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Religion Library: Zen


Written by: Julia Hardy

Out of these philosophical ideas, Chan would develop its own arguments about emptiness and Buddha-nature. Like Candrakirti, many Chan thinkers advocated the deconstruction of all views. Like Jizang, some Chan thinkers argued that all things are empty, and yet one. Like Asanga, some proponents of Chan believed that the deconstruction of distinctions would lead to an experience of the world of phenomena without the distorting filter of delusion. Finally, as did the Yogacara school, Chan meditation teachers developed techniques to explore the nature of consciousness. In the case of Chan, however, the idea was to propel the mind beyond logic and categories of experience into a state that transcended both logic and experience.

Outside of Buddhism, a significant influence on Chan in China was Taoism. The first textual reference to Buddhism in Chinese, from imperial records of the Emperor Ming Di (reigned 58-75 C.E.), is an account of a Chinese nobleman who combined Buddhist and Taoist practices. Another reference from the 2nd century mentions a Taoist practitioner who added Buddhist rituals to rites in honor of the emperor. A story began about this time, with variations that persist to this day, that the Buddha was actually the Taoist Laozi (Lao-tzu), who had left China to go west. The more common variation of the story is that after he left China, Laozi traveled to India where he became the Buddha's teacher.

Buddhism and Taoism had some similar practices, such as concentration and breath control exercises, and individuals often practiced techniques from each tradition in combination. A Buddhist teacher from Parthia who arrived in China in 148 and was given the Chinese name of An Shih-kao, was a meditator and translator who, because of these interests, focused on translating Buddhist texts about meditation and concentration practices into Chinese. Other translations of Buddhist texts throughout the 2nd and 3rd centuries had a similar focus.

Also because of commonalities between Taoism and Buddhism, Taoist terminology was frequently used in these early translations of Buddhist texts. This led in some cases to misinterpretations of Buddhist concepts, but it also made Buddhism seem more familiar to the Chinese.

A new phase in the relationship between Buddhism and Taoism began in the early 4th century when many members of the Chinese nobility fled south to escape an invasion and takeover of the north. Having lost their government positions in the north, the nobility had a lot of leisure time. Most had an interest in Taoism, and some of them gravitated toward Buddhist thought and practices. They were particularly interested in the notion that all things originate out of non-being, and are one, and also in the Buddhist thoughts about forgetting all distinctions and seeking universal harmony and unity with all things.

Buddhism, Taoism, and a form of social and political thought that was also quite influential in ancient China—Confucianism—would shape one another in a variety of ways over the following centuries, until eventually a popular saying was adopted—sanjiao heyi, which means, "The three teachings are (united into) one."

Study Questions:
1.     What role did Buddhism play in the creation of Zen?
2.     How do the Madhyamika and Yogacara philosophies differ from one another? What does each contribute to Zen?
3.     What can be said about the relationship between Buddhism, Taoism, and Zen?


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