Exploring Chán

Updated January, 2018

The mystical practice of Chán (Jap., Zen) offers a path for exploring the nature of being. Through detachment and contemplation, we gain an alternative way of perceiving reality—one in which we, as individuals, disappear and are replaced by unconditioned consciousness. The intellectual study of Chan, however, can get us no closer to understanding it than studying the brain can help us fathom the nature of love. As the Chan monk, Jy Din, said in his commencement speech to newly ordained monks at Hong Fa temple in 1998, “Zen is the teaching of direct experience ….”

When our lives have been conditioned by beliefs, attachments, and, in general, by an outward, externalized, way of seeing, breaking into an entirely different way of perceiving reality can be enormously challenging. Learning to slow the churning, chaotic, mind enough to explore the inner universe of Self can be daunting. Fortunately, Chan offers numerous methods to help us overcome the challenges and, with sustained practice and attention to the inner domain, a new universe opens for exploration.

Many people enter Chan’s mystical precincts through Japanese Zen institutions where ceremonial group meditation sessions embody the essence of practice. Yet, whether we engage in a mystical/ascetic practice individually or within a group structure, the practice itself remains a purely solitary endeavor. Nobody can lead us to the domain of Self except Self.

Why do we do it? To expand awareness? To escape suffering and find peace? To become whole? To understand the nature of our existence? Regardless of our reasons, Chán requires great faith, great doubt, and great perseverance. It requires, in Lín Jì’s words, "believing in ourselves."

Where do we start? Western students new to Chán often experience confusion and anxiety when confronted with the myriad approaches to Chán training and the vast contours the Buddhist landscape offers. A recent Google search for "Chán Buddhism" retrieved over two-hundred thousand individual web pages, and “Zen Buddhism” retrieved over four-hundred thousand. How do we separate the wheat from the chaff?

Zen's historical background offers insights that can help.

Zen in the West dates to the mid-19th century when it was introduced by Soen Shaku at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Zen gained its first significant boost in America and Europe, however, in the 1920's through the written works of Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, a devoted translator and practitioner of Japanese Rinzai Zen. Today, over a century since its introduction, Zen has assimilated into Western culture principally through various Japanese sects. In 2008, the Pew Research Center reported that, of all people considering themselves Buddhist in the United States, Zen Buddhism was the predominant affiliation among a total Buddhist population of over three million.

When a religion enters a new culture differing from that of its origins, there occurs a synthesis of religious ideologies, myths, and superstitions with that culture’s pre-existing socio-religious environment. This phenomena has had enormous impact on Buddhism, which has now spread around the globe, integrating into many diverse cultures. Resulting is expressions of Buddhism became not only distinct from one-another, but often divergent with each other in their beliefs, customs, and religious practices.

When Buddhism entered China--as early as 50 BC by some accounts--it quickly began mixing with Taoism, Confucianism, and various regional ethnic cultures. Over the course of the following seven- to eight-hundred years, Chinese Chán emerged. When Buddhism entered Japan from Korea over 500 years later, it integrated with Shinto to form a variant unique to Japan. The Zen sect was introduced to Japan a half-millennium after it had been established in China (the Rinzai [Lín Jì] Zen sect was introduced by Eisai in the late twelfth century; and the Soto [Tsao-tung] Zen sect was introduced by Dogen in the thirteenth century.)

Zen first entered the United States and other parts of the West predominantly through Japan, so it's not surprising that Japanese culture has dominantly influenced our ideas about Zen from the beginning. But the rising popularity of Korean Zen and Tibetan Buddhism over the last few decades, each with its own distinct ideologies, beliefs, and practices, has also influenced popular perception of all forms of Buddhism, including Zen.

The term, Buddhism, itself, can have vastly different meanings to a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism than, say, to a Japanese Zen practitioner or Chinese Chán practitioner. Differentiation arises from beliefs in reincarnation, interpretation of sutras (Therevada Buddhism has its own independent set of sutras distinct from Mahayana schools), ceremonial practices, culinary rules, celibacy, ecclesiastic hierarchical structure, as well as numerous superstitions and myths. The extreme divergence of beliefs and practices is understandable, considering that, unlike most world-religions, Buddhism comes with no common "bible," and many of its sects have developed independently and in isolation from each other over thousands of years. And, in light of the fact that the Buddha’s teachings were not put in writing until several generations after his death, it’s reasonable to conclude that we cannot know with any certainty anything he actually said. The only foundational teaching all Buddhists around the world seem to agree upon as originating from the Buddha are his Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path contained therein. These would become the single unifying principles of all ethnic representations of Buddhism, with the exception, arguably, of Japanese Zen (a topic for another time).

Unfortunately, the wide range of interpretations of Buddhist terminology, religious practices, and spiritual disciplines from one sect to another has led to infighting between and within Buddhist groups and among teachers. Frequent scandals involving misuse of power and authority, exploitation of congregations, and corruption, has cast a dark shadow on Zen Buddhism and many of its representative institutions in the West. While there should be no debate over which "path" is the best--they all serve the same purpose if approached with the right intent, attitude, devotion, and discipline--there are so many different presentations of what is, essentially, the same thing—a mystical practice—that Chan’s purpose often becomes lost in the resulting chaos.

In a Western society that emphasizes individualism over collectivism, as well as scientific approaches to knowledge over intuitive ones, we, as a culture, face obvious challenges when attempting to integrate religious and spiritual ideologies and methodologies from Eastern cultures where values are rooted in ancestor veneration, filial piety, and group solidarity. Individualism and collectivism present opposing perspectives on our relationship with ourselves and the group in which we live. Individualism encourages independent self-actualization, while collectivism encourages conformity over individual autonomy. The character of Chan is similarly dichotomous. Chan’s formal, institutional, presentation, characterized by ritualized group meditation sessions, is strengthened by collectivist ideologies, while Chan’s spiritual/ascetic practice requires individual freedom, independent investigation, and full autonomy. Thus, there is, and likely always has been, a certain tension between Chan’s religious and spiritual practices, reflecting the duality of the outward- and inward-looking mind.

D.T. Suzuki was tremendously influential in bringing Zen into popular western culture, but his approach to Zen was strongly academic and he tended to view it as distinct, independent, and isolated from it's religious, Mahayana, heritage. He also positioned Japanese Zen as superior to other cultural expressions of Buddhism including Chinese Chan, perspectives commonly shared by his contemporaries in Japan. Whether this was a new chapter in the history of Japanese Zen, successive teachers from various Japanese Zen sects have continued to perpetuate an attitude of Zen "isolationism" in the West.

Japanese-styled Zen groups have had a good amount of time to "test the waters" of American culture, yet many of these groups have struggled with the inherent incompatibilities between an alien culture forced upon an unprepared Western Mind. These incompatibilities may themselves contribute to contemporary Zen isolationism, for terminology associated with Zen is often misunderstood, misconstrued, and misappropriated by teachers and practitioners, wittingly or not, confounding its purpose as a spiritual vehicle for Self-realization.

D.T. Suzuki, Stuart Lachs, Carl Jung, Hsu Yun and many others have suggested that for Zen Buddhism to flourish in the West, adaptive changes must be made that allow a mutual embracing of our culture with the foundational elements of Zen. This has been the natural course of Buddhism for nearly two thousand years as it has migrated from one country to another. There is no reason for us to reject our own cultural identity and replace it with another.

In Zen, we strive for an "objective eye," recognizing things as they are (bhutatathata) rather than as we desire them to be. We don’t force reality to conform to our wishes, but embrace it as it is. To intentionally turn a blind eye to any form of knowledge, to reject a reality that is not appealing to us, not only limits our understanding, it can isolate us from our own culture, and from society at large. Psychologists attest to the damage this kind of estrangement can cause an individual. We may also reflect on the Buddha's first step on his Noble Eightfold Path: Right Understanding. To understand something clearly, we must be open and receptive to information about that thing from every direction, embracing it in all its beauty and ugliness. To attain the requisite receptive mind for doing so, we must drop our own beliefs and opinions. Understanding dissipates fear, removes ignorance, and nurtures wisdom. It also helps us solve a lot of real-world problems.

While Japanese-styled Zen groups have been here in the West for many decades, Chinese Buddhism has remained largely sheltered within Chinese ethnic communities to serve their populations of Chinese immigrants and their descendants. This has produced inherent cultural barriers for Westerners. It's not surprising that most of the problems we have seen in Zen temples have arisen in Japanese Zen sects, for these are still the schools that dominate the Western Zen landscape. Proportionally, however, Chinese and Korean Zen Buddhist sects have also had their share of challenges connecting with a “Western psyche.”

As founder and Abbot of one of the oldest Chán temples in the United States--Hsu Yun temple in Honolulu Hawaii--the monk, Jy Din, expressed disappointment to me that his temple attracted so few native Westerners. It was his belief that ethnic temples could never adequately serve the native Westerner due to the vast differences in culture and language unless Western culture could be allowed "in the door." Eager to make Chán available to all Westerners, in 1997 Jy Din created the Order of Hsu Yun (ZBOHY), naming it, affectionately, after his master. His vision for the order was to provide an on-line resource for Westerners interested in learning about and practicing Chan. Jy Din has passed away, but his desires to spread the teachings of Chan live on in the work of those who contribute insights and guidance to interested readers through this website.

In the spirit of Chán, we offer this website as a forum for articles, art, and poetry that inspire and illuminate and might assist on the journey through the expansive realm of Chán. We welcome submissions of content from our readers and encourage comments and questions which, while moderated, can be freely posted at the bottom of most pages.

As always, we hold no bias toward any particular cultural expressions of Buddhism and embrace varied and multiple approaches to practice and teachings according to the needs of the individual or group.  We provide equal access to all people regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, previous religious background, or personal history.

To learn more about Chan, continue to our four-part series, Toward the Heart of Chan, which presents a brief overview of the stages of Chan practice.

Chuan Zhi, January, 2018