What is "Zen"? (Part I)

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on September 5, 2016.)

The character for "Chan" on a wall at Wolong Temple, Xi'an

At many temples in China, there is a special hall set aside for meditation. In Chinese, the practice is referred to as "Chan."

But, despite the fact that Chan has a much longer history in China than Japan, Westerners first heard of this discipline through contacts with Japan, and so they typically pronounce it "Zen." (In fact, it is pronounced this way in some dialects of Chinese, probably the source of the Japanese pronunciation.)

But according to tradition, China is not the original home of Chan, either. Some sources say Bodhidharma, the First Patriarch of Chan, arrived in China in the 5th or 6th century, perhaps during the Liu Song dynasty (420-479) or the Liang (502-557). In either case, the stories clustered around him tend to occur in the Northern Wei (386-534).

They say that he arrived in Guangzhou, where a marker stands today near the modern site of Shangxiajiu Pedestrian Street. He then stayed in the nearby Hualin Temple before traveling north.

But where did he come from? Sources disagree, but it was either India or somewhere in Central Asia. One thing they do agree on is this: he was far from the first patriarch of the sitting meditation tradition--in fact he was First in China, but the 28th overall!

The lineage starts with the Buddha's disciple, Mahakashyapa, as the First Patriarch of Dhyana. This is the Sanskrit word for "meditation," and the phonetic source of the Chinese word "Chan." Before it was adapted to this use, its original meaning was something like "to abdicate."

We'll talk more about these Patriarchs next time.

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