June 19, 2014

A Simple Description of Ch’an Buddhism.



“If if halts, it is Enlightenment (Bodhi).” ~ Xu Yun

It’s said that the most important teaching that was taught by Bodhidharma and Huineng is simply to “expel all concurrent causes; do not give rise to a single thought.”

This is the fundamental teaching upon which Ch’an training relies.

Two sentences represent the prerequisites of Ch’an training. They are: “Expel all concurrent causes” and “Do not give rise to a single thought.”

So, how can we follow these instructions?


Ch’an training revolves around realization of the mind and perception of our true nature.

This is a deep investigation into our selves. There are several methods for this. They include seated meditation, kong an practice (teacher asks the student riddles), chanting and others. Different Ch’an lineages emphasize different methods. The point of these methods is the same: to be present in the moment and to perceive our true nature.

The path that consists of awakening to our true natures has been handed down for centuries, since the Buddha held up a flower, through Bodhidharma travelling to the East.

In the early days, it only consisted of the transmission from teacher to student. They practiced together and over time the teacher would ask the student questions to work on untying the bonds in the student’s mind. Teachers would teach their students to lay down thoughts or, as Dogen said, “To drop off body and mind” and when the teacher could see a certain level of attainment, they would authorize them, transmitting the Dharma.

Bodhidharma called it “A special transmission outside the scriptures.”

Ultimately, this would change. Teachers would take on multiple students at once and give Dharma transmission several times. This wasn’t bad in it itself.

It led to the rise of organizations. It even led to schools that are devoted to training dharma holders, certifying that someone has put in a certain amount of work instead of certifying their attainment. It led to systems of advancement that resemble politics. Who knows where that could lead?

But I would be unwilling to criticize anyone else on the path, I think. I would only say that you should do your research before you join any Buddhist organization or study with any Buddhist teacher. Red flags are easy to spot.

There are many Ch’an organizations in the world. When it was carried to Japan it became Zen, the name by which it would come to be known here in the west.

Some organizations have strict hierarchies and some are more loose. Some put great emphasis on becoming a monk. Others put no emphasis on it at all. It’s all dependent upon the style of the teachers that have come before in the lineage.

My lineage, the Ch’an Guild of Huineng, is a loose organization that makes no distinction between lay devotees and monks. It’s called a guild because its members use the same set of spiritual tools: the Platform Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, and the Vimalakirti Sutra.

We must never forget that the “lay'” and “monastic” labels are artificial. Their only meanings are the meanings we give them. And the same is true of the different lineages. We’re all Dharma brothers and sisters, but sometimes we don’t think of each other in that way. Sectarianism is probably harmful.

It should be noted that Huineng the 6th Patriarch was not a monk when he received Dharma Transmission. I think people forget that sometimes.

If Buddha Nature is our true nature, then it’s accessible to all of us. We just have to clear away our own delusions.

The teaching of Buddha Nature tells us that we’re already Enlightened.

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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Wikimedia Commons


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