Early Buddhism was rooted in a calming meditation practice—calming and stabilizing the mind. This helps us start to see our true selves, and when we can do that, that opens us up to the path. This calming and stabilizing meditation, when this practice was taken by teachers to China, that’s when the Chan tradition arose. These teachers of this calming and stabilizing meditation practice got to China and they saw meditation was really not happening.


By Daniel Scharpenburg


The question I want to ask is “Why don’t we just call it Meditation Buddhism?”

Or even, “Why don’t we just call it the way of meditation?” We could go that far.

Although the title of this article is a question, I don’t really have an answer, but that’s what I want to talk about anyway.

What am I talking about? I’m talking about the school of Buddhism that in Japan is called Zen, and in China was called Chan. It’s an evolution of the same school. In the west we usually just call it Zen because the truth is the Japanese version was the first of this tradition to come to the west.

That’s why Thich Nhat Hanh calls what he teaches Zen, even though he’s actually teaching is Thien Buddhism. That’s why Master Seung Sahn called what he taught Zen, even though he taught Seon Buddhism. It just all gets called Zen a lot of the time, but each branch is a little different and Chan was the first one. Zen is essentially a word in the English language now, so it’s what gets used.

What we’re talking about is a school of Buddhism that appeared in China in the third century, and they called it Chan Buddhism. Chan means meditation, so really this term came about because people wanted to describe those Buddhists over there who are meditating. So they called them Chan Buddhists.

Now, if you know a little bit you may be thinking, “Well, that’s what Buddhists do. Buddhists meditate, right? So, isn’t most of Buddhism, Meditation Buddhism?”

And the truth is that no, there are a lot of Buddhists that don’t meditate. And in the time that Chan arose there may have been even more Buddhists who didn’t meditate. It was kind of controversial when these people in China practiced Buddhism and centered their practice on meditation. It’s a tradition that arose to try to go back to the original practice of the Buddha.

By this time a lot of people were worshiping the Buddha instead of doing what the Buddha did. They were worshiping him like a deity, like a god. Other people were doing things like memorizing texts or endlessly chanting, things like that. These things that are fine, but they weren’t the practice the Buddha did. They were doing these things instead of meditating.

This movement arose in China to do the practice of meditation; to do the practice the Buddha did so we could attain what the Buddha attained. That’s the point. This isn’t about the Buddha’s spiritual journey, it’s about ours. And if we remember that it’s not about his, it’s about ours, then I think we’re in a better spot.

What we’re doing is training in concentration and awareness. We’re meditating, we’re doing what the Buddha did, and that is what this path is centered on. So we could just call it Meditation Buddhism. If you go to any western Buddhist community, there’s a few exceptions, but for the most part they’re going to meditate—they’re going to teach you meditation and they are going to have guided meditations, too. They’re meditators.

In western Buddhism, for the most part, they are meditators. So if we called it Meditation Buddhism, it doesn’t necessarily make sense. Really because a lot of these Buddhist traditions that left meditation behind, they brought it back, but also because meditation practice is the part of Buddhism that we, in the west, seem to like the most.

There’s a story that I’m going to briefly tell you. It’s a legend, it’s myth-making, it’s almost certainly not true.

The story is that the Buddha, during his life, went up on a mountain called Vulture Peak. He stood up there and there was a crowd, because he had a crowd around him all the time. People loved hearing his teachings, and this crowd was expecting a teaching. That was how it happened a lot of the time in those days, the Buddha would just stand up in front of a crowd and give a teaching, and then they would memorize that and it would become a sacred text. At this time and place, the story goes that the people have this big expectation of having a really special teaching from the Buddha, and he didn’t give a teaching.

He just held up a flower and he was silent.

These people thought, “What the heck, man, we came here for something real, something special.” They were disappointed, or at best confused. Except there was one student Maha Kasyapa, sometimes he’s just called Kasyapa. This one student saw this flower and he smiled. The story goes that because he smiled, the Buddha made him his successor, and the leader of a secret new teaching, which was the Meditation Tradition, the teaching that is beyond scriptures.

Because he saw the flower and he just smiled, because the flower was pretty. That was it, that was supposed to be a teaching. The Buddha was expressing, but not saying, “Drop your expectations, everything you need is right here.”

He was teaching via silence and holding up a flower, and supposedly only one student got it and the rest of them thought it was ridiculous. The story goes that they say the Buddha named Mahakasyapa his successor. A lot of historical records tell us the Buddha did not name a successor. So there’s a lot in that story we can gain from, but historically it’s almost certainly not true.

It’s almost certainly true that the meditation tradition of Buddhism, or Chan, arose in China. It was not an unbroken tradition that the Buddha passed on by raising a flower. That’s almost certainly not true, but what I think is true is this.

Early Buddhism was rooted in a calming meditation practice—calming and stabilizing the mind. This helps us start to see our true selves, and when we can do that, that opens us up to the path. This calming and stabilizing meditation, when this practice was taken by teachers to China, that’s when the Chan tradition arose.

These teachers of this calming and stabilizing meditation practice got to China and they saw meditation was really not happening. Other forms had arisen in China because Buddhism had been there for hundreds of years already—forms of worshiping the Buddha, forms of chanting the Buddha’s name and forms of just memorizing teachings. There was one branch of Buddhism where it really sounds like all they did was study sutras, create categories, and just put the sutras in categories. Just trying to find the best way to categorize these texts, which sounds really weird to me.

Although, it’s also said the Chan tradition was influenced and shaped by some of what these earlier traditions in China were doing. A lot of Chan philosophy can be traced back to Tiantai or Huayan Buddhism, which are ones that haven’t really taken off in the west.

There is also a lot of evidence it was influenced by the belief systems that were already present in China, especially Daoism.

However, there was influence, because one of the things about Buddhism is everywhere it goes it’s influenced by the local culture, and that’s kind of how Buddhism has survived to the modern age. Buddhists historically have not always done what other religions have done, which is conquer people and force them to convert. Buddhism doesn’t do that—in Buddhism we don’t even ask people to convert, let alone force them. One of the ways it has survived as a world religion is by adapting.

When the teachers of this calming and stabilizing meditation practice traveled to China and they saw people weren’t really meditating there, they adapted a little. They listened to not only Buddhists from traditions that were already there, like Huayan and Tiantai, but also, they listened to Daoist teachers. They sort of learned how to speak the language of the people in the area where they were, because Chinese culture and Indian culture are very different.

It’s said that there was a teacher named Bodhidharma, and he specifically was the first one. He traveled from India to China to teach and discovered the Buddhists there not meditating. He dedicated himself to encouraging meditation practice, to bringing this practice to people who never even did it before. But he did something else, too, and that is he showed them how to do the practice. He went around teaching and he showed to everyone that would see.

He also taught a key Buddhist concept, and that is Buddha nature, or that is that wakefulness is part of our nature. We can all attain enlightenment.

Why that’s important is because it reminds us that everyone has this wakeful nature, and because we all have this nature; no one is left out. We can all attain enlightenment, this is for everyone. It’s not for some select few people, it’s not for the people that have enough time to dedicate all of their lives to meditation, it’s not just for the people that have enough wealth to give lots of offerings or build many statues and temples.

No. It’s your true nature, and it’s for everyone.

That was the message that Bodhidharma carried with him. That and, “You guys should just sit and meditate.” There’s a story about him sitting in a cave and practicing for nine years, and I’ll save that for another time, but there are stories like that of him doing incredible things (it’s said that he invented tea).

The point is, the important thing he did was he taught people about our awakened true nature, and he showed people how to sit and meditate. A lot of what’s in the Chan tradition really just goes back to Bodhidharma’s teachings. A lot of the other teachings are really just commentary on what Bodhidharma said. He was a really important figure. He’s semi-mythical, but a very important figure and probably someone that did exist.

There are four key concepts to the teaching that Bodhidharma and the earliest meditation teachers in China taught. These four key concepts are: faith, understanding, practice, and realization.

First of all, faith.

When I talk about faith, you probably have things appearing in your head because we have baggage around this word, but we’re talking about faith in ourselves. We’re talking about believing we can do this, and believing that this path is doing something good for us. That’s the kind of faith we’re talking about. We’re not talking about faith in spirits, or faith in god, or life after death, we’re talking about really faith in ourselves, and to an extent, faith that the path is doing us good, because it is. If we don’t have faith in ourselves, or if we don’t believe in the path all the way, then we’re probably not going to be that diligent in our practice.

Second is understanding.

Understanding is more philosophical. It is studying, learning about where these teachings come from, learning about how these teachings go together, why we’re doing this. That’s what understanding is.

Practice is putting our belief into action. Without practice, we could just be philosophers. We could just be people that think Buddhism is really cool, learn a lot about it and read everything about it, but not really do it. We could do that, and definitely some people do that. Sometimes I’m guilty of that. I love to study Buddhism a lot. I’ve probably spent more time studying than practicing.

Last is realization—realization is enlightenment.

It’s learning how to move through the world in a more awakened way.

Without faith we won’t understand, without understanding we won’t practice, and without practice we’re not going to realize our true nature. So these four things taken together create the path. Practice involves meditation which can be uncomfortable, boring, and even painful. We calm the mind with meditation practice, and when the mind is calm, things become clear, and when things are clear, then we can lessen the hold of these delusions and neuroses that are dominating our lives.

That’s what this is all about. It’s about overcoming our delusions and it’s about seeing clearly; it’s about calming the mind. It’s about all of these things. That’s really what we’re trying to do here.

So, maybe I do have an answer. Why don’t we call it Meditation Buddhism? It sounds like that would be easy. But it’s more than that. We’re not meditating just to make our minds a little bit sharper, we’re not meditating to suffer just a little bit less. We are taking as our goal learning how to live in a more awakened way. We are meditating to awaken.

I hope I’ve shed some light. It gets so confusing, the words Chan and Zen.

I once had someone say to me that they were turned off when they started to hear us talking in foreign words. She said, “Can we get beyond that?” Can we get beyond throwing out foreign words? Because maybe it does turn some people off, maybe it does scare some people away. I think the word Zen has almost stopped being a foreign word. You say the word Zen and people kind of have an idea of what you mean, but they may have some incorrect assumptions about it. They may kind of have an idea, whereas other words like Chan? Chan kind of has a way to go.

That’s why a lot of teachers are just going to use the word Zen, and that’s why most of the time I just use the word Zen, because people know it already. But the truth is Chan and Zen aren’t the same. Buddhism changes in every place it enters and Chan is not Zen. (Thien and Seon aren’t Zen either).

I’m not ready to just call it Meditation Buddhism, but that is something I’m contemplating, because that is what Zen means. It means meditation. That is what Chan means, it means meditation.

This is the path that makes meditation the central focus.


Without practice, we could just be philosophers. We could just be people that think Buddhism is really cool, learn a lot about it and read everything about it, but not really do it. ~ Daniel Scharpenburg Click To Tweet


Photo: Pixabay

Editor: Dana Gornall


Did you like this post? You might also like:


I Know I Will Trust the Way Again, Just Not Right Now

  By John Author I don't want to die. Death and the rapid fleeing of time and opportunity weigh on me at times. The Diamond and Heart Sutras say that death is a perception and nothing more. It's a noble teaching that offers me potential freedom from suffering,...

Zen Flesh Zen Bones: Not a Light Read, a Bit of Nonsense & Completely Zen {Review}

  By David Jones   On Monday I had most of my teeth removed and now have a full upper and partial lower denture. I have waited a long time for this, since bad teeth was something in both mom's and dad's familial DNA. I kept spending the money for this procedure...

There is No Guru

By Dana Gornall Every once in awhile when people hear my name, they repeat a line from a popular 1980's movie, Ghostbusters. "There is no Dana, there is only Zuul." It's the line Sigourney Weaver delivers after being possessed by some sort of...

Learning to be Okay with Silence

  By Anshi We sat in the Walmart parking lot; I went with him to keep him calm. He was laid off from work in February. He had dedicated his life to working on machines that assemble car parts and electronics. It looked like a promising...