The Origins of Chan

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In this lesson we briefly introduce the history and transmission of Chan, offering stories and teachings from some of Chan's most important and beloved masters. By learning a bit about the masters who are the foundation of today's Chan, we learn something of the character, or style, of Chan.

For a more complete presentation of the history of Chan see the Ashoka course The Story of Zen >>>

From Buddha to Mahakashyapa

What is the source of Chan? As we will see shortly, according to Chan lore the monk Bodhidharma brought Chan from India to China in about 500 C.E., more than a thousand years after Shakyamuni Buddha's death. But Indian history contains few records of the interim period, so we know relatively little about the origins of Chan practice.

Of the stories and legends that describe the origins of Chan the most famous is the account of the transmission of the Dharma to Mahakashyapa. Standing before an assembly of his senior disciples at Vulture Peak, the Buddha, instead of delivering his usual sermon, simply held up a flower and smiled. Of all those in attendance only Mahakashyapa understood the Buddha's meaning and smiled also.

Within the tradition of Chan this event is sometimes seen as the historical origin of Chan, in which the transmission of the Dharma took place silently between an enlightened master, the Buddha, and a disciple, Mahakashyapa. While this legend may be apocryphal, it does illustrate a fundamental feature of Chan—that the lineage of highly attained teachers is maintained through a system of direct master-to-disciple transmission that continues to this day. (The topic of transmission is presented in Lesson 8.)