In the Footprints of the Masters

“In the Footprints of the Masters”

Chinese Chán Buddhism from Tang to Modern Era

By Ming Bao, Dharma teacher


Learned friends and Masters. Thinking of “methods of Chánbuddhism” we usually refer to sitting meditation – zuo chán/zazen. After delving into the tradition of the Chán sect we eventually find that this is only one of several forms of practice that all are designed to support each other and to help the cultivator to reach enlightenment. They are not supposed to be separated or chosen between as to find a personal favorite in order to create “my way” or “my practice” which would be contra-productive. The process of choosing is in itself quite contradictory to the Chán way, simply being an act of a protective ego. 

There is a common misunderstanding in the west that the Chán sect is only working with meditation or absorption (Dhyāna).[1] This is not so. What the Chán School stresses is enlightenment and this can be achieved in many ways. In order to follow the Buddhist path one must adhere to what is called “the three undefiled practices”: 1/precepts ,2/ concentration and 3/wisdom. They are interrelated and complementary to one another and all are necessary in order to walk the Buddhist Path to liberation.  As it’s said: “All Dharma paths lead to the city of Nirvāna.”

In the following we will look at it from the perspective of a Chán monastic, thought – if not always so – to be the ideal for cultivation of the way and supposed to serve as a role model for lay practitioners in order to create a working method outside the Chán Halls.[2]  In the daily routines of Chán monastics – as well as most other Chinese monks and nuns – we find the following parts forming the total of the practice:

First thing in the morning is the “Morning Lesson”,  i.e. the chanting session in the main temple of the Śurangama Mantra  adjoined by a few Dharanis (a longer form of a mantra). This usually lasts for about 70 minutes, depending on the speed of the drums as well as various extra verses depending on what auspicious day it may be. As a direct continuation follows the morning meal  which is also designed to be a part of the practice with initial chanting’s,  like praising the ancestors and offering to the hungry ghosts. After the meal the monks are walking in two rows  to a temple for more chanting, grateful for the food. Only after this is there a chance for regular sitting meditation[3]. An alternative is to study the sutras with a master or to work in the garden or at a temple office (many monasteries don’t have any garden today, due to political reasons). 

So, as a natural part of their daily routine, the monk or nun includes several practices such as prostrations[4], devotion, singleness of mind in one’s actions, chanting, mantra and dharani invocations, gong-an/hua t’ou practice, sutra study as well as compassion carried out in various forms.

In the following we will take a brief look on some of the ancients as well as a few modern masters who still advocates these teachings.

Origin and Development of various traditions:  Tiān Tāi Zōng into Dámò’s Chán Zōng[5]into Southern Chán Zōng into Línjì Chán Zōng:  Northern Chán Zōng into Cáo Dòng Zōng

The advent of Chán Buddhism into China is usually ascribed to the Indian monk Dáòo (Bodhidharma)  who arrived in China in the early sixth century and is seen as the first ancestor. The reason for his journey is mainly thought to be to teach the Chinese Buddhists to meditate, which he did himself in a cave for 9 years,  as their main practice at the time was to copy, translate and study the sutras brought there from India and their focus was mainly on wisdom (prajñā).

This gives the general reader the impression that Chinese Buddhists never meditated at all. This is not true and there are several facts contradictory to this impression. One is the ancient Daoist meditational skills that eventually became part of the Chán tradition in its formative years. Another one is the Tiān Tāi-tradition that came into practice around the same time when Dámò hit the shores of China. The Tiān Tāi practiced a meditation form from the Lotus Sutra[6], and later also the Shi Guan method (Vipaśyanā/Śamatha) from the Hinayāna. Later this method became popular in the Chán halls as well and eventually the Tiān Tāi School slowly merged into the rapidly growing Chán School. Already in the 6th century many Tiān Tāi monks left for the less complicated Chán School. 

The great Tiān Tāi Ancestor Qi-Yi introduced the doctrine of the Buddha nature (Buthatathātā)that became accepted by all Chinese schools. Especially his writings on meditation came to form the model from which the Chán School evolved. His treatise “Great Calm and Insight” were used by the Chán School up until the eleventh century and was introduced by the 3rd ancestor Sēng Càn.

We are also often given the impression and the general idea that the Chán School was founded by Dámò. In “Transmission of the Lamp” however, earlier Chán masters are mentioned, among others the first teacher of the 2nd ancestor Dàzǔ Huìkě, 487-594  who were seen as an eminent practitioner long before he met with Dámò. One important figure known for his impressive meditational skills but never mentioned in western literature is the “Old Patriarch” – said to have become more than 1.000 years old –  whose temple  is situated in the same mountains in Huang Mei province as the 4th and 5th ancestors, called the east mountain. 

Another title for this talk could very well have been the famous Gōng-Àn “Why did Dámó come from the west?” as its inherent meaning is: “What is the meaning of Chán?” The method Dámó used to reveal this by was called “directly pointing to Mind” and thus forming a new school focusing on the “oneness” of all things (dharmas). This method my very well be the reason why he is considered to be the founder of the Chán-school and it remained the central teaching up to the 6th Ancestor Huì Néng who took Chán one step further by introducing the principle of “no-ness” or “nothingness” together with the practice of Immediacy, introduced by Dámó. Dámó focused also on the thesis of “Principle and Practice”. The Principle is that all beings possess the same true nature. The Practice is the traditional Buddhist stands of accepting one’s karmic results, practicing according to conditions, seeking nothing and focusing on the Dharma.

The succeeding four ancestors did not change much in this. What distinguished them was their respective change of focus.  The 3rd ancestor Sēng Càn (? – 606), is mainly remembered for his popular sutra the Xīn Xīn Míng or Faith in Mind,  describing the inherent emptiness of things (Śūnyatā/Kōng) from various aspects and later to become an important teaching text in the Cáo Dòng School and still is in China. 

The fourth ancestor Dàyī Dào Xìn (580-651) (Pic 20  4th) incorporated sutra chanting and the use of the Nián-fó[7] in the Chán practice and emphasized a life in accordance with the Vinaya as well as hard work in the monastic gardens, a tradition also introduced by him. With Dào Xìn the Chán school became very popular and got its first own monasteries. Usually modern Chán is ascribed to Huì Néng and that may be true in terms of philosophical ideal but when it comes to daily practice it all goes back to Dào Xìn. Even today these practices are emphasized at the 4thancestors’ monastery) in Po Tou Mountain in Huang Mei County. We can also trace the “No Mind” of Huì Néng back to Dào Xìn as well as Dámó. In his treatise “Easy Path of Pacifying the Mind to Enter the Dào”, he argues that “As sentient beings grow in endless ways, dharmas (things) are endless. As dharmas are endless the meaning of them are endless. As the meanings of dharmas are endless all come out of the One  Dharma.”  The Dharma is the absolute existence which is absolute Non-Objectivity. Absolute Non-Objectivity is equal to No-Thought which is equal to No Mind.

The far most important change in the Chán tradition ascribed to him is that he incorporated the teachings of the various Mahā Prajñā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra’s[8]  with the prevalent Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra teachings from Dámó, thus broadening the tradition. A tradition furthered by the 5thancestor Daman Hóng Rěn  601 – 674,  and the ground for the enlightenment of the 6th ancestor Dajian Huì Néng[9] 638 – 713. This is also of decisive importance for the new insights and ideals presented by him and thus both the succeeding Northern (Cáo Dòng) and Southern (Línjí) Schools of Chán.  These two main schools are quite interesting to look at. Very often, mainly in Japan and so in the West, they are seen as opponents due to the “combat” between their respective founders Shen Xiu and Huì Néng. This separation arose at an early stage, mainly by a disciple of the 6th Patriarch, named Heze Shenhui, after his death and later became dominant in Japan. In China, especially today, there is no such obvious differentiation. Many of the Grand Masters are also ordained in both traditions. 

This famous Dharma combat is impossible to avoid when speaking of Chan: (Pic 26) (+ story of the succession)

Shen Xiu:”The body is the Bodhi Tree                        The Mind is like a stand of mirror bright,                                                  Take heed to always keep it clean               And let no dust alight”Huì Néng ”Basically there is no Bodhi TreeNor stand of mirror bright,Since all is voidSo where can dust alight?” 

This mixture of traditions may seem bewildering but it’s necessary to remember two things: one is that the first Northern School in the tradition from Shen Xiu evolved from the 5th Patriarch Hóng Rěn   as well as the Southern School in the tradition from Huì Néng and in that sense both were in the tradition of Dào Xìn and the Eastern school. The first Northern school vanished after a couple of generations and the later Northern School – the Cáo Dòng – were founded by 5th and 6th generation descendants of Huì Néng after whose respective mountain names the Cáo Dòng is named. Contrary to Western traditions the Chinese prefer not to separate various schools too much and there is by no means any competition or mistrust between them. Usually they are practiced side by side in the monasteries. It is also interesting to note that both the gradual and the sudden methods of enlightenment ascribed respectively to these schools were described by Qi-Yi of the Tien Tai Sect long before the rise of the two schools. Huì Néng explains them this way: “Good friends, the true teaching originally is neither sudden nor gradual; it is human temperaments that may be quick or slow. People who are lost cultivate gradually, while people who are awake attain suddenly. When you know your original mind and see your original nature, then there is no difference.”

Shen Xiu was also a great admirer of Qi-Yi and his academic approach to the Teachings.

Examples of original temples still in practice: Bailin Chán Sí, 4th Patriarchs and Zhen Ru Chán Sí[10] 

At these temples the practice and daily routines are both different and alike, using the same routines in the temple sessions and dining halls but focusing on different practice during the daily work periods.

 The abbot of Bailin Chan Sí, Venerable Chan Master Míng Hai, emphasizes the soft but cunning teaching methods of Grand Master Zhao Zhou, abbot there in the 8th century. The monastery houses the Hebei Buddhist Institute teaching the Dharma at a university level to young monks from all over China. The “morning lesson” is of high significance and all monks are supposed to attend chanting the Śurangama mantra at a fast pace. The meditation practice is focusing on the Hua T’ou “Wu”, given by Zhao Zhou in the famous Gong An of the dog.[11] There is no stress in finding an answer, it is rather stressed that if one finds an answer it is probably the wrong one as it’s supposedly created by ones intellectual mind.

Examples of modern Chán masters and their focus of practice: Venerables Wéijué,XuānhuàShèngyán, Jìng Huì, Míng Qi

As three of the five houses of the Chán school has disappeared centuries ago together with other schools and teaching traditions, others have survived and some of the old schools are being taken into practice again.

With the communist takeover in Mainland China 1949 some Buddhist masters left for the safety in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the US. Three now famous masters who went abroad are Wéijué, Shèngyán and Xuānhuà. They have founded many Bodhi Mandalas in other countries, especially in the US.

Chán Master Wéijué of the Zhōngtáichán Sì  in Taiwan is maybe the most successful of all the immigrant masters. He has founded at least 86 temples and centers in Taiwan, USA and other countries. He works in the Línjí tradition and his training methods may be summarized in three frame works: “Three Links of cultivation”, “The four tenets of Chung Tai” and “The five modern approaches of propagating Buddhism”. 

The three links of cultivation are 1/scriptural studies, 2/benevolent deeds and 3/meditation. Scriptural studies are thought to establish right views and insight; benevolent deeds include performing good deeds and service to the monastery as well as to the public.

The four tenets of Chung Tai are guidelines for practicing mindfulness in one’s daily life: 

  • To our elders be respectful: Respect subdues arrogance
  • To our juniors be kind: Kindness dispels anger
  • With all humanity be harmonious: Harmony overcomes rudeness and violence
  • In all endeavors be true: Truthfulness eradicates deceit

The five modern approaches to propagating Buddhism is a means to adapting Buddhism to the modern world by making connections to 1/Academic research, 2/Education, 3/Culture and the Arts, 4/Science and 5/Buddhism in daily life. 

Chán Master Xuānhuà  left China for the US directly and has established a chain of temples along the west coast with the City of Ten Thousand Buddha’s as the jewel along with some centers in other countries. Master Huà’s teachings stems from the Avataṃsaka Sūtra[15]with a strict adherence to the Vinaya, the monks and nuns eating only one meal a day. Although it is a Chán sect they try to re-establish the old Huáyán tradition again.

In Europe the most well-known contemporary master was the venerable Shèngyán[16] of Taiwan’s Dharma Drum Mountain.  He held numerous Chán retreats in Wales and Switzerland and advocates both the Hua T’ou method of the Línjí sect as well as the Mo Zhao[17]method of the Cáo Dòng sect. Through his books he has become the foremost interpreter of these two methods for enlightenment in the West.

Looking back to the homeland of Chán Buddhism we find some of the students of Grand Master Xū-Yún still alive and kicking! One of these is the Venerable Grand Master Jìng Huì who continued the task of Xū-Yún to renovate old temples. Today he is responsible for at least 6 such renovations . In his teaching he focuses – through the practice of Huà Tóu – on how to practice in daily life and advocates what he has termed the Seng Huo Chán or Chan in Daily Life. He also emphasizes the term “Non-attachment is the fundamental principle” from the Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra.

Through him monastic Chán has become available to Europeans by his three European disciples[18], Chán Master Míng Qi  of Switzerland being the grand old lady. Appreciated for her vivid lectures on the classic Chán sutras at the annual summer camp for university students at Bailin Chán Sí as well as at the University of Geneva, she focuses on the directness of life. She stresses that one should realize that the chain of causation is never broken and that the ultimate nature of everything is the void which is nothing but the latent energy of the same  void, the so called “Cosmological Constant”[19] . All this is contained in the concept of “Wu!”.

Living by the rules 

One of Grand Master Xū-Yún’s main focuses in the early 20th century was to revive the Vinaya among the monks and nuns. He is reported to have got very upset and scolding the monks at the inauguration of The Chinese Buddhist Association as some of them tried to take away some passages as being too rigid for their own comfort. The various sets of rules; the Vinaya, The Pratimokhsa and the Dasa Śīla, must be seen as aids for increased focus in one’s practice and cultivation of the Dharma, not as an obstacle or hindrance. It is very easy indeed for practitioners to regard them as just hindrances. If so, one must consider why there is this reaction? The answer to that is always the same: it is the ego complaining over the loss of comfort, the loss of habits, maybe even the loss of the world as one knows it and find secure. That would be a false security as it’s based on false thoughts and practitioners need to ask themselves the question why they are drawn to Buddhism in the first place. The second question would be: is the Buddha’s Dharma not perfect? Is there a need for anybody to create their own version of the Dharma? Of course there is not! People simply have to give up some stands of the ego and practice humbleness and devotion. Devotion? Although many people who turn to Buddhism in the west have a hard time with this due to Christianity’s historical oppression one cannot get around it. Without a devotional and humble heart there is no practice! From a Chán perspective the Dharma is not designed to be some interesting hobby for intellectual discussions but a practical path to enlightenment. This path can be hard but for the sincere cultivator who is willing to give up his life it is also most rewarding.

Much more could be said about “our” practices but, ultimately the practices of the Chán School can be summarized in the four Great Wows: 

“To deliver innumerable sentient being, to cut of endless vexations, to master limitless approaches to the Dharma and to attain supreme Buddhahood.”

Reference literature

Zen’s Chinese Heritage, the masters and their teachings – Andy Ferguson, 2000.

Tien T’ai Tsung – Dao Ch’uan, 1998.

Dharma Talks – Chan Master Wei Chueh, 2009.

The Gates of Chan Buddhism – Grand Master Jing Hui, 1998-

The Zen doctrine of No – Mind, D.T Suzuki, 1972.

The Method of No-method, The Chan practice of Silent Illumination – Chan Master Sheng Yen, 2008.

Orthodox Chinese Buddhism – Chan Master Sheng Yen, 2007.

News from True Cultivators – Bhikshus Heng Shure and Heng Ch’au, 2003.

Master Hsu Yun’s Discourses and Dharma Words – Lu k’uan Yü 1970

[1] The Sanskrit origin of the word ’Chán/Channa’.

[2] One may very well succeed in a practice as a lay person in one’s daily life, but usually it takes more effort.

[3] Exception for Chan Qi/seven day retreats, often several in a row when monks do nothing but sitting, walking and eating.

[4] For developing humility.

[5] School/Sect

[6] The third translation by Jnanagupta and Dharmagupta, T’ien-pin Miao-fa Lien-hua.

[7] Focusing on the name of the Buddha; ”Namo Omitifo”, not to be confused with the practice of the Pure Land school.

[8] Including the Diamond Cutter and the Heart Sutras.

[9] By the Diamond Cutter Scripture, the Vajrachchedika Sutra.

[10] For pictures, taken by the author, see

[11] ”Does a dog have buddha-nature or not? –Wu!”

[12] One of the Five houses. Founded by Guishan Lingyou(771-854) and Yangshan Huiji (813 – 890). Esoteric Gong Ans.

[13] This has unfortunately changed since our visit there in 2010.

[14] 徳情演徹 Dé-Qíng Yǎn-Chè

[15] The Flower Ornament Scripture. Possibly from the early period of the Buddha’s teaching.

[16] Passed away in 2009.

[17] Also called “Silent Illumination” which is equal to the Samatha/Vipassana meditation.

[18] One being the author and the other being Master Ming Qing in Paris.

[19] Einstein.