuna, early Buddhist teachings about impermanence and emptiness logically demanded that one should relinquish all views about everything. If nothing has permanent form, then there is no permanent truth either. Chan teachers would employ both concentration and analytical techniques to reveal the limitations of logical thought.

Two schools of Indian Buddhist philosophy particularly influential in the development of Chan were Madhyamika and Yogacara. Nagarjuna is regarded by some as the founder of the Madhyamika, or Middle Way school. Madhyamika argued that things have no inherent nature, and that reality is beyond all distinctions. There is no substance to ultimate reality, and nothing exists independently of anything else. For some, Madhyamika was a form of nondualism in which all oppositions are erased. The Madhyamika philosopher Jizang, who lived in China, stated that all things are empty, and at the same time, all things are one.

Yogacara is often known as the "mind-only" school. As the name implies, some advocates of this view believed that nothing but the contents of the mind are real, or to put it another way, that mind is the metaphysical basis of phenomena. Yogacara's primary proponent, Asanga, had a somewhat different idea. He described phases of discernment that would eventually lead to an experience beyond all distinctions, unknowable by the intellect, followed by a return to the world of phenomena experienced without delusion. Regardless of these distinctions, meditative techniques and practice geared toward attaining the experience of ultimate reality were essential to the Yogacara School.


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