Chan and Zen Buddhism


This course is an in-depth, historical examination of the philosophy, mythology, literature, institutional arrangements, religious practices, art, and architecture associated with this most famous and widely misunderstood branch of East Asian Buddhism. The Chan (Zen) school of Buddhism arose in China as the result of a cross-cultural exchange of epic proportions: the gradual intrusion of an alien set of religious ideas, values, and practices—those belonging to Indian Buddhism—into China between the first and the eighth centuries of the Common Era and the subsequent efforts of some 20 generations of Chinese Buddhists to defend, adapt, domesticate, and finally make the foreign religion entirely their own. Chan became the most “Chinese” school of Buddhism by defining itself in terms of indigenous concepts of clan genealogy, by exalting members of its spiritual lineage as native-born buddhas, and by allowing those buddhas to speak in the vernacular, using a mode of rhetoric that was heavily influenced by the Confucian and Daoist traditions. The course begins by outlining the Indian Buddhist doctrines and practices that were imported into China and by summarizing the indigenous cultural milieu that was initially quite hostile to the alien religion. We then explore the various compromises and adaptations of Indian Buddhist teachings, practices, and institutions that took shape within the Chan tradition and enabled it to emerge in the Song dynasty (960-1278) as the predominant school of Chinese Buddhism. The main theme of the second semester is the transmission of the Chan school of Buddhism to Japan, where it became known as Zen, and the subsequent development of the tradition in that country from the 13th century to the present. No prior knowledge of East Asian history, languages, or religions is required.