January 4, 2014

The Meaning of Ch’an: Awakening to Our True Nature.

The Ch’an ideogram first appeared in China around 100 AD.

It’s believed to be a translation of the Sanskrit word ‘dhyana’. ‘Dhyana’ is usually translated as ‘meditation’ in English.

Dhyana is a spiritual practice that involves using the mind to transform the mind. Since the ideogram didn’t exist before this time, it seems to imply that the concept of mind transformation didn’t really exist in China before that period. So, when the idea was brought, a new word had to be created.

Ch’an is said to be a method for overcoming the five hindrances: Sensation desire, hatred, sloth, anxiety, and doubt. These are described as the mental factors that hinder our progress, not only in the spiritual path but in daily life as well.

Sensation desire refers to the type of wanting that tries to get our desires fulfilled through the five senses. Hatred refers to all kinds of feeling related to rejection and hostility. Sloth refers to heaviness of body and mind that can tend to drag us down into laziness. Anxiety refers to restlessness in the body and mind that can cause us to be distracted and unable to focus. Doubt refers to a lack of conviction or trust in the path and our ability to pursue it.

When we practice, we are cultivating five positive qualities that can counteract the five hindrances. These are: Directed Thought, Evaluation, Rapture, Pleasure, and Oneness of Preoccupation.

Directed Thought is used to counteract Sloth. Evaluation is used to counteract Doubt. Rapture is used to counteract Hatred, Pleasure is used to counteract Anxiety, Oneness is used to counteract Sensation desire.

This is the essence of the Ch’an method. Through the insight granted from meditation, the poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion are overcome and the reality of the all-embracing Empty Mind Ground is realized and planted in the mind of the practitioner. This is how we unleash our Buddha nature. All of the different skilful means, such as hua tou and kung an practice, have the goal of realizing emptiness and perceiving the Empty Mind Ground. This is what the Buddha meant when he talked about Enlightenment. It is awakening to our true nature. To perceive the Empty Mind Ground is to become one with it intuitively.


This is the left half of the ideogram Ch’an. It represents a person kneeling at a shrine. This represents our self cultivation on the path. Although we aren’t worshiping something outside of ourselves, we are engaged in spiritual transformation.

This is the right half of the ideogram Ch’an. This symbol has two distinct meanings. The first meaning is that of a net, as would have been used to catch animals. This represents our effort to catch our deluded thoughts. In the second meaning it represents a single person in isolation. This represents the solitary act of meditation. This is important because meditation is the core of Ch’an practice. Some other branches of Buddhism place emphasis on studying scriptures and chanting endlessly. Ch’an is, in a way, a rebellion against that. This is significant, of course, because the Buddha didn’t attain Enlightenment because of reading a sutra. He attained Enlightenment because of meditation. Not that sutras aren’t helpful, but there can be a tendency to become so attached to studying sutras that we study in lieu of actually practicing.

So, taken together:

The Ch’an ideogram represents a spiritual activity, often carried out in isolation, that involves the gathering of scattered thoughts through one-pointed concentration, symbolized by a net.

Although Ch’an was a concept so foreign to the first students of Bodhidharma in China, the influence did go both ways. While Ch’an Buddhism influenced Chinese culture, it was also shaped by it. As Ch’an moved through other countries to become Zen in Japan, Son in Korea, and Thien in Vietnam, ultimately coming to the west, it retained its Chinese influence. The reason we know it as Zen in America is because the Japanese version is the one that first successfully planted itself in America.

Ch’an was heavily influenced by Taoist schools of thought that were common in China at the time. The line from the Diamond Sutra that is said to have caused the Enlightenment of the sixth Patriarch Huineng, “Let your mind function freely without abiding anywhere or in anything.” sounds very similar to the Taoist notion of “flowing like a river.”

It’s also a big similarity that Ch’an and Taoism both suggest to use that the truth remains ‘outside the scriptures’. Not something we can get from others, but something we have to perceive ourselves. It’s for this reason that studying with a teacher who actually knows you is thought of as a more successful path than studying sutras. Sutras can only take you so far. But then, your teacher can only take you so far too, ultimately the message is that we must walk the path ourselves.

It could be this Taoist influence that separates Ch’an from other branches of Buddhism, making it unique. It has been argued by some Ch’an teachers that Ch’an represents a combination between the original Vipassana meditation as taught by the Buddha and Taoism. I think that is a pretty accurate description. It would be difficult to try to remove the Chinese influence from Ch’an Buddhism.

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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo: elephant journal archives

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